Darwin's Beagle field notebooks (1831-1836)
Cape de Verds
A series of small notebooks that belonged to Charles Darwin are today preserved by English Heritage at Down House. Fourteen of them were the notebooks Darwin used on his shore excursions during the voyage of the Beagle (1831-1836). This is the first complete edition of these important notebooks, thirty years in the making. The notebooks were also published in 2009 as a book:
There are three other notebooks at Down House which do not seem to have been used in the field during the Beagle voyage and therefore are not included in this edition. They are the R. N. notebook, which is partly post-voyage in date of use, the St Helena Model notebook, which is entirely post-voyage, and a very fragmentary notebook labelled 1.1, which, to judge from a London address on the cover, and apparent 1870s dates on some of the many excised page stubs is also entirely post voyage.
A fifteenth field notebook labelled ‘Galapagos. Otaheite Lima’ [Galapagos notebook], although microfilmed with the others in 1969, unfortunately disappeared from Down House by the early 1980s. Its current whereabouts are unknown and it was possibly stolen.
The history of the notebooks, and how they came to be preserved at Down House in 1942, is told in Barrett et al. 1987, p. 2. They were first described by Nora Barlow in the preface to her edition of the Beagle diary (Barlow 1933) [this has been newly transcribed by Rookmaaker]; she then published fairly detailed descriptions of the notebooks, together with extensive extracts from the non-geological parts in her Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle (Barlow 1945).
Richard Keynes has also referred to the notebooks in several of his writings on the Beagle voyage (e.g. Keynes 1988) and Nicholas and Nicholas 1989 quoted from the Sydney notebook, and reproduced a photograph of it. (Nicholas and Nicholas also quoted from Chancellor’s transcription of DAR 40, which is in our opinion effectively Darwin’s ‘field notebook equivalent’ for his visit to Hobart; DAR 40 has been transcribed in full by Banks and Leaman 1999.) Other parts of the voyage for which field notes are in loose sheets are Chiloé (January 1835), King George's Sound (March 1836), Keeling (August 1836), Ascension (July 1836) and Bahia (August 1836).
Barlow's edition was for many years the only book length study of the field notebooks, but she herself admitted that she ignored 'as much as nine tenths' of the content. In other words, Barlow understandably neglected the bulk of her grandfather's first serious (and often tough-going) geological observations and speculations, since she was writing for the general reader. Historians now appreciate that Darwin saw himself during, and long after, the voyage as a geologist (see Herbert 2005). So full publication of the field notebooks is now long overdue.
Because there are periods in the voyage for which there is no field notebook 'coverage', Barlow believed that there were probably other field notebooks which have been lost. We agree with Armstrong 1985 that this is unlikely, partly because Darwin seems to have been so meticulous about looking after his manuscripts from the voyage.
An informal survey of Darwin scholars carried out by van Wyhe in 2004 for Darwin Online showed that the field notebooks were the most eagerly anticipated unpublished Darwin manuscripts. We therefore present here the first complete transcription of all the Down House notebooks except the R. N. notebook which was published by Herbert 1980, 1987 and the St Helena Model notebook which was published by Chancellor 1990. We include the Santiago notebook which has been referred to frequently by scholars (e.g. Herbert 2005) and part of which was published in the first volume of the Correspondence. We present evidence in the introduction to the Santiago notebook that Darwin continued to use this notebook into the post-voyage period.
The Beagle field notebooks are usually referred to by their former Down House numbers. Sometimes parts of the text on their labels are used. However as the numbers are arbitrary and convey no useful meaning we refer to the notebooks with short names which are taken verbatim from the notebook labels by Darwin. We refer to them as, for example, the Falkland notebook, following the form of reference to notebooks used in the Correspondence. The table below collates our short names with the old Down House numbers and their English Heritage numbers.
The notebooks are arranged in the chronological order of their first entries. This is approximately the order in which they were originally presented by Barlow and corresponds to the small circled numbers written on some of the inside covers, we believe by Barlow (Chancellor 1990, p. 206).
Our order differs slightly from that adopted by Barlow in the position of the Galapagos notebook which she placed between the Despoblado and Sydney notebooks. Our order agrees with the list adopted by the editors of the Correspondence vol. 1, who consulted Chancellor when preparing their list. The list of notebook names given in the Correspondence is not always verbatim (e.g. there is no 'Santiago' on the cover of the Galapagos notebook and no 'Bathurst' on the cover of the Sydney notebook).
Kees Rookmaaker, John van Wyhe and Gordon Chancellor.
