Tag Archives: beagle voyage

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

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).

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):

Ulurur659652_4712021

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.

How to get a large animal into a small boat

At the start of autumn, I sometimes help my farmer friend to bring her free-range beef cattle down from the local moor where they have been grazing throughout the summer. In winter, I help her to move them between various fields to ensure that they have enough grass to eat. In spring, I help return them to the moor.

Cows on moor

Some of my friend's cattle on the local moor.

Such experiences have given me a deep contempt for cattle, which I no longer try to conceal. Semi-wild cows are unbelievably stupid and wilful creatures. No force on Earth can compel them to go where they have decided they don't want to go—even when it is in their own best interest.

But I've never had to get a cow into a boat.

Fortunately, if I ever find myself in the position of needing to get a cow into a boat, I now know exactly how to do it thanks to Charles Darwin, who observed how it is done and recorded the technique for posterity in his useful animal-husbandry manual, The Voyage of the Beagle:

The road to Cucao was so very bad that we determined to embark in a periagua. The commandant, in the most authoritative manner, ordered six Indians to get ready to pull us over, without deigning to tell them whether they would be paid. The periagua is a strange rough boat, but the crew were still stranger: I doubt if six uglier little men ever got into a boat together. They pulled, however, very well and cheerfully. The stroke-oarsman gabbled Indian, and uttered strange cries, much after the fashion of a pig-driver driving his pigs. We started with a light breeze against us, but yet reached the Capella de Cucao before it was late. The country on each side of the lake was one unbroken forest. In the same periagua with us, a cow was embarked. To get so large an animal into a small boat appears at first a difficulty, but the Indians managed it in a minute. They brought the cow alongside the boat, which was heeled towards her; then placing two oars under her belly, with their ends resting on the gunwale, by the aid of these levers they fairly tumbled the poor beast heels over head into the bottom of the boat, and then lashed her down with ropes.

So now we know. Thanks, Charles.

Darwin performs a blind test… on some condors

Charles Darwin was a great experimenter. In his later life at Down House, he conducted scores of weird and wonderful experiments on pigeons, fowl, plants, seeds, dogs, his own children, you name it; he would experiment on it. But he also found time to conduct some experiments during the Beagle voyage. He even got to perform an experiment on that most iconic of South American birds, the condor.

canyon del colca - condor

Condor, Canyon del Colca, Peru (cc gudi&cris)

Darwin describes his condor experiment in The Voyage of the Beagle. He gets off to what would nowadays be thought of as a pretty bad start:

April 27th. … This day I shot a condor. It measured from tip to tip of the wings, eight and a half feet, and from beak to tail, four feet.

He then describes the range and habits of condors before getting on to his experiment on some live, captive condors:

Remembering the experiments of M. Audubon, on the little smelling powers of carrion-hawks, I tried […] the following experiment: the condors were tied, each by a rope, in a long row at the bottom of a wall; and having folded up a piece of meat in white paper, I walked backwards and forwards, carrying it in my hand at the distance of about three yards from them, but no notice whatever was taken. I then threw it on the ground, within one yard of an old male bird; he looked at it for a moment with attention, but then regarded it no more. With a stick I pushed it closer and closer, until at last he touched it with his beak; the paper was then instantly torn off with fury, and at the same moment, every bird in the long row began struggling and flapping its wings. Under the same circumstances, it would have been quite impossible to have deceived a dog.

…a classic blind test—although it seems strange to use the phrase when experimenting on the sense of smell.

Darwin goes on to observe:

The evidence in favour of and against the acute smelling powers of carrion-vultures is singularly balanced. Professor Owen has demonstrated that the olfactory nerves of the turkey-buzzard (Cathartes aura) are highly developed, and on the evening when Mr. Owen's paper was read at the Zoological Society, it was mentioned by a gentleman that he had seen the carrion-hawks in the West Indies on two occasions collect on the roof of a house, when a corpse had become offensive from not having been buried, in this case, the intelligence could hardly have been acquired by sight. On the other hand, besides the experiments of Audubon and that one by myself, Mr. Bachman has tried in the United States many varied plans, showing that neither the turkey-buzzard (the species dissected by Professor Owen) nor the gallinazo find their food by smell. He covered portions of highly-offensive offal with a thin canvas cloth, and strewed pieces of meat on it: these the carrion-vultures ate up, and then remained quietly standing, with their beaks within the eighth of an inch of the putrid mass, without discovering it. A small rent was made in the canvas, and the offal was immediately discovered; the canvas was replaced by a fresh piece, and meat again put on it, and was again devoured by the vultures without their discovering the hidden mass on which they were trampling. These facts are attested by the signatures of six gentlemen, besides that of Mr. Bachman.

The degree to which certain birds use smell to detect food is still a controversial topic. Most birds seem to have a poor sense of smell, but others such as kiwis and certain sea birds do seem to make use of it while foraging/hunting for food. Although turkey vultures seem to have a good sense of smell, experiments have shown that it does not appear sufficiently acute to detect odours from high altitude.

167 years after Darwin performed his condor experiment, the controversy continues.