Tag Archives: beagle voyage

The great Darwin fossil hunt

It's a question which has troubled some of the finest minds of our age: what do you get for the only self-confessed Darwin groupie in your life when they hit the Big Five-O?

Shortly after my partner, Jen, and I returned home from a week-long holiday in Venice celebrating my 50th birthday, I received a phone call from my friend beyond compare, Stense. It turned out that she had been organising a special birthday treat for me. Stense is good at that sort of thing. A few weeks later, having travelled down from Yorkshire and Scotland in the early hours, the two of us met outside the Natural History Museum in London. After a quick exchange of hugs and good to see yous, we hurried through the visitors' entrance to meet Dr Martin Munt, Head of Palaeobiology Collections at the Department of Earth Sciences. Stense had arranged for Martin to show us some fossils collected by none other than Charles Darwin—many of them on the Beagle voyage. Have I got the best friends in the world, or what?

After viewing a few non-Darwinian fossils described by one of the legendary-in-fossil-describing-circles Sowerbys, we headed off towards the barnacles section. As Martin led us through the maze of filing cabinets, I explained to Stense how a throwaway remark by Darwin's own friend beyond compare, Joseph Dalton Hooker, had inadvertently touched a raw nerve. In a letter to Darwin in 1845, Hooker had described a certain French scientist, who had made some howler in a recent paper, as ‘no Botanist’; a man who ‘[did]not know what it is to be a specific Naturalist himself’. Darwin had long worried that, as he had not established his biological credentials by studying any group of species in depth, his as-yet-unpublished species theory would not be taken seriously. Hooker's throwaway comment was to launch Darwin on an eight-year study of living and extinct barnacles. The books he wrote are still the definitive books on the subject.

We arrived at a cabinet identical, as far as I could tell, to all the other cabinets. Martin took out his keys and unlocked it, sliding open the door to reveal a set of drawers labelled CIRRIPEDIA: Balanomorpha. Inside each drawer were dozens of small cardboard boxes containing all manner of fossilised barnacles, many on them on the fossilised shells of other species.

Fossil barnacles

Darwin's (and others people's) fossil barnacles. Natural History Museum.

Martin explained that the museum's specimens tend to be stored according to biological taxonomy, rather than by who collected them, so Darwin's stuff is scattered throughout the building, often being stored amongst related samples from other collectors. We were then joined by Claire Mellish, Curator of Fossil Arthropods, who explained that many of Darwin's fossils had been given new labels over the years, although some still bore his original handwriting. One thing to look out for, she said, is Darwin's characteristic long, high crossbar on his lower-case letter ‘t’s. Claire located a fossil labelled Balanus crenatus in Darwin's handwriting, and arranged it in the drawer for me to photograph. When I Googled Balanus crenatus afterwards, I was delighted to learn that it is still a common species of acorn barnacle—most likely one of the very species I used to graze my knees on when rockpooling in Anglesey as a child.

Balanus crenatus

Fossil Balanus crenatus barnacles (labelled by Darwin). Natural History Museum.

While looking over the barnacles, I took the opportunity to share a favourite Darwin story. So obsessed did Darwin become with his barnacle studies during the years 1846 to 1854 that, according to family legend, one of Darwin's young children, on visiting a neighbour's house, is supposed to have asked where the gentleman of the house did his barnacles.

In his autobiography, written towards the end of his life, Darwin described how he first came to take an interest in Cirripedia (barnacles), voicing a suspicion that his obsession had earned him a place in literary parody:

In October, 1846, I began to work on 'Cirripedia.' When on the coast of Chile, I found a most curious form, which burrowed into the shells of Concholepas, and which differed so much from all other Cirripedes that I had to form a new sub-order for its sole reception. […] To understand the structure of my new Cirripede I had to examine and dissect many of the common forms; and this gradually led me on to take up the whole group. I worked steadily on this subject for the next eight years, and ultimately published two thick volumes (Published by the Ray Society.), describing all the known living species, and two thin quartos on the extinct species. I do not doubt that Sir E. Lytton Bulwer had me in his mind when he introduced in one of his novels a Professor Long, who had written two huge volumes on limpets.

