Darwin Sails to South America

Charles Darwin set sail from Plymouth on board HMS Beagle on Tuesday 27th December 1831. Four months of intense preparation was at an end. His five year voyage around the world was about to begin!

HMS Beagle departs Plymouth on 27th December 1831

On his second day at sea Darwin witnessed Captain Fitzroy handing out punishments to crew members for insolence, disobedience and neglect of duty. Altogether four sailors received 134 lashes; this brutal justice made Darwin feel sick.

sailor being flogged on a ship in the 19th century

His feelings of nausea were not helped by the constant rolling of the ship in heavy seas. Darwin was unwell for ten days during which time he could only eat “biscuit and raisins”.

He remained in his hammock in the pooppcabin, tormented by ‘dark and gloomy thoughts’. Had joining the Beagle been a terrible mistake? If only he had listened to his father Robert’s advice not to go!

Tenerife in the Canary Islands

As HMS Beagle neared the island of Tenerife the seas became calm and Darwin felt much better.

Map showing HMS Beagle visiting Tenerife in Canary Islandsaboutdarwin.com

He was thrilled when he saw the island’s volcanic peak appearing above the clouds. The peak looked like “another world” and far higher than he had ever imagined it would be.

Here was ample compensation for all those days of seasickness!

The Beagle entered the port of Santa Cruz on 6th January 1832. Ever since his Cambridge dayswhen he had planned an expedition to the Canary Islands, he had been dreaming of this moment.

View of the Peak of Tenerife by Marianne NorthRoyal Botanic Gardens Kew Painted by Marianne North in 1875

Darwin’s excitement soon turned to crushing disappointment; Captain Fitzroy was informed that passengers and crew of the Beagle would have remain in quarantine on board ship for twelve days following an outbreak of cholera in England.

Impatient to get on with the voyage, Fitzroy decided not to wait around. He gave the order to pull up the anchor and immediately set sail for the Cape Verde islands.

Darwin was devastated to be leaving this island paradise. He remarked in his diary that leaving Tenerife was “like parting from a friend”.

For the next few days Darwin remained in his cabin reading “Principles of Geology” written by the Scottish geologist Charles Lyell. Fitzroy had given the book to Darwin as a present before leaving Plymouth.

Lyells Principles of Geology Volume 1

In his book Lyell argued the case for Uniformitarianism.

The theory of uniformitarianism advocates that geological change is a gradual process that takes place very slowly over time.

To prove the theory Lyell demonstrated how river valleys are formed very slowly over thousands of years as a result of erosion by running water.

Geological panorama in Southern France, demonstrating Charles Lyell's diluvial theory of valley formation through water erosion

Southern France (Charles Lyell 1822)  Image credit: pages.wustl.edu

Lyell argued that the same natural laws and geological processes that shaped the earth in the past are still at work in the present and can be seen working today today.

As well as reading “Principles of Geology” Darwin made a “plankton net” which he used to good effect to catch many small marine organisms.

example of a plankton net which Charles Darwin used on board HMS Beagle during voyage to Cape Verde Islands

Example of a plankton net-Image credit: waves.marine.usf.edu

He caught many tiny creatures which were “low in the scale of nature” and “most exquisite in their form and rich colors”. Seeing such creatures created for Darwin a feeling of  “wonder…that so much beauty should apparently be created for so little purpose”.

Plankton from Atlantic Ocean includes Arthropoda, Mollusca, Annelida,Cnidaria and Chaetognatha

Plankton from Atlantic Ocean

 The Cape Verde Islands- exploring on land

On the 16th January 1831 the Beagle reached St Jago (Santiago) in the Cape Verde islands…

Cape Verde Islands showing Darwin voyage to Santiagoaboutdarwin.com

..where she dropped anchor off Porto Praya.

Porto Praya Island of St Jago Cape Verde Islands. Painted by Sir John Barrow (1806)Porto Praya-Island of St Jago in the  Cape Verde Islands. Painted by Sir John Barrow (1806)

Darwin was able to go ashore for the first time; in a deep valley near Porto Praya Darwin saw his first tropical vegetation. He felt completely ‘overwhelmed’ and likened himself to a blind man given the ability to see.

Darwin encountered colorful gray headed kingfishers hunting grasshoppers and lizards…

grey headed kingfisher taken in le parc national de l'Akagera, au RwandaImage credit: Azurfrog at commons.wikimedia.org

…and a large flock of guinea-fowl which were “extremely wary and could not be approached… if pursued they readily took to the wing”.

helmeted guinea fowl in cape verde islandsbirdfinders.co.uk/news/cape-verde-2009-pics.html

He went on a walk with the ship’s surgeon Robert McCormick; during the walk they encountered some “celebrated baobab trees”. McCormick climbed the tree and carved his initials high up on the trunk together with the date “1832”.

baobab tree from Cape Verde islands

Photograph taken in 1873 of a Cape Verde Baobab tree

Since there were few plants and insects to collect on St Jago he spent many “delightful hours” collecting samples of rock with his geological hammer.

