rarely read fiction anymore having overdosed on it in my teen years thus becoming somewhat inoculated against its charms; but here I was, desperate for something to read, and there it was, sitting on a makeshift bookcase in my hotel room in Cabarete in the Dominican Republic. This book belongs to a genre known as historical fiction. As I picked it up, leafing casually through the prologue and the blurbs, getting the feel of it, trying it on for size, it came to the back of my mind, that the term historical-fiction brushes up very intimately to the oxymoron; either a work is historical, or is fiction; are they not mutually exclusive? It is supposed by many, that “pure” history is too boring for most people, and needs to be “sauced up” so as to make it more palatable, make the story accessible and, of course, make more money. Yet here is Mr. Darwin’s Shooter and I am at winter’s-end with little to choose from here, so I began reading.
Mr. McDonald’s story, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter, concerns a fellow named Syms Covington, a boy-man who eventually became Charles Darwin’s “shooter” of specimens, and general servant during Darwin’s voyage around the world in the good ship “Beagle”. Covington came to have the job of shooting birds and animals, gathering bones and fossils, and generally waiting upon Mr. Darwin throughout a five-year voyage that would make Darwin’s reputation, while leaving Covington for the most part anonymous. Mr. McDonald supposes that this lack of public acknowledgment grates on Covington, thus providing one aspect of the tension beloved of the writers of fiction. And there is more; he ascribes all sorts of feelings to Mr. Covington that in the main could not likely be known to anyone even if true, perhaps not even to Covington himself, pictured to the left. Yet he also sees Covington as religious in principle, if not always in practice, and imagines him to be obsessed with the logical conclusion of Darwin’s work; that there is no God, no afterlife, no anything—to the point of having Covington worry that he will be thus associated with the destruction of God if he is acknowledged by Darwin in his book. If
Thus Covington, as seen by McDonald, wants to have his cake and eat it as well, providing another, and rather peculiar, point of tension used to hype-up a story which is otherwise quite interesting all on its own.
In a manner of speaking Mr. McDonald simply uses Darwin, and The Beagle as a backdrop for a set of stories that throws his particular light on an era and a set of people and places. But what stories! They are, to my way of thinking, and if one can overlook the artificiality of his stage, brilliant evocations of these things, many of which, it seemed to me, were quite close to the truth. I was impressed. That Mr. McDonald is Australian and has a firm command of the English language adds a great deal to the remarkable vignettes, playing in front of this backdrop, of which this book largely consists.
As McDonald’s story begins, we see Simon (Syms) Covington, born in 1809, as a young boy of perhaps eight or so. He’s the son of a horse butcher, with several rough, tough and fun-loving older brothers, and a loving, God-fearing father—though perhaps a rather fierce one for our time. The father and brothers work hard at a nasty, bloody job, butchering live horses that are too old or too feeble to go on. The father kills them with a great knife and then they go about cutting-up the meat for sale on market day. Syms’s job on market day, as youngest brother, was to help some with the meat cutting, but mainly to clean up the bloody mess afterward. And so it is unsurprising that the father and the older boys also have a fine taste for strong ale when they have the money for it after the sale.
Two things struck me about this part of the book: the first was the evocative description McDonald gives of the poverty and crudeness that existed in those times:
[His father, after market day] liked to call [Simon] over and hold his head back in a playful grip, trickling the bitter ale into his mouth and down his chin. Their people, he liked to boast, were Bedford [England] notables in the time of Oliver Cromwell and their line went back past 1199, when they owned half a virgate of land. “Of all the children of my bowels, Simon is the one that God has chosen to better his self, and lucky for us and ours.” His brother’s passed the boy the ale-pot in the same rough animal-play. After drinking it down companionably, and staggering around to make them laugh, Covington returned to his sweeping with a light head. The others stood in shabby doorways, with their shirt collars open, their belts loosened and slippery [with blood] leather laces dangling. They were ready to kick their boots off and go crawling in a corner when they were too drunk to stand. But it would be a good long while before they were felled. Something about the Covington’s recalled the animals associated with primitive man. The barely domesticated. … They were dirty-fisted hard-working men given to their pipes, their loud opinions… Being horse butchers they were lower-placed than those who dealt with finished hides. But Covington never felt shame and pity for them, while they were mired in blood they remembered they had souls, and Covington was of them truly—except that if he was to spend his whole life around them he would never find what he wanted.
