• The Naturalist’s Gaze: What Charles Darwin Saw in Tahiti

    Diana Preston on the Intersection of Science, Religion, and Imperial Power in the South Pacific

    After three and a half weeks at the end of the longest single leg of her voyage, the Beagle anchored in Tahiti’s Matavai Bay. Everyone aboard was eager to experience the attractions of the Polynesian island fabled for the beauty of its people and of their home, even if, in Charles Darwin’s words, it had become “a fallen Paradise.”

    The first Europeans to reach Tahiti were the crew of HMS Dolphin, commanded by Samuel Wallis, in June 1767. When the Dolphin approached the island and, like the Beagle, anchored in Matavai Bay, some Tahitians had thought the ship was “a floating island.” Others had recalled a prophecy that, as a result of the chopping down of a sacred tree, newcomers of an unknown kind would arrive and that “this land would be taken by them. The old order will be destroyed and sacred birds of the land and the sea will come and lament what the lopped tree has to dictate. [The newcomers] are coming upon a canoe without an outrigger.”

    After some initial friction, Wallis’s crew and the Tahitians became so close that both were sad to see the Dolphin leave, not least on the sailors’ part because of the friendliness of the people, their willingness to trade, the fertility of their island, and most of all because of the ties between some of the crew and Tahitian women who had uninhibitedly made love to them.

    Everyone aboard was eager to experience the attractions of the Polynesian island fabled for the beauty of its people and of their home, even if, in Darwin’s words, it had become “a fallen Paradise.”

    French explorer Louis-Antoine de Bougainville confirmed the impressions of an earthly paradise when he visited the islands soon afterward in his ships La Boudeuse and L’Etoile. In tribute to Tahiti’s “celestial” women, he named the island New Cythera after the island near where the goddess Venus (Aphrodite) reputedly sprang from the sea. On his return to France, de Bougainville referred in his book about the voyage—a copy was in the Beagle library—to Tahiti as “the true Utopia.”

    His account focused on the Tahitian islands the discussion of the virtues of natural law based on man’s innate and unconscious sense of morality compared to laws dictated by religious leaders or secular rulers for their own benefit, a topic then being debated animatedly in Europe. To philosophers such as Diderot and Rousseau, Tahiti represented a lost golden age, and the Tahitian people epitomized “the noble savage.” Darwin’s grandfather Erasmus celebrated the Tahitians’ free and natural approach to sexuality in his writing, and in one of his poems used a Tahitian marriage ceremony as a metaphor for plant reproduction.

    The impression of a fertile pleasure dome was maintained following the first visit of Captain James Cook in HMS Endeavour in 1769. Together with naturalist Joseph Banks, who enjoyed many a dalliance with the Tahitian women, including their queen, he spent three months on the island, far longer than either Wallis or de Bougainville. He constructed an observatory at the northeastern tip of Matavai Bay to track the transit of Venus across the face of the sun, important in calculating the distance between Earth, the sun, and other planets. Banks collected and described many of the island’s plant species.

    By the time of Cook’s last visit in 1777, however, western diseases, including sexual ones, and the introduction of alcohol and gunpowder weapons had begun to take their toll. As he left for the last time, Cook wrote: “I cannot avoid expressing it as my real opinion that it would have been far better for these poor people never to have known our superiority in the accommodation and arts that make life comfortable…indeed they cannot be restored to that happy mediocrity in which they lived before we discovered them…”

    When Captain William Bligh visited the island in 1789 in the Bounty on the recommendation of Banks to collect breadfruit seedlings to take to the Caribbean as food for slaves, some of the Bounty crew’s relations with local women had, together with Bligh’s overbearing nature, contributed to the celebrated mutiny. Some islanders had accompanied Fletcher Christian and the hard-core mutineers to remote rock-girt Pitcairn Island.

    Subsequently conditions had deteriorated further, so that in 1806 Joseph Banks wrote: “Tahiti is said to be at present in the hands of about one hundred white men, chiefly English convicts [from New South Wales] who lend their assistance as warriors to the chief whoever he may be, who offers them the most acceptable wages payable in women, hogs etc; and we are told that these banditti have by the introduction of diseases, by devastation, murder and all kinds of European barbarism, reduced the population of that once interesting island to less than one tenth of what it was when the Endeavour visited it in 1769.”

