Posted by: Rob Viens | March 4, 2012

Darwin Attends the “Biggest Party on the Planet”

When I think of Charles Darwin I don’t usually think of gigantic parties, but on March 4th he attending the Salvador Carnival:

“This day is the first of the Carnival, but Wickham, Sullivan & myself nothing undaunted were determined to face its dangers” (Mar 4)

Granted – it was 180 years ago so it may not be fair to compare it to modern times, but to put it in context, here is what Wikipedia says about Carnival in Salvador today:

“According to the Guinness Book of Records, the carnival or Carnaval of Salvador da Bahia is the biggest party on the planet. For an entire week, almost 4 million people celebrate throughout 25 kilometers (16 mi) of streets, avenues and squares. The direct organization of the party involves the participation of 100 thousand people. Its dimensions are gigantic. Salvador receives an average of 800 thousand visitors.” (Wikipedia)

So what did Darwin experience at the “biggest party on the planet”?  Well, the big event consisted of:

“being unmercifully pelted by wax balls full of water & being wet through by large tin squirts. — We found it very difficult to maintain our dignity whilst walking through the streets. — Charles the V has said that he was a brave man who could snuff a candle with his fingers without flinching; I say it is he who can walk at a steady pace, when buckets of water on each side are ready to be dashed over him.” (Mar 4)

And it was less than a month ago that Darwin had to suffer the humiliation of the crossing the equator for the first time (see Darwin Crosses the Line).  And here he was in the New World being drenched in water again. What is it with water and indignity – I guess it spans the hemispheres as a universal form of humiliation.

The image below is a BBC image of the Salvador Carnival this year. Can you picture Darwin in the crowd! I don’t see any flying wax balls or tin squirts anymore, alas:

Salvador Carnival

Carnival apparently originated, in part, as a way to equalize all social classes for a day.  Hence it was OK to use a squirt gun on anyone, regardless of their social status. Apparently no one told Darwin and his officer friends that this was “cool”, so they were left to suffer the indignity of being wet. I’d say “just suck it up Charlie and enjoy the moment – its just a little water”. But I suspect that he did like it – at least a little.  He may have written about it as an indignity, but the fact of the matter is he went and spent “several hours” there.  Lt. Wickham apparently was the one the liked it all the least – those senior officer types, always breaking up the fun:

“It was the first time Wickham had been on shore, & he vowed if he was here for six months it should be [the] only one.” (Mar 4)

John Clements Wickham as a young officer:

john Clements Wickham

They damp group of Englishmen did try to find a different way home – one that avoided the festivities.  Ironically, it took them longer to get back that way and they got stuck in a big rainstorm.

“To complete our ludicrous miseries a heavy shower wet us to the skins, & at last gladly we reached the Beagle. ” (Mar 4)

Basically being dry that day was just not in the cards.

Something else I learned today – Carnival is derived from the carnelevare, “to remove meat” – a reflection of the fact that it is celebrated on the first day of Lent, during witch practitioners refrain from eating meat. So why does the traveling carnival sell hot dogs? (RJV)


  1. Maybe because Carnival Hotdogs aren’t actually meat?

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