Charles Darwin's notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle

'Slings and arrows': an introduction to the B. Blanca Notebook

The B. Blanca Notebook takes its name from the port city of Bahía Blanca (White Bay) on the coast of Argentina. The name derives from the typical colour of the salt covering the soil along the shore. The notebook was the fifth used by Darwin during the Beagle voyage. In one respect the B. Blanca Notebook is radically different from any of the other field notebooks in that three-quarters of it are written in ink. The ink is used for almost all of the three-week inland expedition in September 1833, pp. 2a-68a. At first this seems completely at variance with the general rule that Darwin used pencil when away from the Beagle. In fact, for most of the expedition Darwin did write initially in pencil, but for some reason he later wrote over this in ink. Perhaps his pencil was too faint. It is more difficult to explain the entries for 5-7 and 13 September, where there is no trace of pencil and it is obvious for those dates that Darwin wrote up the days' activities in ink. The pen (and possibly also the ink) used for those four days seems to differ from the one used for inking over; it is distinctive and somewhat finer.

The B. Blanca Notebook covers two distinct time periods, firstly 29 August to 21 September 1833, pp. 1b-9b; 1a-68a, then, secondly, after a seven month break for the southern summer when the Beagle went south, rather patchily from 14 April to June 1834, pp. 69a-87a. It has thus a rather complex relationship to no less than six other field notebooks, as follows: the earliest entries seem to overlap with the last in the Falkland Notebook; then the B. Blanca Notebook was supplanted from 21 September 1833 to 13 April 1834 by four other notebooks, St. Fe Notebook up to 13 November, then the Banda Oriental Notebook to early December, then the Buenos Ayres Notebook briefly around Christmas, then the Port Desire Notebook to 13 April. The B. Blanca Notebook overlaps between April and June 1834 with the Banda Oriental Notebook.

Unraveling the complexities of the notebooks covering the southern summer of 1833-4 may seem unnecessary and uninteresting, until we realise the great impact on Darwin of some of his discoveries during this period in December-January. Within the space of a few weeks Darwin collected not only the remains of a 'new' kind of rhea which was different from the rhea with which he was already well acquainted (see below and introduction to the Rio Notebook) but also unearthed a tolerably complete skeleton of a strange new mammal. At first Darwin was very uncertain what sort of creature it might be, but once Richard Owen examined it in England in early 1837 Darwin started to see it as an extinct giant llama (see below and introduction to the Port Desire Notebook). These two discoveries assumed immense importance to Darwin in providing him with natural links between species in space and time. He juxtaposed these two finds in one of the most important series of entries in the Red Notebook, pp. 127-9, penned in the Spring of 1837, which scholars now see as pivotal in understanding his path to a workable theory of evolution.

We should also bear in mind that it was in the April-June 1834 period that Darwin read the third and final volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology, received before but read after the Santa Cruz river expedition. See Correspondence vol. 1, p. 371 note 5 and Herbert 2005, p. 69. This volume consolidated Darwin's commitment to Lyell's gradualistic geology and clarified a number of previously confusing geological issues, such as whether 'Primary' formations were always older than rocks of Secondary and Transition age. Lyell showed that they were not always oldest, and should be renamed 'hypogene'. He renamed 'unstratified primary' rocks (e.g. granite) as 'plutonic', and 'stratified primary' (e.g. gneiss) as 'metamorphic'.

In volume three Lyell also paid particular attention to countering the theory of 'paroxysmal elevation of mountain ranges' of the French geologist Jean Baptiste Élie de Beaumont (1798-1874), who had cited the Andes as the most recent example. As Herbert 2005 has shown, Darwin's reading of Lyell's third volume, just after seeing what to him were proofs of the gradual elevation of Patagonia, and just before experiencing at first hand the potential elevating power of many successive earthquakes in the Andes, provided just the right focus for Darwin's theoretical energies. Darwin had heard Sedgwick praise Élie de Beaumont's theory before the voyage, so he must have realised that his rapidly approaching opportunity to see the Andes for himself might be crucial in deciding whether to follow Lyell or Sedgwick.

