charles darwin – voyaging

A while back I sort of promised to post the talk I was going to give on Charles Darwin. Anyway, now I’ve done the talk (over in Tauranga; may well be repeating it in Hamilton in the fairly near future), & so here are the words. (Sort of. I tend to develop my presentations in terms of a series of powerpoint images – & not a lot of words – & then base the talk round that, rather than writing a set of notes. So this probably isn’t quite what I said the other night!)

Just a bit of background first, though. For the rest of this year, & in 2009, there are events all round the world commemorating the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of the publication of "On the origin of species". So this talk was part of that. My intention was to remind people that Charles Darwin wasn’t always that bearded old patriarch often linked with the theory of evolution, and also to talk about his voyage through life, his voyage on the "Beagle", and his voyage of intellectual discovery. Hence the title of the talk: "Charles Darwin – voyaging". (The image is one I made with ‘wordle’.)


The Darwins lived near the English town of Shrewsbury, in Shropshire. Robert Waring Darwin (1766-1848) was a very successful doctor in a time when medicine still relied on a variety of rather dubious treatments and a good bedside manner. In addition to his practice, Robert also acted as a moneylender to a number of local gentlemen, and he was careful to invest his own income wisely. He and his wife Susannah (1765-1817) bought a sizeable home ("The Mount") near Shrewsbury, overlooking the river, & it was here that Charles Robert Darwin was born on February 12, 1809.

Darwin describes himself in his Autobiography (NB well worth a read) as a rather naughty child, prone to telling tall stories and stealing fruit from local orchards. A fairly normal little boy, then! And he liked to roam the local countryside, collecting all the usual things: rocks, plants, birds’ eggs, and fishing in the river. He was also a vigorous, athletic child, good at running & jumping (and apparently rather liked to show off these abilities). This physical strength and agility was something that was to stand him in good stead during the Beagle voyage.

Susannah Darwin died in 1817, when Charles was just 8 years old. She had been in ill health for some time before this, and he was pretty much brought up by his elder sisters, particularly Caroline. She must have found this a trying task at times! When he was 12, Charles recorded this exchange:

you must know that after my Geography, she said I should go down to ask for Richards poney, just as I was going, she said she must ask me not a very decent question, that was whether I wash all over every morning no then she said it was quite disgustin then she asked me if I did every other morning, and I said no then she said how often I did, and I said once a week, then she said of cour you wash your feet every day, and I said no, then she begun saying how very disgusting and went on that way a good while, then she said I ought to do it, I said I would wash my neck and shoulders, then she said you had better do it all over then I said upon my word I would not….

He received the beginnings of his education at home, mainly from Caroline, but at 9 was sent to a local school, just across the river from The Mount, and subsequently attended a boarding school in Shrewsbury itself. It would be fair to say that Charles was at best an average student – the mainstay of a young gentleman’s education then was learning the ‘classics’ (ancient history, Latin, & Greek), all of which he struggled with. But he had fond memories of sitting in a windowseat reading Shakespeare’s plays and work by a variety of poets. He looked forward to the holidays, when – among other things – he could work with his older brother Erasmus in their chemistry ‘lab’ in the garden. (His schoolmates gave him the nickname ‘Gas’ as a result of these experiments.) 

Charles also spent time with his extended family – his mother was a Wedgewood, and her family lived just a few miles away from the Darwins, so the cousins spent a great deal of time together. Uncle Jos ran the family pottery firm, producing not only the familiar blue-&-white Wedgewood-ware but also an item that reflected the family’s liberal attitudes: a medallion showing a negro slave and the words, Am I not a man and a brother? (Charles took this message to heart and his own anti-slavery sentiments were to be the cause of a major row with Captain Fitzroy during the Beagle voyage.)

In 1825 Robert Darwin took his youngest son out of school; he felt the boy was not making much progress and may well have been concerned that he was simply wasting his time there, rather than studying hard and preparing for a career. Instead, he sent Charles to Edinburgh University to study medicine, hoping there’d be another Dr Darwin in the family. Edinburgh was rather different from modern med schools. Rather than following a standard curriculum, students chose a series of courses that best matched their particular interests, and they could study with both tenured faculty members and independent lecturers. Young Darwin had mixed feelings about the quality of some of his teachers, at one point in 1826 writing to Caroline

Many thanks for your very entertaining letter, which was a great relief after hearing a long stupid lecture from Duncan on Materia Medica— But as you know nothing either of the Lecture or Lecturers, I will give you a short account of them.— Dr. Duncan is so very learned that his wisdom has left no room for his sense, & he lectures, as I have already said, on the Materia Medica, which cannot be translated into any word expressive enough of its stupidity…

