Charles Darwin Goes Cruising in Finches, Fossils, and Fuegians

Clark November 2nd, 2013

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A young man was invited to go cruising for a few years. His family, his father especially, thought he would be throwing his education away, not to mention risking his life. Sound familiar, cruisers? In the face of such disapproval the young man decided not to go, but a favorite uncle interceded on his behalf. The favorite uncle was Josiah Wedgewood, of the Wedgewood pottery, the young man was Charles Darwin, and his cruise on the Beagle was probably history’s most important voyage of scientific discovery.

When we think of Darwin, we think of a man who looks like this:
Charles Darwin 9266433 1 402

But when he left on the Beagle he was a young sprat of twenty-two, once sending home a dispatch that said,

“Our chief amusement was riding about and admiring the Spanish Ladies. After watching one of these angels gliding down the streets, involuntarily we groaned out, ‘how foolish English women are, they can neither walk nor dress’. And then how ugly Miss sounds after Signorita; I am sorry for you all, it would do the whole tribe of you a great deal of good to come to Buenos Ayres.”

A sentiment echoed by sailors visiting Buenos Aires ever since.

The book, Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians chronicles the second voyage of the Beagle (Darwin wasn’t on the first) and is interspersed with many of Darwin’s letters home to his sister, and many letters between Darwin and FitzRoy, the captain. Darwin and FitzRoy liked each other, despite FitzRoy’s volatile temper. The blustery captain and the erudite ship’s naturalist seem to be a model for Aubrey and Maturin, the heroes of Patrick O’Brian’s Master and Commander series, and the movie of the same name.

The author, Richard Darwin Keynes, was Charles Darwin’s great-grandson. The author’s other great-grandfather was John Maynard Keynes, as in Keynesian Economics. What, did the English intellectual class gather every year to marry off their daughters?

From a sailor’s perspective it’s fascinating to read about an early expedition to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. They anchored in all the same places I did (and where Captain Joshua Slocum did) in the Straits of Magellan. When the Beagle anchored in Puerto Tamar, Bahia Fortescue, and Charles III Island, they were looking for protection from there same nasty winds (video here), and worrying about dragging into the exact same places.

With advances in technology and perspectives it isn’t easy to share an experience with someone from 175 years ago, but for a sailor the Straits of Magellan haven’t changed, and having GPS and a a radio makes little difference when a 100-knot williwaw blows down on you. A diesel engine, however, makes a very big difference.

The captain of the the first Beagle expedition, Pringle Stokes, found the western entrance to the Straits so miserable that after fighting storms for a month he put a bullet in his head. Unfortunately the bullet didn’t kill him, and he died of gangrene twelve days later. It’s the curse of the Beagle: FitzRoy committed suicide later in life too.

Time has not been kind to the Fuegians either: Christina Calderon, the last full blood Yamana, died a few years before I got to Puerto Williams, Chile. In Puerto Eden, Chile, I saw the last of the Kawascar living in a few squalid huts. That was in 2007, so I’m not sure how many are left now.

One reviewer called Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians the latest addition to the Darwin industry. I didn’t know there was a Darwin industry, but apparently many books have been written on the subject. I feel like I started reading in the right place, as this book doesn’t get too bogged down in the science, and portrays a more human story of young men on a grand adventure. Half the story is told in Darwin’s own words, through his journals and correspondence; the other half by a direct descendant, who fills in the gaps.

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