Darwin Day 2022 – Musings on The Voyage

by Ken Greatorex


Bronze statue of Charles Darwin as a 22-year-old undergraduate. Christ’s College, Cambridge. Artist: Anthony Smith

As a former teacher of evolutionary biology and subsequent enthusiastic promoter of Darwin Day, it is perhaps surprising that actually reading On the Origin of Species only recently made my bucket list.

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A risibly cheap paperback copy duly arrived in the post. The first thing that struck me was that the book was unexpectedly thick; the second, that The Voyage of the Beagle, all 500 pages of it, had been thrown in as a sort of after-thought.

As the Great Melbourne Lockdown had turned me into a voracious reader, I embarked upon The Voyage.

The ten-gun brig HMS Beagle, embarked from Southampton in the last days of 1831 on its second mission to survey the coasts of the South American continent. Darwin, the ink still fresh on his Bachelor of Arts degree, was twenty two years old as represented in the statue above. His actual posting was as Captain’s Companion; his status was, and remained, that of a “gentleman” civilian on board a naval ship. Robert McCormick, the ship’s surgeon was the designated naturalist, charged with making the official collection of specimens. That situation didn’t last however, as McCormick discontinued the voyage early on, leaving Darwin as the de-facto official naturalist for the remaining several years.

Less than twenty years after the Battle of Waterloo, the Beagle operated under a kind of Pax Brittanica which lent diplomatic muscle to its mission. Requests for assistance from local hierarchies invariably proved to be possible to meet in a way that might not be true today. As a civilian, Darwin often chose to investigate for lengthy periods on land, using local guides, transport and resources and re-joining the Beagle only as required.

One surprise was the limited geographical extent of the Beagle’s second voyage. Modern allusions to the book suggest that in five years most of the world’s land masses were visited and studied. In fact, in keeping with the ship’s mission, sixteen of the twenty-one chapters of The Voyage involve the South American continent and its satellite islands. The Galapagos Archipelago gets its own chapter (XVII), as does Australia (XXIX), in which one feels the continent and its early European settlers are being damned with faint praise.

Charles Darwin wrote well. The Voyage of the Beagle reads like a travelogue, and I found it to be a genuine page-turner. From time to time, it was necessary to reflect that Darwin describes people and places nearly two hundred years gone. Another surprise is that his written English does not seem at all dated.

The emerging impression of the Charles Darwin of The Voyage is that of a disgustingly fit young man who spends much of his waking hours climbing mountains to get a better view. He often sleeps rough, and eats a variety of foods of dubious digestibility, including study species he has shot himself and is sampling from curiosity. Although he makes friends and useful contacts easily across all strata of society, he is an unapologetic scion of the British Empire, and quick to praise or denigrate the societies he comes across on racial grounds.

Yet another surprise, given the impact of On the Origin of Species and other subsequent writings, is that the scientific observations in The Voyage of the Beagle are often more geological than botanical or zoological.

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