Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world


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Le voyage de Darwin


15 November 1835 - 14 March 1836
Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, Tasmania

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.

CNRS    sagascience