The Voyage of the Beagle – Day 158 of 164

178. Among these few insects I was surprised to find a small Aphodius (nov. spec.) and an Oryctes, both extremely numerous under dung. When the island was discovered it certainly possessed no quadruped excepting perhaps a mouse: it becomes, therefore, a difficult point to ascertain, whether these stercovorous insects have since been imported by accident, or if aborigines, on what food they formerly subsisted. On the banks of the Plata, where, from the vast number of cattle and horses, the fine plains of turf are richly manured, it is vain to seek the many kinds of dung-feeding beetles which occur so abundantly in Europe. I observed only an Oryctes (the insects of this genus in Europe generally feed on decayed vegetable matter) and two species of Phanæus, common in such situations. On the opposite side of the Cordillera in Chiloe another species of Phanæus is exceedingly abundant, and it buries the dung of the cattle in large earthen balls beneath the ground. There is reason to believe that the genus Phanæus, before the introduction of cattle, acted as scavengers to man. In Europe beetles which find support in the matter which has already contributed towards the life of other and larger animals, are so numerous that there must be considerably more than one hundred different species. Considering this, and observing what a quantity of food of this kind is lost on the plains of La Plata, I imagined I saw an instance where man had disturbed that chain by which so many animals are linked together in their native country. In Van Diemen’s Land, however, I found four species of Onthophagus, two of Aphodius, and one of a third genus, very abundant under the dung of cows; yet these latter animals had been then introduced only thirty-three years. Previous to that time the kangaroo and some other small animals were the only quadrupeds; and their dung is of a very different quality from that of their successors introduced by man. In England the greater number of stercovorous beetles are confined in their appetites; that is, they do not depend indifferently on any quadruped for the means of subsistence. The change, therefore, in habits which must have taken place in Van Diemen’s Land is highly remarkable. I am indebted to the Reverend F. W. Hope, who, I hope, will permit me to call him my master in Entomology, for giving me the names of the foregoing insects.

St. Helena, situated so remote from any continent, in the midst of a great ocean, and possessing a unique Flora, excites our curiosity. The eight land-shells, though now extinct, and one living Succinea, are peculiar species found nowhere else. Mr. Cuming, however, informs me that an English Helix is common here, its eggs no doubt having been imported in some of the many introduced plants. Mr. Cuming collected on the coast sixteen species of sea-shells, of which seven, as far as he knows, are confined to this island. Birds and insects,178 as might have been expected, are very few in number; indeed I believe all the birds have been introduced within late years. Partridges and pheasants are tolerably abundant; the island is much too English not to be subject to strict game-laws. I was told of a more unjust sacrifice to such ordinances than I ever heard of even in England. The poor people formerly used to burn a plant which grows on the coast-rocks, and export the soda from its ashes; but a peremptory order came out prohibiting this practice, and giving as a reason that the partridges would have nowhere to build!

In my walks I passed more than once over the grassy plain, bounded by deep valleys, on which Longwood stands. Viewed from a short distance, it appears like a respectable gentleman’s country-seat. In front there are a few cultivated fields, and beyond them the smooth hill of coloured rocks called the Flagstaff, and the rugged square black mass of the Barn. On the whole the view was rather bleak and uninteresting. The only inconvenience I suffered during my walks was from the impetuous winds. One day I noticed a curious circumstance: standing on the edge of a plain, terminated by a great cliff of about a thousand feet in depth, I saw at the distance of a few yards right to windward, some tern, struggling against a very strong breeze, whilst, where I stood, the air was quite calm.

Approaching close to the brink, where the current seemed to be deflected upwards from the face of the cliff, I stretched out my arm, and immediately felt the full force of the wind: an invisible barrier, two yards in width, separated perfectly calm air from a strong blast.

I so much enjoyed my rambles among the rocks and mountains of St. Helena that I felt almost sorry on the morning of the 14th to descend to the town. Before noon I was on board, and the Beagle made sail.

On the 19th of July we reached Ascension. Those who have beheld a volcanic island situated under an arid climate will at once be able to picture to themselves the appearance of Ascension. They will imagine smooth conical hills of a bright red colour, with their summits generally truncated, rising separately out of a level surface of black rugged lava. A principal mound in the centre of the island seems the father of the lesser cones. It is called Green Hill: its name being taken from the faintest tinge of that colour, which at this time of the year is barely perceptible from the anchorage. To complete the desolate scene, the black rocks on the coast are lashed by a wild and turbulent sea.

The settlement is near the beach; it consists of several houses and barracks placed irregularly, but well built of white freestone. The only inhabitants are marines, and some negroes liberated from slave-ships, who are paid and victualled by government. There is not a private person on the island. Many of the marines appeared well contented with their situation; they think it better to serve their one-and-twenty years on shore, let it be what it may, than in a ship; in this choice, if I were a marine, I should most heartily agree.

The next morning I ascended Green Hill, 2840 feet high, and thence walked across the island to the windward point. A good cart-road leads from the coast-settlement to the houses, gardens, and fields, placed near the summit of the central mountain. On the roadside there are milestones, and likewise cisterns, where each thirsty passer-by can drink some good water. Similar care is displayed in each part of the establishment, and especially in the management of the springs, so that a single drop of water may not be lost: indeed the whole island may be compared to a huge ship kept in first-rate order. I could not help, when admiring the active industry which had created such effects out of such means, at the same time regretting that it had been wasted on so poor and trifling an end. M. Lesson has remarked with justice that the English nation would have thought of making the island of Ascension a productive spot, any other people would have held it as a mere fortress in the ocean.

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