The Voyage of the Beagle – 1831-36

 

My previous post reviewed events and circumstances leading up to the sailing of HMS Beagle on December 27, 1831.  I drew heavily from the excellent introduction by Browne and Neve to their abridged version of the first (1839) edition of Darwin’s Journal of Researches.  They point out that for Charles Darwin the Beagle expedition was not so much a journey at sea as a voyage on land.  Of the nearly five years away from England, Charles himself spent only 533 days (18 months) at sea, the longest stretch being 47 consecutive days, and even that included many landings.  The usual sailing run was between eight and eighteen days.  This was fortunate for Charles, because he was always seasick!  Charles often could do nothing on board ship except lie down; nothing else would help.  In letters home, he made no secret of his growing hatred of the sea and all ships that sail on it.  It is hard to imagine how miserable he must have felt, not only physically but also from concern for what FitzRoy and the rest of the crew thought of his weakness.  FitzRoy worried in a report to the Admiralty that his guest would abandon ship at the first port of call.  It speaks volumes of Charles’s dogged persistence that he endured the agony of seasickness for all those 18 months at sea.

 

First Landfall in the Cape Verde Islands

 

The first sailing run from Plymouth to the Canary Islands must have been particularly awful for Charles – in winter seas, the shock of first reckoning with unexpected seasickness (Charles had had no problem on the three days sailing on a coastal ship from London to Plymouth to join the Beagle), and then the huge disappointment when the Beagle was denied landing rights at Tenerife in the Canaries because of local fears of English cholera.  Even before knowing of the Beagle and FitzRoy, Charles and friends had been inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative to plan a trip to the Canary Islands.

 

Then the weather and the mood improved as they moved on to tropical seas and the Cape Verde Islands, where they could finally go ashore.

 

The Cape Verde Islands are a former Portuguese colony a few hundred miles off the coast of Senegal in West Africa.  It is an arid, tropical archipelago of volcanic origin.  Here Charles discovered the beauty of a theory that explains reality.  Charles Lyell had published the first volume of his Principles of Geology in 1831, and FitzRoy had given Charles Darwin a copy as a gift, reflecting their common interest in new evidence and ideas in geology.  Henslow also urged Charles to study this book but warned him not to accept the views advocated by Lyell.  This was one of the few books Charles was able to take on the voyage; others that he mentioned in his Recollections were von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of his travels with Aimé Bonpland in tropical America, which shaped the content and style of his own Journal of Researches, and William Paley’s Natural Theology, which explained natural phenomena as evidence of God’s work in the world.  He also carried Milton’s Paradise Lost and other poems with him on the ship and always on his land journeys from the ship.  Of these four books, Lyell’s was the one that truly gave direction to Charles’s future thinking. 

 

Lyell’s “uniformitarian” theory of geological history immediately proved its utility to Charles as he puzzled over the origin of a layer of white rock that formed a horizontal stripe part way up and along the whole length of the low sea cliff that defines the eastern shore of the island of São Tiago.  In his Recollections, Charles described in detail only this observation during the voyage:  “… a stream of lava formerly flowed over the bed of the sea, formed of triturated recent shells and corals, which has baked into a hard white rock.  Since then the island has been upheaved.  But the line of white rock revealed to me a new and important fact, namely, that there had been afterward subsidence around the craters, which had since been in action, and had poured forth lava.”  Lyell proposed that the earth’s surface has been altered dramatically over time by gradual changes, each small in itself, which continue today as they have for millennia, if not millions of years – uniformity of process over time, in contrast to a constancy of the earth’s surface interrupted only by cataclysmic events caused by forces outside the earth’s normal system, such as the Deluge described in the Old Testament.  Lyell’s theory served better than the alternatives to help Charles come to his satisfying explanation of the history of São Tiago. 

 

Imagine the profound impact of discovering a theory with such satisfying power to explain the phenomena of the world around us.  Charles was one of the first young men to set out on a round-the-world natural history expedition with Lyell’s book under his arm, able to put its explanatory power to the test.  In effect, for Charles, the defining purpose of the voyage became his application of Lyell’s theory.  In the same paragraph as the observation above, he went on, “It then first dawned on me that I might perhaps write a book on the geology of the various countries I visited, and this made me thrill with delight.  That was a memorable hour to me, and how distinctly I can call to mind the low cliff of lava beneath which I rested, with the sun glaring hot, a few strange desert plants growing near, and with living corals in the tidal pools at my feet.”  He had encountered not only a new world but a new way of looking at the world.

 

Impact of the Wet Tropics

 

Charles must have found arid lands like the Cape Verde Islands quite inviting for geological theorizing, because the geology is uncloaked by vegetation or even soil in some places.  But Charles displayed a deeper, emotional response to the lush vegetation of the tropical forests of Brazil.  His first landing on the shore of South America was at Bahia, also known as San Salvador.  “Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.  Among the multitude of striking objects, the general luxuriance of the vegetation bears away the victory.”  And later at Rio de Janeiro, “In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.”  His journey then carried him for years into lands not nearly so appealing – the flat pampas of Uruguay and Argentina, the arid plains of Patagonia, the damp, cold forests and brooding peaks of Tierra del Fuego and the southern coast of Chile, the starkly arid coasts of northern Chile and Peru, and the equatorial, yet strangely dry, volcanic Galapagos Islands.  Only the spectacular Andes seemed to compete with the tropical forests for his enthusiastic affection.  