In terms of places described, the B. Blanca Notebook is mainly concerned with Darwin's long trek across the Pampas which started at the Rio Negro and eventually finished in Buenos Ayres. It may be helpful to note that, a century after the event, Barlow 1933 designated this expedition to Buenos Ayres, as the first and second of Darwin's eight 'principal inland expeditions'. The first, from El Carmen crossing the Rio Colorado to Bahia Blanca (c. 250km) in August was covered by the Falkland Notebook. The second, from Bahia Blanca to Buenos Ayres (c. 750km) in September is covered here in the B. Blanca Notebook. The third is covered by the St. Fe Notebook, the fourth and fifth by the Banda Oriental Notebook.

Other localities found in the B. Blanca Notebook are as follows: there are brief descriptions of the mouth of the Santa Cruz, p. 69a-75a, Port Famine [Puerto Hambre, near Punta Arenas; see watercolour reproduced in Stanbury 1977, p. 184],1 and the Magdalen Channel, off the Magellan Straits.

The last few pages of the B. Blanca Notebook, which may contain Darwin's first words on the geology of the west coast of South America, seem to relate to the island of Chiloe, off the coast of Chile. These pages must date from the second half of 1834, or very early 1835.

Bahia Blanca to Buenos Ayres, August-September 1833

Upon opening the notebook there are some jottings inside the front cover which are hard to date but which must be before 29 August 1833, including 'Cusca places eggs in other birds nest', see also p. 53a. This suggests the Molothrus, or cowbird, with its cuckoo-like egg-laying habits. Here is a direct link to Darwin's discussion of 'brood parasitism' in Origin, p. 216, and to a paper he wrote a few months before he died (Darwin 1881), showing how the Beagle voyage provided him with materials he made use of for the rest of his life.

On p. 1b we find a typically telegraphic memo about 'Emulation M Barral Naut. Almanac 1834 – Letter – under cover Mr G'. This refers to the French survey ship L'Emulation and FitzRoy's apparent requests to Darwin that he procure a map of Buenos Ayres, perhaps from Monsieur Barral, to speak to Philip Yorke Gore, the Chargé d'Affaires in Buenos Ayres, and to obtain the 1834 Nautical Almanac. On p. 2b we find 'Don Many great bones (Lorenzo)' which seems to make little sense until we see the possible link to FitzRoy's incredibly vague request for Darwin to speak to Gore and to 'Seňor – Don – or Colonel Something, or Somebody', who could be Don Lorenzo. See Keynes 1979, pp. 77, 79, 160, 162, 232!

There follow more memos, and a charming sketch on p. 4a of the foot of a 'Paluda', which Zoology notes, p. 180 shows is the splendidly named Large Hairy Armadillo, Chaetophractus villosus. There are some torn pages and some jotted memos of ideas to be considered further, judging from the fact that they are in ink. A series of blank pages completes the front pages.

On the inside back cover is the Spanish name 'Gillermo' and its English equivalent 'William', in a hand which does not seem to be Darwin's. There is also an enigmatic sketch labelled 'glass bottles'.

The entries over-written in ink start on p. 2a. On page 3a Darwin recorded the date Thursday 29 August 1833 and the note 'Very successful with the bones, passed the night pleasantly' at Punta Alta, and subsequent pages are an exceptionally readable description of his geologizing there. At this point it is worth summarising Darwin's total haul of fossil mammals as it can be very confusing working out which fossil came from which locality.

Firstly, the finds can be grouped according to the names given to them by Richard Owen, and their present day classifications. Most are edentates; these are the armadillo Dasypus, and the extinct Megatherium, Hoplophorus, Mylodon and Scelidotherium. There is the 'giant rodent' later classed as the notoungulate Toxodon. There is Darwin's 'giant llama', subsequently classed as the litoptern Macrauchenia. Finally there is the horse, Equus, which is an odd-toed ungulate, and some rodents, called Ctenomys. The fossils mentioned at various places as Mastodon and Megalonyx were either misidentifications or very poor specimens.

Darwin found his fossils in three main regions, but in various locations within each of those regions, some of which he visited several times. He also purchased some key specimens, rather than excavating them himself. He described all these localities in the geological introduction to Zoology and at various points in South America, p. 106, where he also provided a summary of these and other fossil localities known to him.

The three main regions were, in the order described in Zoology, proceeding southwards, firstly: a vast area around the Rio de la Plata, including Bajada de St Fé/Banda Oriental/Entre Rios/Parana and the Rio Salado; secondly: Bahia Blanca/Mt Hermoso and Punta Alta; thirdly: Port St Julian. Simplifying considerably, the fossil genera he found from these regions were as follows:
region one: Mylodon, Megatherium, Toxodon, Glossotherium, Hoplophorus, Equus;
region two: Megatherium, Mylodon, Scelidotherium, Hoplophorus, Equus, Ctenomys; region three: Macrauchenia.