    After this low point, British Protestant missionaries arrived and, despite some initial setbacks, in 1812 converted the local ruler, Pomare II, to Christianity. Thereafter, nearly all the Tahitians themselves converted and mostly accepted the missionaries’ somewhat puritanical views on morality and society. As well as enforcing strict Sabbath observance and banning alcohol, the missionaries prohibited singing by adults of anything but hymns and dancing while attempting to inhibit promiscuity and promote modesty in dress.

    They also understandably proscribed infanticide formerly practiced by young members of the elite—the Arioi—when their free lovemaking produced unwanted children and the occasional sacrifice and even consumption of prisoners captured in war. At the time of the Beagle’s arrival the ruler of Tahiti was a woman from the ruling family known as Queen Pomare IV.

    As FitzRoy brought the Beagle to its mooring in Matavai Bay, outrigger canoes crammed with friendly Tahitians raced out to greet the new arrivals and to trade with them. From them the Beagle’s crew discovered that the local day and date differed from their own. On the Beagle it was Sunday, November 15, whereas ashore it was Monday, November 16. The difference was accounted for by which side of the international dateline Tahiti was considered to be. Although the line formally lay west of Tahiti at longitude 180 degrees, the Tahitians calculated their dates as being to its west. FitzRoy soon adjusted the Beagle’s log to reflect the local date.

    To philosophers such as Diderot and Rousseau, Tahiti represented a lost golden age, and the Tahitian people epitomized “the noble savage.”

    If the Beagle had arrived on what the Tahitians considered a Sunday, there would have been no outrushing canoes. The missionaries’ strict Sabbath observance laws, agreed upon with the Tahitian ruler, permitted no outriggers to be launched that day. Going ashore Darwin found “crowds of men, women and children were collected on the memorable Point Venus [the site of Cook’s and Banks’s observatory] ready to receive us with laughing merry faces.”

    Unlike in so many other places, Darwin was charmed. As a man who throughout his life, and in particular in The Descent of Man, often reflected on the divergences between the “civilized” and the “savage” and how the transition between the two occurred, he recognized a nobility in the Tahitians—“a mildness in the expression of their faces, which at once banishes the idea of a savage,—and an intelligence which shows they are advancing in civilization.” He admired the physique of the Tahitian men—“the common people…have the whole of the upper part of their bodies uncovered; and it is then that a Tahitian is seen to advantage.—In my opinion, they are the finest men I have ever beheld;—very tall, broad-shouldered, athletic, with their limbs well proportioned… To see a white man bathing alongside a Tahitian, was like comparing a plant bleached by the gardener’s art to the same growing in the open fields.—Most of the men are tattooed, the ornaments so gracefully follow the curvature of the body that they really have a very elegant and pleasing effect…The simile is a fanciful one, but I thought the body of a man was thus ornamented like the trunk of a noble tree by a delicate creeper…”

    Darwin, though, was “much disappointed in the personal appearance of the women; they are far inferior in every respect to the men.” They were tattooed similarly to the men but also heavily on their fingers. He disliked “an unbecoming fashion” among them “now almost universal in cutting the[ir] hair or rather shaving it from the upper part of the head in a circular manner so as only to leave an outer ring of hair.” The missionaries had tried to dissuade them from this, but “it is the fashion and that is answer enough at Tahiti as well as Paris.”

    Darwin believed the women much needed some becoming clothing to cover their upper bodies. He did, however, admire their custom of putting a red or white hibiscus flower in their hair or behind their ears, together with their wearing of a wreath of coconut leaves on their heads to shade their eyes, both not uncommon in modern-day Tahiti and nearby Polynesian islands.

    FitzRoy’s view mirrored Darwin’s: “The native women had no charm for me. I saw no beauty among them; and either they are not as handsome as they were said to be, or my ideas are fastidious. The men on the other hand exceed every idea formed from the old descriptions…[their] personal appearance…was to me most remarkable: tall and athletic, with very well-formed heads and a good expression of countenance, they at once made a favorable impression, which their quiet good-humor and tractable disposition afterwards heightened very much.”

    Returning to the ship together, Darwin and FitzRoy came upon an idyllic scene: “numbers of children were playing on the beach, and had lighted bonfires which illuminated the placid sea and surrounding trees: others in circles were singing Tahitian verses,—we seated ourselves on the sand and joined the circle. The songs were impromptu…one little girl sang a line which the rest took up in parts, forming a very pretty chorus,—the air was singular and their voices melodious. The whole scene,” Darwin wrote, “made us unequivocally aware that we were seated on the shores of an Island in the South Sea.”

