Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world

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Le voyage de Darwin


Stage 1
27 December 1831

Plymouth, on the south-west coast of England. After being prevented from leaving the port for over a month by bad weather, a 240-ton sailing ship chartered by the British Admiralty was at last able to leave harbor. The ship was called HMS Beagle, and on board there were 76 crew and passengers, one of whom was to radically change our view of the living world.
But for the moment, Charles Darwin was just an enthusiastic and completely inexperienced young man of 22. He was the expedition's naturalist, and his job was to collect samples throughout the voyage. Robert FitzRoy, a captain in the Royal Navy and four years his senior, was the man in charge of this round-the-world journey. The expedition's main aim was not to study plants, animals and fossils. It was to make mapping surveys and chronometer readings already begun during the Beagle's first voyage from 1826 to 1830. There were also three very unusual passengers on board. They were 'savages' from Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of South America, who had been kidnapped on the previous expedition. Having received a smattering of English education, they were now to be sent back home.
It was really only by accident that Darwin, or the "philosopher" as he was quickly nicknamed by the sailors on board, had landed on board the Beagle. Fresh out of Cambridge, where he had studied to be a cleric, and also taken courses in botany and geology, the invitation to join the expedition had not been addressed to him. But the naturalist initially chosen had declined the offer, giving Darwin an exceptional opportunity.
The son and grandson of doctors, he had first started to read medicine, but, being of an overly sensitive nature, had given it up. However his liking for nature, biology and geology had remained intact. These were interests that he apparently shared with his grandfather, who had written a book, Zoonomia, in which the very first rudiments of evolutionary theory can be detected. In 1831, the theory according to which species evolve by adapting to their environment was already in the air, thanks to the work of scientists like Maupertuis, Buffon and Lamarck. But for the moment, this was nothing more than speculation for the scientific community of the time. The voyage of the Beagle was therefore to prove decisive. For this single experience was to culminate, 28 years later, in the publication of his great work 'The Origin of Species', in which Darwin laid bare the mechanism of evolution through natural selection. The book was to cause a huge uproar by overturning the current religious dogma according to which all living species had been created by God and had been unchanging ever since. It's ironic to know that Captain FitzRoy had nearly turned the young Darwin away on the grounds that the shape of his nose didn't appear to indicate the kind of energy and determination required for such an expedition!
But late in this month of December, Darwin was far from imagining the revolution that he was to bring about. The young naturalist and explorer might have been something of an amateur, but he had a keen eye for detail. As they set off on the first leg of their journey, he was ready to note down everything he saw in his little yellow notebook. The expedition headed for the Canary Islands, off the west coast of Morocco.



Stage 2
27 December 1831 - 28 February 1832

As the Beagle set sail for Bahia, in Brazil, Darwin's first days at sea were marked by terrible seasickness. On January 6, the ship prepared to land at Tenerife, the largest of the Canary Islands, off Morocco. But there was a snag: the local authorities refused them permission, fearing that the crew would transmit the cholera that was rife in England at the time. The young naturalist had been excited at the idea of visiting the island and was extremely disappointed. So Captain FitzRoy decided to set sail for the Cape Verde Islands, on the same latitude as Senegal. The explorers arrived there on January 16 and dropped anchor at Porto Praya on the desolate volcanic island of Santiago.
It was time for Darwin to embark upon his first observations, and also to ponder what he saw. He was intrigued by a long, perfectly horizontal strip of limestone located well above sea level. The shells that it contained proved that it had once been submerged. So how had it got to its present position? If violent volcanic activity had caused this uplift, it would have broken up the long strip. The theory of slow change over very long periods put forward by the geologist Charles Lyell, of whom Darwin was a disciple, seemed to fit this particular case very well. They only had time to meet some natives and observe a few animals before the ship set sail again. After two brief calls at the shark-infested St Paul Rocks and at the scorched island of Fernando de Noronha, the Beagle entered the port of Bahia on 28 February 1832.