Covington’s mother had died when he was quite young and his father remarried a woman whom the boy loves dearly; he has only the slightest memory of his real mother. Peculiarly, for our time, to the father and the children the father’s new wife remains Mrs. Hewtson, adhering to name of her first husband, one’s first marriage seemingly irrevocable. Covington had another, and finer, fulltime job as a scribe for a tanner of hides. He knew English very well and had exceptional penmanship, when that term literally meant using quill pens dipped into an ink bottle.
A temporarily unemployed sailor, wondering rough about Bedford and its environs, takes a liking to the boy who has by now become unemployed as the hide shop has closed. John Phipps is an on again-off again employee of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy, a Top Foresail man (the roughest job on a sailing ship). He seems to like young boys. It is never made quite clear whether this is simply for its own sake, but the implication is that he collects young boys to serve on Her Majesty’s ships, for which no doubt he gets a finder’s fee. As with the Jesuits, The Royal Navy seemed to have discovered that when you get them young, they are yours forever. Phipps is a catechizer and something of an Evangelizer, teaching the boys the proper refrains to the catechism he has learned.
The small group of young boy selected by Phipps seem to have no parents, they’re just wild kids trying to get enough to stay alive, begging, messing around and entertaining. But Covington does have parents and, as free-wheeling as old England seems, it is in fact bound by certain laws; since Syms has parents it is required that Phipps approach them and obtain the father’s consent before the boy can travel overland with the small group to the sea to be inducted into the navy. This seems to take but little urging, and Syms’s willingness to go makes the deal happen smoothly. The father loves the boy, but he recognizes that he is a little different than the older boys, and especially that while remaining at home he is another mouth to feed. His parting words: “When you get to your ship, then I believe there will be no stopping you.” And so it is that sailorman John Phipps and his young entourage begin the trek overland to Her Majesty’s navy yard, where Covington quickly adapts to his new trade.
Covington is classified aboard ship as Cabin Boy and Fiddler. He seems to have a knack for the fiddle, and such simple music as that, solo, and to accompany singing and sea chants, of which the book contains several, must have given a big lift to the spirits of all aboard during the many calm days without radio or television or any of our other modern entertainments. To some extent it must also have given them a certain cohesion as a family. Church services on Sunday, given by the Captain, with mandatory attendance, fed the same needs. McDonald’s descriptions of life aboard ship with a rigorous class system of officers, men, and boys struck me as perfectly plausible.
The ship is about 90 feet long with about 20 feet of beam, great masts and cross trees, sail and rigging and chains all about. Aboard there are some 90 souls, which of course means living close and in great intimacy, class-by-class. My father’s boat, the Bug-Eye, which he built himself, was 45 feet long with 12 feet of beam, and it seemed crowded with four people living in it. The author has the class system just about perfectly painted; a combination of rigorous hierarchy, yet not without its inter-class and even cross-class human feelings. Imagine living this closely in a small wooden ship together, often for a period of years (a full five years in the case of the Beagle’s Darwin voyage), all aboard were commonly besieged by the weather and the often dangerous work, sharing the risks, the tedium, the rare port calls, and on and on.
I cannot help but think that McDonald’s depiction of life aboard ship, as a sort of a peculiar family, but quite a genuine one in its way, is correct. And I think this would be especially true in respect of the boys; though treated as servants, and certainly they were, and subject to the strictness of navy life, there was nevertheless an aspect of family in this small, frail, enclosed territory devoid of women. McDonald subtly handles the question of homosexuality aboard ship; there are certainly sufficient hormones among the young crew. He has one sailor express the naval law against “buggery”, the punishment for which is hanging. Yet, they were very close together… This was, it seems to me, eloquently treated by the author; it had a ring of truth to it, and the very vagueness with which it was treated in the book only added silently to the way it must in fact have been handled aboard ship.