    Early the next day, perhaps two hundred Tahitians thronged the deck of the Beagle to trade. According to Darwin, they now “fully understand the value of money and prefer it to old clothes or other articles.” Leaving the thriving market behind, Darwin went ashore and began to climb into the hills behind the bay. As he ascended, the vegetation changed from banana plants and orange, guava, and breadfruit trees—the latter’s strong branches reminding an increasingly homesick Darwin of an English oak—through dwarf ferns and coarse grass reminiscent to him of the hills of North Wales. From the hilltop he had a good view of the island of Eimeo (Moorea) opposite Matavai Bay with its jagged cloud-topped green peaks and surf pounding its reef.

    Returning through the forest he again mused on the dispersion of flora and fauna between islands and continents: “It must not…be supposed that these woods at all equalled the forests of Brazil.—In an island, that vast number of productions which characterize a continent cannot be expected to occur.”

    The following day, he began a longer expedition into the mountainous interior accompanied by Covington and two Tahitian guides. The latter insisted there was no need to carry food—they could live off the land for the planned two- or three-day trip. As they climbed, following the course of a river that entered the sea near Matavai Bay, the valley became a precipitous ravine “which formed a mountain gorge far more magnificent than anything I had ever beheld.”

    His guides, barefoot like all Tahitians, found tracks along rocky ledges that allowed them to circumvent the frequent waterfalls cascading down the cliffs. Sometimes they scaled cliff faces, using only small hand and toe holds, before lowering ropes to allow Darwin and Covington to climb up after them. Once a guide positioned a tree trunk so they could use it as a ladder to scramble up above a dizzying precipice.

    Darwin was impressed by how the Tahitians said grace before eating and prayed on their knees before sleeping.

    In the late afternoon they made camp amid a mass of fruiting wild banana plants. With “strips of bark for twine, the stems of bamboos and the large leaf of the banana, the Tahitians in a few minutes built an excellent house; and with the withered leaves made a soft bed.” They then made a fire by rubbing a stick in a wooden groove, and when it was well alight heaped stones “about the size of a cricket ball” on the burning wood.

    Once the stones were hot and the wood consumed they placed parcels of fish from the nearby stream and fruit and vegetables wrapped in leaves between and around the stones and piled the whole with earth. When they opened it up a little later Darwin found the cooked food delicious, particularly when washed down with cool water from the stream, drunk from a coconut cup. Among the baked vegetables were “wild yams” and “wild arum,” the roots of which “when well baked are good to eat and the young leaves better than spinach.” For dessert the guides served the root of “a liliaceous plant called ti,” which was “as sweet as treacle.”

    The missionaries had prohibited the cultivation of the ava plant—the source of the alcoholic cava drunk throughout Polynesia. However, Darwin found the dark, green-leaved plant growing near the stream, chewed some of its leaves, and “found that it had an acrid and unpleasant taste which would induce anyone at once to pronounce it poisonous.” He experienced no intoxicating effect, unsurprising since it is the root that is used to produce the drink, not the leaves. Darwin was impressed by how the Tahitians said grace before eating and prayed on their knees before sleeping.

    The next morning, after a night in which it rained “but the good thatch of banana leaves kept us dry,” how much breakfast the Tahitians consumed amazed Darwin. “I should suppose such capacious stomachs must be the result of a large part of their diet consisting of fruits and vegetables which do not contain in a given bulk very much nutriment.” Darwin had taken “a flask of spirits” with him and offered it to the guides to drink. The two men did not refuse, “but as often as they drank a little, they put their fingers before their mouths and uttered the word ‘missionary.’”

    Throughout that day they climbed farther up toward Tahiti’s highest peak at around seven thousand feet. Descending after a second night in the hills, they took another route back to the shore, edging along ridges that were “exceedingly narrow and for considerable lengths steep as the inclination of a ladder…When viewing the surrounding country…the point of support was so small that the effect was nearly the same as would I imagine, be observed from a balloon.”

    Darwin, clearly conscious of the concept of the noble savage, thought his guides “with their naked tattooed bodies, their heads ornamented with flowers. and seen in the dark shade of the woods, would have formed a fine picture of Man inhabiting some primeval forest.” On one of the following days he hired an outrigger canoe—in his view comical because of its extreme narrowness—and its crew to examine Tahiti’s reef—the first he had seen—and “its pretty branching coral.”

