Posted by: Rob Viens | July 3, 2012

“The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” sides of Rio

July 3rd – Hmmm, what to say today?  Darwin has a long diary entry today that seems to be the result of encountering the aftermath of a murder scene.  This quickly turns into several unkind generalizations about Brazilians and the many atrocities of slavery in Brazil.  As mentioned earlier, Darwin was incredibly upset by the extreme to which slavery played a role in Brazilian culture. As a result, his entire view of the Brazilian people was clouded by this one issue. It creates quite a picture of a man who clearly dislikes (and puts down) the oppressor and fights for the oppressed.

With that thought in mind, I thought I’d share Darwin’s entire entry today.  The middle part comes across as an insult to Brazilians. I contemplated whether or not to skip over this and concentrate on other things today, but this is part of who Darwin was at the time, and it didn’t feel right ignoring it.

I will remind readers that this was his personal diary, so I suspect that he had no idea that it would be still be read almost 200 years later.  He may not have intended these views to be public, as these negative generalizations seem to be left out of Voyage of the Beagle.  However, he did use the book to speak out against the inhumanity of slavery.

Painting of slaves buying tobacco in Rio by Jean Baptiste Debret:

slaves buying tobacco in Rio by Jean Baptiste Debret

To play on today’s title, I would title the following three paragraphs (in order) as the “Ugly, the Bad and the Good” sides of Rio (in Darwin’s eyes).  He writes:

“Went to the city. On landing, found the Palace Square crowded with people round the house of two money changers who were murdered yesterday evening in a more atrocious manner than usual.— It is quite fearful to hear what enormous crimes are daily committed & go unpunished.— If a slave murders his master, after being confined for some-time he then becomes a government one.— However great the charge may be against a rich man, he is certain in a short time to be free.— Everybody can here be bribed.— A man may become a sailor or a physician or any profession, if he can afford to pay sufficiently.— It has been gravely asserted by Brazilians that the only fault they found with the English laws was that they could not perceive rich respectable people had any advantage over the miserable & the poor.

The Brazilians, as far as I am able to judge, possess but a small share of those qualities which give dignity to mankind. Ignorant, cowardly, & indolent in the extreme; hospitable & good natured as long as it gives them no trouble; temperate, revengeful, but not quarrelsome; contented with themselves & their customs, they answer all remarks by asking “why cannot we do as our grandfathers before us did”.— Their very appearance bespeaks their little elevation of character.— figures short, they soon become corpulent; and their faces possessing little expression, appear sunk between the shoulders.— The Monks differ for the worse in this latter respect; it requires little physiognomy to see plainly stamped persevering cunning, sensuality & pride.— One old man I always stop to look at, the only thing I ever saw like it, is Scoens Judas Iscariot.— All that I have said about the countenances of the priests, may be transferred to the voices of the older women.— Being surrounded by slaves, they become habituated to the harsh tones of command & the sneer of reproach.— Their manners are seldom softened by terms of endearment: they are born women, but die more like fiends.— It will be more readily believed, when I state that Mr Earl has seen the stump of the joint, which was wrenched off in the thumb-screw which is not unfrequently kept in the house.—

The state of the enormous slave population must interest everyone who enters the Brazils.— Passing along the streets it is curious to observe the numbers of tribes which may be known by the different ornaments cut in the skin & the various expressions.— From this results the safety of the country. The slaves must communicate amongst themselves in Portugeese & are not in consequence united.— I cannot help believing they will ultimately be the rulers. I judge of it from their numbers, from their fine athletic figures, (especially contrasted with the Brazilians) proving they are in a congenial climate, & from clearly seeing their intellects have been much underrated.— they are the efficient workmen in all the necessary trades.— If the free blacks increase in numbers (as they must) & become discontented at not being equal to white men, the epoch of the general liberation would not be far distant.  I believe the slaves are happier than what they themselves expected to be or than people in England think they are.— I am afraid however there are many terrible exceptions.— The leading feature in their character appears to be wonderful spirits & cheerfulness, good nature & a “stout heart” mingled with a good deal of obstinacy.— I hope the day will come when they will assert their own rights & forget to avenge their wrongs.” (July 3)

On the positive side, Darwin has a lot of good things to say about the African slaves, praising their intelligence, leadership potential, and good nature. In this way Darwin really was speaking out for social justice, and humanizing the slave labor force.

I particularly like the last line – “assert their own rights & forget to avenge their wrongs”.  That is a powerful statement about forgiveness.  (RJV)


  1. One cannot forget that it was the descendants of these slaves that gave Brazil its fame in football and in music; the country two main reasons for pride.

    • Thanks Richard, and thanks also for the referrals today!
      For Beagle Project readers not familiar with it, take a look at Lost Samba – a great blog for learning about the culture (especially the music) of Brazil.

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