Posted by: Rob Viens | April 6, 2012

Bureaucrats Know No Boundaries

April 6th – Not two days in Rio and Darwin was already spending the day frustrated by government bureaucracy – which seems to be the same no matter what country (or century) you are in.

“The day has been frittered away in obtaining the passports for my expedition into the interior. — It is never very pleasant to submit to the insolence of men in office; but to the Brazilians who are as contemptible in their minds as their persons are miserable it is nearly intolerable. — But the prospect of wild forests tenanted by beautiful birds, Monkeys & Sloths, & Lakes by Cavies & Alligators, will make any naturalist lick the dust even from the foot of a Brazilian.” (Apr 6)

Ouch – Darwin clearly was upset with the way he was being treated today.  Combine that with his hatred for the extensive system of slavery in Brazil, his upper class upbringing, and a 23-year old’s opinion of the world and you get some nasty words about Brazilians.  I’m going to chalk this up to frustration with bureaucrats today, as I know that Darwin tends to be generally more forgiving and positive about people.  I hope by Brazilian friends do not take offense.

The “paperwork” part of Darwin’s comments reminds me of some geology fieldwork I did in Kenya several years ago.  Of the approximately 6 weeks we spent in the country, at least two (maybe three) of them were spent obtaining the appropriate permissions and paperwork to conduct the work and take samples back to the US for analysis. I have to say, it was frustrating. (And I was not the lead on the project, so I didn’t have to deal with half of it.  I got to wander around Nairobi and enjoy the sites while things were being processed. ) It involved a lot of legwork (we would literally get shuffled from office to office all over town) and several requests for “expediting fees”, i.e., undocumented fees.

I remember one specific case where we needed a few air photos of the region we would be working in.  Over the course of several days we were sent to a handful of offices, each one having its own fees.  In one case, we had to buy a package of 100 sheets of photo paper to get our 4-5 photos (the extras, oddly, were never returned). When we got to the final printing office, we were told that it would take several weeks to have the photos printed.  Any sooner would be impossible due to the various complication and additional approvals that were required. After much negotiation, we discovered that if we paid the clerk an “expediting fee” (as he called it) we could have the photos in an hour.  So I can relate to the sort of bureaucracy that Darwin dealt with today.

“Mole, palace and cathedral at Rio de Janeiro, by T. Hain after A. Earle” (from Darwin’s Beagle Diary):

Rio by Hain & Earle

To balance his view of Rio and its people, let me add a few lines from yesterday’s diary entry:

“In the morning I landed with Earl at the Palace steps; we then wandered through the streets, admiring their gay & crowded appearance. — The plan of the town is very regular, the lines, like those in Edinburgh, running parallel, & others crossing them at right angles. — The principal streets leading from the squares are straight & broard; from the gay colours of the houses, ornamented by balconys, from the numerous Churches & Convents & from the numbers hurrying along the streets, the city has an appearance which bespeaks the commercial capital of Southern America.” (Apr 5)

“I look forward with the greatest pleasure to spending a few weeks in this most quiet & most beautiful spot. — What can be imagined more delightful than to watch Nature in its grandest form in the regions of the Tropics?” (Apr 5)

In two days Darwin would get his wish, as he was about to head out on his first big expedition – a two week trip into the coastal rainforest. (RJV)


  1. […] next major outing – a trip into the interior of Uruguay. Much like his experience in Brazil (see Bureaucrats Know No Boundaries) he was frustrated by the bureaucracy involved in obtaining the correct papers.  Though he should […]

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