After I had taken a few more photographs, Martin led Stense and me further into the maze of cabinets, into one of his own areas of expertise, the fossil molluscs. He slid open another cabinet door to reveal the coolest labels I have ever seen on a set of drawers:

South America
Charles Darwin Coll.
Voyage of the Beagle figd specimens

The individual drawers were further labelled Oysters, Bivalvia, and Gastropoda.

Martin explained that some of Darwin's specimens were seen as scientifically important (for example, when they were the original ‘type’ specimens defining new species); whereas other specimens, while not being especially important scientifically were still seen as historically important, on account of who collected them. The specimens in these drawers were both scientifically and historically important. Some of them were also rather beautiful.

Martin drew our attention to what he said was probably his favourite fossil collected by Darwin: that of a slipper limpet, collected in S. Cruz, Patagonia in 1834. It really was an odd-looking creature—or, as I later found out, stack of creatures layered one on top of another—resembling, to my inexpert eyes, something more akin to a modern art sculpture than a cluster of fossilised organisms.

Crepidula gregaria

Fossil slipper limpet (Crepidula gregaria) collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

There were dozens of other fossils from the Beagle voyage in the drawers, including some still labelled in Darwin's handwriting, such as that of the type specimen of the bivalve Nucula ornata, which he collected at Port Desire in Patagonia.

Nucula ornata

Nucula ornata fossil molluscs collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Thoughtfully, some previous visitor—a curator, I suppose—had left photocopies of the engraved plates from Darwin's 1846 book Geological Observations on South America, which depicted many of the actual fossils stored in the drawers. The illustrations of the fossils, and their descriptions, came courtesy of G.B. Sowerby (one of the aforementioned, legendary-in-fossil-describing-circles Sowerbys). The photocopies had evidently been used in some sort of fossil stock-taking exercise, as there were lightly pencilled ticks against many of the images. There, on plate 2, figure 19, was the Nucula ornata fossil I had just photographed, and there on plate 3, figure 34, was Martin's slipper limpet, Crepidula gregaria.

Stense examining diagram

Stense examining Plate 3 of Darwin's Geological Observations on South America (1846). Natural History Museum. (Note the Crepidula gregaria slipper limpet, second from left, middle row.)

Sowerby described Crepidula gregaria as follows:

This species is remarkable for its lengthened form: it is found, grouped together in an argillaceous sandstone of a grayish colour. It bears a strong general resemblance to Crepidula fornicata, which is found, similarly grouped, on the coasts of New York, New England, and generally on the Atlantic coasts of N. America.

Martin explained that slipper limpets have now established themselves in certain areas on the south coast of England, having been transported from their natural habitats in ships' ballast.

For our final set of Darwin fossils, Martin led us yet further into the maze, to the Brachiopods section. Brachiopods are an ancient lineage of sea-dwelling bivalves which superficially resemble clams—although they're not actually molluscs. I have a strange soft-spot for brachiopods, having once imagined seeing the image of Charles Darwin in a fossilised cluster of them. Yes, I know, I really should get out more. The brachiopods Martin had brought us to see were collected by Darwin just south of Port Louis in the Falkland Islands on 22nd March, 1833.

Port Louis

Settlement at Port Louis.
From: Robert FitzRoy's Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836.

Fossil brachiopods

Fossil brachiopods collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Darwin recorded collecting these very fossils in his Beagle diary, stating:

This is one of the quietest places we have ever been to. — […] I walked one day to the town, which consists in half a dozen houses pitched at random in different places. […] The whole aspect of the Falkland Islands, were however changed to my eyes from that walk; for I found a rock abounding with shells; & these of the most interesting geological aera.

He explained the significance of his finds in a letter home to his sister Caroline, written aboard HMS Beagle a few days later:

I have been very successful in geology; as I have found a number of fossil shells, in the very oldest rocks, which ever have organic remains.— This has long been a great desideratum in geology, viz the comparison of animals of equally remote epocks at different stations in the globe.

