Darwin Explores Rio de Janeiro

On 28th February 1832 the Beagle sailed into Salvador in north east Brazil. Salvador was the Beagle’s first port of call in South America. (See Darwin Sails to South America)

The Beagle remained in Salvador for almost three weeks. On 18th March 1832 Captain Fitzroy made a maritime chart of the harbor after which the Beagle sailed out into the Atlantic Ocean.

Beagle sails from Rio to Montevideo©  Dr John van Wyhe at darwin-online.org.uk

The Beagle headed south along the coast of Brazil, pausing to survey the depth of the seafloor….

drawing of sounding lines from a sailing vessel reaching the seafloor

…in the shallow seas around the rocky Abrolhos Archipelago.

Abrolhos Archipelago showing where HMS Beagle surveyed the sea floor in 1832

Having been at sea for 4 months Darwin was eager for news from home. His first letters arrived on board on 5th April 1832 just as the Beagle sailed into Rio de Janeiro harbor.

Rio de janeiro watercolour 19th century

Darwin was devastated by the contents of one letter which provided news of his childhood sweetheart Fanny Owen.

He learnt that just ten days after the Beagle had set sail for South America Fanny had become engaged to Robert Biddulph, a rich landowner and Member of Parliament. By the time Darwin received the letter in Rio de Janeiro she had already been married for a month!

Darwin had a great deal in common with Fanny. She had a love of nature and had shared Darwin’s love of beetles. They had also enjoyed riding and hunting together in the Shropshire countryside. Darwin had almost certainly pictured himself marrying and settling down with Fanny.

Charles Darwin and Fanny Owen

Eager to get over his loss Darwin now focused his mind on other things. He made an arrangements with Captain Fitzroy to stay on shore and explore Rio for twelve weeks while the Beagle went out to sea again to conduct more marine surveys.

Darwin rented a cottage in Botofogo Bay, near Rio, with the ship’s artist Augustus Earle. This painting, by Augustus Earle, shows Botofago Bay as it was in 1832.

Botofago Bay painted by Augustus Earle showing two oxen and a cartBotofago Bay painted by Augustus Earle

Looking around Rio de Janeiro

Earle had previously visited Rio de Janeiro when he had been a wandering, penniless artist. He easily navigated the crowded streets and showed Darwin the main sites including the Catholic Cathedral, Imperial Palace, grand hotels, theaters and bars.

Rio De Janeiro, Palais Impérial et Cathédrale Original steel engraving engraved by E. Willmann. 1867. Rio De Janeiro, Imperial Palace and Cathedral Engraved by E. Willmann in 1867

Darwin enquired about the “health and prosperity” of the “young men” Earle had met on his previous visit. Earle informed Darwin that most of the “young men” were now “dead & gone”. Earle attributed the deaths to “drinking…few seem(ed) able to resist the temptation, when exhausted by business in this hot climate, of strongly exciting themselves by drinking spirits”. Darwin remarked that it was “calamitous how short & uncertain life is in these countries.”

Darwin was fascinated by the hustle and bustle of people going about their daily business on the streets.

street scene in Rio de Janeiro 19th centuryRua Direita, Rio de Janeiro by Johan Moritz Rugendas

Journey into the interior

Darwin met an eccentric Irishman named Patrick Lennon whom he described as “shrewd and intelligent.” Lennon had been in Rio for 20 years making  his fortune selling spectacles. With his fortune he had bought a coffee plantation eight years previously which had yet to make any money.Partrick Lennon who Darwin accompanied made his fortune selling spectacles

Lennon was about to visit his coffee plantation located 100 miles to the north of Rio; Darwin agreed to accompany him along with some other Europeans including a “selfish and unprincipled” Scottish “slave-merchant” and “swindler” named Mr Lawrie.

The party left Rio de Janeiro on horseback on the 8th April 1832. Augustus Earle stayed in Botofago Bay, too sick to travel.

The long ride to the coffee plantation along plains and through the rainforest was made worse by the oppressive heat, low standard of accomodation and poopr food. Such experiences left Darwin often feeling “exhausted with fatigue.”The misery of riding in a scorching sun for about ten hours (a day) was extreme.”

The sights he saw along the way more than compensated for any discomfort he felt.

