Social etiquette required that Darwin be called ‘sir’ by junior officers as he was a guest and social equal of the captain. However it was not long before the amenable young man was known to the crew as ‘our flycatcher’, to the officers as ‘dear old philosopher’ (he was 22), and to FitzRoy as ‘Philos’.
After leaving Plymouth the ship touched in at Madeira, then called at Tenerife where a cholera epidemic prevented anyone going ashore.
Santiago, Cape Verde (Jan, 1832)
Darwin’s journal begins at the first major stopover which was Porto Praya on the island of St Jago (Santiago, Cape Verde islands) a volcanic island where the ship moored for 23 days. Here he was able to experience the tropical luxuriance of bananas, tamarinds, coconut trees and other palms – but it was the geology that would hold his attention.
Darwin was now familiar with the famous geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) which appeared in print the year before the Beagle set off. It was the most respected geology text of its day and a copy of volume one had been given to him by FitzRoy who knew the author, a creationist who believed in the immutability of species.
In the early 19th century geology was still extricating itself from the biblical story of creation in Genesis, the flood, Noah’s ark (Deluvianism), and the biblical timeframe that started in 4004 BCE. One school of thought, Neptunism, held that rocks were formed as strata settling out in water by sedimentation, the oldest being granite while newer layers contained fossils as a result of further flooding. In contrast Plutonism (Vulcanism), held that rocks were formed in fire, eroded by weathering and then re-formed and uplifted under heat and pressure, the whole process taking eons of time rather than the thousands of years assumed by biblical time-frames. It was only in the mid 19th century that geology began its escape from a literal interpretation of the bible and the story of the flood although there was general acceptance of three human phases of history based on the technological phases of stone, bronze and iron.
Scottish geologist and naturalist James Hutton had written in 1785 that ’no processes are to be employed that are not natural to the globe; no action to be admitted except those of which we know the principle’. He espoused Plutonism, and the radical view that the Earth was a super-organism. His dictum was the clarion call of ‘uniformitarianism’ whose later principle exponent was Charles Lyell. Lyells uniformitarian approach appealed to Darwin as he examined fossil shell deposits in the upper volcanic strata of the island and speculated on how the shell layer had been elevated so high by volcanic activity.
Brazil, Bahia (28 Feb.)
In South America the ship stayed at Fernando de Noronha for a day before putting into the Bay of All Saints in Bahia (Salvador), today’s eastern Argentina. It was one of the most memorable parts of the voyage for Darwin where for three weeks he was free to explore the delights of the Brazilian rainforest.
There was however a falling out between Fitzroy and Darwin fell out here as Darwin was appalled by the cruel treatment of black slaves while Fitzroy regarded this as a necessity of life. Darwin experienced FitzRoy’s temper when he grumbled about the inhumane treatment. FitzRoy’s temper was familiar to those aboard ship who passed it off as ‘hot coffee’. FitzRoy soon apologized to Darwin and the two were quickly on speaking terms again. Politically Darwin was from a liberal Whiggish background and with an abolitionist history while Fitzroy was a high Tory, a conservative traditionalist.
Rio de Janeiro (4 Apr.)
In Rio Darwin moved into a rented house at Botofogo from 26 April to 5 July spending three months absorbed in the bizarre tropical exuberance of plant and animal colour and form, collecting all the time while FitzRoy continued his charting.
Montevideo (26 Jul.)
There was then a short stay at Montevideo then on to Bahia Blanca where he was amazed by a find of fossilized bones. These bones threw up all sorts of questions about the history and age of the Earth and the different organisms that lived on it currently and in the past. Back aboard ship he explored his questions with Fitzroy whose literal interpretation of the Bible Darwin found exasperating.
In August the Governor of Montevideo asked Fitzroy to assist with a local uprising and Darwin eagerly joined the 52 sailors and marines armed with muskets and cutlasses to attack the fort occupied by the rebels but to his disappointment they surrendered peacefully.
Off Bahia Blanca (Aug.-Sept.)