They were starting to be sailors and Covington felt pride in his new craft. As their Sea-Daddy John Phipps oversaw the boys cleanliness and their clothes, teaching them to cut out jackets, shirts and sailcloth trousers, and to sew and to wash it all in a sea-bucket, and to mend their clothes as neatly as apprentice tailors might.
Phipps was a great one for avoiding any show of favorites, although Covington had a vanity that he was the one. If he [Covington] played ‘To Be A Pilgrim’ in the key of G on his fiddle, low as a bullfrog growling, it brought tears to Phipps’s eyes. Their special closeness was Covington’s secret and at first it made him proud, then careless, then itchy at the restrictions. For he grew past the conceit Phipps’s had that they were all his honest Pilgrims. Covington had too much blood in his body: it pounded him along.
It was complicated.
They sail west, and south as far as one can go, nearing Antarctica and around Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia—a very rough sailing area. The English are now unchallenged on the sea and the missions of the ships to which Covington has been assigned are largely aimed at exploring the eastern shore—the Atlantic side—of the entirety of South America. They make soundings, chart small islands, locating their latitude with a sextant and their longitude with the help of the ship’s chronometer; they survey bays and anchorages and record such other information as the Royal Navy requires. These are not fighting ships, though these still exist; these ships are information seekers. Today one could see electronic databases being filled in, global positioning systems telling their tales, but in those days logs and map notations did the service, and there was quite a need for transcription of rough notes, at which Covington excelled.
After several of these voyages, a now more experienced Covington, though still a cabin boy, ships aboard the Beagle, in part the same sort of explorer ship, but with the novel addition of Charles Darwin, a young naturalist (nearly 23) with a very rich father who has contributed financially to the mission. These are all young men; Captain FitzRoy, who commanded the Beagle, entered the navy at age 12 and became captain at age 23. The upper class made their way to officers and the lower classes to sailors and ship’s boys. While I have read of some cross-class promotions, they were apparently rare. To our way of thinking today, these were ships full of boys. Covington was considered an old man when, a few years after the voyage of the Beagle, he emigrated to Australia; he was then 42. (The chart here, from Wikipedia, supports this information and seems to me rather startling—what was it about the Bronze Age?)
Mr. Darwin initially dines in the Captain’s cabin, but they have a falling out over slavery; Darwin’s against it while the captain is for it. So Darwin (with his liberal background) removes himself to the poop deck, an even more crowded space in the aft. Covington wants to get ahead, and he tries to get noticed by Darwin. Finally he does, though Darwin writes to his sister of Covington: “My servant is an odd sort of person. I do not very much like him; but he is, perhaps from his very oddity, very well adapted to my purposes.” (I suppose no pun was intended by his use of the term adapted) Darwin is upper class, though frugal, and, in an upper class manner, quite modest and self-effacing, yet class is class. What Darwin didn’t like about Covington was that in subtle ways he didn’t seem to know his place; he kept wanting to learn the things that Darwin could teach him, and on occasion he voiced his own opinion on matters. Darwin eventually got used to it and admired the boy’s energy, skill and most especially his willingness to work.
The first port of call is in Bahia, Brazil. This is a place that I wish to visit but never have, and now probably won’t. It is what might be called “Black Brazil”. And it is famous still today, as it was then, for its music, food and women, all came with a distinctive African flavor. It was, in the 1800s, the center of the black African slave trade, though The Beagle was not there for that. (The Royal Navy in fact led the modern world in abolishing the trading of slaves by sea.) Bahia was then quite a small place. In the book it was depicted as full of slaves on the day of the Beagle’s port call when Covington, now nearly fully grown, has shore leave. This is another part of the book in which I thought the author distinctively captured the flavor of how the place must have been in those primitive days:
This was a night when slaves ran free all over the town. … At the far back of the town he was sent cowering Into a stone doorway by a great rainstorm. The drops were as big as silver eggs, breaking with a splash. … The place [a cow barn] was lit by lanterns. All around, some standing, some with legs on rough benches, were gangs of mulatto youths wearing bandannas, loose shirts and piratical pantaloons. They bade Covington welcome, and one he saw played a small four-stringed guitar like a ukulele, and one rattled a hand drum, and one tapped with a stick, and one had the face of a pug-dog: and that was the one who sang; and she was the ugliest wench Covington ever saw; but he must have been bewitched, because the voice that welled from her made his chest swell and his eyes water as if he knew all love in that instant, and would every time she groaned her passion. She was a dwarf who minted gold with every hard note she pushed with her breath, and between rounds drank from a goatskin of vinho sangorino [red wine]. … And her thumbs were double-jointed and very long-nailed. … Covington did not like her game. It made him combative. One of the youths began to glare at him and mutter harm. It seemed Covington had displaced a favorite, the boy who played the cava-quin-ho, which name they gave to their wailing ukulele.