As Chancellor and van Wyhe explain in their book Charles Darwin's Notebooks from the Voyage of the Beagle:

It is difficult to overstate the importance of these fossils. At the time of their discovery fossils like these were little known beyond Europe and were regarded as almost the oldest known life on Earth.

Martin picked up one of the rocks containing a couple of particularly pretty Spirifer hawkinsii brachiopods and handed it to Stense. He explained that this particular rock was the one traditionally handed to visitors. Previous handlers of this rock, in addition to Charles Darwin, were said to include King George V and Princess Diana. To which illustrious list can now be added Stense, followed shortly afterwards by Yours Truly.

Spirifer hawkinsii

Spirifer hawkinsii brachiopods collected by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. Natural History Museum.

Darwin's Falkland Island fossils were eventually described by Morris and Sharpe in an 1846 paper in the Proceedings of the Geological Society. Their paper immediately followed one by Darwin on the Geology of the Falkland Islands, and included an engraving of the very fossil in Stense's hands.

Spirifer hawkinsii. Taken from Plate X of Morris, J., Sharpe, D. 1846. Description of eight species of brachyopodous shells from the Palaeozoic rocks of the Falkland Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2: (25 March) 274-278, pls. X - XI.

The same Spirifer hawkinsii fossils, depicted in The Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2 (25 March, 1846).

At the end of their paper, Morris and Sharpe concluded:

The number of species collected by Mr. Darwin from the Falkland Islands is too limited to justify any close comparison with the palæozoic fauna of other portions of the globe, still however their allocation is rather interesting: of the eight species above described, all belong to the family of Brachiopoda, which appear to have constituted the chief portion of the fauna of that locality, and there is also a species of Orbicula (Pl. X. fig. 5), too imperfect to be described […]

The general occurrence and extensive distribution of many species of Brachiopoda, either identical in character or analogous in form, in the palæozoic strata, has always been a subject deeply interesting to the palæontologist, and has given rise to the opinion, that a more equable temperature, a greater uniformity of physical character and surface arrangements may have been instrumental in producing this extension in the northern regions during the palæozoic period; and the valuable researches of Mr. Darwin have also revealed to us that the existing conditions of some portions of the southern hemisphere at the same æra were favourable to the development of other species of the family Brachiopoda nearly related to those which in Northern Europe characterise the rocks of the palæozoic æra.

Morris and Sharpe were writing in a time before the theory of plate tectonics, so did not appreciate that the land masses which would become Northern Europe and South America were considerably closer to each other in those days. They and Darwin believed these Falkland Island fossils to date from either the Silurian or Devonian geological period within the Palaeozoic era. We now know that they date from the Devonian, being approximately 386 million years old—from a time when the world's continents were arranged very differently to today, with the submerged section of the South American tectonic plate that would eventually become the Falkland Islands lying close to what would become southern Africa.

386 million years! And I thought turning 50 was pretty ancient!

As a final treat, on our way out of the building, Martin took the opportunity to show us some scientifically unremarkable, but historically important fossils collected by the geologist William Smith, creator of the first geological map of Great Britain. It was a timely reminder to this incorrigible Darwin groupie that there have been—and there still are—plenty of other hard-working, less-hallowed scientists finding out how the world works, in addition to our Charlie. According to its website, the Natural History Museum houses 80 million scientific specimens. Every single one of those specimens had to be collected by somebody, examined and curated, named, and perhaps written about. Many of them will be of considerably less historical interest than Darwin's famous specimens, but they will all have their own fascinating stories to tell.

📷 Full set of photos from the great Darwin fossil hunt


Thanks to Dr Martin Munt of the Natural History Museum for finding time to show us around, and to his colleague Claire Mellish for helping me finally to get an inkling of what Darwin saw in barnacles. And extra-special thanks to Stense for being a friend beyond compare for exactly half of my 50 years, and for having such wonderful ideas for birthday presents.


