Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world


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Le voyage de Darwin


27 November 1832 - 26 April 1833
Montevideo, Tierra del Fuego, the Fuegians, the Falklands

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.

CNRS    sagascience