The Image of The Tropics

In 1832, while travelling on board the ship Beagle, Darwin spent 4 months in Brazil, partly in Bahia and partly in Rio de Janeiro. The latest became a melting pot of travellers, from pirates to scientists. The city was the capital as well as the stage for the beginning of scientific and intellectual movement. The Europeans who arrived in Rio were delighted with the tropical blends of our fauna and flora, whose colours and shapes differed so much from those of Europe.

However, there is a cruel side to the History of the City: it was the largest ever port to receive enslaved people in the Americas. Our collective memory on this period is shaped mostly by an iconography that kept the estrangement, and thus, tried to be more representative than critical. When coming to Brazil, Darwin had to face a harsh reality: the practice of keeping black people under the heart-breaking, oppressive and violent force of the slave rule, which, in Rio de Janeiro, took place right before our eyes.

“[…] had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro, as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. […] And these deeds are done and palliated by men who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that His Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.” 

— Charles Darwin, 

The Voyage of the Beagle, 1839

When Darwin was a child, the beetles were perhaps the first life form that caught his attention. His  famous collection had its beginning in Cambridge and some of his species can still be seen at the Cambridge Zoology Museum. On his voyage through Brazil, it took him just a day to collect several species of this group of insects.