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Darwin packed his allotted space with clothes, books, scientific equipment and taxidermy tools and rushed around between relatives and friends saying farewell, and expert scientist picking up tips and advice on collecting and cataloguing specimens. He was all set to go, but was frustrated by the weather as the launch date was repeatedly pushed back. Finally on the 27th December the gales subsided and FitzRoy bellowed to his crew to hoist sails and weigh anchor.

Hurling Across The Atlantic

After almost two months of delays and several false starts they were off, Darwin’s great voyage had begun. He immediately succumbed to sea sickness, which was to plague him for the whole of the journey. He could keep nothing down and had to remain horizontal for the first weeks. He lay, miserable, in his hammock re-reading travel books and doubting whether he had made the right decision to join the voyage.

Soon though, as the ship neared Tenerife, he was up and about and eager to get ashore. He had previously tried to arrange a trip to the island, but it fell through just before the Beagle letter arrived. He had read much about its flora and fauna, but was not to see it. On arrival the Beagle was ordered to be quarantined for 12 days due to a cholera outbreak and FitzRoy would not wait.

The Seeds of Gradualism

They pressed on. Darwin, keen to impress his shipmates set about doing what he thought a ship’s naturalist should do. He engineered a plankton net out of cloth and dragged it behind the ship, collecting and examining thousands of little creatures ‘exquisite in their forms and rich colours’. When not playing with his plankton, or riddled with seasickness Charles settled in to Lyell’s Principles of Geology. It was to be a most influential book, a gift from Henslow it differed greatly from the cataclysmic geology of his Cambridge Professors, arguing that the earth is shaped over eons by the slow processes which we can observe today. It was his first lesson in gradualism.

He didn’t wait long to put it into practice either. On 16th January the Beagle docked at St. Jago, an island 300 miles off the African coast. While the crew set about their charts Darwin relished in the exotic plants and animals and set about collecting as much as he could. What struck him most however was a white layer of compressed shells and corals 30 feet above sea level. For Darwin, it confirmed the truth of Lyell’s new geology – this rock was formed in the sea, but had been gradually raised to its current position. From here on Darwin viewed the earth and its processes in terms of gradual processes, culminating over millions of years; a pivotal development in his thinking.

The Beagle set sail on 8th February and headed for the equator, Darwin laid flat most days with seasickness felt like he was being ‘stewed in… warm melted butter’. Two weeks later they crossed the equator and reached St. Paul’s Rocks where Charles was subject to the traditional initiation ceremony to mark his first crossing of the equator. He was brought before FitzRoy, dressed as Father Neptune (Greek God of the Sea), was blindfolded, tossed into a sail full of water and smothered in paint. Darwin was now in the southern hemisphere, heading for South America.

A Chaos Of Delight

With Humbolt’s ‘glorious descriptions’ of his South American voyage lingering heavily in his thoughts, Darwin could not wait to land. When, on 28th February he first set foot on Brazilian soil at Bahia his mind was ‘a chaos of delight’. The Beagle worked its way round the coast of South America over the next 3 years; 3 years which showed Darwin many wonders of nature, and many curiosities of men.

But they started with a bang. Darwin was appalled at seeing how black slaves were treated by their owners; he always believed slavery to be evil. FitzRoy however was less troubled by it, and during one argument his temper (which was, as Darwin put it ‘an unfortunate one’) boiled over and Darwin felt obliged to leave the ship. Thankfully the other officers explained FitzRoy’s penchant for over reacting and sure enough FitzRoy quickly apologised.

From Bahia they sailed south towards Rio de Janeiro, where Charles rode hundreds of miles inland, into virgin rainforest, with some other British travellers. Here, in the thick jungle with all its millions of species, he was living a dream; in his diary he writes of being overcome by the beauty of nature, feeling a ‘sublime devotion’ to her ways;

‘Delight… is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest… to a person fond of natural history, such a day as this, brings with it a deeper pleasure than he ever can hope to experience again.’