Stage 3
28 February - 5 July 1832

As soon as Darwin arrived in Bahia, he was immediately captivated by the luxuriance of the Brazilian rainforest. The insects were so noisy that he could hear them from the boat even though it was anchored several hundred meters off the coast. Darwin took advantage of the two-week stopover to explore the surroundings. The geology of the area intrigued him, especially the granitic rocks. Surprisingly, the materials they were made of suggested a marine origin. He was also greatly amused by a balloonfish caught near the shore. This astonishing fish was able to inflate itself and change into a sort of balloon! When Darwin touched its belly, it secreted a crimson-colored substance, and he wondered what it could be. However, he was considerably less amused by the conditions of the black slaves he came across in the city, unlike Captain FitzRoy who enthusiastically supported slavery. This difference of opinion led to a lively argument between the two men. FitzRoy was furious, and banned Darwin from sharing his table in the future. But FitzRoy, whose outbursts of anger were frequent but short-lived, was aware that he had gone too far and was quick to lift the ban.
On March 18, the Beagle left Bahia and headed for Rio de Janeiro. On the way, the ship sailed past the Abrolhos Islands, where the ocean took on an unusual reddish brown color. When Darwin studied a sample of this odd-looking water through a magnifying glass, he was able to observe cylinder-shaped masses of small seedlings. Known as sea-sawdust to sailors, this was what caused the sea to have such a characteristic color over distances of up to several kilometers.
At the beginning of April, the Beagle dropped anchor at Rio de Janeiro. Darwin set off to explore the surroundings on horseback with some other members of the crew. In stifling heat that alternated with torrential downpours, he collected a huge variety of plants, insects and other animals. In the forest, they sometimes needed an axe to hack their way through the undergrowth. Along the way, accommodation was usually fairly rough-and-ready. There were frequently no knives, forks and spoons, and the explorers were sometimes forced to use stones to kill the hens that were to provide their supper! During this short journey, some members of the crew decided to go off on their own to explore the area of Macacu. Three of them were to die a little later, probably victims of malaria.
Once back in Rio de Janeiro, Darwin stayed in a cottage situated on the magnificent bay of Botofogo. He took advantage of his stay there to study the surrounding fauna: planarian flatworms, singing frogs, luminous fireflies, 'running' butterflies, spiders, ants, etc. He noticed that the relationships between certain plants and certain insects were similar to those found in England, even though the species were different.
On July 5, the ship set sail for Montevideo, in Uruguay.



Stage 4

5 July - 27 November 1832

Porpoises, seals, penguins and natural fireworks (actually St Elmo's fire) enlivened the Beagle's journey from Rio de Janeiro to Montevideo. Still suffering from seasickness, Darwin was no doubt relieved when the boat dropped anchor on July 26. Several days later, some of the crew were requisitioned by the local police chief to help quell an insurrection in the town. The situation in Montevideo was tense. The young naturalist sent his first batch of specimens collected since the beginning of the voyage off to England, not without some apprehension about the interest that the British specialists would show in this first consignment.
The ship began to explore the coasts of the region, which enabled Darwin to carry out several expeditions into countryside that was teeming with weird and wonderful animals: blind rodents, huge capybaras, foul-smelling deer, mocking birds, comical flycatchers, devilish toads, repugnant carrion eaters, snake-lizards, fast-running ostriches, stupid partridges, pumas, llamas, etc. He also got to know the gauchos, the local cowboys who could work wonders with the lasso as they drove their huge herds of cattle across the pampas. He shared meals with them, which must have seemed pretty exotic for an Englishman of his time. On the menu were such delights as ostrich and armadillo!
Darwin spent several weeks collecting fossils at Punta Alta, an astonishing burial ground full of the remains of gigantic animals belonging to extinct families. He discovered huge fossilized bones, including the remains of Megatherium, Megalonyx, Scelidotherium and Mylodon. Astonishingly, some of these huge unknown prehistoric mammals bore a strange resemblance to the present-day armadillo. This important discovery played a large role in challenging the notion of fixed, unchanging species. Further backing for this idea came from the bones of Toxodon that he also found there. This extinct animal was odd in many respects: it was the size of an elephant, had a rodent's teeth, and had the anatomical features of both pachyderms and aquatic animals. Darwin was greatly surprised to find the characteristics of species that are so distinct today brought together in one and the same animal. Another peculiarity of this exceptional site was highly intriguing. All these fossils were mixed up with shells that were scarcely different from those of modern times. This confirmed one of the geologist Charles Lyell's theories, namely that mammal species lasted for less time than mollusk species. In the fall, Darwin received by mail a copy of the second volume of Lyell's 'Principles of Geology', which he had eagerly been awaiting. However for now Captain FitzRoy was finding it hard to understand the need to clutter up his ship with all this 'rubbish', that to his mind was completely useless!
In early September, Darwin, FitzRoy and Harris, a local English trader who served as their guide, stayed at a military fortress called Fort Argentina. The commander of the fortress accommodated them with some suspicion, especially this naturalist whose mission he didn't understand. Suspecting them of being spies, he ordered his soldiers to keep a very close eye on their every move. During his forays inland, Darwin was surprised by the local vegetation, which often consisted of huge grassy plains, the well-known pampas. What could be the reasons for such a small number of trees in the various parts of the region? The strength of the wind? The type of drainage? Neither of these theories was particularly convincing. If, as Darwin believed, the presence of forests was determined by the annual amount of precipitation, the whole area should have been covered with them, and yet this was not the case.
In November they passed through Buenos Aires. Darwin was astonished by the city's European appearance. He took advantage of the occasion to go to the theater, a brief social interlude in this rough, tough venture. Neither was he indifferent to the beauty of the señoritas of this great South American port! Shortly before the departure of the Beagle on the next stage of its voyage, Darwin sent his second batch of specimens back to England. There were bones from Punta Alta, a strange bird, snakes, shellfish and crustaceans, plants, various species of fish, toads, seeds, beetles: the list was endless.
On November 27, the ship left the port of Montevideo and headed for Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of the continent. Their meeting with the natives was to be a memorable one.



