Posted by: Rob Viens | May 31, 2012

Villainous Ruffians on Corcovado

Yesterday, May 30th, Darwin returned to the top of Corcovado Mountain, but this time describes an encounter with a different sort of wildlife – seeding-looking slave hunters. For his description read on:

“The Caucovado is notorious for Maroon or run-away slaves; the last time we ascended, we met three most villanous looking ruffians, armed up to the teeth. —they were Maticans or slave-hunters, & receive so much for every man dead or alive whom they may take. — In the former case they only bring down the ears. — A slave, who has since voluntarily delivered himself up, run away from Mr Lennons estate on the Macaè & lived in a cave for two years & a half. — So easy is it in these countries for a man to support himself.” (May 30

So it appears that Corcovado, which now harbors and protects several endangered species and a section of Atlantic rainforest, once protected human beings who were also being preyed upon by “unscrupulous predators”.

Considering the anti-slavery message in many of Earle’s paintings, I image they had some interesting conversations that day as they met the slave-hunters. For example, he is Earle’s engraving Gate & Slave Market at Pernambuco.

Augustus Earle - Slave Market at Pernambuco

Darwin uses the opportunity to provide more evidence to support his stand on the abolition of slavery.  It is interesting how he uses the same observation and interpretation skills he uses to make scientific arguments to lay out his evidence against slavery, writing:

“Amongst other things which the anti-abolitionists say, it is asserted that the freed slave would not work. I repeatedly hear of run-away ones having the boldness of working for wages in the neighbourhead of their masters. If they will thus work when there is danger, surely they likewise would when that was removed. — Again the blacks, who have been seized by British men of war, are hired out to different tradesmen for seven years, by which time it is supposed they could support themselves. — I have heard many instances from the masters, that they claim their freedom before the expiration of the time: & set up for themselves. — What will not interest or blind prejudice assert, when defending its unjust power or opinion?” (May 30)

That last line could be said about Darwin’s own critics later in his life (regarding On the Origin of Species). It is interesting foreshadowing that he uses it in defense of human rights now, especially as a 23–year old who is mainly interested in beetles and rocks. For more on Darwin’s anti-slavery views be sure to see Darwin the Abolitionist.

When he gets to the  top of Corcovado, Darwin takes the opportunity to measure the height of the mountain using his barometer:

“Again ascended with Derbyshire the Caucovado & took with me the Mountain Barometer. — I make it to be 2,225 above level of the sea. — ” (May 30)

Not bad for an early 19th century measurement using a barometer.  The official height (as measured today) is 2329 ft (710 m) above sea level. Interestingly, in the margin of his diary Darwin writes “Real height 2330”. How much later he wrote this, and where he got the information from is unclear, but it is very accurate.

19th century French barometer (from

19th century French barometer

Barometers measure air pressure, which in turn can be used as a means for measuring elevation change. This is based on the concept that air pressure decreases as you go up in the atmosphere. So the difference in pressure at the bottom and top of the mountain can be used to calculate the difference in elevation between the two points.  The only problem is that there are other factors that can affect atmospheric pressure – such as air temperature or moving air masses.  So if those variables change between the time the observer starts at the bottom of the mountain and the time he makes his measurement at the top, the elevation will be off a little.  That’s most likely why Darwin’s elevation for the top of the mountain is off a little bit (though it is certainly in the ball park).

In any case, after a strenuous day of climbing mountains, measuring elevations and dealing with ruffians, Darwin spent the next day (today) at home, reflecting on the reverse of the seasons in the southern hemisphere:

“Staid at home; the evenings now soon close in; whilst I am lamenting the northern progress of the sun, everybody in England is rejoiced at it: as yet I am no ways accustomed to this reversed order of things. It sounds very good to hear of fruits only ripening at Christmas.” (May 31)


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