He returned to Rio, and the Beagle set off back to Bahia to check its figures. Darwin stayed put, renting a cottage in Botafogo Bay and throwing himself into his work. He shot, trapped and preserved plant and animal specimens, took geological samples and made endless notes describing animal behaviour and what he saw: his first monkeys, parrots, hummingbirds and lizards. But amongst all this, Charles was captured by the undergrowth, flatworms and beetles, spiders, wasps and caterpillars. Writing home to Henslow he warned ‘tell Entomologists to look out and have their pens ready for describing’.

When the Beagle returned it brought sad news, three of the crew had died and the surgeon-naturalist Robert McCormick had quit; peeved at the preference the captain and crew gave to Darwin’s collecting over his. Darwin was now the official naturalist, and doing a thorough job.

Onward And Downwards

Continuing on into the winter they landed at Montevideo, on the way treated to luminescent micro-organisms and lightning storms. In Montevideo the Beagle was called upon to quell an insurrection against the local troops, Darwin joined the 52-man brigade in retaking the castle and town. Here he sent back to Cambridge the first of many crates of samples for inspection and further description. He was desperate that they were well received, but would hear little news on the matter for months to come.

Moving south the ship arrived in Bahia Blanca. Worried about his reputation at home he discovered the French collector Alcide d’Orbigny had been in the area for months, fearing all the notable specimens had been collected already he nonetheless scoured the land for fossils. What he found would make his name known in England; he discovered huge skulls of giant ground sloths called Megatherium, cow size armadillos called Glyptodons, “gigantic guinea pig” like animals (the size of rhinoceroses) called Toxodons and many other extinct fauna. These giant fossils were his most prized finds, they played a large part in getting his name known amongst scientists.

They were also important for his intellectual development; Darwin was intrigued why the fossils he found in an area seemed so similar to the living animals there now. Why were fossils of giant sloths only found in regions where sloths live now? To help him find out he didn’t just collect fossils but took detailed notes of the sediment they were buried in, trying to reconstruct the environment in which these giants lived. He also found fossils of horse teeth in the ancient rocks, yet no horses existed in the Americas that had not been brought there by westerners. Darwin was faced with the problems of extinction and species replacement, and thinking about his own solutions.

Round The Bend

The journey continued to the most southerly part of South America; Teirra del Fuego. It was here that Darwin met his first wild, native Fuegians. They greatly intrigued Darwin and confirmed his Victorian views of civilised man; ‘how entire the difference between savage and civilised man is - it is greater than a wild and domesticated animal… I believe if the world was searched, no lower grade of man could be found’. But against this he looked at FitzRoy’s ‘civilized natives’ – these savage men could be civilised… so what was the difference? Darwin was beginning to think about even people with a naturalists eye.

The ship dropped off the missionary and FitzRoy’s Fuegians and continued on its way to the Falkland Islands. Darwin was not impressed with this ‘cold and boisterous’ land but continued collecting and noting everything he saw. FitzRoy bought a second ship and the party sailed back North to Maldonado (near Buenos Aires) for it to be refitted. Here was Charles’ chance to explore the interior; equipped with guides he rode off into the endless green hills of the continent. He watched flocks of rheas and was intrigued by their sexual habits; the male incubates and protects the eggs and young of a multiple of females.

On his return after 2 weeks and 200miles on horseback he continued collecting en masse. Any species he saw he would sample, enlisting the help of the local boys and hiring the Beagle’s odd-job man Syms Covington from FitzRoy as his assistant. Darwin’s exuberant collecting and note taking wasn’t going unnoticed; the crew nicknamed him ‘the philosopher’ and he was regarded by the captain as ‘a very superior young man’. Another crate of specimens went off to Cambridge and the Beagle and its newly equipped sister ship the Adventure set sail to Patagones.