Walking alone over volcanic plains with “black and burnt rocks” was an amazing experience. He thought about the powerful geological processes that had constructed this volcanic terrain.

He then spotted something strange- a horizontal white layer of compressed shells and corals running through the rocks about 30 meters above sea level. The shells and corals were intact and showed no evidence of damage due to a sudden catastrophe such as an earthquake.

Quail Island showing layer of shells and coral sandwiched between other layers

Darwin’s original sketch- Quail Island Cape Verde

For Darwin this was evidence that the land had risen slowly over a long period of time- indicating Lyell’s theory about gradual geological change was probably correct.
Charles Darwins Origin of the Species through Natural Selection hardback cover
Darwin now realized that he could make a serious contribution to the emerging science of geology. He even imagined that he could write a book on the subject based on the geology of the countries he would visit during the voyage.

Darwin was later to argue that, just as landscapes change gradually over time, so too do many animal species. He later explained how evolution by natural selection takes place before our very eyes, but often works too slowly for us to notice.

In chapter 5 of his famous book ‘On the Origin of the Species through Natural Selection’ he commented that the small eyes of moles is probably due “to gradual reduction by disuse, but aided perhaps by natural selection”.

European mole (Talpa europaea) Germany

The Cape Verde Islands-exploring the sea shore

In addition to collecting samples of rock Darwin also explored the sea shore- just as he had done in his Edinburgh days.

He “collected a great number of curious & beautiful animals… The colors of the sponges & corals…

Sponges of the Cape Verde Islands Image credit: ctoz.nl -Zoanthids of the Cape Verde Islands

..are extremely vivid & it is curious how all..nature becomes more gaudy as it approaches the hotter countries”.

Darwin also captured and preserved several octopuses. He observed how an octopus “possessed a most marvellous power of changing its colors…


…evidently accommodating the changes to the color of the ground which it passed over.—yellowish green, dark brown & red were the prevailing colors: this fact appears to be new, as far as I can find out.”

Octopus_vulgarisAlbert Kok at Dutch Wikipedia

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago

On 8th February 1832 the Beagle sailed to the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago,…

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago or Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo shown on a map of the mid Atlantic

…a group of 15 islets in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

St Peter and St Paul Archipelago Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo reached by Darwin on HMS Beagle during round the world voyage

The Beagle arrived at the islets on the morning of 16th February 1832 and “sounding lines” were dropped overboard to calculate the depth of water around them.

sounding lines dropped from the side of HMS Beagle on approch to St peter and St Paul Archipelago

Captain Fitzroy could not find the sea bottom within half a mile; from this he concluded that the islets must be the top of a massive “submarine mountain”.

We now know that this “submarine mountain”….

Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago Arquipélago de São Pedro e São Paulo undersea view

….forms part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge. The Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago is one of the few places on earth where an underwater oceanic ridge breaks through the surface of the sea.

St Peters and St Pauls Archipelago forms part of the Mid Atlantic Ridge

Darwin was able to explore the islets and observed that, unusually, the rocks were neither volcanic or coralline in origin. He had never seen such rocks before and could not name them. He described the rocks as being “greenish-black” in color with thin veins of “serpentine” running through.

Darwin was describing a rock named  “serpentinite” whose origins lie at or near the sea floor.

Serpentine rock as found on St Pauls and St Peters Archipelagooceanexplorer.noaa.gov/explorations

Darwin found vast numbers of seabirds inhabiting the islands. These birds included brown boobies (Sula leucogaster)…

Brown booby Sula leucogaster in flight

…and black noddies (Anous minutus).

Black noddy (Anous minutus) resting on a rock ibc.lynxeds.com/photo/black-noddy-anous-minutus/adult-hawaiian-noddy-resting-rock

So unaccustomed to people were these birds that they did not move when sailors approached them. They were very easy to catch and “a pile of birds and hats full of eggs” were taken back on board the Beagle to provide a welcome source of fresh meat.

Darwin correctly concluded that the “grayish white” deposits which he saw covering many of the rocks was in fact the “dung of a vast multitude of seafowl”. We now call these deposits ‘guano’.

black-noddy in guanotwoyearsintheatlantic.com/2014/09/

Sailing to South America

After leaving the Saint Peter and Saint Paul Archipelago Captain Fitzroy set sail for South America.

As the Beagle crossed the equator on 16th February 1832 the strange ceremony known as ‘Crossing the Line’ was acted out.

father neptune and his Court on a ship in 19th century

Fitzroy dressed up as ‘Father Neptune’ and summoned before him those passengers and crew who had never previously crossed the equator.

Surrounded by dancing sailors with bodies covered in paint Darwin, along with the other novices, was blindfolded and thrown into a sail filled with water. Dragging him out of the sail the sailors then washed Darwin’s face with tar and paint.