Stage 5

27 November 1832 - 26 April 1833

Since 27 November 1832, the ship had been heading for Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of the South American continent. The three Fuegians kidnapped on the Beagle's previous voyage were about to be reunited with their families. At the arrival of the ship, ragged natives danced up and down on the shore, letting out a long, resounding wail.
The expedition was to receive an astonishing welcome to say the least. In order to calm the palpable fear of the natives, the explorers offered them lengths of scarlet cloth, which they hastened to tie around their necks. The atmosphere became less tense. As a sign of friendship, an old man with a feather headdress and a bizarrely painted face caressed Darwin's chest while making odd clucking noises. But the local inhabitants nonetheless remained taken aback by these men with white skin and long beards. Indeed, some of them encouraged one of the former captives to shave. The latter had almost forgotten his native language and appeared somewhat embarrassed by the behavior of his fellows. It had to be said that things here were very different from the good manners that they had been taught in England. The natives wore only a thin covering made of the skin of the guanaco, a sort of wild llama, which barely covered their naked bodies. They were even more astonished when some of the crew began to dance and sing, an astonishment that rapidly turned into terror when they caught sight of their firearms, with which they appeared to be familiar. One thing that was especially surprising was that the 'savages' could imitate perfectly the gestures and even some of the words of the crew.
The climate was harsh and windy in this mountainous, partly submerged land covered with inhospitable forests. The Beagle discovered this to its cost as it sailed along the coasts of Tierra del Fuego's many islands. A series of storms struck the ship. One of them forced the expedition to rapidly make for the small port of Wigwam Cove near Cape Horn, where they spent Christmas. In mid-January 1833, FitzRoy, who had personally put a lot of effort into the education of the three Fuegians on board, decided to set them up as leaders of a mission station on the edge of Ponsonby Sound. The Englishmen built two makeshift dwellings, and dug and planted two gardens. Several days later, when they returned from a trip in the area, they discovered that there had been looting. The former captives were having a lot of trouble preventing their fellow countrymen's excesses. FitzRoy's wager didn't appear to have come off. Would the three anglicized Fuegians succeed in bringing a little western civilization to this remote region? The verdict would be known in winter 1834 when the Beagle sailed back through Tierra del Fuego. But for now, the ship was heading for the open sea, sailing eastwards to the Falkland Islands.
On March 1, the ship dropped anchor at Port Louis. At the time, these bleak, windswept islands were already under British rule. They were in for a surprise: the commanding officer was at the head of a population at least half of which was made up of rebels and murderers! But the island was still a lot more hospitable than Tierra del Fuego. There was a copious supply of European animals, fish and vegetables to eat. During his journeys inland, Darwin was intrigued by a number of differences between the species on the Falklands and those he had observed on the South American continent. Meticulous comparison of the plants, animals and fossils collected during the voyage would eventually provide him with a host of information about the way in which similar species adapt to different environments. In March, a schooner called the Unicorn arrived in port. FitzRoy bought it from its owner and renamed it the Adventure. Their idea was to turn it into a support ship for the Beagle for mapping surveys. Unfortunately, he failed to inform his superiors back in England, a mistake that he was to pay for later.
On April 6, the Beagle set sail for the east coast of South America. On April 26, they arrived back in Montevideo, which they had left five months earlier.




Stage 6

26 April - 6 December 1833
After several months of adventures in Tierra del Fuego and the Falkland Islands, the Beagle arrived back in Montevideo on April 26. For Darwin, this was to be the beginning of a long series of trips inland, which were full of discoveries and incidents. Their first destination was the small town of Maldonado. A traveler from Montevideo had been murdered near there the day before... Not to be put off, Darwin stayed for several weeks in the area, which was inhabited by flocks of ostriches. There he obtained a large number of species of bird and reptile as well as several quadrupeds for his collection. A few miles from the village, he became interested in some vitrified, siliceous tubes which had been formed by the action of lightning on sand. By studying their size and number, the naturalist came to the conclusion that an extremely powerful stroke of lightning had split into separate branches before striking the ground.
There was a striking cultural gap between the explorers and the local inhabitants, to judge by the astonishment of some of them at the sight of Darwin's compass. How on earth could this stranger who didn't know the region manage to find the right way to such and such a place? The natives, who didn't know the difference between England and North America, asked him a host of questions: was it the Earth or the Sun that moved? Was it warmer or colder in the North? Where was Spain? etc. This cultivated Englishman who could make fire by striking a match on his teeth aroused huge admiration!
At the end of July, Darwin sent back his third batch of specimens to England. It comprised 80 birds, 20 quadrupeds, numerous skins and plants, geological samples and different species of fish. To help him collect the increasingly numerous samples, he took on a member of the crew, Syms Covington, as an assistant, naturally with the permission of Captain FitzRoy, the sole master on board. He continued to work with Covington until 1839, after the expedition was over.
In early August, accompanied by some gauchos, Darwin set off to explore the banks of the Rio Negro. He was thus able to get a taste of the life of these 'cowboy-farmers', and enjoyed the feeling of total freedom. But such a life also had its dangers, and farms were sometimes attacked by tribes of extremely ferocious Indians. To defend themselves against them, the Government had sent an army under the command of the despotic General Rosas, whom Darwin met in mid-August when he arrived on the banks of the Rio Colorado. But he was shocked by the brutality of the soldiers, who had no hesitation in slaughtering the Indian women and enslaving their children. In fact, a genuine war of extermination was being undertaken throughout the whole country. Like all the whites, the naturalist was a potential target for the rebellious Indians. As a result, he was extremely careful when on his trips.
On one of his expeditions, Darwin was amazed that animals were able to survive in the muddy, fetid brine of the salt lakes that dotted the region. It was evidence that advanced organisms were able to adapt and develop in the most hostile of environments.
Political instability was at its height in the region, where corruption was endemic. In October, Darwin was held up in Buenos Aires for a fortnight due to an uprising by the supporters of General Rosas against the Government of the time. But that didn't prevent him from working. During this journey of over seven months, marked by drought and during which they often went thirsty, the naturalist observed many animals: armadillos, ostriches, snakes, waders, lizards, various species of fish, a bird called the Scissor-beak, Viscachas, parrots, partridges, oxen, owls, black-necked swans, frogs and toads, and even pumas, whose flesh he tasted.
He was also a close observer of the flora. He was surprised at the huge numbers of European cardoons that had literally invaded certain regions, and by completely impenetrable fields of giant thistles. His interest in the remains of prehistoric animals was also satisfied: he found the heads of Mylodon and Toxodon, huge skeletons of extinct Mastodons, the armor of a gigantic animal that looked strangely like a modern armadillo, a fossilized horse tooth, etc. Together with the remains of the mammals already discovered at Punta Alta, all these remains were beginning to seriously question the religious dogma according to which species had not evolved since they were created by God.
On December 6, the Beagle left Montevideo for good. They sailed down towards the southernmost tip of the continent, before entering the Pacific.