He saw ants’ nests raised 12 feet above the ground, egrets wading in salt lagoons…


…..orchids with a “beauty and delicious fragrance”…

Brazilian orchids by Marianne NorthMarianne North (d.1890) “Brazilian Orchids” Copyright Kew Gardens

…vampire bats drinking horses’ blood….

vampire-bat by granger painted in 19th century

…and a Cabbage palm…”with a stem so narrow that it might be clasped with the two hands….it waves its elegant head at the height of forty or fifty feet above the ground”.

Cabbage Palm Euterpe oleracea

Darwin was particularly fascinated by the vegetation of the rainforest. He remarked, ” it is not possible to give an adequate idea of the higher feelings of wonder, admiration and devotion, which fill and elevate the mind.”

He was reminded of an engraving he had seen before leaving England made by the French explorer Count Charles de Clarac.

Virgin rainforest of Brazil by comte Charles Othon Frédéric Jean Baptiste de ClaracVirgin rainforest of Brazil by Count Charles de Clarac (1819)

Nearing Lennon’s coffee plantation a black slave had to use a sword to cut back vegetation that had encroached onto the path so that the horses could pass through. When the party did finally reach the plantation Darwin witnessed, “one of those atrocious acts which can only take place in a slave country”.

Darwin witnessed Lennon having an argument with his plantation manager, one Mr Cowpe, during which Lennon turned into raging tyrant.

Lennon  “was on the point of taking all the women and children from the male slaves, and selling them separately at the public auction at Rio…. I do not believe the inhumanity of separating thirty families, who had lived together for many years, even occurred to the owner”. Picture to yourself the chance, ever hanging over you, of your wife and little children…. being torn from you and sold like beasts to the first bidder!”

Slave market in Brazil 19th century

Slave market in Brazil in the 19th century

After an uncomfortable few days spent at the plantation Darwin had another unpleasant experience on the return trip to Rio.

As he crossed a river in a ferry Darwin unthinkingly waved his arms at the black ferry operator in an attempt to show the black slave where he wanted to go. The slave misread Darwin’s signal and thought Darwin was about to hit him. Darwin recorded what happened next in a letter home:

“Instantly, with a half-shut look and frightened eyes, ( the slave) dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust and shame at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. This man had been trained to a degredation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal”.

After his fifteen day excursion into the interior Darwin returned to Rio where, on 25th April 1832, he returned to the picturesque cottage in Botafogo Bay.

Exploring Botofago Bay

He now became absorbed in the work of the typical Victorian naturalist.

Victorian naturalists Ernst Haeckel and Nikolai Miklucho Maklai with their equipment

Victorian naturalists Ernst Haeckel and Nikolai Miklucho Maklai 

He trapped and shot specimens one day and spent time preserving them the next day. Evenings were devoted to writing letters.

An old Portuguese priest took Darwin out hunting. The priest’s method of hunting consisted of releasing a few dogs into some dense foliage and waiting to shoot anything that ran out. The only creatures they managed to shoot were “sundry small green parrots and a few toucans”.

Toucan du para ramphastos maximus

Toucan (ramphastos maximus)

The priest took Darwin to recover two bearded monkeys that had been shot the day before. One of the dead monkeys had wrapped its prehensile tail around a branch high up in a tree. The priest had to chop the tree down to recover the monkey and “down came the tree and monkey with an awful crash.”

What thrilled Darwin the most during his stay in Botofago Bay were the invertebrates.

He was fascinated to discover new terrestrial species of Planarians flatworms which he had previously believed only inhabited salt and freshwater . Hacking through the undergrowth, often in torrential rain, he uncovered many of these “gaily colored” flatworms hiding under decaying logs.

Land planarianmadamepickwickartblog.com

On 23rd June he managed to catch and preserved 68 beetles most of which were unknown in Europe. Darwin was very knowledgeable about beetles which he had studied avidly in his student days at Cambridge University.

He became mesmerised by the sounds of the rainforest. He commented how “Various cicadæ…

Ariasa cicada from Brazil which darwin was fascinated bycicadamania.com

…and crickets keep up a ceaseless shrill cry, but which, softened by distance, is not unpleasant.”


He went on to remark,”Every evening after dark this great concert began, and often I sat listening to it until my attention was drawn away by some curious passing insect”. He heard screaming parrots and chirping frogs singing “in harmony on different notes”.

He was fascinated by Lampyris fireflies and observed how “this insect emitted the most brilliant flashes when irritated.”

lampyris noctiluca fire fly

He was very surprised to observe the “habits” of the Papilo feronia butterfly. This butterfly (now renamed the Hamadryas feronia) was the only butterfly that Darwin had ever observed that used its legs for running.