Darwin was non too impressed; he was heard to mutter,”what fools these sailors make of themselves!”

A favorable wind caught the sails of the Beagle and blew her steadily all the way to Brazil. She anchored in All Saints Bay in Bahia (now called Salvador) on 28th February 1832.

map showing route the Beagle took to Salvador (Bahia) in Brazil ©aboutdarwin.com

Exploring Salvador

The old town, with its stinking quays and narrow streets, reminded Darwin of Edinburgh.

Salvador in Brazil 19th century

Darwin wandered by himself through the nearby rainforest for hours on end dazed by the “luxuriance of the vegetation… the elegance of the grasses … the beauty of the flowers”.

He collected flowers-“enough to make a florist go wild”- and many beetles. He had never known such “transports of pleasure”.

Flowers and Fruit of the Maricojas Passion Flower, Brazil. - Marianne North

© Kew Gardens- “Flowers and Fruit of the Maricojas Passion Flower, Brazil “by Marianne North (1830-1890)

His mind was a “chaos of delight…to a person fond of Natural history such a day brings with it pleasure more acute than he ever may again experience”.

Wandering through the rainforest he followed the flight of a beautiful butterfly. As he followed its flight he could not help but be distracted by the trees around which the butterly flew.

Foliage, flowers and fruit of the Citron, and butterfly painted in Brazil by Marianne North

© Kew Gardens- “Foliage, flowers and fruit of the Citron” Painted in Brazil by Marianne North 

He admired the “strange flower” across which an insect was crawling across.

Flowers of Cassia corymbosa in Minas Geraes, Brazil. - Marianne North

© Kew Gardens “Flowers of Cassia corymbosa in Minas Geraes” Painted in Brazil by Marianne North (1830-1890)

Back in Salvador…

bahia-salvador in 1844

Salvador in 1844 painted by Eduard Hildebrand – cidade-salvador.com/seculo19/hildebrandt.htm

Darwin noticed that all the fetching and carrying of goods in the warehouses was “done by black men…when staggering under their heavy burdens … they cheer(ed) themselves up by a rude song”.

Porters Carrying Baskets of Coal, Brazil, 1853.

Porters Carrying Baskets of Coal, Brazil, 1853 slaveryandremembrance.org

Darwin, who loathed slavery, discussed the working conditions of the black workers in Salvador with Fitzroy.

Fitzroy took the opposite view to Darwin and gave his opinion that slavery was a perfectly acceptable practice.

During their conversation Fitzroy mentioned how he had heard a slave owner ask his servants if they were unhappy and wished to have their freedom. The slaves had replied that they did not wish to be freed. Shouldn’t the slave owner respect the wishes of the slaves?

Transporting a Planter in a Hammock, Brazil, 1816-1831

Transporting a Planter in a Hammock, Brazil, 1816-1831 usslave.blogspot.co.uk

Darwin asked Fitzroy if a slave’s answer, given in the presence of his master, was worth anything. In such circumstances would a slave say what he really believed?

advert for 19th century coffeeAt this Fitzroy had exploded with rage. Since Darwin had dared to argue with him Fitzroy declared that the two of them could no longer live together. Fitzroy promptly walked out of the cabin.

Darwin began to worry.Was this the end of the voyage?

News spread around the ship about what had happened. Darwin visited the officers in the Gun Room who briefed him about Fitzroy’s legendary volcanic temper.

Fitzroy was known as “hot coffee” by the crew; Darwin had been well and truly burnt.

A few hours later Fitzroy sent Darwin an apology asking him to remain on the ship.

To help heal the rift Fitzroy invited Darwin to dine in his cabin that evening with Captain Paget of HMS Samarang, a “real-fighting” ship which happened to be anchored nearby.

HMS Samarang 26 Guns, at Chatham, January 1847 HMS Samarang, a fighting ship with 26 guns (center left of painting) in January 1847

One of the main topics of conversation that evening was about slavery. It soon became clear that Captain Paget, like Darwin, was revolted by the many atrocities he had witnessed.

Punishing negroes at Calabouco

Punishing negroes at Calabouco Rio de Janeiro (1822)-Augustus Earle

Fitzroy had no choice but to listen politely to Captain Paget’s opinions without flying into a rage.

After the meal Darwin continued to feel angry about the bad treatment handed out to slaves; they were “ranked by the polished savages in England as hardly their (brothers), even in God’s eyes”.

Fitzroy weighed anchor on 18th March 1832 and set sail for Rio de Janeiro further south along the Brazilian coast.

Further Reading

Aboutdarwin.com/voyage Summary of route taken by the Beagle during voyage.

Letter to John Henslow of Cambridge University describing visit to the Cape Verde Islands and St Peter and St Paul Archipelago.

Letter to his father Robert describing visit to Cape Verde Islands.

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