Voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle: The making of a naturalistHow Darwin’s years on the Beagle were instrumental to his development as a naturalist Charles Robert Darwin was a man of many hats. He was a friend,colleague, son, father, husband; but above all, he was a naturalist. Through his dedication and perseverance did he manageto, in less than a generation, establish the theory of evolution asa fact in peoples’ minds. In fact, “[t]oday it is almost impossible for us to return, even momentarily, to the pre-Darwinianatmosphere and attitude” (West 323). Darwin formed the basis of histheory during the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, on which vessel hewas posted as it travelled around the globe. During that five-yearspan, this young man saw foliage, creatures, cultures that he hadnever known first-hand before. He was exposed to environments thatnot many of his contemporaries saw and lived the life that few did. Was his epic journey merely a series of trips to strange and exoticlands, or was Darwin affected by his experiences in more profoundways? Charles Darwin was born on February 12, 1809; the same daythat another great man, Abraham Lincoln, was born. He was no childprodigy; he “was considered by all [his] masters and by [his] Father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common standard inintellect” (Barlow Voyage 28). The one trait in him that standsout in his formative years is a taste for the outdoors; he loved togather shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion for collecting, which leads a man to be a systemic naturalist, a virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in [him] and was clearly innate, as none of [his] sisters and brother ever had this taste. (Barlow Autobiography 23) He grew up in Shrewsbury, and attended the local grammar-school there. After graduating, he entered Edinburgh University with the intent of studying medicine, but he found anatomy boring and his lack of sketching skills hampered him. It was decided between Darwin and his father that he should pursue ecclesiasticalstudies at Cambridge. Those subjects did not enthuse him either, but he discovered a “spontaneous and exceptional interest in natural history” (Moorehead 25). Academically, “he scraped through…with a pass” (Moorehead, 25) but socially, he enjoyed himself greatly, as he had fallen in with a crowd of sportsmen and naturalists. As well, he developed strong ties with his botany and geology teachers, Professors Adam Sedgwick and John Henslow. Henslow was indeed a true friend; he did Darwin the greatservice of notifying him when, soon after graduation, the professorlearned of a great opportunity. Captain Robert FitzRoy of the H.M.S. Beagle was looking for someone to take the post of unpaidnaturalist while his ship did cartographic surveys of South America. “[Henslow] wrote Darwin candidly that he thought him thebest qualified person who would accept such a ’situation’” (Darwinxiv). His father objected at first, but Darwin’s “Uncle Josiah Wedgwood…intervened and the coveted blessing was obtained” (Sears30-31). In his interview, Darwin and FitzRoy got along famously and became good friends; the young nature-lover was accepted, andhe and the captain were to share a cabin. Darwin was an easygoing man, and so he and his roommate gotalong quite well. The captain had a dynamic temper and was subjected to fits of sullenness, but also “combined a strict senseof duty with a very high sense of justice and regard for specialconditions. He had courage and was capable of magnificent seamanship under severe conditions” (Dibner 13). Darwin always heldhis companion in the highest regard, even when they did not sharethe same views. Their five-year journey, originally to be two years in length, took them around the world. This trip reinforced in Darwina thousandfold his passion for botany and geology, and “his intention to become a priest…died a natural death on the Beagleexpedition” (Sears 31). They travelled to Brazil, Argentina, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, the Gal pagos islands, Tahiti, New Zealandand Australia. Darwin quite fell in love with the rainforest. Hisfirst encounter with it was the fulfilment a long-held dream to travel to the tropics; “the delight Darwin felt amidst the quiet gloom of a tropical forest [was] indeed unspeakable, never to be forgotten, and certainly not to be described” (Dorsey 55). Hisappreciation of the natural world deepened daily; he gloried inevery detail. During a day in the jungle, he noted a “most paradoxical mixture of sound and silence pervad[ing] the shady parts of the wood…such a day…[brought] with it a deeper pleasure that he [could] ever hope to experience again” (Darwin 12). This passion brought out other sides to his own nature thathe had never seen before. Darwin also found within himself a previously-unknown courageof the physical kind. He “suffered greatly from seasickness” (Sears31), but said little, for fear “that FitzRoy [found] him too softfor the voyage….he could only complain as little as possible, sethis teeth and hold on” (Moorehead 42). He was frequently laid lowby bites and scratches that became easily infected, but rarely layidle if he could help it. Otherwise, he was physically fit; he climbed several mountains and crossed the Andes. Darwin discovered a sense of adventure that accompanied hiscourage; he rode overland from El Carmen to Buenos Aires througharea that “was a no man’s land where the Indians make spasmodic raid on travellers whenever and wherever they could” (Moorehead 109). He also proved to have a touch of the bloodthirsty buccaneerin him; when an armed Argentinian guardship stopped them at Rio Plata, “Darwin’s blood was up. [He said,] ‘Oh I hope the guardshipwill fire a gun at the Frigate. If she does it will be her last dayabove water.’” (Moorehead 80). Certain events also brought home to Darwin what kind of world