The importance of the fossils to Darwin is brilliantly clear in the second edition of his Journal of researches (1845), written after he had already formulated his theory of evolution by natural selection, but before he had published it. He did suggest, p. 173, that this evidence was crucial for understanding the origin of species:

This wonderful relationship in the same continent between the dead and the living, will, I do not doubt, hereafter throw more light on the appearance of organic beings on our earth, and their disappearance from it, than any other class of facts

There are some lyrical passages on these opening pages of the B. Blanca Notebook: 'quiet little retired spots, weather beautiful & nights; the very quietness almost sublime', pp. 4a-5a. On p. 7a, on 1 September, he was 'wandering about with my gun & enjoying sunny day'.

There is a very clear geological section, showing the gravel at sea level, then 'real tosca', then 'impure tosca', then a 'whitish line' and a capping of 'diluvium', this word not inked over perhaps indicating that by the time Darwin was reworking these notes he had finally abandoned that term. Herbert 2005, p. 157 note 60, has shown how during the voyage Darwin gradually dropped the term 'diluvium', (used by Buckland and Lyell) with its Noachian connotations, for deposits such as the one at Punta Alta which he was sure were of marine origin. The section clearly shows that the 'diluvium' is covered by 'vegetable mould sea shells and land', p. 6a. Comparing these notes to those he made at Punta Alta in September 1832, it is clear that Darwin's new section is virtually the same as that published in South America, fig. 15, p. 82. (Below)

‘Section of beds with recent shells and extinct mammifers, at Punta Alta in Bahia Blanca.’ fig. 15 from South America.

On p. 10b he remarks 'gran bestia all nonsense: The animal of which whole skeleton was lying in pieces of stone, tolerably in proper position & imbedded in sand.' Then on p. 12a, 4 September, 'Cruel ennui found books exquisite delight' which relates to some Spanish books he was reading, including one on the trial of Queen Caroline, see Barlow 1945, p. 196;2 'nobody knows pleasure of reading till a few days of such indolence'.

On p. 13a Darwin seems to have found some whale bones, with barnacles (Balanus) attached, proving that the bones had lain on the sea bed before being enclosed in the surrounding matrix. In such cases 'the matrix is not possibly Tosca & animal diluvial', p. 14a. The fossil mammals, therefore, had not been killed by any 'diluvial' flood; rather they had floated out as carcasses into a giant 'proto-Plata' estuary, as happens to this day. In Fossil Mammalia, p. 6, Darwin described the vast numbers of skeletons which had resulted from this process:

As their exposure has invariably been due to the intersection of the plain by the banks of some stream, it is not making an extravagant assertion, to say, that any line whatever drawn across the Pampas would probably cross the skeleton of some extinct animal.

There are many pages of considerable interest concerning General Rosas' war against the Indians, massacres being justified 'because they breed so', p. 16a. Darwin, understandably, had mixed feelings about his trek: on 6 September he was 'drunk from mattee & smoking from indolence & anxiety about starting', p. 26a. He saw a flint arrow head and was told that in pre-Conquest days the Indians did not have horses, p. 27a. In his Beagle diary there is a retrospective entry for this date which shows he was confused about this, having found a horse's tooth with Megatherium remains at Santa Fé. There was much of zoological interest and on p. 28a he recorded what he was told about how the 'Avestruz Petise' (later named Rhea darwinii) differs from the northern rhea. A few months later, at Port Desire, this 'good information', p. 29a, came back to him just in time for him to save the remains of a specimen of this highly significant 'new' species of bird. See above and introduction to the Rio Notebook.

The next day he approached south of the Sierra de la Ventana, on his way to Tandeel [Tandil], and then to Tapalguen [Tapalqué]. The notes are mainly geological, but not entirely: 'Hunted & killed beautiful fox', p. 35a. Some twenty years ago Richard Darwin Keynes passed on to Chancellor an enquiry from Arturo Jorge Amos, a geologist from Buenos Ayres, who was puzzled by Darwin's mention of a gneiss from the Sierra, South America, p. 147. Chancellor examined Darwin's specimens 1553-5 on Dr Amos's behalf and was able to reassure him, subject to some future full petrographic examination, that they were not gneiss in the strict sense but were sedimentary rocks, albeit with evidence of metamorphism, as Dr Amos had predicted. Chancellor also sent Dr Amos a transcription of the relevant page from Darwin's geological diary, DAR 33.273, which did not mention the gneiss. There are some interesting sketches in the notebook of what Darwin called the 'mammillated plain', pp. 41a, 50a.

