Voyage Observations

Introduction to the first Danish translation of Darwin's Journal of Researches (chapters 18-20).

In 1870, Darwin’s work was translated into Danish for the first time. Extracts from chapters 18-20 of the 1860-edition of Voyage of the Beagle were published as Rejseiagttagelser (1835-36) [Voyage Observations (1835-36)]. By this time Darwin was already known among naturalists and the literary public as the founder of the theory of evolution by natural selection. In 1871 Jens Peter Jacobsen began his Danish translation of On the Origin of Species.

The translation of Rejseiagttagelser and its two-page introduction were published anonymously. In the introduction it was stated that the extracts had been selected in order to complete Captain Cook’s descriptions of Oceania. Moreover, it was emphasised that the extracts would give an impression of the transformations taking place when the superior white man drove out the aboriginals.

This short and inexpensive book was published by Udvalget for Folkeoplysningens Fremme [The Committee for the Advancement of General Enlightenment] in the popular series Folkelæsning [Everyman’s Reading]. The books in this series would normally cost 50 øre (about the hourly wage for an unskilled labourer) and sold up to 3,500 copies, a large number in Denmark in the 1870s. In 1881 the Committee sent out a second, unchanged edition. Accordingly Rejseiagttagelser was probably the most widely circulated of Darwin’s works in the nineteenth century, read by thousands of farmers and working-class people.

The Committee was founded in 1866 by the theologian Mattias Steenstrup (1822-1904), the brother of the naturalist Japetus Steenstrup. As Conservative Party member, Steenstrup devoted his life to the advancement of general education. By the end of the nineteenth century his Committee had published more than 200 books. Science was one of the popular topics, since Steenstrup regarded it as ‘safe knowledge’ during the constitutional struggle between the Conservative government and the Liberal opposition. Whereas the publication of On the Origin of Species would have been controversial due to its supposedly heretical ideas, it was perfectly safe for the Committee to publish the extracts from Voyage of the Beagle as part of the popular and entertaining genre of travel writings. Consequently, Steenstrup tried to make Darwin famous as a friendly explorer, while the Radicals at the same time used him as a weapon against Christianity and Conservatism.

Hans Henrik Hjermitslev