Posted by: Rob Viens | June 4, 2012

Darwin on a Hunting Expedition

June 4th was a big day for Darwin – at least 2 significant events happened.  First, he got up early in the morning (4am) to go on a hunting expedition, and in the process encountered his first New World monkey.  Then, at the end of the day, he came back to his cabin to find that the Beagle had returned.  His entry is long today, so I thought I’d cover the first event today (mostly in his own words) and the second tomorrow.

Darwin starts the early and meets his party:

“Got up at 4 oclock to go out hunting: the person who keeps the hounds is a priest & dean. —the pack only consists of five dogs, their names, Trumpeta, Mimosa, Clariena, Dorena & Champaigna; the huntsman is a black man & performed the other offices of body servant & Clerk. The padre is a very rich man & a great favourite of the last queens; we got to his country house at 5 oclock & found with him another brother priest. — It was very curious to see the miserable manner such men could live in; one sort of shed where dogs, black men & themselves appeared to live together; & the whole place dirty & out of order. ” (June 4)

I find it particularly interesting that the only names that he notes for us to uncover 180 years later are those of the hunting dogs. Darwin did love his dogs. He had them his whole life – from his time as a young boy until his death.  As a young man he loved to hunt with them, and as an older man he enjoyed their company. (The voyage was one of the few time she did not have a dog – though I suppose he was on the HMS Beagle :))

From Darwin’s last book – The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals. One source suggests this may be Darwin’s dog Polly, but I was not able to confirm that:

Darwin's Dogs

Next he describes the hunt (i.e., small game massacre):

“At about seven we arrived at our hunting ground, & put up the horses at a small farm house situated in the middle of the woods. — The hunting consists in all the dogs being turned into the forest & each separately pursues its own game. — The hunters with guns station themselves in the places most likely for the animals, such as small deer & pachas (like guinea pigs) to pass by. — And in the intervals they shoot parrots & Toucans &c..” (June 4)

Darwin did like hunting – in fact, shooting was a passion of his.  He writes in his autobiography:

“In the latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of shooting, and I do not believe that anyone could have shown more zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds.” (Autbiography).

But, as much as he might like to shoot things, in the great rainforest of Brazil he soon became distracted by his natural surroundings:

“I soon found this very stupid & began to hunt my own peculiar game. — The wood contained by far the largest trees I have yet seen. — the average I should think was double of what I have before seen, being about 6 feet in circumference, of course as before there are many larger & smaller trees. — Perhaps in consequence of the greater size this one was much less impenetrable than the generality & might easily be traversed in all directions.” (June 4)

Still providing no names Darwin is back to describing another member of the hunting party – this time one who is more skilled with a knife than a gun:

“The eldest son of the farmer accompanied us & was a good specimen of the country Brazilian youths. — His dress consisted of a tattered shirt, pair of trowsers, & wooden slippers (in keeping on which he showed most singular dexterity) & no hat & long hair. — He carried with him an old fashioned gun & an enormous knife. — They use the latter for killing animals & as they walk along incessantly continue cutting the branches so as to improve old & make new paths. — This practice is universal, & in consequence of the habit of carrying the knife, many murders take place. — It is not at all necessary for them to approach the person as they can throw the knife to a great distance with force & precision.”

And with very little fanfare Darwin encounters his first New World monkey.  Although it is dead, the party goes to great lengths to get it out of a tree:

“The day before this young man had shot 2 large bearded monkeys & had left another dead in the tree: these monkeys have prehensile tails, which when dead by the very tip will support the whole weight of the animal. — He took with him a mulatto with an axe & to my surprise proceeded in order to get the monkey, to cut down an enormous tree; they soon affected this & as it fell with an awful crash it tore up the earth & broke other trees & itself. “

The New World monkeys consist of five families – Callitrichidae (marmosets and tamarins), Cebidae (capuchins and squirrel monkeys), Aotidae (dourocoulis), Pitheciidae (titis, sakis and uakaris), and Atelidae (howler monkeys, spider monkeys and woolly monkeys). About 40 million years ago their ancestors were isolated from their Old World cousins, and they evolved separately from that point on. You can tell them apart from the Old World monkeys but their “flat noses” – one of their most distinguishing characteristics.

Of these families only one (the Atelidae) have fully prehensile tails (which would seem to be required for the monkey to remain hanging by its tail after death). I note this, because there is no such thing as a “bearded monkey” – at least by modern classification.  And almost all of the Atelidae (as far as I can tell) live further north than Rio. So my best guess at what Darwin encountered was a Brown Howler (Alouatta guariba), which does have facial colorings that make it look like it has a beard.  Here is an image of a Southern Brown Howler from Wikipedia Commons:

Brown howler

Soon it was time to wrap up the day – “Don Quixote style”:

“We joined our party, whom we found shooting beautiful little green parrots; the young Brazilian soon signalized himself by his hawks eye & steady hand. — We then eat our dinner & drank wine in the true Don Quixote fashion out of a bag of goats skin. — After a score of profound bows & with our hands to our hearts repeating “Monte, Monte, obligado”, we took leave of the two hospitable & intelligent padres proceeded home. ” (June 4)

I’m not sure of the meaning of the “chant” – if you know, please leave me a comment. In any case, I’m wondering if they ate the monkey for dinner?  It is not in Darwin’s collection, nor do we find it described in Voyage. Hmmm…

With what I’m sure was a light buzz, Darwin arrived home to find a letter on his table and a familiar midshipman in his house – as sure sign that the Beagle had returned from its month-long voyage back to Bahia. How did they fare?  You’ll have to wait till tomorrow to find out… (RJV)


  1. […] last queens” (June 4)) and his pack of hunting dogs (which Darwin describes affectionately in Darwin on a Hunting Expedition. He writes: “On the road home I overtook my old friend the Padre, returning with his dogs […]

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