  • Burkhardt, F.H. & Smith, S., eds. (1985). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 1, 1821–1836. Cambridge University Press.
  • Burkhardt, F.H. & Smith, S., eds. (1988). The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 3, 1844–1846. Cambridge University Press.
  • Chancellor, G. & van Wyhe, J., eds. (2009). Charles Darwin's Notebooks from the Voyage of the Beagle. Cambridge University Press.
  • Darwin, C.R. (1846). Geological Observations on South America. Being the third part of the geology of the voyage of the Beagle, under the command of Capt. Fitzroy, R.N. during the years 1832 to 1836. London: Smith Elder and Co. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Darwin, F., ed. (1887). The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, including an autobiographical chapter. London: John Murray. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • FitzRoy, R. (1839). Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle's circumnavigation of the globe. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36, under the command of Captain Robert Fitz-Roy, R.N. London: Henry Colburn. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Keynes, R. D., ed. (2001). Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. (Available at Darwin Online.)
  • Morris, J., & Sharpe, D. (1846). Description of eight species of brachyopodous shells from the Palaeozoic rocks of the Falkland Islands. Quarterly Journal of the Geological Society 2: (25 March) 274-278. (Available at Darwin Online.)

Further reading:

20-Feb-1835: Darwin witnesses an earthquake

On 20th February, 1835, Charles Darwin was lying down in a wood having a rest in Valvidia, Southern Chile, when he experienced a major earthquake. A few weeks later, he described what happened in a letter home to his sister Caroline:

[Off Valparaiso]

March 10th.

My dear Caroline,

[…] We are now on our road from Concepciòn.— The papers will have told you about the great Earthquake of the 20th of February.— I suppose it certainly is the worst ever experienced in Chili.— It is no use attempting to describe the ruins—it is the most awful spectacle I ever beheld.— The town of Concepcion is now nothing more than piles & lines of bricks, tiles & timbers—it is absolutely true there is not one house left habitable; some little hovels built of sticks & reeds in the outskirts of the town have not been shaken down & these now are hired by the richest people. The force of the shock must have been immense, the ground is traversed by rents, the solid rocks are shivered, solid buttresses 6–10 feet thick are broken into fragments like so much biscuit.— How fortunate it happened at the time of day when many are out of their houses & all active: if the town had been over thrown in the night, very few would have escaped to tell the tale. We were at Valdivia at the time the shock there was considered very violent, but did no damage owing to the houses being built of wood.— I am very glad we happened to call at Concepcion so shortly afterwards: it is one of the three most interesting spectacles I have beheld since leaving England—A Fuegian savage.—Tropical Vegetation—& the ruins of Concepcion— It is indeed most wonderful to witness such desolation produced in three minutes of time.

Remains of the Cathedral in Concepción

The remains of the Cathedral in Concepción by John Clements Wickham (1798–1864); Engraving: S. Bull (fl. 1838–1846). Source: Wikipedia

Darwin also recorded a detailed account of the event in his Beagle diary, which was later adapted into a passage in ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’:

February 20th. - This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer. The rocking of the ground was very sensible. The undulations appeared to my companion and myself to come from due east, whilst others thought they proceeded from south-west: this shows how difficult it sometimes is to perceive the directions of the vibrations. There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me almost giddy: it was something like the movement of a vessel in a little cross-ripple, or still more like that felt by a person skating over thin ice, which bends under the weight of his body. A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid; - one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe- exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high- water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength.

Witnessing such a powerful earthquake and its aftermath at first-hand, along with numerous subsequent observations, convinced Darwin that the whole western coast of South America was gradually rising. In this, he went further than Charles Lyell, who, in volume 1 of Principles of Geology—a book which Darwin devoured during the Beagle voyage—had claimed that a section of Chile's coast had undergone recent elevation. On his return to England, Darwin published his findings in The Proceedings of the Geological Society of London, in an 1837 paper entitled Observations of proofs of recent elevation on the coast of Chili, made during the survey of His Majesty's Ship Beagle commanded by Capt. FitzRoy R.N. This paper provided Lyell with considerable ammunition in an ongoing geological dispute he was having with George Bellas Greenough concerning evidence of elevation of the Chilean coast.