Hamadryas feronia butterfly called the papilo feronia in Darwin's timeCC.by 2.0

He was “much interested one day” to watch a “deadly contest” between a Pepsis wasp and a Lycosa spider. Darwin observed how the wasp stung the spider before flying away.

Darwin witnessed a deadly fight between Pepsis wasp and a Lycosa spider© João Paulo Burini at primalshutter.com

“The spider was evidently wounded, for, trying to escape, it rolled down a little slope but still had strength sufficient to crawl into a thick tuft of grass.” The wasp flew off and later returned to search for its victim. “It then started a careful hunt as ever hound did after fox…and all the time rapidly vibrating its wings and antennæ. The spider, though well concealed, was soon discovered, and the wasp…inflicted two stings on the underside of its thorax.”

There was one nasty wasp that Darwin would never forget. He observed how Ichneumon wasps would sting live caterpillars just enough to paralyze but not kill them.

Darwin saw a Ichneumon wasp paralysing caterpillar lavae

The wasps then stored their “half-killed” victims next to their lavae. When the lavae hatched out of the eggs they were ready to consume this source of fresh food.

In later life, when Darwin had serious doubts about his own religious beliefs, Darwin professed that he could not see the work of a benign creator-god in all the pain and suffering that Ichneumon wasps inflicted on live caterpillars.

William_Paley_by George_Romney

William Paley (1743-1805)

However in 1832, during his voyage on the Beagle, Darwin still very much believed in the English philosopher Willam Paley’s version of how species were created. See Charles Darwin-The Cambridge Years)

“The marks of design are too strong to be gotten over. Design must have a designer. That designer must have been a person. That person must be God.”

Darwin himself later reminisced in his autobiography about the strong religious beliefs he professed to having in the 1830’s:

“While I was on the Beagle I was quite orthodox and I remember being laughed at by several of the officers for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality”.

The Beagle returns

Robert McCormick, official naturalist on the beagle before resigning

Robert McCormick

When HMS Beagle finally returned to Rio on 6th June 1832 from its survey work off the coast of Salvador, Darwin learnt that three of the crew had died of a violent fever.

Darwin also discovered that Robert McCormick , the ship’s surgeon and the Beagle’s official naturalist, had left the expedition.

McCormick had resigned from the expedition in disgust. He had been largely ignored by Captain Fitzroy and was tired of living in Darwin’s shadow. As a “gentleman’ Darwin was the only person on board who had ever been invited to dine at the Captain’s table.

McCormick had become disheartened by Darwin’s scientific flair and the excellence of his growing collection of preserved specimens. Fitzroy had always allowed Darwin on shore to explore and collect specimens while at the same time refusing to grant Mc Cormick the same privilege.

McCormick’s departure suited Darwin as he was now the only naturalist on board. “He is no loss” Darwin wrote in a letter home to sister Caroline.

HMS Warspite which darwin visited before leaving Rio de Janeiro

HMS Warspite

On Sunday 1st July Darwin attended a religious service on HMS Warspite, a battleship of the king’s navy which happened to be visiting Rio at the time. Darwin was thrilled to see 650 sailors saluting the king and singing the national anthem.

Hailed by a salute of hearty cheers from the crew of HMS Warspite the Beagle weighed anchor on 5th July 1832 and sailed south and headed towards Buenos Aires and Montevideo on the River Plate.

Darwin’s three month visit to Rio had made a lasting impression on him, not least his disgust with the treatment of slaves.  Darwin had loathed the slave owners….

The Dinner, a white couple being served and fanned by black slaves, from 'Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil', published in 1839 by Debret, Jean Baptiste (1768-1848)

The dinner by Jean-Baptiste Debret (1839)

..who were ignorant, cowardly and indolent in the extreme”.

 A Government Employee Leaving Home with his Family and Servants, from 'Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil', engraved by Thierry Freres, 1839 by Debret, Jean Baptiste (1768-1848)

Government Employee Leaving Home with his Family and Servants, from ‘Voyage Pittoresque et Historique au Bresil’, by Debret, Jean Baptiste (1768-1848) 

In contrast had he admired the courage of the black slaves…..

Jean Baptiste Debret slaves carrying a heavy load of coffee

Slaves carrying coffee Jean Baptiste Debret (1768-1848)

….and foresaw the day when they would “assert their own rights and forget to avenge their wrongs”. 

Jean Baptiste Debret slaves dragging a heavy load

Slaves dragging a heavy load -Jean Baptiste Debret (1768-1848)


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