Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world

STAGE 6

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Le voyage de Darwin

STAGE 6

26 April - 6 December 1833
Montevideo, explorations inland, samples, General Rosas


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.

CNRS    sagascience