This is a team edition; the initial transcription was prepared by Chancellor from microfilm in the 1980s, then checked, corrected against the microfilm and typed by Rookmaaker in 2006, re-checked by Chancellor then re-checked jointly by Chancellor, Rookmaaker and van Wyhe; then the three of us checked and corrected each notebook against the original manuscript or colour photographs. Finally van Wyhe re-checked the transcriptions of each notebook to ensure consistency. Van Wyhe annotated the notebooks, identifying persons and publications and so forth and added textual notes.
The role played by the field notebooks in the recording of Darwin's experiences during the voyage has been described by a number of authors from Barlow onwards (e.g. Armstrong 1985). Darwin used them to record in pencil his 'on the spot' observations, often while he was on long inland expeditions hundreds of kilometres from the Beagle, perhaps with no other paper to hand. A notable exception to this generalisation is the latter part of the Santiago notebook, which is effectively the first of Darwin's theoretical notebooks. In a letter to Henslow Darwin remarked that he was keeping his diary and scientific notes separate. But the field notebooks are documents prior to this distinction because they feed into both types of later manuscripts.
Darwin wrote later in Journal of researches about making notes in the field: 'Let the collector's motto be, "Trust nothing to the memory;" for the memory becomes a fickle guardian when one interesting object is succeeded by another still more interesting.' (p. 598.) And in 1849 he wrote in his contribution to the Admiralty Manual:
Back on board ship, or in port, he used the notebooks while writing up in ink his geological, zoological and personal diaries. He refers to them in his Journal of researches, p. 24 'I see by my note-book, "wonderful and beautiful, flowering parasites," invariably struck me as the most novel object in these grand scenes.' (This from Rio notebook, 9 April 1832, p. 9b).
It may be wondered why Darwin did not use one notebook until it was full, rather than keep switching between notebooks. We believe that the main reason he kept switching was that for document security he would only take one notebook onshore, so once he was back on board after an excursion he would start to use the notebook just used as the basis for his various diaries and specimen lists, as explained by Armstrong 1985. Since this process might take weeks, and therefore was often not completed before his next excursion, he preferred to take a notebook with him ashore which had already finished with, rather than risk losing field notes which had not yet been copied out. In this way he had a 'conveyor belt' of field notebooks in various states of use. We can only guess why he sometimes ended up with very incompletely used notebooks (e.g. the Banda Oriental notebook) but perhaps this was because he preferred using some notebook types rather than others.
When first visiting Down House together to begin checking our transcriptions against the manuscripts, the curator, Tori Reeve, kindly brought out all of the notebooks together. However only three notebooks at a time were used on the work table. Van Wyhe was given permission to photograph the covers of the notebooks for private research. When these photographs were later arranged according to their first entry order of the notebooks it became apparent that there are six notebook types which were used almost chronologically, perhaps reflecting successive purchases by Darwin.
Cape de Verds, Rio, Buenos Ayres and B. Blanca
All four notebooks have red leather covers with blind embossed edges and are of a long rectangular shape (c. 130 x 80 mm) with integral pencil holders and brass clasps. The notebooks originally contained 112 pages. The paper bears the watermark 'J. Whatman 1830'. All of the original pencils, if they were included with the notebooks when purchased, are missing.
Falkland and R. N. (the well-known Red notebook published by Sandra Herbert in 1980 and 1987)
These two notebooks are long and rectangular (164 x 100 mm) and have brown leather covers with embossed floral borders and brass clasps. Herbert 1980, p. 5 referred to the R. N. notebook 'as the name suggests, red in colour, although the original brilliance has faded'. Both notebooks are now brown though there are slight traces of red on Falkland which could be part of now lost colouring. The notebooks contained 184 pages, some bearing the watermark 'T. Warren 1830'. Darwin created a pencil holder inside the front cover of Falkland by pasting in a leather sleeve. Presumably this allowed him to carry one of the pencils that fit in the similar holders in the Type1 notebooks. The Red notebook has no added pencil sleeve, because it was not used in the field.
St. Fe and Banda Oriental
These two notebooks (155 x 100 mm) are bound in brown leather with brass clasps. Unlike preceding types they open like a book to the side rather than lengthwise like a pocket book. Only Santiago opens in the same manner. The notebooks were 244 pages long. The end pages and paper edges are marbled. Some pages have a watermark 'W. Brookman 1828'. A piece of cream-coloured paper pasted on the inside back cover of Banda Oriental secures a brown leather pencil holder added by Darwin.
Pages 4a-5a of the St. Fe notebook.