On 19 August the first box of specimens was sent off to Henslow who had been instructed to hold them in store ready for Darwin’s return. Charting began off the Bahia Blanca coast which consisted of scrubby hills and pampas which Darwin explored on horseback with the gauchos (rugged half-caste Argentinian-Indian soldiers), eating ostrich eggs and roast armadillos. He learned with annoyance that the French government in its support for science had sponsored Alcide d’Orbigny to a six month expedition in the region (and six years overall) collecting specimens for the Paris Museum while Darwin himself was expected to pay privately for a similar brief privilege. But he was to be rewarded on 22 September when fossil bones of a giant megatherium were excavated from the Punta Alta cliffs.
Tierra del Fuego (Dec. 1832)
In Dec 1832 the vessel was in Tierra del Fuego where the sight of naked painted Fuegians set Darwin to musing about human origins. Two of their three Fuegians were, with some consternation, returned as ‘missionaries’ to their people, referred to by Darwin as ‘miserable degraded savages’. The aim was to establish a Patagonian mission led by English missionary Matthews and aided by the Anglicised Fuegians now named Jemmy Button,York Minster, and Fuegia Basket. Returning a year later in Apr. 1834 the mission had been abandoned with Matthews fearing for his life. York and Fuegia had moved to their ownpeople and Jemmy Button now near- naked again had married, declining an offer to return to England.
Trekking 500 km with gaucho cattlemen.
Into the Pacific (10 Jun. 1834)
Beagle sailed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific on 10 June with the west coast of South America looking unappealing as they put in to the main Chilean port of Valparaiso on 23 July.
Island Chiloé (Jan. 1835)
Off this island Darwin, spellbound, watched the eruption of Mt Osorno on the mainland discovering when, a few weeks later, they put into nearby Valdivia and Conceptión, a devastated landscape and being told that the eruption had been accompanied by the worst earthquake in a generation accompanied by a Pacific Tsunami. Then back to Valparaiso where Darwin in March climbed the western face of the Andes to about 4,500 m then downthe easternside of the Cordillera range. Having now read Lyells’s volume 2 he was musingon the effects of such a geographic barrier on the climate and composition of the vegetation, his thoughts challenged by the fossilized trees that he found in the rock at the tip of the Andean mountains and the possibility of totally different vegetation in the geological past. Before departing he made a last trek of about 700 km up the coast to the port of Copiapó where he was to meet up with the Beagle.
From Tierra del Fuego the ship sailed to a brief stop at the Falkland Islands before Darwin was left for three months at Maldonado travelling into the interior then packaging his specimens for dispatch back to England. Then putting in to El Carmen, the southernmost point of colonial presence in the pampas Darwin decided to trek in an armed party of six gauchos 1,000 km across the pampas to meet the ship at Montevideo. After journeying on the inhospitable coast and putting in to Valparaiso Darwin set back on a 6-week excursion on horseback studying the geology of the Cordilleras discovering shells and petrified pines in a region where earthquakes and eruptions were still evident.
The Beagle was a small vessel inadequate for some of its surveying tasks and while Darwin was trekking, Fitzroy had purchased a larger American vessel but without contacting the Admiralty. Eventually news came through that the purchased could not be supported throwing Fitzroy into a rage and despair, feeling he was losing control and telling his officers that ‘there was insanity in the family’. Eventually the ship was sold at a slight profit and Fitzroy calmed down the ship proceeding to the islands off the coast of Chile before putting in to Valdivia where Darwin experienced several earthquakes. Darwin left the Andes crossing the Cordillera by a high and dangerous route arriving in Mendoza on the other side feeling in great physical condition, then proceeding 700 km to Copiapo to meet up with Fitzroy now in good spirits having received a promotion to captain.
Moving on to Peru Darwin made a brief visit to Lima before they headed to the place Darwin had been looking forward to, the Galapagos Islands.
Here the ship sailed from island to island Darwin drinking in the exciting volcanic geological formations and observing how the animals were adapted to their local conditions. His most profitable time was spent on James Island (San Salvador) where he spent a week with four others admiring the giant tortoises, huge iguanas, and the range of finches whose beaks provided an interesting comparison with those on other islands, their form being a clear adaptation to their food source. These finches were to later feature in his argument for ‘natural selection’ in the Origin of Species although their significance was not appreciated at the time.