Lyell and Darwin were to become fast and close friends. The two men are buried next to each other in Westminster Abbey.

Further reading:

11th July, 1836: Darwin visits Napoleon

Towards the end of her second voyage, HMS Beagle called at the volcanic island of St Helena in the South Atlantic. Darwin went ashore to spend a few days geologising. While he was there, he took the opportunity to visit the grave of St Helena's most famous former occupant (and prisoner), Napoleon Bonaparte. He recorded the event in his Beagle Diary:

9th to 13th [July, 1836]

I obtained lodgings in a cottage within stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb. I confess this latter fact possessed with me but little inducement. The one step between the sublime & the ridiculous has on this subject been too often passed. Besides, a tomb situated close by cottages & a frequented road does not create feelings in unison with the imagined resting place of so great a spirit. — With respect to the house in which Napoleon died, its state is scandalous, to see the filthy & deserted rooms, scored with the names of visitors, to my mind was like beholding some ancient ruin wantonly disfigured.

Darwin's servant-cum-assistant, Syms Covington, recorded the visit in more detail in his own journal as follows:

ON the 11th, went to Napoleon's Grave, a distance of about two and a half miles from port. This tomb is situated in a valley, WHICH has gardens, houses, etc. The grave is simple for so great a man, having no more than a large oblong stone with no inscription, surrounded in same form by iron railings AND also with wooden railings round the iron ditto leaving a space of about ten to fifteen feet for visitors to walk, and that beautifully green with grass, with the willows and cypresses. Outside the wooden railings is the small beautiful, clear well, where he (NAPOLEON) constantly every morning used to send for water to wash etc. Beautiful, clear water. Here is stationed a noncommissioned officer, an old soldier, to take care that no one injures the above. The willow is strictly forbidden for anyone to touch, but from the cypresses, a small twig is allowed only. At the East end or head of tomb, within railings, is a geranium, planted by Lady Warren (Admiral Warren's wife) and HER daughters; at THE West end or foot are several Cape bulbs, etc. The house IS situated from THE tomb, about a mile, along a ridge of mountains. I went to house the 13th; which is in a very decayed state, one room is a billiard room for visitors (wine sold also!). The remaining part serves as a barn and dwelling for the servants of the clergyman who inhabits the new house, which was built for Napoleon, but HE never inhabited it.

Covington's journal entry also included a sketch of Napoleon's grave:

Napoleon's grave

Napoleon's grave, St Helena by Syms Covington.

The absence of an inscription on the former emperor's grave was down to politics. The British governor of St Helena, Napoleon's gaoler, Hudson Lowe, ruled that the inscription should read ‘Napoleon Bonaparte’; the French generals Montholon and Bertrand wanted the grave to bear the more imperial, first-name-only inscription, ‘Napoleon’. An inscriptionless gravestone was the closest they could come to a compromise.

Five years after Darwin and Covington's visit, Napoleon's remains were moved from St Helena to a far more imperial tomb in Paris.

Napoleon's tomb.

Napoleon's second final resting place, Les Invalides, Paris.

12th February, 1834: Darwin's 25th birthday, Patagonia

From Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary, 12-Feb-1834:

12th With very baffling winds we anchored late in the evening in Gregory Bay, where our friends the Indians anxiously seemed to desire our presence. During the day we passed close to Elizabeth Island, on North end of which there was a party of Fuegians with their canoe &c. — They were tall men & clothed in mantles; & belong probably to the East Coast; the same set of men we saw in Good Success Bay; they clearly are different from the Fuegians, & ought to be called foot Patagonians. — Jemmy Button had a great horror of these men, under the name of "Ohens men". — "When the leaf is red, he used to say, Ohens men come over the hill & fight very much." —

Patagonian Indians, Gregory Bay by Conrad Martens. Cambridge University Library

Patagonian Indians, Gregory Bay by Conrad Martens.
Cambridge University Library

If you had asked him three years earlier, I'm pretty sure Darwin would not have predicted that he would spend his 25th birthday encountering Patagonian natives and hearing horror stories about them from a Fuegian (and having a mountain named after him). He would, more likely, have predicted that he would spend it in his parsonage somewhere, maybe drafting next Sunday's sermon.