This This long and regtangular (170 x 130 mm) notebook is bound in brown leather with floral embossed borders and brass clasp. Its original back cover was missing (probably the one referred to by Barlow 1945, p. 154) but has since been restored. The fact that p. 137 right at the back of the notebook is very dirty seems to suggest that it was exposed. There were originally 146 pages, some of which bear incomplete watermarks which seem to read John Morbey 1830.
Valparaiso, Galapagos, Coquimbo, Copiapò, Despoblado and Sydney
These six notebooks are bound in red or black leather (the first and last are black) with the borders blind embossed and with brass clasps. Integral pencil holders, extensions of the cover leather as in Type 1, are placed on the left side of the front cover. The paper is yellow edged except for Sydney (Galapagos is unknown). The notebooks are of an almost square shape varying from 90 x 75 to 120 x 100 mm and were between 100 and 140 pages long. This makes Type 5 the most variable of the notebooks and their spines have an undulating, almost lumpy appearance. The inside front covers bear printed labels surmounted by an engraved lion and unicorn:
So prepared as effectually to secure the writing from erasure; — with a METALLIC PENCIL, the point of which is not liable to break.
The pages of the notebook were treated or coated to react with the metallic pencils, now lost. The paper remains bright white and has a silky or velvety feel. We are grateful to Louise Foster (personal communication) for very useful insights into the way the metallic pencils worked and for supplying us with various types of paper and metallic pencils to see how these influenced the effectiveness of the pencil. Although the writing in these books looks at first like graphite pencil it is in fact a reaction between the metal of the pencil point and the chemicals with which the paper was treated. This was meant to render the writing indelible.
Pages 36-37 of the Copiapò notebook.
This 100 X 165 mm notebook is bound in black paper with black leather spine and was originally 138 pages long. Four pencil holder loops, dovetailed along the opposite cover edges held the notebook closed when a pencil was inserted. This is not seen on any other Beagle notebook. The inside covers are green paper. Inside the front cover there is a collapsing pocket. The manufacturer’s label shows that the notebook was made in France, unlike all of the other Beagle field notebooks. Santiago was probably used after the voyage and is labelled identically on both sides as is theRed notebook and the transmutation and expression notebooks, a post-voyage notebook labelling practice.
We are not aware of any other Darwin notebooks which match any of these field notebook types. Notebooks 1.1, St. Helena Model, the specimen notebooks and all other post voyage notebooks are different types. Some of the Beagle notebooks, such as St. Fe and Valparaiso, have long fine, almost parallel, knife cuts on their covers. These may be where Darwin sharpened his pen or otherwise cut something on the notebooks. Possibly he used them in excising pages from other notebooks. The cuts were made before the notebooks were labelled. It is unknown when Darwin labelled the Beagle notebooks, but it was clearly after they were completed, and not all at once as he used different versions of place names, such as ‘Isle of France’ on the label of the Despoblado notebook but ‘Mauritius’ on the label of the Sydney notebook.
The appearance of the notebooks today is less battered and frayed than they were when Nora Barlow first described them in 1933. The 1969 microfilm images reveal flaps of torn leather on their covers and in one case (Port Desire) a back cover torn off. The edges of some of the leather covers were worn away. The notebooks have since been carefully conserved so that they appear in rather better condition then when they returned form the Beagle voyage. The Falkland, St. Fe, Banda Oriental and Port Desire notebooks, for example, have had missing pieces of their leather bindings restored.
The manufacturer's label shows that the notebook was made in France, but we suspect that Darwin purchased the notebook in St Jago. Unlike all of the other Beagle field notebooks, Santiago has a label pasted on both covers. This seems to be a practice Darwin adopted with his post-voyage notebooks (viz. the notebooks and ).
The Beagle field notebooks are arguably the most complex and difficult of all of Darwin’s manuscripts. They are for the most part written in pencil which is often faint or smeared. They were generally not written while sitting at a desk but held in one hand, on mule or horseback or on the deck of the Beagle. Furthermore the lines are very short and much is not written in complete sentences. Added to this they are full of Darwin’s chaotic spelling of foreign names and cover an enormous range of subjects. Therefore the handwriting is sometimes particularly difficult to decipher. Alternative readings are often possible. Some illegible words are transcribed as well as possible, even when they are obviously not the correct word, when this seems more informative than just listing the word as illegible.