Although he’d assisted his father on his rounds in Shrewsbury, Charles realised fairly quickly that he wasn’t cut out for a medical career. While he enjoyed clinical lectures about hospital patients ‘very much’, he couldn’t stomach watching operations. Bear in mind that at the time Charles was at Edinburgh, surgeons weren’t using anaesthetics. The patient was strapped down on the operating table, possibly first stupefied by drinking rum or something similar, and then the surgeon carried out the operation as quickly as possible – the record for amputating a leg was around 30 seconds…

However, he didn’t completely neglect his studies. He spent considerable time studying zoology with Robert Grant, collecting specimens from the seashore and in the process hearing Grant’s views on a range of subjects – including evolution. It’s a fairly common misconception that Charles Darwin was the first person to come up with the concept of evolution, but in fact the idea had been around for quite some time. His grandfather Erasmus, for example, wrote about evolution in his popular book Zoonomia. Grant, also an evolutionist, followed the Lamarckian school of thought & must have told his student about it, although there’s no evidence that this had any particular impact on Charles’ thinking at the time. Charles also wrote his first scientific paper while studying with Grant, & it was read at one of the student scientific societies on campus.

By 1827 it was clear to Dr Darwin that Charles was not cut out to be a doctor, so he withdrew his son from Edinburgh and instead enrolled him in Christ’s College, Cambridge. Charles was to study for his degree in theology, settle down, and become a country parson. Charles seems to have been quite happy with this; after all, he had to have a career of some sort and being a vicar in a country parish was a perfectly respectable job for a younger son. He attended church regularly and – like most people in those days – had a creationist view of the world, reading William Paley’s ideas on intelligent design with some approval. But he didn’t just study theology: he also took papers with geologist William Whewell, who took Darwin on a fieldtrip in Wales and taught him the basics of the subject (a grounding that was to stand him in good stead during the Beagle voyage), and with botanist John Henslow. Henslow was particularly struck with Darwin’s strong & intelligent interest in natural history, commenting approvingly, What a man that Darwin is for questions! Pupil and teacher came to spend a great deal of time together, and Darwin became known as ‘the man who walks with Henslow’. This relationship really bore fruit for Charles when Henslow recommended him as a possible ‘gentleman companion’ to Robert FitzRoy. captain of the Beagle.

The British Admiralty had given FitzRoy the task of surveying and mapping the coast of South America. (Then, as more recently, the British government had a keen interest in the Falklands, and knowing as much as they could about harbours, anchorages & so on round the South American coast would be very useful to them.) FitzRoy knew that the voyage was expected to take 3 years (in the end it lasted 5), and he was worried about how well he’d withstand the isolation and stress of being in command for such a long period. Royal Navy captains were very isolated on their ships; they had the power of life & death over the men under their command and this didn’t make for easy socialising with sailors or officers. FitzRoy feared that this isolation might not be good for his mental health; after all, his uncle, Viscount Castlereagh, had committed suicide, & FitzRoy worried that mental illness might run in the family. Hence his desire for a companion, a social equal that he could talk to and dine with, relieving some of that isolation.

Darwin wasn’t FitzRoy’s first pick for the position. But when they met, FitzRoy was favourably impressed and offered Charles the job. Charles was rapt – but his father was anything but. Would his son never settle down and make something of his life?  Dr Darwin said that he was not prepared to support this plan, and Charles had to go along with it – after all, he was asking his father to bankroll his part in the expedition! However, on seeing how miserable this decision made his son, the doctor went on to offer a possible way out. If Charles could find one sensible man who would support the idea of this trip, Darwin senior would go along with it. Charles rode over to the Wedgewoods and put the proposal to Uncle Jos, who thought it an excellent idea: Charles would see something of the world, and would come back ready to settle down and get on with life. So in December 1831 Charles Darwin found himself on board the Beagle, and excitedly wrote to his mentor, John Henslow:

It is now late in the evening, and to-night I am going to sleep on board. On Monday we most certainly sail, so you may guess in what a desperate state of confusion we are all in. If you were to hear the various exclamations of the officers, you would suppose we had scarcely had a week’s notice. I am just in the same way taken all aback, and in such a bustle I hardly know what to do. The number of things to be done is infinite. I look forward to sea-sickness with something like satisfaction, anything must be better than this state of anxiety…

He would not have been so enthusiastic about feeling seasick if he’d known that he would suffer from sea-sickness the whole time he was on the ship!

To be continued…


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