Perhaps somewhat overwrought, but perhaps not. These were different days and Bahia, I understand, is very much bigger now, an entire region of great Brazil, yet it retains an aspect of carnival and strangeness, and I have no doubt that it could be dangerous in places even today. Covington ended his shore leave there by being pushed down over a steep bank by the Africans and being some injured. This is an instance of the benefit of “historic fiction”, as well as illustrating clearly its drawbacks; it illustrates the authors imaginings which clearly add to the intensity of the story and may even be realistic, but it cannot possibly be termed “history”.
Covington finally secures his place as Darwin’s servant. So far he has not shot a gun in his life. According to the author Darwin is impressed by his penmanship and get-up-and-go, general intelligence, and even perhaps the very thing that annoys him, Covington’s curiosity. Plus, Darwin is reluctant to take a genuine sailor, such as Phipps’s, from the Captain’s somewhat overstrained work force. In any case, the deal is done and Covington becomes Darwin’s full-time servant.
They keep sailing south and eventually reach the Rio Plata (Silver River), which separates Uruguay from Argentina at Buenos Aires. This is a very muddy river, caring soil from the Argentine pampas, and even from as far north as Brazil; it is very wide at its mouth. The river is easily 150 miles across from Buenos Aires, Argentina to Montevideo, Uruguay [map], where it widens just as it enters the Atlantic. I once had occasion to cross this river in quite a large and yet amazingly fast boat. An experience I will never forget.
Darwin and Covington separate from the boat for a short time; they camp-out together and Covington gets his first shooting lesson. He blasts a small bird so thoroughly that it is useless as a specimen; he needs to learn to use the appropriate kind of shot and the correct amount and type of powder. Darwin instructs him in the proper procedure for specimens, which is not to aim directly at the target with the shotgun, but to aim slightly off-center, with the hope of just grazing a bird with a pellet or two. Animals here, and everywhere they went, seemed plentiful, and not very skittish. Eventually, instead of pellets, they came to use powdered mustard in the front-loading guns, which seems most effective in stunning small birds—their hearts just stop from the shock of the mustard, which leaves the skin, feathers and head intact, and especially the eyes which seem to be important to naturalists.
Here is where Covington becomes a master skinner, or taxidermist, of small birds and other animals. He turns the skins and feathers of birds inside out, as one might peel a thin leather glove off one’s hand backwards. Then the flesh, even the inside of the head and brains, are discarded; the skin, beak, and feathers and legs are what is wanted. The author implies that Covington’s skill in this peculiar craft has something to do with his father’s trade, skinning and butchering horses, and not being at all timid with blood and gore; after a while he has Covington bragging that he can do 14 small birds an hour whereas Darwin himself can do only nine. And there is more to the job than just obtaining specimens; they must be properly tagged, and notations made as to the location and the surroundings, and dates and other information that naturalists require to make sense of the specimens. Covington was said to be remarkably good, better than Darwin, at this esoterica. The author also implies that Covington began gathering specimens of his own, and had an agent in Buenos Aires who sold them for him on the side.
After Covington’s training—he now knows what to look for and what to do with it—he and Darwin separate, Covington to go up into Argentina’s pampas, where hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of cattle were being raised and exported to the world. Buenos Aires was once a very rich city on that account, and to visit it today is to see still its faded glory; it’s a classy place, but somewhat rundown at the heels is today an accurate metaphor. Covington mission is to look for small birds while Darwin goes further north in search of bones and fossils that interest him. This is a protracted separation—some months—and Covington collects hundreds of specimens for Darwin—and some for himself.