 

He did not see the luxuriance of the wet tropics again until he arrived in Tahiti, and there the luxuriance combined with precipitous mountains:  “On each hand the walls [of the ravine] were nearly vertical; yet from the soft nature of the volcanic strata, trees and a rank vegetation sprung from every projecting ledge.  These precipices must have been some 1,000 feet high: and the whole formed a mountain gorge, far more magnificent than any thing which I had ever before beheld.”

 

The Collaboration with FitzRoy 

 

While Charles lived and traveled ashore for long periods, FitzRoy and the Beagle crew spent long days and weeks cruising the coastal waters, making innumerable precise measurements – position fixes by the sun and the stars, chronometer readings, depth soundings, distance and elevation calculations – compiling a mountain of coastal survey data, from which FitzRoy and his lieutenants created detailed navigation charts and notes for the benefit of future generations of sailors.  It was exhausting work, as much or more for FitzRoy, who drove himself harder even than he drove his crew.  No doubt, Charles considered himself fortunate to miss, whenever he could, the tedious tacking of the ship to get the multitude of measurements at each location, plus FitzRoy’s fierce concentration on the work. 

 

In his Recollections, Charles wrote: “FitzRoy’s temper was a most unfortunate one.  It was usually worst in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could generally detect something amiss about the ship, and was then unsparing in his blame.  He was very kind to me, but was a man very difficult to live with on the intimate terms which necessarily followed from our messing by ourselves in the same cabin.  We had several quarrels …” He described one early in the voyage, in Brazil, where Charles reacted to the abomination of slavery (his Whig family, particularly on the Wedgwood side, were early, well-known abolitionists), which FitzRoy (a Tory aristocrat) rather lamely defended.  Charles made a sneering remark which enraged FitzRoy sufficiently that he evicted Charles from the cabin.  Charles thought he would have to leave the ship altogether, but reflecting Charles’s popularity with the crew, “all the gun-room officers” invited Charles to mess with them.  However, within hours FitzRoy had vented his anger sufficiently to show “his usual magnanimity by sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would continue to live with him.”  Charles went on to write that FitzRoy’s “character was in several respects one of the most noble which I have ever known.”  “… devoted to his duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, and indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway.  He would undertake any sort of trouble to assist those whom he thought deserved assistance.”

 

Fitzroy certainly counted Charles among those who deserved his assistance.  He and his crew cheerfully accommodated Charles’s messy collections of animals, plants, sea life, rocks, and fossils, which he spread out on the ship’s well-scrubbed deck for sorting, describing, labeling, preserving, and storing away for later shipment from a suitable port of call back to Professor Henslow in England.  A few times, notably in Patagonia, FitzRoy and Charles with others of the crew made expeditions inland to explore the hinterland.  In the five years of the voyage, he improved upon the fitness and experience gained from outdoor adventures in England, distinguishing himself with his comrades by his endurance and courage in these overland treks.  More often Charles traveled independently with locally acquired guides, sometimes with his servant, Sims Covington.  FitzRoy coordinated with Charles so that while the Beagle worked its way along the coast, Charles traveled inland, toward a pre-designated pick-up point and date. 

 

Protected by Gauchos and the British Network 

 

His longest trip overland was across the pampas in the company of gauchos, whom he came to admire for their independent life under the open sky, their survival skills, and their primitive dignity, superior in Charles’s opinion to the people of Buenos Aires and provincial towns of Argentina.  It was a challenging, dangerous trip, in the midst of a savage war with the indigenous people of the pampas, benefiting from the protection of General Rosas, protagonist of war against the Indians, then rebellion against the government, and later dictatorship of the country.  As an English naturalist, Charles was an object of local curiosity but also gracious hospitality.  With his poor ear for languages, Charles must have spoken Spanish with a terrible accent, but he no doubt became fluent enough to do business with and even charm the locals.  He managed, sometimes barely, to slip through the turbulence of the time to each of his destinations. 

 

It is important to remember that Charles, FitzRoy and the Beagle crew were hardly explorers in the same league as Captain Cook or Lewis and Clark.  Surely they tread on some ground never before seen by people of European origin, especially toward the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River in Patagonia.  For the most part, however, they were exploring for more detailed knowledge of coasts and countries already known to Europeans, even the English – for centuries in some parts of South America.  They benefited from a resident network of British citizens doing diplomatic, military, and commercial business.  In the larger cities, they entered into society similar in refinement to what they knew in England.  Charles even stayed for a few months in Valparaiso at the home of an English friend from school days. 

 

Charles was also in communication with home, especially his sisters and Henslow.  It might take a year or more for one exchange of letters, but the British network knew enough of the whereabouts and plans of the Beagle to make sure the letters eventually reached the ship.  Charles was aware of events in the scientific community in England; most important perhaps, he received the second and third volumes of Lyell’s Principles of Geology while still in South America, which Charles and FitzRoy both eagerly read.  Moreover, Charles’s letters and collections sent to Henslow began to create awareness of Charles as an emerging man of science, thanks to Henslow’s promotional efforts in England well before his return home.

 

In my next post, I will identify the most significant observations made by Charles over the five years of travel.  I have already mentioned the impact of his visit to the Cape Verde Islands, which set the stage for much of what came later.

 

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

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Welcome to DarwinWatch

This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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