Stage 7

6 December 1833 - 10 June 1834
On December 6, the Beagle left Montevideo for good. One evening, off the east coast of South America, the ship was caught up in a huge cloud of butterflies, stretching as far as the eye could see. The sailors cried out that it was snowing butterflies! Darwin sought an explanation for their presence so far from land: had they been blown there by the wind? Or was it a vast migration? He was unable to decide.
On December 23, the ship dropped anchor at Port Desire (now Puerto Deseado) in Argentina. The fauna and flora suffered from the aridity of the area, drastically limiting their diversity. Only a few cacti, thorny shrubs, guanacos, beetles, lizards and birds appeared to populate this remote region. While out walking, Darwin discovered an ancient Indian tomb. On January 9, the ship put in at the beautiful, wide harbor of Puerto San Julián, situated less than 200 kilometers south of Puerto Deseado. But the surrounding countryside appeared even more barren. Darwin, Captain FitzRoy and a few members of the crew set off to explore. They walked for eleven hours without finding the least drop of fresh water, of which they were to find none during their entire stay. Near the harbor, Darwin came face to face with a skeleton of Macrauchenia patachonica, an extinct pachyderm whose neck bones were reminiscent of the llama. He wondered what could have led to the extinction of all the species whose remains he had found since the beginning of his voyage. Was it extermination by humans, competition between species, natural extinction? There were several possible explanations.
At the end of February, the Beagle arrived off Tierra del Fuego, at the southernmost tip of the continent. The moment of truth had arrived for Captain FitzRoy: had the three natives whom he had provided with an education in England managed to run the mission station they had built the year before and 'civilize' their fellows? On March 5, the ship dropped anchor at Woollya. The mission station was empty: there had apparently been a battle. An almost completely naked Fuegian arrived in a small boat. It was Jemmy Button, one of the three anglicized natives. He had completely reverted to the native way of life, and appeared somewhat shamefaced in the presence of the crew. He informed them that the two other Tierra del Fuego natives educated by FitzRoy had fled after stealing his belongings. The Captain had lost his bet. The only consolation was that Jemmy had taught his tribe a few words of English. But he didn't wish to return to England, because he now had a pretty young wife. When they left, there were emotional farewells.
On March 16, the Beagle stopped off in the Berkeley Sound, on East Falkland. Cold weather, winds and blizzards greeted Darwin as he travelled into these wet regions populated by wild geese, loggerheaded ducks, jackass penguins, foxes, rabbits and a few birds. The naturalist was intrigued by two recently introduced species, cattle and horses. Whereas the former appeared to be perfectly adapted to their new environment, surprisingly the horses remained confined to one part of the island, and appeared to be degenerating. The attention of the young Darwin was also drawn towards myriads of large fragments of jagged rock that formed amazing 'rivers of rock', evidence of a past seismic event of huge energy. And yet, surprisingly, there was no trace of an earthquake of this nature in the historical records.
On April 13, the Beagle arrived at the mouth of the Rio Santa Cruz on the coast of Argentina. On the 18th, Darwin, FitzRoy and twenty crew members set off to explore the mysterious river on board three whaling boats. However, the current was so fast that the men had to land quickly and tow the boats along with the help of ropes. The explorers made slow, exhausting progress, under the watchful eyes of the condors gliding overhead. And to make matters worse, evidence of horses and spears indicated that Indians were on their trail. But despite everything, the young naturalist was fascinated by the study of the geological structures that surrounded them. His observations convinced him that the cliffs on either side of the river, as well as the Andes Cordillera itself, were the result of slow uplift above sea level. On May 4, supplies started to run out, and the Rio Santa Cruz started to become faster and increasingly tortuous. FitzRoy decided to turn back, putting an end to the aim of reaching the Andes, which were already making the air chilly. Although it had taken them seventeen days to go up river, it only took them three to get back down!
In the second half of May, the ship arrived at the eastern mouth of the Strait of Magellan, which connects the Atlantic to the Pacific at the south of the continent. The ship put in at Port Famine (now Puerto del Hambre) on June 1, as winter settled in. Dark, dank forests covered the slopes of the mountains, which were crowned with glaciers. On the morning of June 10, after a pitch-dark night lasting fourteen hours, the Beagle at last sailed through into the Pacific.



