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Charles Darwin’s Voyage Of The Beagle

1915 words - 8 pages

Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle

A modern reader might be surprised to find that travel writings of the 18th century, books intended for the general public, featured specific scientific terms and precise descriptions of landmarks, species and resources. But how did it happen that “sentiment, imagination, and the graces have been banished” (Voltaire, Letter to Cideville) from 18th century literature? In her article “Science, planetary consciousness, interiors” author Mary Louise Pratt argues that the change in travel writing in the 18th century promoted a new type of planetary consciousness, thus triggering a shift in European colonial policies. In her subsequent article “Narrating the anti-conquest”, she argues that as travel writing evolved, so did colonial policies and she exemplifies the process by an examination of four travel writers of the era to show how travel writing changed. Pratt suggests that writing shifted from survival literature, focusing on coastal regions (an observing eye), through strictly descriptive accounts of interiors (a scrutinizing eye), to writing about the ways in which things could be improved (an improving eye). Forty years after Pratt’s last example of 18th century anti-conquest writing was published, Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle came out of press. The ethos displayed by Darwinian his journal, however, diverged from the anti-conquest ethos as modified by Pratt. Therefore, a close reading of Darwin, one of the most prominent 19th century authors of travel writing, could be used to suggest in what direction 18th century travel writing evolved.

What is specific about 18th century travel writing in particular? Pratt invents the term “anti-conquest” to describe how through the innocent act of seeing/writing, conquest was carried out. Pratt defines anti-conquest as “a utopian innocent vision of European global authority” (“Narrating”, 39). Pratt thus suggests that though it appeared innocent, travel writing in the 18th century initially triggered, and eventually served the imperial interests of European powers. In her article Pratt exemplifies this argument by drawing on the writings of Peter Kolb (1719), Anders Sparrman (1783), William Paterson (1789), and John Barrow (1801). From the close reading of these, Pratt constructs the contradictory ethos of the 18th century travel writer. Pratt points out that the authors, although surrounding themselves with “an aura not of authority, but of innocence and vulnerability” (“Narrating”, 56), used “a vocabulary of ego-centered lust and desire” (Narrating, 57). She suggests the presence of an attitude of human superiority over nature, combined with an attitude of European superiority over indigenous cultures. Pratt exemplifies how in 18th century travel writing the landscape became “impersonalized” for it was perceived in terms of geographical position, landmarks, species, and resources; and how eventually the writers’ attitude of European superiority toward...

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