You never know what life might hold in store for you.

The HMS Beagle Olympics

As the Games of the XXX Olympiad officially commence in London later today, the good people of Much Wenlock in Shropshire can be rightly proud that their own modern version of the Olympic Games, founded in 1850, inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to create what was to become the world's greatest sporting event: the Olympic Games.

Yet Much Wenlock was not the only nineteenth-century community to celebrate its own, local ‘Olympic Games’. The City of Liverpool (the world's greatest, in my rather biased opinion) held an annual ‘Grand Olympic Festival’ from 1862–67. Far more importantly, however, the crew of HMS Beagle held their own ‘Olympic Games’ at Port Desire, Patagonia, on Christmas Day, 1833. Charles Darwin takes up the story in his Beagle Diary:

25th [December, 1833]

Christmas After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can. —

The HMS Beagle Olympics might not have had the wall-to-wall television and internet coverage enjoyed by modern sports fans (and endured by the rest of us), but fortunately the ship's artist, Conrad Martens, was on hand to record the event for posterity:

Slinging the Monkey

‘Slinging the Monkey, Port Desire’, by Conrad Martens (1833).
Image: Cambridge Digital Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported Licence (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Shown here is Slinging the monkey, Port Desire, the original of which now resides in Cambridge University Library. The sketch depicts HMS Beagle (L) and the Adventure (R) at anchor. In the foreground, six sailors play the naval game Swinging the Monkey, which involved hanging one of their number upside down until he was able to beat one of his taunting colleagues with a stick, after which, the two men swapped places.

Darwin was right to worry about Beagle's crew getting drunk on Christmas Day. At the very start of the voyage, two years earlier, the ship having been stuck in Devonport for weeks, waiting for a change in the weather, Darwin recorded in his diary:

Monday 26th [December, 1831]

A beautiful day, & an excellent one for sailing, — the opportunity has been lost owing to the drunkedness & absence of nearly the whole crew. — The ship has been all day in state of anarchy. One days holiday has caused all this mischief; such a scene proves how absolutely necessary strict discipline is amongst such thoughtless beings as Sailors are.- Several have paid the penalty for insolence, by sitting for eight or nine hours in heavy chains. — Whilst in this state, their conduct was like children, abusing every body & thing but themselves, & the next moment nearly crying. — It is an unfortunate beginning, being obliged so early to punish so many of our best men there was however no choice left as to the necessity of doing it.

History does not record which of the Beagle's crew won the most medals at the Beagle Olympics, nor whether they would have put much store in the motto of the modern Olympic Games: Citius, Altius, Fortius [Faster, Higher, Stronger]—although it does have a certain Darwinian ring to it.

A miserable birthday aboard HMS Beagle

A very Happy Darwin Day.

Yours truly, writing on the Beagle Project blog:

A miserable birthday aboard HMS Beagle

Sometimes even plain sailing isn't plain sailing:

12th There has been a little swell on the sea to day, & I have been very uncomfortable: this has tried & quite overcome the small stock of patience that the early parts of the voyage left me. — Here I have spent three days in painful indolence, whilst animals are staring me in the face, without labels & scientific epitaphs. — This has been the first day that the heat has annoyed us.

Charles Darwin writing in his diary aboard HMS Beagle 180 years ago today, on his 23rd birthday. In almost five years voyaging around the world, the poor lad never really overcame his dreadful seasickness.

185 years ago today...

[Cross-posted from the Beagle Project blog]

On 22nd May, 1826, His Majesty's Ship Beagle set sail from Plymouth on a surveying voyage to South America.