Stage 8
10 June 1834 - 4 February 1835

On the morning of June 10, the Beagle at last sailed through into the Pacific. After stopping off at the rain swept Chiloé Islands, the ship headed for the Chilean port of Valparaíso, which it reached on 23 July. The explorers remained for over three and a half months on this part of the Chilean coast. It was the opportunity for many expeditions to the foothills of the Andes, which filled Darwin with wonder.
To the north of the port of Valparaíso he observed extensive beds of shells located several meters above sea level. To the naturalist, it was obvious that the entire coastline had been uplifted. Large numbers of mines had also been dug throughout the region, evidence of the gold fever that was sweeping the country. In Jajuel and Yaquil, Darwin came across pallid-looking miners who spent the whole day underground extracting this mineral wealth. It was in this context of acute poverty that Darwin met an old man who found it hard to understand why England would send a man to Chile whose only job appeared to consist in chasing lizards and beetles or breaking up rocks! The vegetation of the region was fairly scanty: unattractive palm-trees, plants reminiscent of cacti, orchards and a few stunted acacias. Neither was animal life abundant. However, Darwin found some of the birds entertaining, such as the Tapacolo (which shows its rear when it flees), the absurd Turca with its deafening screams, and an extremely rapid hummingbird. The pumas, on the other hand, were considerably less amusing. Indeed, one of them killed two men and a woman during their stay in this part of Chile.
At the end of September, Darwin fell ill. A fever kept him confined to bed in Valparaiso until the end of the following month. However, he still managed to send a batch of specimens to England. Once recovered, he learnt that Captain FitzRoy had had a nervous breakdown. An overload of work, together with a reprimand from the Admiralty concerning the Adventure, a support ship that FitzRoy had bought without informing his superior officers, had exhausted him. In fact, he even ordered one of his lieutenants to take over command of the Beagle, finish the survey of the southern coasts, head for Cape Horn, and return directly to England! Fortunately, the lieutenant refused. Had he accepted, the theory of natural selection might never have seen the light of day! Finally, the Captain pulled himself together, and on November 10, the ship set off from Valparaíso for a second visit to the Chiloé Islands.
On November 21, the ship dropped anchor in the bay of San Carlos, the capital of the Chiloés. The islands were battered by gales and covered with frequently impenetrable boggy forests. Several days later, Osorno volcano started to belch forth huge clouds of smoke. Darwin met some of the extremely poor inhabitants, including Indians who had converted to Christianity. However, it was whispered that the latter still took part in strange ceremonies in caves during which they conversed with the devil. On the various islands of the archipelago, the young naturalist observed the wildlife. He discovered a sort of giant wild rhubarb, sweet-smelling laurels, red cedars, Patagonian Cypress, stunted southern beeches and an apparently native fox.
Towards mid-December, the ship entered the Chonos archipelago, to the south of the Chiloé islands. During a splendid hike, Darwin came across tracks that were evidence of the presence of humans in this otherwise uninhabited region. They were to find the explanation just a few days later, when the explorers came face to face with some sailors who had deserted from an American whaler. They had been wandering about along the coast for fifteen months with no idea of where they were! They were taken on board the Beagle, which saved them from certain death.
The new year 1835 was marked, unsurprisingly, by yet another storm. The terrible weather didn't prevent the courageous Darwin from making ever keener observations: herds of foul-smelling seals, vultures ready to devour their carcasses, black-necked swans, cormorants, terns, seagulls, otters, beavers, barking-birds, myriads of petrels, and fields full of fuchsias.
On January 18, the ship was back in the bay of San Carlos in the Chiloés. The next day, Darwin witnessed the eruption of Osorno. He was to learn later that several volcanoes in this part of South America had entered into eruption on the same day, and wondered whether they might not be connected together underground. On February 4, the explorers left for Valdivia on the Chilean coast, where they were to be greeted by an earthquake.