Buenos Aires at this time, sometime in the early 1800s, was surrounded by opposing armies, and it took some fancy footwork to enter or leave the city. It was never made quite clear just who was fighting whom, but it seems that Los Indios (the aboriginal Indians in the pampas) were being wiped out entirely in quite a brutal operation, but there was certainly more to it than that, though it is not explained. The author characterizes the Argentineans most accurately in my view, especially the caballeros (horsemen), who are full of pride, admire guns and knives, and adore horses. But it is their flightiness, quickness of temper, and love to show-off that rang a bell for me; the Argentineans are still like that, witness their recent attempts to: take the Falkland islands from the British; to screw-over the International financial community; their general tendency toward demagogy, and to subsequently idealize the very demagogues that got them in trouble in the first place. I think especially of the outré example of Juan and Imelda Marcos, not even to mention the present government. And if you think of the tango as simply a nice, if sexy, dance, you are mistaken; the tango is an acting out of this volatile Argentinean culture of guns and knives and fighting. The author, McDougall, had to have been there; he has characterized the Argentines perfectly as I saw them myself.
The book is arranged in what are termed Books, and within them sections, or chapters. The second book jarringly moves us in a flash from the young Covington, learning his business, to an old Covington, of 42, who has emigrated to Australia. The next book, the third, takes us back to where the first book left off. And subsequent books continue this shifting back and forth. I found this annoying and would have preferred a linear tale. While sometimes this technique has its advantages, I don’t believe that this was one of those times. I think the reason for this shifting is fundamentally that the author is Australian, and knows something about the country. As a result, he quite naturally wishes to write about things that he knows something about. But it seems to me that he could have done the same thing, saving the Australian bits for the end.
It seems that after the Beagle returned with Darwin from its five-year voyage, Darwin hired Covington to help straighten out and catalog all the thousands of specimens that were brought back from the trip. This lasted for two years after which he got the so-called “golden guinea” (severance pay), which is to say his services were terminated. As a part of the process Darwin took the time to write a letter of recommendation in which he said that Covington had been “perfectly satisfactory,” and at the end “generally useful, prudent, economical, and never once seen in the least degree affected by any spirituous liquor and trustworthy in the highest degree.” This, it seems to me, expresses more perfectly the traditional and actual relationship between Darwin and Covington, which the author I believe has made a great deal more of than the facts warranted.
Next, Covington emigrates to Australia where he becomes a postmaster. McDonald pictures Covington in Australia as a rather rich gent, with some thousands of acres of land. It would be interesting to find out if this were, in fact, the way it was. The diaries of Covington, of which some fragments have been found—and in fairness to the author, some only after his book was written—do not seem to support this fanciful life in Australia. Though the letter to the right from Darwin to Covington, thanking him for collections that Covington kept sending to Darwin from Australia, certainly shows a sincere friendship between them. It is interesting to see Darwin, a very rich man, worrying about his children, whom he wishes to have careers of their own, and, as it appears, there is little to be found in England, no matter that they were each to be funded with considerable capital. Darwin wonders whether they might be better off in one of the colonies, or perhaps he is just flattering Covington for having emmigrated.
The description of Covington’s life in Australia as a nearly deaf old man (too much shooting near the ears) who has learned rudimentary lip-reading was, as it seemed to me, yet more of the author’s wishing to tell us of his country, an understandable desire, but one that did not have the realism or the verisimilitude exhibited to great effect in other parts of the book.
A Dr. MacCracken, who seems to have performed an emergency appendectomy on Covington in Australia, is slyly coerced into marrying one of Covington’s illegitimate daughters who was pro created in Buenos Aires with a handsome young woman whom Covington was escorting from the pampas for her marriage to an Argentinean officer in Buenos Aires.
Covington has many other sons and daughters to a rather unbelievable, and rather dowdy, Australian woman, part housekeeper, part wife. These children live on his ranch in the outback, unsupervised, and they are nearly wild. Covington comes to think of MacCracken as his son, and one that can explain to him the meaning of Darwin’s book, The Origin of Species. A little more angst to hype-up the history.
On the whole, it was a very good book to read; it did the job I needed done. I gobbled it down quickly and was, for the most part, delighted with it.