Neither Darwin nor FitzRoy were on board. This was Beagle's first voyage. Her more famous second voyage was to begin five years later.

But her first voyage was not without incident: hardship; scurvy; several deaths; the suicide of Beagle's captain, Pringle Stokes; his temporary replacement by Lieutenant Skyring; his official replacement by the 23-year-old Robert FitzRoy, who joined the ship at Montevideo; surveying; the discovery and naming of the Beagle Channel; the abduction of four young Fuegian natives.

The first Beagle voyage was to establish Robert FitzRoy as an able and talented ship's captain, making him the logical choice to fulfil the same role on what was to become her far more famous second voyage. The need to return the young Fuegians to their homeland was surely a factor in FitzRoy's acceptance of the commission; Stokes's suicide a key factor in FitzRoy's decision to take a gentleman companion on the voyage.

In other words, were it not for the events of the first Beagle voyage, history might have been very different.

Serendipitous juxtaposition

The following two items just came up one after the other on my RSS reader. Their juxtaposition pleased me:

Charles Darwin's Beagle Diary: Captain Fitzroy's Journal: Reflections following the visit to the Galapagos (2)

Striking instances of the manner in which high land deprives air of its moisture may be seen at the Galapagos. Situated in a wind nearly perennial, those sides only which are exposed to it (the southern) are covered with verdure, and have water: all else is dry and barren, excepting such high ground as the passing clouds hang upon indolently as they move northward. In a similar manner may we not conclude that western Peru is deprived of rain—since the easterly trade wind which carries moisture, and consequent fertility, to eastern Peru, is drained, or dried, as it crosses the Andes? And may we not extend this reasoning to other countries similarly situated, such as Patagonia, perhaps Arabia, and even Africa, upon whose arid deserts no moist wind blows? Currents of air, moving from ocean to land, convey vapour; but as these currents pass over high land, or even a considerable extent of low country, much if not the whole of their aqueous contents is discharged, and until such a body of air has again acquired moisture, it is found to be dry, parching, and unfavourable to vegetation.

Mick Hartley: Wet Uluru

It doesn't often rain on Ayers Rock, but last week it did - and photographer Peter Carroll was there (via):


Photo © Peter Carroll

The Beagle entertains a royal visitor

In chapter 18 of The Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin describes a royal visitor to the ship in the large, awkward shape of Queen Pomarre of Tahiti:

November 25th [1835]. - In the evening four boats were sent for her majesty; the ship was dressed with flags, and the yards manned on her coming on board. She was accompanied by most of the chiefs. The behaviour of all was very proper: they begged for nothing, and seemed much pleased with Captain Fitz Roy's presents. The queen is a large awkward woman, without any beauty, grace or dignity. She has only one royal attribute: a perfect immovability of expression under all circumstances, and that rather a sullen one. The rockets were most admired, and a deep "Oh!" could be heard from the shore, all round the dark bay, after each explosion. The sailors' songs were also much admired; and the queen said she thought that one of the most boisterous ones certainly could not be a hymn! The royal party did not return on shore till past midnight.

Darwin eats an excellent cat

As a former card-carrying member of the Glutton Club, Charles Darwin was pretty unsqueamish when it came to sampling strange flesh, but he did not at all relish the idea of eating calf foetus while travelling is South America. Fortunately, it turned out to be something decidedly more appetising:

We did not reach the posta on the Rio Tapalguen till after it was dark. At supper, from something which was said, I was suddenly struck with horror at thinking that I was eating one of the favourite dishes of the country namely, a half-formed calf, long before its proper time of birth. It turned out to be Puma; the meat is very white and remarkably like veal in taste. Dr. Shaw was laughed at for stating that "the flesh of the lion is in great esteem having no small affinity with veal, both in colour, taste, and flavour." Such certainly is the case with the Puma. The Gauchos differ in their opinion, whether the Jaguar is good eating, but are unanimous in saying that cat is excellent.