In the transcriptions we have strictly followed Darwin’s spelling and punctuation in so far as these could be determined. The transcribed text follows as closely as possible the layout of the notebooks, although no attempt is made to produce a type-facsimile of the manuscript; word-spacing and line-division in the running text are not reproduced. Editorial interpolations in the text are enclosed in square brackets. The page numbers assigned to the notebooks are in square brackets in the margin at the start of the page to which they refer. Italic square brackets enclose conjectured readings and descriptions of illegible passages. Darwin’s use of the ſ or long s (appearing as the first ‘s’ of a double ‘s’), has been silently modernized. Darwin used an unusual backwards question mark (؟) which might be based on the Spanish convention of preceding a question with an inverted question mark (¿). Textual notes are given below each notebook. The notebooks are almost entirely written in pencil. Where ink was used instead this is indicated in the textual notes. Brown ink was used except where otherwise indicated. Pencil text that was later overwritten with ink is represented in bold font.
The length, complexity and need to refer to the textual notes has been minimized by representing some of the features of the original manuscripts typographically. Words underlined by Darwin are printed underlined rather than given in italics. Text that is underlined more than three times is double underlined and bold. (There are no instances of such entries also overwritten in ink.) Text that was circled or boxed by Darwin is printed as boxed (in the print volume by CUP only). Also text that appears to have been struck through at the time of writing is printed as struck through text. Darwin’s insertions and interlineations have been silently inserted where he indicated or where we have judged appropriate.
Paragraphs are problematic; often Darwin ran all of his entries together across the page to save space. We have made a new paragraph when there was sufficient space at the end of the preceding line to have continued there. We have silently added a paragraph break wherever Darwin made a line across the page, apparently at the time of writing, or short double scores between lines separating blocks of text. When long strings of notes are separated with stops or colons and dashes we have left these as written by Darwin. We have ignored all later scoring through of lines, paragraphs and pages in the interest of readability. Virtually every page and paragraph is scored through, often several times, indicating that Darwin had made use of the material. Darwin later marked references to birds on either side with vertical lines ||. It has been our aim to make Darwin’s notebooks widely accessible and readable, as well as a scholarly edition.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the field notebooks are quite different from all of Darwin’s other notebooks, except the Glen Roy field notebook of 1838 (DAR 118), in that they all contain diagrams or sketches. With the exception of a small number of apparently meaningless cross-hatches and doodles, we include photographs of all of these drawings in the transcriptions (in the print volume). To assist the reader the writing contained in these drawings is also transcribed and the sketches turned to the horizontal when necessary. We have provided captions to those that have been identified and which are not already captioned by Darwin or which do not appear to be self explanatory. Some of the notebooks, notably St. Fe, are abundantly illustrated with geological sections which Darwin was able later to ‘stitch together’, via various intermediate copies, now preserved in the Darwin Archive at Cambridge University Library, into the versions he published in the three works which comprised his Geology of the Beagle. Of at least equal interest are the far fewer but equally informative sketches of animals, apparently in some cases having been dissected, and the occasional crude diagram of human interest, such as the floor plan of a house, a tiny drawing of the Beagle, and a self-portrait of Darwin as a ‘stick man’ on the cliffs of St Helena.
With one partial exception, Darwin did not number the pages of the notebooks, and often wrote in them at different times from opposite ends. This edition therefore uses an ‘a, b’ page numbering system. When a notebook was used starting from opposite ends the pages written from the front cover are labelled ‘a’, and pages written from the back cover are labelled ‘b’. In order to make the transcriptions readable the second sequence, starting with the back cover, is placed immediately after the end of the first sequence. With the original manuscript it is necessary to turn the notebook around and begin reading from the other end. Most of the notebooks have brass clasps and we use the convention of referring to the cover with the hinge attached as the back cover.
Many persons, places and publications are recorded in the notebooks which appear in no other Darwin manuscripts. To make the notebooks more accessible explanatory footnotes are provided. The notes identify persons referred to in the text and references to publications as well as technical terms or particular specimens when these could be readily identified in Darwin’s other Beagle records. By consulting the first occurrence of technical terms and so forth, the index can be used as a glossary. The definitions are mostly intended for the general reader.
Naturally, entries tend to be telegraphic in style and (as is normal in field notebooks, with the spine parallel to the lines of writing), the lines are often only a few words long. In the transcriptions presented here line breaks are ignored to aid readability, except where it is clear that a new sentence or topic is introduced.