It was in the Galapagos that he first seriously entertained the idea of variation deriving from common ancestral forms; that is the mechanism of speciation. He was so excited by these ideas that he wrote to his sister saying that he was having difficulty in sleeping.
The main official work of the voyage was now complete and the men relaxed a little with only a few chronometric measurements left. From this point Darwin’s journal indicates travel fatigue and a desire to be back in England his dismissive remarks being even more marked than usual. The ship putting in to Tahiti where Darwin was disappointed by the women (now no doubt Europeanised in various ways), then on to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand where the Maoris did not make them welcome although Darwin especially noticed the quality of the colonial gardens. Missionaries had been in strong evidence in both stops and appeared to be giving some assistance.
Sydney & Hobart
Arriving in Sydney on 12 January 1836 Darwin felt proud of the rapid English progress and prosperity and he enjoyed pleasant strolls in the Botanic Gardens and Government Domain. There were now impressive large buildings and many others under construction although people were complaining about the cost of both houses and rent. Carriages with liveried servants were evident. He made several critical observations: in a city of about 23,000 people he noted that there was an idle class living off the labour of the convicts; there was tension between emancipists and free settlers; an absence of literature and a preoccupation with acquiring wealth; luxuries were plentiful and food cheaper than in England; the number of Aboriginals was rapidly declining and they appeared uncomfortable in their own land; animals like the emu and kangaroo were becoming scarce from the use of hunting dogs. While in the colony for about six weeks he rode over the Great Divide to Bathurst impressed with the macadamized road surface, especially through to Parramatta, and he enjoyed catching the sight of a platypus. It was clear to him that the lack of water would hamper future development.
Sailing on to Hobart the Aboriginals seemed in even worse condition and he did not really like Hobart town although the countryside appealed and he climbed to the top of Mount Wellington, admiring the tree ferns and noble eucalypts.
Then on to King George Sound in the west of the continent, a settlement of 30-40 small whitewashed cottages, where he experienced a Corroboree but all-in-all was happy to leave on March 14th. Darwin was tired of journeying and pleased to be setting off home: he had not seen the more biologically stimulating landscapes of the continent and Australia was not given a good report. Most of the places he visited he was pleased to leave behind but none more so than King George Sound and Australia ‘if he thinks, like me, he will never wish to walk again in so uninviting a country’. On leaving King George’s Sound Darwin wrote in his journal: ‘Farewell Australia, you are a rising infant and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South, but you are too great and ambitious for affection, not great enough for respect; I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.’ This remark should be taken in the light of his other journal comments: he was ‘glad to leave’ New Zealand, and later found the Cape Town area ‘the most uninteresting country he’d seen’.
In spite of this disdain some of his most important biological insights were made among the islands and continents of the Pacific and Indian Oceans.
The ship moved on to the Cocos Islands(Cocos Keeling) where Darwin theorized about the formation of coral reefs.
Cape of South Africa
Calling in at the Cape Fitzroy and Darwin visited Darwin’s student hero and FitzRoy’s acquaintance astronomer John Herschel. Between 1834 and 1838 he was cataloguing the stars and nebulae of the southern skies. Herschel who in England was highly respected and in much demand was happy to get away from his hectic life, regarded his time in Africa as probably the happiest time in his life as, taking a break from his astronomy, he and his wife Margaret shared the work of producing 131 delightful botanical illustrations of the Cape flora using a camera lucida to ensure the accuracy of the floral outline and dimensions., a compilation of the 112 best being published in 1996 as Flora Herscheliana.
Then on to Mauritius, St Helena, Ascension and, to Darwin’s disappointment, before returning to England Fitzroy steered once more to South America.
Finally the ship completed its voyage on 2 October 1836. Of the nearly five years away Darwin had spent three years and three months on land. Though travel-weary and keen to get back to England Darwin was consistent in his disdain. On his return he wrote ‘To my surprise and shame, I confess the first sight of the shores of England inspired me with no warmer feelings than if it had been a miserable Portuguese settlement . . . ’ Was he already thinking of further travel? It seems unlikely as he later admitted to his family ‘I loathe, I abhor the sea and all the ships which are on it’.