Sunday, 10 April 2011

Charles Darwin, 1836

Charles Darwin 1809-1882
 Albumen Print by Julia Margaret Cameron taken on the Isle of Wight, 1868

When Darwin replaced Charles Dickens on the reverse of the Bank of  England £10 note in November 2000, the design was based on this photograph.  The note also has a picture of  the Beagle and a hummingbird, though there are no such birds on the Galapagos and no mention of them in On the Origin of Species.

The Voyage of the Beagle is a title commonly given to the book written by Charles Darwin and published in 1839 as his Journal and Remarks.  The title refers to the second survey expedition of the ship HMS Beagle, which sailed from Plymouth Sound on 27 December 1831 under the command of Captain Robert Fitzroy, R.N.  While the expedition was originally planned to last two years, it lasted almost five, the Beagle not returning until 2 October 1836.  During the voyage Darwin spent most of his time exploring on land, three years and three months on land; and only 18 months at sea.  On the homeward leg Darwin visited St. Helena from the 8th to 14th July 1836. His journal entry for May 9th reads:

”We sailed from Port Louis, and, calling at the Cape of Good Hope, on the 8th of July we arrived off St. Helena.  This island, the forbidding aspect of which has been so often described, rises abruptly like a huge black castle from the ocean.  Near the town, as if to complete nature's defence, small forts and guns fill up every gap in the rugged rocks.  The town runs up a flat and narrow valley; the houses look respectable, and are interspersed with a very few green trees.  When approaching the anchorage there was one striking view: an irregular castle perched on the summit of a lofty bill, and surrounded by a few scattered fir-trees, boldly projected against the sky”.

He continues:”The next day I obtained lodgings within a stone's throw of Napoleon's tomb: it was a capital central situation, whence I could make excursions in every direction.  During the four days I stayed here, I wandered over the island from morning to night, and examined its geological history.  My lodgings were situated at a height of about 2000 feet; here the weather was cold and boisterous, with constant showers of rain; and every now and then the whole scene was veiled in thick clouds”.

Though lodging so close to the tomb and in 1836 the body was still there, not being repatriated to France until 1840, he didn’t visit it, though several of the Beagle crew signed the visitor’s book.

He commented in a footnote “After the volumes of eloquence which have poured forth on this subject, it is dangerous even to mention the tomb.  A modern traveller, in twelve lines, burdens the poor little island with the following titles, — it is a grave, tomb, pyramid, cemetery, sepulchre, catacomb, sarcophagus, minaret, and mausoleum”

There is also no record of him having seen the Wirebird and in fact he believed “all the birds have been introduced within late years.”

He describes the landscape and flora: “At this season, the land moistened by constant showers, produces a singularly bright green pasture, which lower and lower down, gradually fades away and at last disappears.  In latitude 16°, and at the trifling elevation of 1500 feet, it is surprising to behold a vegetation possessing a character decidedly British.  When we consider that the number of plants now found on the island is 746, and that out of these fifty-two alone are indigenous species, the rest having been imported, and most of them from England, we see the reason of the British character of the vegetation.  Many of these English plants appear to flourish better than in their native country; some also from the opposite quarter of Australia succeed remarkably well.  The many imported species must have destroyed some of the native kinds; and it is only on the highest and steepest ridges, that the indigenous Flora is now predominant”.

“The English, or rather Welsh character of the scenery, is kept up by the numerous cottages and small white houses; some buried at the bottom of the deepest valleys, and others mounted on the crests of the lofty hills.  On viewing the island from an eminence, the first circumstance which strikes one, is the number of the roads and forts: the labour bestowed on the public works, if one forgets its character as a prison, seems out of all proportion to its extent or value. There is so little level or useful land, that it seems surprising how so many people, about 5000, can subsist here”.

Darwin visited just after the transition from The East India Company to the British Crown, which took effect from 22nd April 1834, and the economic effects of which on the island were momentous.