There is page after page of fascinating, detailed description as Darwin travelled from Posta to Posta: 'Night at Sierra very cold first wet with dew then frozen stiff', p. 37a. The going was tough, through country that he sometimes likened to the Cambridgeshire fens: 'road rather better like Cottenham Fen', p. 57a; 'I have now for some days eat nothing but eat meat & drunk mattee: long gallops in dark. eat Lions meat very like calf' p. 60a; 'wife of old Cacique not more than 11', p. 61a; 'many quinces and peaches', p. 65a. On the shores of a lake near Guardia del Monte [San Miguel del Monte] he found part of a Hoplophorus carapace, p. 66a. Finally he reached Buenos Ayres on 20 September where he stayed with Edward Lumb. See p. 5a and the introduction to the Buenos Ayres Notebook.

Santa Cruz, April-May 1834

‘Fig. 2, which is traced from an outline [of a cliff] made upon the spot’ from Erratic boulders, p. 422.

The notebook entries jump to 14 April 1834, p. 69a, but the rest of the second half of April, and the first week of May, is the Santa Cruz expedition covered in the Banda Oriental Notebook. This remaining section of the B. Blanca Notebook is mostly pencil, p. 82a being the exception. The notes are much less discursive than they were for the September 1833 Pampas expedition, and consist largely of lists of birds, plus a somewhat cryptic sketch of a bird on p. 71a, and barometer readings, for example, for 8 May on p. 73a.

There is a curious note on p. 74a to the effect that uplift of a continent, if made of hard rocks, might be hard to detect. This and a few other entries date to mid May. On pp. 77-8a there are two sketches which are the prototypes for two of the diagrams which eventually appeared in Volcanic islands, figs. 2-3. There is a draft of one of these diagrams in DAR34.158A. Since the Beagle was only at Gregory Bay very briefly at the end of May this allows the diagrams to be dated.

Tierra del Fuego, June 1834

The next dated entry is 2 June on p. 77a, in Tierra del Fuego: 'Splendid day – Sarmiento appeared – theory of views – brought savages Skirmish Bravery – slings & arrows'. Barlow 1945, p. 223 note 1 linked the phrase 'theory of views' to a section of Darwin's Beagle diary for the first week of June in which he gave an explanation for the tendency to underestimate the heights of mountains. On p. 81a he waxed lyrical about man's insignificance in such a spectacular landscape, and mentioned the 'Niagara of ice' which seems to be the glacier depicted in Marten's watercolour 'Mount Sarmiento from Warp Bay', engraved by T. Landseer as an illustration in FitzRoy's Narrative 1, facing p. 359: see Keynes 1979, p. 113, for the original watercolour, dated 9 June 1834.

Chile, late 1834 or early 1835

Finally there are six pages of the west coast jottings, starting on p. 82a, which are difficult to date. Here is a whole new series of geological issues to consider, such as volcanoes and earthquakes, mines and fossil plants, caves and mineral springs. At this point in the voyage Darwin was a seasoned field geologist, ready to tackle some of the real burning scientific issues of the day. Top of the list was the origin of the mighty Andean Cordillera, and the link between volcanoes and coral reefs.

Gordon Chancellor and John van Wyhe

June 2008

'B. Blanca to Buenos Ayres' (9-10.1833). Beagle field notebook. Text EH1.11

1 Winslow 1975, p. 349, explains how Port Famine came to be so named, following the abandonment c. 1586 of the Spanish fort caused by the failure of food supplies and consequent starvation of the inhabitants.

2 This was the unsuccessful attempt by King George IV in 1820 to pass a bill through the House of Lords annulling his marriage to Caroline of Brunswick (1768-1821) on grounds of her behaviour. Caroline, who enjoyed great public support, was brilliantly defended by Henry (later Lord) Brougham, but she died only one month after being excluded from George's coronation, an exclusion which resulted in riots in London at her funeral. The Beagle played a role in the coronation by being the first fully-rigged man-of-war to pass under the (old) London Bridge. At that stage she was a brig (two-masted). She gained a mizzen when refitted for surveying in 1825. See Thomson 1995.



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