Open main menu

Page:Popular Science Monthly Volume 38.djvu/273

This page has been proofread, but needs to be validated.
261
ADELBERT VON CHAMISSO AS A NATURALIST.

him, and, in the north, he furnished valuable data concerning the relationship of the Asiatic Chuckches and the American Eskimos.

The general result of his studies of history and nature, as he expresses it, is again opposed to the views now prevailing, in that he regarded man as very young on this old earth. But, although his anthropological views seem to be in many respects antiquated, his ethnographical sketches are of exceeding value in that he has lovingly and carefully given us a vivid and picturesque view of human conditions on the oceanic islands that can never be surpassed, for the simple reason that the original is irrecoverably lost. With prophetic view Chamisso predicted the annihilation of this endlessly charming culture by contact with the dreadful white man—a prediction which has been already to a large extent fulfilled. He knew well what he was doing when he described, drew, and made memorable what he could of customs and usages, religious ideas and superstitions, myths and songs, costumes and weapons, vessels and sea-tackle. And after his return he repeated, impressively and loudly, the advice that the threatened treasures that still remained should be saved at once. The poet is recognized in the pretty parable in which he clothed his lamentation: "All the keys to one of the most important problems which the history of the human race in its wanderings over the earth presents to us are being thrown by ourselves into the sea of oblivion at the very hour when they are given into our hands." Only in very recent times, when it has become almost too late, have we begun to move in the direction pointed out by his admonition.

Perhaps Chamisso was influenced by some of Rousseau's ideas in his extravagant admiration of the handsome, happy, easy-going men of the south sea islands, particularly of the Radak chain. He had not words enough to praise the native nobility of the men and the chaste grace of the songful women of Radak. He bitterly condemned the silly arrogance of the sham civilization that called these men savage. He contracted what by the taste of these days would be regarded as a somewhat sentimental friendship with an especially intelligent man, a castaway on one of the Radak Islands, who trusted himself upon the Rurik to be taken to his home on one of the Caroline Islands. Kadu, as he was called, who, however, left the ship when it touched the Radak Islands for the last time, plays an important part in Chamisso's reports, because he was able to give him information not too easily obtained otherwise on a number of questions, and Chamisso laments that he was deprived by the separation of the opportunity of being further instructed by him. Kadu rendered inestimable service in the linguistic researches which Chamisso pursued with extraordinary zeal and industry. Chamisso had a gift for languages, although