Darwin, a naturalist's voyage around the world


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Le voyage de Darwin


10 June 1834 - 4 February 1835
Chiloé Islands, Valparaíso, the Andes, the Chonos archipelago, a volcanic eruption, an earthquake

On the morning of June 10, the Beagle at last sailed through into the Pacific. After stopping off at the rain swept Chiloé Islands, the ship headed for the Chilean port of Valparaíso, which it reached on 23 July. The explorers remained for over three and a half months on this part of the Chilean coast. It was the opportunity for many expeditions to the foothills of the Andes, which filled Darwin with wonder.

To the north of the port of Valparaíso he observed extensive beds of shells located several meters above sea level. To the naturalist, it was obvious that the entire coastline had been uplifted. Large numbers of mines had also been dug throughout the region, evidence of the gold fever that was sweeping the country. In Jajuel and Yaquil, Darwin came across pallid-looking miners who spent the whole day underground extracting this mineral wealth. It was in this context of acute poverty that Darwin met an old man who found it hard to understand why England would send a man to Chile whose only job appeared to consist in chasing lizards and beetles or breaking up rocks! The vegetation of the region was fairly scanty: unattractive palm-trees, plants reminiscent of cacti, orchards and a few stunted acacias. Neither was animal life abundant. However, Darwin found some of the birds entertaining, such as the Tapacolo (which shows its rear when it flees), the absurd Turca with its deafening screams, and an extremely rapid hummingbird. The pumas, on the other hand, were considerably less amusing. Indeed, one of them killed two men and a woman during their stay in this part of Chile.

At the end of September, Darwin fell ill. A fever kept him confined to bed in Valparaiso until the end of the following month. However, he still managed to send a batch of specimens to England. Once recovered, he learnt that Captain FitzRoy had had a nervous breakdown. An overload of work, together with a reprimand from the Admiralty concerning the Adventure, a support ship that FitzRoy had bought without informing his superior officers, had exhausted him. In fact, he even ordered one of his lieutenants to take over command of the Beagle, finish the survey of the southern coasts, head for Cape Horn, and return directly to England! Fortunately, the lieutenant refused. Had he accepted, the theory of natural selection might never have seen the light of day! Finally, the Captain pulled himself together, and on November 10, the ship set off from Valparaíso for a second visit to the Chiloé Islands.

On November 21, the ship dropped anchor in the bay of San Carlos, the capital of the Chiloés. The islands were battered by gales and covered with frequently impenetrable boggy forests. Several days later, Osorno volcano started to belch forth huge clouds of smoke. Darwin met some of the extremely poor inhabitants, including Indians who had converted to Christianity. However, it was whispered that the latter still took part in strange ceremonies in caves during which they conversed with the devil. On the various islands of the archipelago, the young naturalist observed the wildlife. He discovered a sort of giant wild rhubarb, sweet-smelling laurels, red cedars, Patagonian Cypress, stunted southern beeches and an apparently native fox.

Towards mid-December, the ship entered the Chonos archipelago, to the south of the Chiloé islands. During a splendid hike, Darwin came across tracks that were evidence of the presence of humans in this otherwise uninhabited region. They were to find the explanation just a few days later, when the explorers came face to face with some sailors who had deserted from an American whaler. They had been wandering about along the coast for fifteen months with no idea of where they were! They were taken on board the Beagle, which saved them from certain death. The new year 1835 was marked, unsurprisingly, by yet another storm. The terrible weather didn't prevent the courageous Darwin from making ever keener observations: herds of foul-smelling seals, vultures ready to devour their carcasses, black-necked swans, cormorants, terns, seagulls, otters, beavers, barking-birds, myriads of petrels, and fields full of fuchsias.

On January 18, the ship was back in the bay of San Carlos in the Chiloés. The next day, Darwin witnessed the eruption of Osorno. He was to learn later that several volcanoes in this part of South America had entered into eruption on the same day, and wondered whether they might not be connected together underground.
On February 4, the explorers left for Valdivia on the Chilean coast, where they were to be greeted by an earthquake.

CNRS    sagascience