Charles Robert Darwin’s Beagle RideJune 26, 2021
HMS Beagle’s journey took five years instead of two.
Along the way, Darwin discovered a wide variety of geological formations, fossils, and living things, and collected specimens from them. Whenever he could, he wrote detailed letters to Cambridge describing his discoveries, posting interesting specimens he had collected. Thanks to this, he became well known among English naturalists, although he was far away. In his diary that he kept throughout the journey, he wrote down his cultural and anthropological observations of the different human societies he encountered, as well as his natural scientific discoveries. He would publish this diary in 1839 as The Voyage of the Beagle.
The journey was not easy for Darwin. Badly affected by seasickness, he fell ill with a fever in Argentina in October 1833, and in July 1834, returning from the Andes to Chile, he fell ill again and was unable to get out of bed for a month.
At the beginning of the voyage, Captain FitzRoy had given Darwin Charles Lyell’s book Principles of Geology. In this book, Lyell argued that geological formations were formed as a result of very long ages, with the effect of very slow processes that continue today. When Darwin found coral and shell remnants on the high slopes of volcanic rock on the island of Santiago off West Africa, he realized that these slopes had once been under the sea, and that, as Lyell had said, they had gradually risen over the ages. Darwin would make many important geological discoveries along the way. He guessed that the vast plains of shellfish and gravel he had seen in Patagonia were raised beaches, and when he observed mussel beds that remained above sea level after an earthquake in Chile, he realized that the coast had risen as a result of the earthquake. Similarly, he found fossils of trees and crustaceans growing on sandy beaches on the slopes of the Andes, and concluded that these slopes rose over time. He also discovered that the atolls (coral islands) in the Indian Ocean, which he had the opportunity to study, were formed around volcanic mountains rising from the sea floor.
Darwin found fossils of huge extinct mammals in South America. The layers where these fossils were found also contained remains of modern crustaceans, meaning that these mammals had recently become extinct without any climate change or catastrophe. (The prevailing view in Darwin’s time was that the fossils were animals that died in catastrophes like the Noah’s Flood.) Darwin thought these animals were related to similar African and European species, whereas British biologist Richard Owen would show in 1836 that these animals were much closer to modern South American species , and would provide another boost to the idea of natural selection taking shape in Darwin’s mind.
The second volume of Principles of Geology, published in 1832, was mailed to Darwin in South America. In this volume, Charles Lyell opposed the idea of evolution and explained the distribution of biological species with the idea of ”centers of creation”. While reading this, Darwin was making very important observations that would later support his theory of evolution. He collected many specimens of “mockingbirds” from the Galápagos Islands and noticed that these birds showed slight physiological differences to the islands they inhabited. He learned that the local Spaniards could tell which island a turtle came from by looking at its appearance. (While editing his notes on his return trip to England, he wrote, “If my suspicions about mockingbirds and tortoises are correct, the idea of the immutability of species will be shaken.”) He thought they were created.
During the Beagle’s first voyage between 1826 and 1830, three Yagan Indians, taken from Tierra del Fuego at the southernmost tip of South America and “civilized” in England, were returned to their tribes to serve as missionaries. (Darwin described these tribes as “wretched and wretched savages.”) A year later, the natives had given up their missionary duties and returned to their former lives. Partly as a result of this experience, Darwin began to think that humans were not so far from animals as he thought. Darwin explained the differences in life among human societies with cultural development, not with racial development. He disliked the institution of slavery he had witnessed in South America and regretted the damage done to the indigenous peoples of Australia and New Zealand by the European colonies.
Toward the end of the voyage, Captain FitzRoy, reading the detailed notes taken by Darwin, requested that Darwin write the last part of the official report on natural science.