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Darwin's Diary

Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882


February-March 1835 (Voyage of the Beagle) (Birth of a Theory)

Darwin is lying on a forest floor in Valdivia, on the coast of Chile, when suddenly he feels the earth move beneath him.

"It ... lasted two minutes (but appeared much longer). The rocking was most sensible; the undulation appeared both to me & my servant to travel from due East. There was no difficulty in standing upright; but the motion made me giddy ... I can compare it to skating on very thin ice or to the motion of a ship in a little cross ripple. An earthquake like this at once destroys the oldest associations; the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, moves beneath our feet like crust over a fluid; one second of time conveys to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never create."

"In the forest, a breeze moved the trees, I felt the earth tremble, but saw no consequence from it." But when Darwin travels to the city of Concepcion, the center of the quake, the town is "nothing more than piles & lines of bricks, tiles & timbers ... there is not one house left habitable."

"[I]t is quite impossible to convey the mingled feelings with which one beholds such a spectacle ... It is a bitter & humiliating thing to see works which have cost men so much time & labour overthrown in one minute; yet compassion for the inhabitants is almost instantly forgotten by the interest excited in finding that state of things produced at a moment of time which one is accustomed to attribute to a succession of ages ... To my mind since leaving England, we have scarcely beheld any one other sight so deeply interesting. The Earthquake & Volcano are parts of one of the greatest phenomena to which this world is subject."

In Concepcion, Darwin comes upon "the grandest pile of ruins I ever saw." He also finds fresh mussel beds lying eight feet above high tide. The land was clearly raised by the quake. If this took place in minutes, what changes, wonders Darwin, might Earth have undergone over eons?

Witnessing a volcanic eruption -- a "very magnificent sight" -- only a month before the quake leads Darwin to think "that the earth is a mere crust over a fluid melted mass of rock & that Volcanoes are merely apertures through this crust."

"Who can avoid wondering at the force which has upheaved these mountains," Darwin writes, "and even more so at the countless ages which it must have required." Could the same forces Darwin witnesses in the volcano and earthquake have created the Andes? Trekking across them, Darwin comes upon a grove of fossilized trees at 7,000 feet. These trees, with sandstone sediments "once waved their branches on the shores of the Atlantic." It seems to be evidence that the Andes have risen gradually over a vast stretch of time.

August 1835 (Voyage of the Beagle) (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

Docked off Lima, Peru, Darwin catches up on letters home. His cousin and close friend William Darwin Fox writes about the bliss of marital life and his newborn child. It strikes a chord in Charles, now nearly four years into his voyage.

"My dear Fox,
I was very glad to receive a history of this the most important year in your life ... You are a true Christian & return good for evil ... to send two such letters to so bad a Correspondant, as I have been. God bless you for writing so kindly & affectionately; it if is a pleasure to have friends in England, it is doubly so, to think & know that one is not forgotten, because absent ...
This voyage is terribly long ... I do so earnestly desire to return, Yet I dare hardly look forward to the future, for I do not know what will become of me. -- Your situation is above envy; I do not venture even to frame such happy visions. To a person fit to take the office, the life of a Clergyman is a type of all that is respectable & happy: & if he is a Naturalist & has the 'Diamond Beetle,' ave Maria; I do not know what to say. -- You tempt me by talking of your fireside, whereas it is a sort of scene I never ought to think about. -- I saw the other day a vessel sail for England, it was quite dangerous to know how easily I might turn deserter ..."

Yet Darwin is excited about the round-the-world trip ahead, and tells Fox, "I look forward to the Galapagos, with more interest than any other part of the voyage."

September 1835 (and later reflections) (Voyage of the Beagle) (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

"We landed upon black, dismal looking heaps of broken lava ... Innumerable crabs and hideous iguanas started in every direction as we scrambled from rock to rock."

That is Captain FitzRoy's first impression of the Galapagos Islands. Darwin's is equally grim.

"Nothing could be less inviting," writes Darwin, "than the first appearance [of the islands]. A broken field of black basaltic lava, thrown into the most rugged waves and crossed by great fissures."