Stage 9
4 February - 7 September 1835
On 4 February 1835, the Beagle left the Chiloé Islands and four days later arrived at Valdivia, on the coast of Chile. On February 20, at 11:30 am, a violent earthquake suddenly struck the city. The wooden houses were heavily shaken, the sea level rose as high as the spring tide, and the terrified inhabitants rushed out into the streets. The main earthquake lasted a mere two minutes, but the damage was considerable. In the surrounding area, things were no better. A huge wave had practically wiped the town of Talcahuano off the map, the houses of Concepción were in ruins, the entire coast was littered with beams and furniture, rocks had been smashed to smithereens, land had been uplifted, and above all there were a large number of fatalities.
For Darwin, this was an unhoped-for subject of study. He was able to observe fragments of rock covered with marine growth that had been thrown high up the shore by the earthquake. By comparing this phenomenon with the shells that he had previously observed at high altitudes in the Andes, he became certain of one thing: the mountains were the result of enormous upward motion caused by successive earthquakes of this kind, coupled with extremely slow, imperceptible uplift. When he learnt that volcanoes had started to erupt during the earthquake and that the island of Juan Fernandez situated 576 kilometers away had also been violently shaken, the naturalist also hypothesized that there was an underground connection.
On March 11, the ship dropped anchor at Valparaíso, on the Chilean coast. Darwin took advantage of this to undertake a number of trips into the Andes. The rarefied air and the icy winds made it hard to climb these peaks covered with eternal snows. But Darwin quickly forgot the altitude sickness when he discovered fossilized shells at high altitude, new evidence of the marine origins of the Andes. There was even more convincing evidence: the presence of the remains of submarine lava at an altitude of over 2000 meters! He was also surprised by the difference in flora and fauna between the Pacific and Atlantic sides of the mountain range. It appeared that this impassable natural barrier had led to the development of very different species on either side of the range.
On April 27, Darwin set out on a second series of trips to the North, leaving the picturesque city of Valparaíso, to which he was not to return. The region abounded in gold, silver and copper, dug out by the Chilean miners, whose lives were little better than those of beasts of burden. When out studying the geology, Darwin was sometimes suspected of being a prospector! The countryside became increasingly arid, with deserts that were for the most part barren. The few trees and shrubs of central Chile became increasingly scarce, gradually giving way to very large plants related to the yucca, while the large "chandelier-like" cacti were replaced by smaller versions. As for animals, the quadrupeds of the region appeared to consist mostly of guanacos and foxes. In these difficult conditions, getting hold of fresh water, wood and fodder for the horses was a daily challenge!
In early July, Darwin met up with the Beagle again at the foot of the Copiapo valley. On the 12th, the crew dropped anchor in the poverty-stricken port of Iquique, and Darwin visited a saltpeter mine in the desolate surroundings. A week later, the ship arrived in Callao, the port of Lima, the capital of Peru. A revolution had broken out in the country, and complete political anarchy reigned, with no less than four political parties in arms fighting for power. In this context, journeys inland were impossible, preventing the naturalist from exploring the region. So Darwin changed tack. He sent a batch of specimens back to England, and then visited the city and its immediate surroundings. Here he came across the ruins of an ancient Indian village. The remains of houses, burial mounds, irrigation works, pottery, fabrics, jewelry and tools were evidence of an advanced civilization, and aroused his admiration.
On September 7, the Beagle set off from the port of Callao, heading due west towards the Galápagos Islands. Darwin didn't know it yet, but the next stage in the journey was to be decisive for the future development of his theory of natural selection. But for now, he was simply excited at the thought of discovering these fascinating Pacific islands!


Stage 10
15 September – 20 October 1835
On September 15, the Galápagos Islands came into view. The explorers were to spend a little over a month discovering this equatorial Pacific group of islands, made up of a dozen volcanic islands covered with thousands of craters.
On the 17th, the Beagle landed at Chatham Island, amid sweltering heat. The ground was made up of a black basalt lava flow, which was rough and in some places peppered with small cones of volcanic origin. At first sight, the only things growing there appeared to be some skimpy stunted shrubs, large odd-shaped cacti, sickly-looking weeds, and a few acacias. But the island was not entirely devoid of animal life. Darwin was intrigued by what appeared to be paths made by some kind of animals as they headed towards sources of water. He quickly found out what had made the paths when he came face to face with two huge tortoises. Present in very large numbers, these animals, which were to become the symbols of Galápagos, could provide up to 100 kg of edible meat. This explained why it sometimes took as many as six to eight men to lift them off the ground. Darwin tried several times to keep his balance on their backs, but with little success.