Summarising the content of the notebooks in a few paragraphs would not only be impossible, but also rather pointless since we already have Barlow's 1945 unsurpassably engaging précis. Even Barlow at times had to admit defeat in trying to convey an impression of the hundreds of pages of geological descriptions, diagrams and speculations which fill great swathes of the notebooks, especially those used during 1834 and 1835. A series of quotes, in more or less chronological order, at least proves the potential of the notebooks:
The following diagram attempts to show the periods of time over which Darwin used the notebooks during the voyage. Several of the notebooks were used at different times, and sometimes more than one notebook was in use at any one time, so that the relationships between the notebooks are sometimes quite complex. We should stress that this diagram only shows that a notebook was used in any particular month. The text of the notebooks need to be consulted to see whether this was many pages of continuous use, or a few dateable jottings.
The notebooks are of variable length. The total length of all fifteen previously unpublished field notebooks is 116,000 words. There are a small number of entries (mainly notes and drawings) which, although contemporary, are not in Darwin's hand.
It is possible to give some general impressions of how Darwin’s use of the notebooks gradually shifted throughout the voyage. There is a symmetry to the use of the notebooks in that their use gradually built up during the first year of the voyage, reached a plateau in the middle years, them tailed off in the last year. The first three notebooks gradually get longer, then there is a big ‘jump up’ to the Falklands notebook which is not only almost twice as long as its predecessors but for the first time is routinely used for lengthy description. Darwin maintained this ‘Falklands’ style of use through the three ‘South American’ years of the voyage, but it ‘spiked’ quite extraordinarily in the St Fe notebook of which the bulk dates from early 1835. The daily rate of note-taking starts to drop off noticeably after Darwin left South America. St Fe is seven times longer than the two shortest notebooks, which are those used at the beginning and end of the voyage.
The Santiago notebook was being used at the same time as St Fe and seems to mark a new development in Darwin’s note-taking. In Santiago for the first time he started to split off his theoretical notes from his more observational notes and kept Santiago for theory until it was ‘joined’ by the exclusively theoretical Red notebook in May 1836. This is a new interpretation of Santiago and R.N. as previous scholars have assumed not only that use of Santiago ceased when R.N. started, but that the transition from field notes to theory notes is to be seen in R. N. whereas we believe it is in Santiago.
We present the notebooks here in their entirety for the first time and for each notebook we have provided an individual introduction. These introductions are intended to assist the general reader to understand more fully than may be possible just from the notebook texts what exactly Darwin was doing in any particular place or on any particular date. To make it easy to compare the notebook entries with other Darwin manuscripts, such as for example his Beagle diary or correspondence, we always use the place names he used. In cases where this differs from the present-day name, on first mention we provide the present day place name in square brackets.
As the Beagle diary and Correspondence are more lengthy documents which overlap, chronologically, with the notebooks, it is necessary frequently to consult both when using the Beagle notebooks. Citing the Beagle diary and Correspondence on every date in the notebooks would be too cumbersome. Reference should also be made to the other published Beagle manuscripts, such as the Zoology notes.
Although there can be no substitute for reading the notebooks themselves, we hope that the introductions if read in sequence would give the general reader a good idea of Darwin’s scientific development during the voyage. To this end we have used the earlier introductions to ‘set the scene’ and to introduce the key scientific issues facing Darwin and his mentors back in England. As the voyage progresses the introductions go into more and more detail as Darwin climbs metaphorically and actually into higher and higher realms of geology.
While the notebooks are overwhelmingly geological they also record Darwin’s field work in botany and zoology (‘natural history’) and his observations in those fields which came to dominate Darwin’s scientific career after the voyage. We have, therefore, devoted perhaps disproportionate attention to ‘natural history’ as the introductions move forward in time. In particular, we discuss Darwin’s gradual accumulation of evidence that something was wrong with received wisdom concerning the ‘death’ and more dramatically the ‘birth’ of species, even when this evidence is only scrappily recorded in the notebooks. This discussion culminates with Darwin’s realisation in the Galapagos notebook that the land birds there are American, implying an historical origin on the mainland rather than a special local creation to suit volcanic island conditions. Our final introduction reflects on Darwin’s apparent loss of belief in the Creator’s role in nature, triggered by watching a humble ant-lion catching its prey, an event not mentioned in the Sydney notebook.
The notebooks contain over 300 sketches and doodles. These are indicated in the online transcriptions with editorial notes. As English Heritage plans to publish images of the notebooks on their website in 2009 Darwin Online was not given permission to reproduce microfilm or other images of the notebooks apart from the missing Galapagos notebook.
We are grateful to English Heritage, and to the curators of Down House, Tori Reeve and Cathy Power, for allowing us to access and publish online transcriptions of the notebooks.
Gordon Chancellor, John van Wyhe and Kees Rookmaaker
See also the Chronological register to the notebooks and