"The dry and parched surface, being heated by the noonday sun, gave to the air a close and sultry feeling, like that from a stove. We fancied that even the bushes smelt unpleasantly."

In the frying-hot sun, Darwin shares a water hole with a number of "dull-coloured birds." What will become Darwin's famous finches now seem insignificant: "Little birds, within 3 or four feet, quietly hopped about the Bushes & were not frightened by stones being thrown at them. Mr. King killed one with his hat ..." Darwin collects 31 finches, from three of the four islands he visits. But at the time he fails to even recognize that they are all finches.

Darwin enjoys riding on the giant tortoises, called galapagos in Spanish. "I was always amused when overtaking one of these great monsters as it was quietly pacing along, to see how suddenly, the instant I passed it, it would draw in its head and legs, and uttering a deep hiss fall to the ground with a heavy sound, as if struck dead. I frequently go on their backs, and then, giving a few raps on the hinder part of their shells, they would rise up and walk away -- but I found it very difficult to keep my balance."

He also finds them good eating: "Some grow to an immense size ... [and] afford as much as 200 pounds of meat." But one baby tortoise is spared and taken back to England as a pet.

Of the land iguanas, he writes: "It is a hideous-looking creature, of a dirty black colour, stupid and sluggish in its movements," Darwin writes of an iguana that swims and feeds on sea plants. "The usual length of a full-grown one is about a yard, but there are some even four feet long ... Their tails are flattened sideways, and all four feet partially webbed ... The terrestrial species ... with a round tail, and toes without webs ... like their brothers the sea-kind are ugly animals, of a yellowish orange beneath and of a brownish red colour above: from their low facial angle they have a singularly stupid appearance."

Contrary to myth, Darwin has no great epiphanies about evolution while in the Galapagos. A decade later, though, he will write:

"The natural history of these islands is eminently curious, and well deserves attention. Most of the organic productions are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; there is even a difference between the inhabitants of the different islands. Yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated by an open space of ocean, between 500-600 miles."

The volcanic islands appear to be young in the scope of geological time. Could creatures have drifted from the mainland to inhabit the newly formed islands, and then, somehow, have changed to become new species? Darwin, years after his visit, sees the Galapagos with awe:

"[W]e seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact -- the mystery of mysteries -- the first appearance of new beings on this earth."

November-December 1835 (Voyage of the Beagle) (Darwin's Struggle with Faith)

"He prayed as a Christian should do, with fitting reverence & without fear of ridicule or ostentation."

Hiking in the volcanic mountains of Tahiti, Darwin is struck by the religious zeal of his guide, who eats his meals of baked fish and banana only after prayer.

"At Tahiti, we staid [sic] 10 days, & admired all the charms of this almost classical Island. -- The kind simple manners of the ... natives are in harmony with the wild, & beautiful scenery ... The Captain & all on board (whose opinions are worth anything) have come to a very decided conclusion on the high merit of the Missionaries. -- Ten days no doubt is a short time to observe any fact with accuracy, but I am sure we have seen that much good has been done ... It was a striking thing to behold my guides in the mountain, before laying themselves down to sleep, fall on their knees & utter with apparent sincerity a prayer in their native tongue."

British missionaries have now been in Tahiti for many decades. Alcohol is banned, and even if the "virtue of the [Tahitian] Women" is somewhat dubious, Darwin writes that he is impressed by the generally high "state of morality & religion."

The women of Tahiti capture Darwin's attention. Some of them shave the crowns of their heads, but Darwin can't get a satisfying explanation why. He muses, "It is the fashion & that is answer enough at Tahiti as well as Paris."

While Darwin finds the Maori of New Zealand more "savage" than the Tahitians, he notes, "the Missionaries have done much in improving their moral character & still more in teaching them the arts of civilization."

From what he sees in Tahiti and later in New Zealand, Darwin concludes "the Missionary is the enchanter's wand."

"So excellent is the Christian faith, that the outward conduct of the believers is said most decidedly to have been improved by its doctrines."

-> Go to 1836


Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882

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