On the 23rd, the explorers travelled to Charles Island, which had been settled for six years by several hundred people of color, who had been banished from the Republic of Ecuador for political crimes. Like its fellows, the island featured a few shrubs on the coast, which were quickly replaced by greener woodland and then by a lush vegetation of coarse grasses and ferns at the summit. Although pigs and wild goats were scattered throughout the woods, the giant tortoises were the main source of food for the islanders. This much-appreciated fare was accompanied by sweet potatoes and bananas. Darwin met a man who assured him that he could tell which island a tortoise was from just by looking at it. At the time, he didn't pay much attention to what the man had said!
On the 29th, the ship arrived off the coast of Albemarle island, which was covered with solidified lava and populated by large black aquatic lizards. Measuring up to four feet long, these lizards were the only ones in the world able to feed off marine plants. Another odd thing about them was that they were larger on this island than anywhere else. Darwin also studied some very numerous, hideous-looking yellowish-brown lizards, which were very slow-moving and could weigh as much as 15 pounds. This terrestrial species ate berries, acacia leaves and above all cacti.
On the 29th, the ship arrived off the coast of Albemarle island, which was covered with solidified lava and populated by large black aquatic lizards. Measuring up to four feet long, these lizards were the only ones in the world able to feed off marine plants. Another odd thing about them was that they were larger on this island than anywhere else. Darwin also studied some very numerous, hideous-looking yellowish-brown lizards, which were very slow-moving and could weigh as much as 15 pounds. This terrestrial species ate berries, acacia leaves and above all cacti.
Altogether, in scarcely over a month, Darwin collected no less than 193 species of plants, 26 species of terrestrial bird, 17 species of shellfish, 15 saltwater fish and 11 waders, as well as aquatic birds, reptiles, insects, etc. But behind these impressive figures, there lay an even more astonishing underlying reality: many of these species were quite unique. Even more amazingly, some of them only existed on one of the islands of the archipelago and not on the others. Each island appeared to have engendered species that were specifically adapted to their own environment. The example of the finches was especially revealing. Although the morphology of these birds was strikingly similar, they differed from each other in various details such as the shape and size of their beaks. Darwin realized that the isolation of these birds on their respective islands meant that, from a single species of continental origin, the birds had diverged and now showed variations that were probably related to differences in their way of life and feeding habits. This discovery, and many others, was to contribute to the elaboration of his theory of natural selection and to shed light on the mechanism whereby species evolve by adapting to their environment.
But for now, it was 20 October 1835, and the Beagle set sail, heading for Tahiti.



 

Stage 11
15 November 1835 - 14 March 1836
After a crossing of more than 5000 kilometers from the Galápagos islands, the Beagle arrived at Tahiti on 15 November 1835.
The coast abounded in coconut palms, bananas, oranges, breadfruit and a multitude of crops. A joyful crowd enthusiastically welcomed the explorers. Darwin took an instant liking to this charming people. Accompanied by Tahitian guides, the naturalist set off to discover the interior of the island, with its wooded mountains full of precipices, impressive ravines and spectacular waterfalls. The countryside abounded in wild tropical plants. One of the plants he discovered was the ava, an intoxicating plant that the missionaries had eliminated from inhabited areas, just as they had banned the sale of alcohol.
After a quick visit to Papeete at the end of November, during which the Queen of Tahiti was welcomed on board the Beagle, the crew dropped anchor in New Zealand on 21 December. All the small villages along the coast appeared totally calm, and the welcome could hardly have been more different than that of the Tahitians. Darwin discovered the warlike Maoris, who were dirty and foul-smelling and considerably less civilized than the Tahitians. Fortunately, cannibalism appeared to be a dying custom. The interior of the country had hardly been cleared, and was almost completely impenetrable. And to cap it all, Darwin began to feel homesick for England. So it was with some relief that he left the country at the end of December.
On 12 January 1836, the ship arrived in Sydney. Darwin was captivated by the Australian capital. There were wide, clean streets, large houses, well-stocked shops, and tarmac roads. You could have been in the outskirts of London. For Darwin, the colony was proof of British might. However, New South Wales also had a less flattering side. Its population was partly made up of ex-convicts brought from England. Money appeared to be their main motivation, and the natives had been decimated by European diseases and alcohol. The arrival of the British settlers had also affected the local fauna which provided the natives' food. Hunted by greyhounds, wild game such as emus and kangaroos was becoming increasingly scarce. Despite all this, the naturalist observed magnificent parrots, white cockatoos, and the strange platypus.
On February 5, the ship arrived at Hobart Town (now Hobart) in Tasmania, a large island off southern Australia. Here, the humidity made for a flourishing agriculture. At the foot of Mount Wellington fertile fields of wheat and potatoes stretched as far as the eye could see, together with gardens full of vegetables and fruit trees, and lush pasture. Another odd thing was that all the island's natives had been deported to another island. On March 6, the Beagle dropped anchor in the King George Sound, in south-west Australia. The countryside was just one immense wooded plain, from which emerged here and there completely bare granite hills. The explorers didn't linger long.
On March 14, they set sail for the Cocos Islands, lost in the immensity of the Indian Ocean.


Stage 12
1 April - 9 May 1836
On April 1, they set sail for the Cocos Islands, lost in the immensity of the Indian Ocean. They got their name from the fact that forests of coconut palms made up the main resource of these atolls inhabited by Malays and a few Englishmen. The remaining vegetation was sturdy, but was made up of an extremely limited number of species. Some of them, such as the soapberry and the castor oil plant, came from Java and Sumatra. Darwin was impressed by these seeds, which had managed to germinate after travelling for distances that probably exceeded 4000 kilometers! As for the fauna, the number of terrestrial animals was even more limited than that of plants. The naturalist was nonetheless able to record a species of rat from Mauritius, tortoises, a few birds, some crabs, a small lizard, thirteen species of insect and a large number of spiders. The surrounding ocean, on the other hand, was teeming with life. Darwin observed magnificent blue-green fish that only fed on coral, gigantic shellfish, as well as numerous zoophytes with amazing colors and shapes.
But it was the origin of these coral islands that fascinated Darwin. And one question particularly bothered him: what did the polyps, the animals that built the reefs making up the atolls, use as a support? After all, since they couldn't live at great depths, these very special marine animals obviously had to fix their structures on some kind of support. By continuing to observe them closely, he came to the conclusion that the polyps had developed on what had once been dry land, which had then very slowly sunk below sea level. So each atoll was a monument raised on a now vanished island. This topic interested him so much that when he got back to England he published a book entirely given over to the subject. But for now, he was just simply enthralled by the never-ending battle between land and water to which these coral reefs testified.
On April 12, the explorers left the Cocos Islands for Mauritius, which they reached on the 29th. Darwin was immediately enchanted by the harmony of the landscape. In the foreground, the Pamplemousses Plain was colored a brilliant green by huge fields of sugar cane. Further inland, the needle-shaped peaks of the forested basalt mountains were wreathed in beautiful white clouds. In the center of the island there was an oval plateau made up of lava flows and edged with craters. However, Darwin did not rate Mauritius quite as highly as Tahiti. He also strolled through the large town of Port Louis with its clean, neat streets, its peaceful Indian population, its well-stocked libraries and even an attractive theater. Even under British domination, the Ile de France, as it was formerly known, was still steeped in French culture. Although little appreciated by the French residents, the British government did nonetheless appear to have increased the island's prosperity.
On May 9 it was time to leave. The Beagle set sail from Port Louis and headed towards the Cape of Good Hope, at the southernmost tip of South Africa.