    Darwin, perhaps knowing how thorough Banks had been, took few plant or animal specimens from Tahiti, preferring simply to luxuriate in its legendary tropical beauty. On geology, in confirmation of his acceptance of Lyell’s view of the rise and fall of land over long periods, he suggested in his diary, “I believe a group of the interior mountains stood as a smaller island in the sea and around their steep flanks streams of Lavas and beds of sediment were accumulated in a conical mass under water. This after having been raised was cut by numerous profound ravines, which all diverge from the common centre; the intervening ridges thus belonging to one slope.” In his geological notes he added, “The characteristic feature of this scenery is the depth, narrowness and extreme steepness of the sides of the valleys or rather mountain gorges…I believed I saw the effect of running water, continued through so long a succession of ages, as to suffice to wear away several thousand ft in thickness of solid strata.”

    Darwin…took few plant or animal specimens from Tahiti, preferring simply to luxuriate in its legendary tropical beauty.

    FitzRoy meanwhile was busy checking his chronometers and validating his observations against the well-known data obtained by Cook and others at Point Venus and supervising some limited survey work. He was also meeting some of the missionaries and the Tahitian chiefs and encountered a larger-than-life European adventurer—“a person who styled himself Baron de Thierry, King of Nuhahiva [Nuka Hiva] and sovereign chief of New Zealand. About the house in which resides this self-called philanthropist, said to be maturing arrangements for civilizing Nuhahiva and New Zealand—as well as for cutting a canal across the isthmus of Darien—were a motley group of tattooed New Zealanders, half-clothed natives of Tahiti, and some ill-looking American seamen. I was received in affected state by this grandee, who abruptly began to question me with—‘Well, Captain! What news from Panama? Have the Congress settled the manner in which they are to carry my ideas into effect?’ I tried to be decently civil to him, as well as to the ‘baroness’ but could not diminish my suspicions, and soon cut short our conference. In his house was a pile of muskets whose fixed and very long bayonets had not a philanthropic aspect. He… was said to be waiting for his ships to arrive and carry him to his sovereignty.

    Born in England, of French emigrant parents, his own account of himself was that he was secretary of legation to the Marquis of Marialva at the congress of Vienna; and that in 1815 he belonged to the 23rd Light Dragoons (English). In 1816 he was attaché to the French ambassador in London. In 1819 he was studying divinity in Oxford. In 1820–21, he was a student of laws at Cambridge…He showed papers to prove these assertions…and had succeeded in duping a great many people.”

    Meeting de Thierry a second time, FitzRoy told him “my suspicions, so plainly, that he said he should appeal to the governor of New South Wales, to the Admiralty, and to the King of England himself, against the unjust suspicions and improper conduct of the captain of the Beagle.”

    FitzRoy was right to suspect de Thierry’s colorful, no doubt smoothly and frequently told and embroidered story. It was full of half-truths, omissions, some truths, and some downright falsehoods. His father had assumed the title of baron when fleeing during the revolutionary terror from France, where he had been an equerry at court. He was himself probably born in the Netherlands, not London as he always claimed. He was at the Congress of Vienna briefly on the staff of the Portuguese Marquis of Marialva and equally briefly served in the British dragoons and attended Oxford and Cambridge Universities. He claimed to have purchased land in New Zealand, which he had never visited, for thirty-six axes through the agency of a British missionary from a Maori chief he had met at Cambridge.

    When investigated by the French and Dutch governments, whom he had attempted to interest in colonizing New Zealand on the basis of his land acquisition, with himself in return to be appointed governor or viceroy, his claim had been found baseless. He had been imprisoned for debt twice, fled bankruptcy in France, married the daughter of an English archdeacon, spent time in the United States and the Caribbean, promoted again briefly the idea of a Panama canal, and, passing through Nuka Hiva in the Marquesas Islands on his way to Tahiti, elected himself its king.

    Some more recent visitors to Tahiti, particularly a Russian explorer named Otto von Kotzebue in his book which was in the Beagle library, had strongly criticized the British missionaries from the London Missionary Society for removing their natural uninhibited joy from the Tahitians’ lives and forcing them to conform to their views of how to behave, thus rendering the Tahitians gloomy and oppressed. However, when they met the missionaries, both FitzRoy and Darwin were impressed by their honesty, the sincerity of their convictions—the senior missionary was about to complete a translation of the Bible into the Tahitian language—and their efforts to help and “civilize” the Tahitians and to remedy some of the evils Europeans had introduced. Darwin was perhaps even more sympathetic to the missionaries than FitzRoy. He was convinced of their “high merit.”