Rheas & Giants

At Patagones, Darwin left the ship to ride overland to their next scheduled stop. With permission from General Rosas (a striking Gaucho who captained an army which led a war of extermination against the Indians) he had free passage. He rode and naturalised by day, and at night slept under the stars, ate game he hunted, smoked cigars and drank Matte with his Gaucho companions. He struck upon another great fossil find; the complete skeleton of a horse-size anteater. Convington and Darwin lugged it back to Bahia to be collected by the ship but quickly set off again, riding 400 miles to Buenos Aires.

The next leg of the journey took the two ships south down the Patagonian coast, calling in at Port Desire. Charles heard of a small species of rhea which d’Orbigny had failed to obtain. Thinking he saw a chance to out manoeuvre the Frenchman Charles set about tracking the bird desperate to triumph where d’Orbigny failed. But, after a great deal of effort he too had no luck. That was until after one meal, cooked and prepared by a local gaucho, he realised he had just eaten one! He quickly rescued ‘the head, neck, legs, one wing, and a few feathers'. Darwin’s luck was in, with his giant fossils and miniature rhea, his specimens would be well received at home.

The rheas, like the giant fossils, also made a contribution to Darwin’s thinking. He was curious as to why the two rhea species, so similar but quite distinct, were found so close together – both endemic to South America. Yet their ranges did not overlap. It seemed a strange thing for a ‘creator’ to do! The environment did not seem to differ in their different ranges.

Around this time they also picked up mail, Charles finally heard back from Henslow; his giant fossils were the talk of British science – Darwin was on every scientist’s mind. He was exuberant; his collecting was going well, he was making a name for himself among respected men and was contributing to science.

The Earth Shook

The Beagle continued its mission mapping the coastline and Darwin continued his, detailing the natural world around him. It was now 1835, they had been away for 4 years. But there were still wonders to see, including a volcanic eruption at Mount Osorno and, dramatically, an earthquake in Valdivia.

Darwin had been resting on the floor of a forest when the quake started; it was so strong he couldn’t stand. After two minutes of tremors, Charles rushed back to port where he took in the devastation and pondered the consequences of such a quake occurring in busy London. 200 miles north at Concepcion the devastation was worse still, the town resembling an ancient ruin.

But amidst the chaos, Darwin kept his naturalist hat on and observed beds of muscles lifted above sea level by the earthquake – the land had risen, here was the process. If the land rose a few feet in one earthquake, perhaps thousands of earthquakes over vast stretches of time had pushed up the great Andes! Later Darwin found muscle beds hundreds of feet of above sea level. Lyell had been right, the earth was shaped by gradual forces over millions of years. Darwin had seen the proof of this, and it was to have great bearing on his thoughts.

In spring 1835, Darwin trekked 13,000 feet up into the peaks of the Andes. He was overwhelmed at the views he saw, but even at this altitude he collected, pocketing fossil sea shells from the snow covered rock. They continued on through the Andes and discovered yet more fossil treasures; a petrified forest at 7,000 feet and enough other specimens to fill two crates.

The voyage lurched on to Lima, Peru where still more beautiful sights awaited. This time it was the tapadas – the local women – that caught Darwin’s eye. They were more ‘worth looking at than all the churches and buildings in Lima’. The delicate politics of Peru left Darwin confined to the city for safety, and unable to collect he wrote up his geological notes on gradualism and fired letters home. Then came the end of the South American adventure, late summer saw them leaving across the Pacific – heading for the Galapagos Islands. Read on...

Written by Stephen Montgomery

References & Further Reading

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin
by Charles Darwin (Edited by Francis Darwin), The Thinker's Library: 1929

Charles Darwin
by Cyril Aydon, Robinson: 2003

Darwin
by John van Wyhe, Andre Deutsch: 2009

Darwin
by Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Penguin: 1991

Darwin: Discovering the Tree of Life
by Niles Eldredge, WW Norton & Co.: 2005

Evolution's Captain
by Peter Nichols, Profile Books LTD: 2003

Journal of Researches
by Charles Darwin, 1839 (any edition)

The Life of Charles Darwin
by Francis Darwin, Senate: 1995 (1902)