Stage 13
31 May - 2 October 1836

On 31 May 1836, the explorers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, where they discovered a somewhat bleak landscape. At the little town of Simon's Bay there were nothing but dreary houses, very few gardens and hardly any trees. However, the outskirts of Cape Town were more welcoming, and the city itself had a very British appearance. But apparently, what Darwin enjoyed most during this stopover were his discussions with Sir John Herschel, an English astronomer and philosopher who lived in Cape Town. Neither of them had the slightest inkling that they would one day be buried side by side in Westminster Abbey in London!
On June 18, the Beagle set sail for St Helena, which it reached on July 8. The island, lost in the middle of the South Atlantic, rose abruptly out of the ocean, like a huge black castle. Darwin settled in near Napoleon's tomb, from where he set off to explore the surrounding countryside despite raging winds and frequent downpours. His observations lent support to the theory that this volcanic island was geologically very old, its mountain peaks being part of a huge crater whose southern rim had been washed away by the sea. Up in the hills, the naturalist recorded ancient species of terrestrial shells. He put their extinction down to the pigs and goats whose introduction into the island had destroyed the forests which was their habitat. In the lower parts of the island, a large number of plants imported from England had also invaded the ecosystem.
On July 14, the ship headed north-west, and dropped anchor five days later at the desolate volcanic island of Ascension. Darwin was interested in the rats, which had different fur and were smaller than ordinary rats. He thought that they were descended from species that had been imported into the island and become wild, and whose characteristics had changed so as to adapt to the conditions on the island. This was yet more evidence of evolution, coming after his discoveries in the Galápagos. The island's geology also deeply intrigued him, and especially the 'volcanic bombs', blobs of lava that had been ejected into the air and then solidified into spherical shapes. But his excitement knew no bounds when he received a letter from his sisters informing him that some of his fellow scientists wished to see him take his place in the company of the top scientists of the day. Wild with joy, he continued to explore the island's mountains with renewed vigor. For the young naturalist, history was in the making.
On July 23, Captain FitzRoy decided to return to Bahia in order to complete some chronometer readings carried out at the beginning of the voyage. Some of the crew were taken aback by this, as they were now keen to get back to England as quickly as possible. But Darwin was delighted at the thought of seeing the beauty of nature in the tropics one last time. They reached the coast of Brazil on August 1. On the 19th, the crew began their final return to England, which was to be interrupted by two very brief stops in the Cape Verde Islands and the Azores.
On 2 October 1836, the Beagle entered the English port of Falmouth after a voyage which had lasted for four years, nine months and five days.



Stage 14
After the return of the Beagle
After this extraordinary voyage around the world, Charles Darwin settled in London, where he got married on 29 January 1839. His wife, Emma Wedgwood, bore him ten children. His record of the journey, popularly known as The Voyage of the Beagle, met with great success, considerably more so than the account of the expedition written by Captain FitzRoy. In fact, FitzRoy felt some resentment as a result of this.
Due to this success, Darwin suddenly found himself Secretary of the Geological Society. In 1842, suffering from chronic bouts of nausea, dizziness, insomnia and weakness, for which no explanation was ever to be found, he decided to settle in a small village in Kent. There he led a country life, systematically working on the material he had brought back from his voyage. As he had got into the habit of doing on the Beagle, he continued to note down his observations every day in a little yellow notebook. He kept this tradition up until his death in 1882.
Although the idea of natural selection appeared evident to him as early as 1836 when he returned home, it took him over twenty years to put his ideas together. But in summer 1858 something happened which was to speed things up. The naturalist Alfred Wallace asked him for his opinion about the draft of an article in which he set forth the main ideas that Darwin had already long formulated without publishing them. This development hastened the publication in 1859 of The Origin of Species, which enjoyed immediate success. By revealing the mechanism whereby species evolved by adapting to their environment, Darwin's book questioned the religious dogma of the Creation, sparking off a fierce controversy which is still far from dying down in today's world.

CNRS    sagascience