Christmas on the HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, painting by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle. From Wikimedia Commons.

When Charles Darwin arrived to South America, he was only 22 years old. He was part of the second survey expedition of HMS Beagle. By the end of the expedition, Darwin was already earned a name as a geologist and fossil collector. He narrated his experiences in his book “Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836″, published in 1839 and later simply known as “The Voyage of the Beagle”.

On December 24, 1833, Darwin wrote: “Took a long walk on the North side: after ascending some rocks there is a great level plain, which extends in every direction but is divided by vallies. I thought I had seen some desert looking country near B. Bianca; but the land in this neighbourhood so far exceeds it in sterility, that this alone deserves the name of a desert. The plain is composed of gravel with very little vegetation & not a drop of water. In the vallies there is some little, but it is very brackish. It is remarkable that on the surface of this plain there are shells of the same sort which now exist & the muscles even with their usual blue colour. It is therefore certain, that within no great number of centuries all this country has been beneath the sea. Wretched looking as the country is, it supports very many Guanacoes. By great good luck I shot one; it weighed without its entrails &c 170 pounds: so that we shall have fresh meat for all hands on Christmas day.

Portrait of Charles Darwin painted by George Richmond (1840)

At the time, the HMS Beagle was anchored at Port Desire (now Puerto Deseado) in Argentina. Syms Covington, a cabin boy on HMS Beagle who became an assistant to Charles Darwin, also kept a journal of the voyage. In his diary, he wrote: “This Port Desire is much the same as other parts of Patagonia, viz. sandy hills with very bad brackish water, and that obliged to dig for; but some of the valleys are very pleasant: in season there are plenty of wild cherries. They were nearly ripe at this time; I ate some which were rather tart, but tasted pleasant. Birds are not so numerous nor so splendid here as in many other parts of South America, but of course they are less well known. About this part no deer were seen, but immense quantities of guanacos, also lions, foxes, ostriches and aperea or guinea pig. The cliffs are full of fossil shells.”

Geologic map of Patagonia (Darwin, circa 1840). Image credit: Cambridge University Library

At Puerto Deseado, Darwin collected some fossils that were later described by G B Sowerby, and sketched some botanical specimens, like Gavilea patagonica, a foot-high orchid. Darwin also described the presence of porphyries, covered by Tertiary deposits,  in the first geological map of Patagonia. His geological observations and interpretations on the history of life in the continent were included in an essay titled Reflection on reading my geological notes.

Slinging the Monkey, Port Desire, Dec 25 1833. By Conrad Martens. Image credit: Cambridge University Library

On Christmas Day 1833, Darwin wrote: “Christmas. After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can.”

 

References:

Darwin, C. (1840). Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by HMS Beagle under the Command of Captain Fitzroy, RN from 1832 to 1836. Henry Colburn.

McIntyre, J. (1972). Syms Covington: an associate of Charles Darwin. Journal of the Royal Historical Society of Queensland, 9(3), 87-93.

Aguirre-Urreta, B., Griffin, . M., & Ramos, . V. A. (2009). Darwin’s geological research in Argentina. Revista De La Asociación Geológica Argentina, 64(1), 4-7. https://revista.geologica.org.ar/raga/article/view/1288

Zappettini, E. O., & Mendía, J. (2009). El primer mapa geológico de la Patagonia. Revista de la Asociación Geológica Argentina, 64(1), 55-59.

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