Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world

STAGE 12

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Le voyage de Darwin

STAGE 12

1 April - 9 May 1836
Cocos Islands, atolls, coral reefs, Mauritius


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.

CNRS    sagascience