    Their critics, in his view, did not give them credit for what they had achieved and did not compare the current state of morals and society in Tahiti to that which prevailed “twenty years before; not even to that of Europe in this day but to the high standard of Gospel perfection. They expect the missionaries to effect what the very Apostles failed to do.—By as much as things fall short of this high scale, blame is attached to the missionaries, instead of credit for what has been effected.”

    The missionaries had much reduced “dishonesty, intemperance and licentiousness.” The morality of the Tahitian women was much improved in Darwin’s view since Cook’s and Banks’s time. He believed that many critics “disappointed at not finding…licentiousness quite so open as formerly…will not give credit to a morality which they do not wish to practice, or to a religion which they undervalue if not despise.” He and FitzRoy attended a service in the chapel, “a large airy framework of wood…filled to excess by tidy clean people of all ages and sexes,” who paid attention “quite equal to that in a country Church in England.”

    FitzRoy too acknowledged the benefits the missionaries had brought and the Tahitians’ gratitude to them but suggested they might allow “more temporal enjoyments”…to encourage the islanders’ adherence.

    FitzRoy too acknowledged the benefits the missionaries had brought and the Tahitians’ gratitude to them but suggested they might allow “more temporal enjoyments” and “more visible or tangible benefits” to encourage the islanders’ adherence, as French Catholic priests were successfully doing in the Gambier Islands. He feared that without such relaxations in the missionaries’ strict discipline, the Catholics might gain converts in Tahiti. Only a few years later, the French government would indeed use the refusal by Queen Pomare under the guidance of the British missionaries to permit Catholic priests into Tahiti as the pretext for annexing the island.

    Fitzroy himself had official business with Tahiti’s queen—to pursue promised but unpaid compensation of some three thousand dollars for the robbery of a British vessel, the Truro, and the murder of her master and mate a few years earlier by the inhabitants of the Paamotu (Tuamotu) Islands, which fell under the queen’s rule. Pomare arrived from Eimeo for their meeting, according to FitzRoy, “sitting on the gunnel of a whaleboat, loosely dressed in a dark kind of gown, without anything upon her head, hands, or feet and without any kind of girdle or sash to confine her gown, which was fastened only at the throat… In her figure, her countenance or her manner there was nothing prepossessing, or at all calculated to command the respect of foreigners.”

    Pomare was apologetic for failing to meet the payment deadline and rapidly agreed to pay in the form mostly of thirty-six tons of pearl oyster shells. Under pressure from FitzRoy she also agreed not to allow any Tahitian to enlist “in a foreign cause,” thus depriving, as FitzRoy intended, Baron de Thierry of many of his men.

    With good relations established, FitzRoy invited the queen to dine aboard the Beagle. Darwin thought her “an awkward large woman, without any beauty, gracefulness or dignity of manners.—She appears to have only one royal attribute, viz a perfect immovability of expression (and that generally rather a sulky one) under all circumstances.” She seemed to unbend a little watching “sky rockets” and other fireworks and hearing “seamen’s songs,” which she noted were certainly not the hymns to which the missionaries restricted the Tahitian adults. She and her party did not leave until past midnight, and “all appeared well contented with their visit.”

    FitzRoy, however, disappointed with the quality and amount of fireworks he had provided, wrote, “Let me repeat a piece of advice given to me, but which from inadvertence I neglected to follow, [to] ‘take a large stock of fireworks’” when visiting “distant, especially half-civilized or savage nations.”

    When they left Tahiti on November 26, Darwin was speaking for himself and the whole crew when he wrote to Henslow, “Tahiti is a most charming spot.—Everything, which former navigators have written is true; ‘A new Cythera has risen from the ocean.’ Delicious scenery, climate, manners of the people, are all in harmony.”


    Excerpted from The Evolution of Charles Darwin: The Epic Voyage of the Beagle That Forever Changed Our View of Life on Earth by Diana Preston. Copyright © 2022. Available from Atlantic Monthly Press, an imprint of Grove Atlantic, Inc.

    Diana Preston
    Diana Preston
    Diana Preston is a prize-winning historian and the author of The Evolution of Charles Darwin, Eight Days at Yalta, A Higher Form of Killing, Lusitania: An Epic Tragedy, Before the Fallout: From Marie Curie to Hiroshima (winner of the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for Science and Technology), The Boxer Rebellion, Paradise in Chains, and A Pirate of Exquisite Mind, among other works of acclaimed narrative history. She and her husband, Michael, live in London.

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