Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world

STAGE 13

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Le voyage de Darwin

STAGE 13

31 May - 2 October 1836
Cape Town, St Helena, Ascension Island, Bahia, Falmouth


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.

CNRS    sagascience