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.