Charles Darwin's Beagle Diaries

This is a truly remarkable book, beautifully and lovingly edited by Richard Keynes and published by Cambridge in 1988. To a student of Darwin and evolution it provides the day-to-day backdrop to the scientific life, the context to the process of discovery and thought; but it stands very well on its own not only as a superb travel narrative, but also as a coming-of-age story of sorts, as we observe Darwin's very character transformed by the voyage. He is 22 when the Beagle sails and 27 when she returns; he is invited to join the voyage (without a salary) by Capt. FitzRoy, who is his senior by only 4 years. He starts on the right note - amazement and anticipation, and inevitably arrives at the only possible conclusion by the end of the journey - a mindset of tranquility and tolerance, nevertheless marked by an undeniable firmness and resolution of character. One should forgive Darwin's occasional misspellings (carefully preserved by Keynes and retained by me in typing up the quotes below) and admire his style - its elegance, its poetic quality, but also its love of the absurd and the ridiculous.

December 17, 1831 - Devonport
It is necessary to have gone through the preparations for sea to be thoroughily aware what an arduous undertaking it is. It has fully explained to me the reasons why so few people leave the beaten path of travellers.

January 24, 1832 - St Jago, Cabo Verde Ids.
After our one o'clock dinner, Wickham, the Captain & myself went to the famous Baobob tree & measured it more accurately.
(in the Narrative of the surveying voyages of HMS Adventure and Beagle, FitzRoy wrote: In a valley near the town is a very remarkable tree of the Baobab kid, supposed to be more than a thousand years old; but I am not aware of the grounds upon which such assertions are made).

March 6, 1832 - Bahia
The greater part of the day has been spent in idly lying on deck. - I am not surprised that people are so indolent in a hot country; neither body nor mind require any exercise; watching the sky is sufficient occupation for the former and the latter seems well contented with lying still.

March 15, 1832 - Bahia
In the evening I went to the Hotel d Universe, where by the help of three words "comer" to eat, "cama" a bed & "pagar" my host & myself contrived to agree very well.

June 11, 1832 - Rio de Janeiro
The air is motionless & has a peculiar chilling dampness. - Whilst seated on the trunk of a decaying tree amidst such scenes, one feels an inexpressible delight. - The rippling of some brook, the tap of a Woodpecker, or scream of some more distant bird, by the distinctness with which it is heard, brings the conviction how still the rest of the Nature is. -

June 30, 1832 - Rio de Janeiro
Went to the city to purchase several things. - Nothing can be more wearisome than shopping here. - From the length of time the Brazilians detain you & the unreasonable price they at first ask, it is clear that they think that both these precious things are equally valueless to an Englishman. -

November 17, 1833 - Montevideo
The church is a curious ruin; it was used as a powder magazine & was struck by lightning in one of the ten thousand storms of the Rio Plata. - Two thirds of the building was blown away to the very foundation, & the rest stands a shattered & curious monument of the united powers of lightning and gunpowder. […]
The inhabitants do not require much education in their representatives; I heard some men discussing the merits of those for Colonia; "that although they were not men of business, they could all sign their names". With this every reasonable man was satisfied.

November 20, 1833 - spending the night in an estancia on the Rio Negro
The Captain at last said, he had one question to ask me, & he should be very much obliged if I would answer him with all truth. - I trembled to think how scientific it would be. - "it was whether the ladies of Buenos Ayres were not the handsomest in the world". I replied, "Charmingly so". - He added, I have one other question - "Do ladies in any other part of the world wear such large combs". I solemnly assured him they did not. - They were absolutely delighted. The captain exclaimed, "Look there, a man, who has seen half the world, says it is the case; we always thought so but now we know of it". My excellent judgement in beauty procured me a most hospitable reception; the Captain forced me to take his bed, & he would sleep on his Recado.-

November 29 - December 4, 1833 - travelling between Mercedes and Monte Video
At Mercedes I asked two men why they didn't work: - one said the days were too long; the other that he was too poor. The number of horses & profusion of food is the destruction of all industry. - Moreover there are so many feast days; then again nothing can succeed without it is begun when the moon is on the increase; and from these two causes half the month must be lost.

December 28, 1833 - Port Desire
The plain, as is universally the case, is formed of sandy chalk, & gravel; from the softness of these materials it is worn & cut up by very many vallies. - There is not a tree, &, excepting the Guanaco, who stands on some hill top a watchful sentinel over his herd, scarcely an animal or a bird. - All is stillness & desolation. One reflects how many centuries it has thus been & and how many more it will thus remain. - Yet in this scene without one bright object, there is high pleasure, which I can neither explain or comprehend.

March 21, 1835 - crossing the Andes on the way between St Jago and Mendoza
When we reached the crest & looked backwards, a glorious view was presented. The atmosphere was so resplendidly clear, the sky an intense blue, the profound valleys, the wild broken forms, the heaps of ruins piled up during the lapse of ages, the bright colored rocks, contrasted with the quiet mountains of Snow, together produced a scene I never could have imagined. Neither plant or bird, excepting a few condors wheeling around the higher pinnacles, distracted the attention from the inanimate mass. - I felt glad I was by myself, it is like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in the full Orchestra a Chorus of the Messiah.

July 20, 1835 - Lima
Lord E. Clinton & a Frenchman were riding & were attacked by a party of Soldier-robbers, who plundered them so completely, that they returned naked, excepting their drawers. - The robbers were actuated by warm Patriotism; They waved the Peruvian banner & intermingled crys of "Viva la Patria"; "give me your jacket". "Libertad Libertad" with "Off with your trousers". -

October 9, 1835 - Galapagos Isds, observing giant tortoises
In the pathway many are travelling to the water & others returning, having drunk their fill. - The effect is very comical in seeing these huge creatures with outstretched neck so deliberately pacing onwards. - I think they march at the rate 360 yards in an hour; perhaps four miles in the 24. - When they arrive at the Spring, they bury their heads above the eyes in the muddy water and greedily suck in great mouthfulls, quite regardless of lookers on.

September 25, 1836 - reflections upon the voyage coming to an end
It must be borne in mind how large a proportion of the time during a long voyage is spent on the water, as compared to the days in the harbour. And what are the boasted glories of the illimitable ocean? A tedious waste, a desert of water as the Arabian calls it. No doubt there are some delightful scenes; a moonlight night, with the clear heavens, the dark glittering sea, the white sails filled by the soft air of the gently blowing trade wind, a dead calm, the heaving surface polished like a mirror, and all quite still excepting the occasional flapping of the sails.