he was momentarily inhabiting. The most momentous of these was a great earthquake, which laid low a great city: “It [was] one of thethree most interesting spectacles [Darwin had] beheld since leavingEngland, – a Fuegian Savage; – Tropical Vegetation; – and the ruinsof Concepci n” (Darwin 195). The transformation of the ever-solidground into a shaking and sliding sea of earth “in one second created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity which hours of reflection would not have produced” (Dorsey 65). It made him realize that no longer were these foreign sights material for texts, they were reality:It was Darwin’s opportunity to combine extensive book learningwith such experiences as these that enabled him to achieve such a revolution in human thought. The “great earthquake” makes him vividly aware that he is not only reflecting upon but experiencing things which provide clues to the past history of the earth and its inhabitants. (Darwin 194-195) Darwin’s experiences formed his professional and personal habits for the rest of his life. The Beagle’s cramped quarters gaveno spare room; even “his sleeping space was so confined that he hadto remove a drawer from a locker so as to accommodate his feet” (Moorehead 41). Even in close surroundings, he maintained his eventemperament, and was liked by all. One shipmate averred that “Darwin was the only man he ever knew against whom he had never heard a word said” (Dorsey 58). Darwin learned the value of organization and the usefulness of every scrap, and “[h]e used tosay later that the absolute necessity of tidiness in the cramped space of the Beagle helped to give him his methodical habits of work” (Darwin 2). He developed personal discipline; “the easy waysand pleasant optimism of his younger days gradually gave way to thecompelling desire of his work and the intimate life among the associates and crew of the Beagle” (Dibner 13). His organization more than made up for his lack of immediateknowledge; along the way, “Darwin was studying living plants and animals, observing their behaviour and distribution, collecting, drying, pickling, and describing” (Sears 33). His friends and colleagues at home were being overwhelmed with crates and cartloadsof specimens. He was constantly taking notes, observing both his specimens and their surroundings. His notes grew to be more detailed, as his “powers of examining and describing…increased ata great pace” (Darwin 121). Before his stint on the Beagle, Darwin’s religious views werevery conservative. In this, he and FitzRoy were in accord; they both took a literal view of the Bible. Indeed, one of the captain’sreasons for taking on Darwin was because[the] voyage…would provide a grand opportunity to substantiate the Bible, especially the book of Genesis. As a naturalist, Darwin might easily find many evidences of the Flood and the first appearance of all created things upon the earth. He could perform a valuable service by interpreting hisScientific discoveries in the light of the Bible.(Moorehead 37) At first, Darwin’s faith in the existence of an immortal souland its Maker was unshakeable. The awe that he felt in the wilds moved him; he bore witness to thesublimity of the primeval forests…[that were] temples filledwith the varied productions of the God of Nature; – no one [could] stand in these solitudes unmoved, and not feel that there is more in man than the mere breath of his body. (Dorsey 73)However, the more Darwin studied nature, the more unlikely Biblicalmiracles became; while on the Gal pagos islands, he noted a “subtlety of life processes” (Dibner 62) upon the islands of igneous rock that Darwin compared to “a sea petrified in its mostboisterous moments” (Barlow Diary 335). There, the theory of natural selection became more apparent to him, and he found himselfunable to reconcile a literal interpretation of the Holy Word withhis findings. In the end, he “gradually came to disbelieve in Christianity as a divine revelation” (Dorsey 260). Darwin, as a great scientist and thinker, was shaped irrevocably in the events that took place during those momentous five years of his life. His passion for natural history was not stifled, but allowed to bloom; his zeal sharpened his eyes and ears, and opend up his mind to “new ideas, new books, new friends, new observations, new hypotheses, new laws” (Dorsey 79). His spiritof adventure led him to far-off lands where obscure fauna and florawere living and breathing, and not just names in some book. “The discipline of the trip taught him an eternal lesson in good-humoured patience, freedom from selfishness, the habit of acting for himself and making the best of every occurrence” (Dorsey 71). While he eventually found himself to be at odds with the religion that he once wholeheartedly embraced, never did he attempt to derogate people’s beliefs; it was withrare and noble calmness with which he expound[ed] his own views, undisturbed by the heats of polemical agitation which those views…excited, and persistently refus[ed] to retort on his antagonists by ridicule, by indignation, or by contempt. (Dorsey 270)So it was through hard work, flexibility and openmindedness that this great man, whom his colleague and friend Wallace termed “theNewton of Natural History” (West 325), came to develop his trademark values of integrity and dedication as he sailed the shores of distant lands.
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