“The lower orders, or the emancipated slaves, are I believe extremely poor: they complain of the want of work.  From the reduction in the number of public servants owing to the island having been given up by the East Indian Company, and the consequent emigration of many of the richer people, the poverty probably will increase.  The chief food of the working class is rice with a little salt meat; as neither of these articles are the products of the island, but must be purchased with money, the low wages tell heavily on the poor people.  Now that the people are blessed with freedom, a right which I believe they value fully, it seems probable that their numbers will quickly increase: if so, what is to become of the little state of St. Helena?”

This suggests that the dependence of the islanders on imported foods, which is so noticeable today, had its origins at least a century and a half ago.  A conclusion suggested in Ashmole and Ashmole St Helena and Ascension Island: a natural history Nelson 2000 0 094614 61 1.

Darwin’s guide was an elderly man, who had been a goatherd when a boy, and knew every step amongst the rocks.  “He was of a race many times crossed, and although with a dusky skin, he had not the disagreeable expression of a mulatto.  He was a very civil, quiet old man, and such appears the character of the greater number of the lower classes.  It was strange to my ears to hear a man, nearly white and respectably dressed, talking with indifference of the times when he was a slave.  With my companion, who carried our dinners and a horn of water, which is quite necessary, as all the water in the lower valleys is saline, I every day took long walks”.

“On the higher parts of the island, considerable numbers of a shell, long thought a marine species, occur embedded in the soil.  It proves to be a land-shell of a very peculiar form; with it I found six other kinds; and in another spot an eighth species.  It is remarkable that none of them are now found living.  Their extinction has probably been caused by the entire destruction of the woods, and the consequent loss of food and shelter, which occurred during the early part of the last century.  The history of the changes, which the elevated plains of Longwood and Deadwood have undergone, as given in General Beatson's account of the island, is extremely curious.  Both plains, it is said, in former times were covered with wood, and were therefore called the Great Wood.  So late as the year 1716 there were many trees, but in 1724 the old trees had mostly fallen; and as goats and hogs had been suffered to range about, all the young trees had been killed.  It appears also from the official records, that the trees were unexpectedly, some years afterwards, succeeded by a wire grass, which spread over the whole surface.  General Beatson adds that now this plain "is covered with fine sward, and is become the finest piece of pasture on the island."  The extent of surface, probably covered by wood at a former period, is estimated at no less than two thousand acres; at the present day scarcely a single tree can be found there.  It is also said that in 1709 there were quantities of dead trees in Sandy Bay; this place is now so utterly desert, that nothing but so well attested an account could have made me believe that they could ever have grown there.  The fact, that the goats and hogs destroyed all the young trees as they sprang up, and that in the course of time the old ones, which were safe from their attacks, perished from age, seems clearly made out.  Goats were introduced in the year 1502; eighty-six years afterwards, in the time of Cavendish, it is known that they were exceedingly numerous.  More than a century afterwards, in 1731, when the evil was complete and irretrievable, an order was issued that all stray animals should be destroyed.  It is very interesting thus to find, that the arrival of animals at St. Helena in 1501, did not change the whole aspect of the island, until a period of two hundred and twenty years had elapsed: for the goats were introduced in 1502, and in 1724 it is said "the old trees had mostly fallen."  There can be little doubt that this great change in the vegetation affected not only the land-shells, causing eight species to become extinct, but likewise a multitude of insects.

He concludes the report of his visit thus: I so much enjoyed my rambles among the rocks and mountains of St. Helena that I felt almost sorry on the morning of the 14th to descend to the town. Before noon I was on board, and the Beagle made sail.

The complete works of Charles Darwin can be read online at:

1 comment:

Beverley Rock said...

Thoroughly enjoyed this article about Charles Darwin and his visit to St Helena. His joy and enthusiasm for his short stay comes across, also his remarkable observations within a few short days! Can't wait till I am able to see for myself.... very much on my agenda! Bev Rock, Australia