the ‘beagle’ letters

I’m a bit short of time at the moment (enrolment, & preparing for this semester’s classes, & so on) so my reading’s a bit limited. But I’m enjoying dipping in & out of The ‘Beagle’ Letters – a collection of the letters written to & by Charles Darwin in the period January 1831 to October 1836.

From Valparaiso, in Chile, Darwin wrote to his friend Charles Whitley (23 July 1834). By now he was obviously getting a bit tired of the voyage – after all, he’d originally been told it would last just 3 years, but there was no sign that they were heading home any time soon.

That this voyage must come to a conclusion, my reason tells me, but otherwise I see no end to it.– It is impossible not to regret the friends & other sources of pleasure, one leaves behind in England; in place of it, there is much solid enjoyment, some present, but more in anticipation, when the ideas gained during the voyage can be compared to fresh ones… We have seen much fine scenery, that of the Tropics in tis glory & luxuriance, exceeds even the language of Humboldt (one of his favourite authors) to describe.

But then he pulled himself up for feeling sorry for himself: These recollections will not do. i shall not be able tomorrow to pick out the entrails of some small animal, with half my usual gusto.

But there was plenty of action to take his mind off feeling homesick. In the early (southern) autumn of 1835, Darwin crossed the Cordillera mountain range, a trip which added much to [his] knowledge of the geology of the country, as he wrote to Henslow on April 18, 1835. This adventure involved some serious tramping – & provided some sublime experiences:

I cannot tell you how I enjoyed some of these views.– it is worth coming from England once to feel such intense delight. At an elevation from 10-12,000 ft. there is a transparency in the air & a confusion of distances & a sort of stillness which gives the sensation of being in another world, & when to this is joined, the picture so plainly drawn of the great epochs of violence (he’s talking about the period of geological uplift that produced these mountains), it causes in the mind a most strange assemblage of ideas.

(We think of the Beagle  voyages, but Darwin actually spent more time ashore than he did on the boat. Given his tendency to be sea-sick, he was glad of every opportunity to go ashore. Not that this time was wasted; as you can see, he did an enormous amount of exploring, making scientific observations along the way. He looked forward to these excursions with great gusto, writing to his sister Susan (April 23rd, 1835) My holdiays extend until the middle of July: so that I have 10 weeks before me, & the Beagle will pick me up at any Port I choose. the day after tomorrow I start for Coquimbo. I have three horses & a baggage Mule, & a Peon whom I can trust, having now accompanied me on every excursion. The people moreover to the North, have a capital character for honesty ie they are not cut-throats. I’m sure that put his family’s mind at rest!

The Galapagos Islands, which are often thought of as playing such a large part in Darwin’s thinking, were just a brief stop on the Beagle’s itinerary. (In fact, his considerable travels in South America played an equally significant role.) The ship arrived there in September 1835, & spent 5 weeks surveying the coastline. Darwin looked forward to this part of the trip – before they left South America he was complaining to his sister Susan (May 3rd) that really it is here uncomfortably chilly & damp with an eternally cloudy sky. When we reach the Galapagos, the sun will be vertically over our heads–& I suspect that my wishes [for warmth] will be fulfilled to the uttermost. (Subsequent letters were sent from Sydney, & make no mention of the time on the Galapagos – but they do come in for attention in his Beagle Diary.)

By the time the expedition finally returned to England, Charles was more than ready to set foot ashore. When the Beagle docked, he headed straight home to Shrewsbury. His family was rapt to see him walk in the door:

[He] had landed in Falmouth on Sunday evening & travelled night & day till he came to Shrewsbury late last night– We heard nothing of him till this morning when he walked in just before breakfast– We have had the very happiest morning– poor Charles so full of affection and delight at seeing my Father looking so well & being with us all again– his hatred of the sea is as intense as even I can wish. (Caroline Darwin, writing to her cousin Elizabeth Wedgwood, 5 October 1836)

Charles himself wrote to his Uncle Jos (Wedgwood) that he was quite confused with so much delight at being home again &, as he told Captain Fitzroy, this was obviously shared by the local workers: Two or three of our labourers yesterday immediately set to work, and got most excessively drunk in honour of the arrival of Master Charles. And he wrote to Henslow (also on the 6th of October), who was instrumental in getting him his place on the BeagleI do long to see you; you have been the mindest friend to me, that ever Man possessed.– I can write no more for I am giddy with joy & confusion. (And isn’t that joy infectious, & endearing?)

All quotations from: Frederick Burkhardt (editor) (2008) Charles Darwin: the ‘Beagle’ Letters. Cambridge University Press.

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