Charles Darwin's notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle

'300 thousand cattle': An introduction to the Falkland Notebook

The Falkland Notebook takes its name from the Falkland Islands, the archipelago in the South Atlantic Ocean, located 300 miles (480 km) from the coast of Argentina. It is physically different to the three previous notebooks, which are all bound in red leather. The Falkland Notebook is bound in brown leather, and is a Type 2 notebook together with the R. N. Notebook, which curiously Darwin at least twice called the ‘Red Note Book’ (see for example DAR29.3.9, DAR36.436-437 and Herbert 1980). The Red Notebook was in use from about May 1836, during the last months of the voyage, then on and off until about July 1837.1 The Falkland Notebook also has notably more pages than the three preceding notebooks, being about twice as long as any of them.

The earliest entries in the Falkland Notebook date from around Darwin’s twenty-fourth birthday in early February 1833. This was in the middle of a time, from November 1832 to April 1833 when, according to Sulloway 1985, Darwin was at his lowest emotional ebb in the whole voyage, which seems understandable in view of the weather and seasickness he experienced around Tierra del Fuego and the Falklands, even though it was summertime. The prospect of the voyage lasting three years more than originally planned may have contributed.

Using content analysis of Darwin’s letters to Henslow during the voyage, Sulloway was able to show that Darwin’s psychological development from a somewhat diffident tyro naturalist into a self-assured theoretician was the largest single psychological legacy of the voyage. Sulloway shows, as far as the Henslow correspondence goes, that Darwin was at his most anxious concerning his abilities and responsibilities at the time the Falkland Notebook was in use. It was not until April 1834, almost half way through the voyage, that Darwin received any feedback about his collections from Henslow, by which time his confidence as a geologist was already on the rise.

Of course, Sulloway is not denying that the observations Darwin accumulated during the voyage were necessary components of his eventually becoming convinced of evolution. As he stressed, however, none of these observations was sufficient to convert the specialists back in England, who were in fact the very people who were capable of providing the expert identifications which Darwin used to support his theory. Thus Sulloway shows that the key to understanding the importance of the voyage is not provided by knowing what Darwin saw but in understanding how his mind matured.

Darwin’s use of the Falkland Notebook was more or less continuous from early February 1833 until the end of August 1833, although there are significant gaps in June and July. The first continuous series of entries is from February to the end of May, pp. 1a-86a; 1b-5b. Use of the notebook was then sporadic until Darwin had his first major inland excursion in August which is recorded at length in the notebook, pp. 86a-142a. The rest of the notebook front pages are blank.

The B. Blanca Notebook takes over from the Falkland Notebook around 29 August, although the very last of the back pages of the Falkland Notebook, c. 12b?-14b, seem to date from September. This dating seems confirmed by the reference on p. 85a to use of the Falkland Notebook from 'end of Feb to Sept'.

Tierra del Fuego, February 1833

The first entries in the Falkland Notebook relate to Tierra del Fuego where the middle section of the Buenos Ayres Notebook finished off, pp. 1a-7a. They are mostly rather disjointed thermometer and barometer readings.

Falklands, February-April 1833

Entries then cover the Beagle’s first of two cruises to the Falkland Islands, 26 February to early April; pp. 7a-27a. The Falklands episodes are very well covered by Armstrong 1992 and Armstrong 2004. Keynes 1979, pp. 118-9, Beagle diary, p. 147 footnote and Keynes 2003, pp. 137-8 also quoted extensively from the Falkland Notebook to show that it was in the Falklands that Darwin first started to consider island endemism. The notebook is completely silent regarding the troubled political history of the islands. See Correspondence vol. 1, p. 304 note 6.

It is remarkable that in almost his first entry made in the islands on 2 March 1833 Darwin asked himself on p. 8a: ‘To what animals did the dung beetles in S. America belong.’ Then, apparently written after this is a second, more general question which seems to relate to the first: ‘Is not the close connection of insects & plants As well as this fact point out closer connection than migration’. Grove 1985, p. 419 suggested that this was an indication that Darwin was already becoming intrigued by the similarity between island species and those on the nearest continent, an idea which Darwin took much further after he had been to the Galapagos. See introduction to the Galapagos Notebook.

There is no mention of the tragic death of Edward Hellyer, FitzRoy’s Clerk, who drowned after shooting a duck for FitzRoy's collection, on 4 March. Darwin was in the party that found and retrieved the body, which was buried the following day.

On 12 March Darwin noted the ‘aberration of instinct’ in the introduced horses which were ‘fond of catching cattle’! He described what he called a ‘mantle ridge’ of the quartzite which he interpreted as a ‘point of upheaval’, p. 19a, running parallel to Berkeley Sound, and on p. 21a he described watching a cormorant ‘playing’ with a fish, as an otter might, or a cat with a mouse. From the note on p. 26a he seems to have broken his watch.

A fish (Aplochiton zebra) caught by Darwin in a freshwater lake on East Falkland in May 1833. Plate 24 from Fish.

Darwin’s geological observations from the Falklands, which have been discussed in depth by Armstrong 1992, fitted comfortably neither in his book on South America nor in his book on Volcanic Islands, so he published them separately in the Proceedings of the Geological Society of London (Darwin 1846). Darwin did, however, publish a short account of the Falklands geology in South America.

On p. 11a Darwin drew a simple sketch showing the peat, which is a prominent feature of the islands, underlain by clay and overlain by sand. On p. 23a he noted the small bones of mammals found in the peat causing him to speculate that these animals ‘like rats’ were the original inhabitants of the islands. It is unclear when Darwin first noticed the earthworms of the Falklands, a creature he later studied for many years. He referred to the Falkland worms in his very last book, published the year before he died (Earthworms, p. 121).

Darwin noted the various slates and sandstones he was encountering, and was intrigued to 'ask Chaffers [i.e. Edwin Chaffers, Master of the Beagle] where gneiss came from', p. 13a. From a geological point of view, the fossils Darwin collected just south of Port Louis on 22 March were probably the most exciting treasures of this Falklands period, see p. 24a. The fossils were mainly brachiopods, but also some crinoids. The brachiopods were described by John Morris and Daniel Sharpe in a paper immediately following Darwin’s (Morris and Sharpe 1846).

Devonian Brachiopods collected by Darwin on East Falkland, from Morris and Sharpe 1846.

It is difficult to overstate the importance of these fossils. At the time of their discovery fossils like these were little known beyond Europe and were regarded as almost the oldest known life on Earth. These were the sorts of rocks and fossils which Darwin would have seen with Sedgwick in Wales in 1831 and at the time would have been called ‘Transition’, signaling their position somewhere between the oldest ‘Primary’ rocks, and the ‘Secondary’ rocks which underlay, for example, much of southeast England. See Rudwick 1985.

There is a very interesting reference to the fossils in the Copiapò Notebook, p. 72, '(NB. fossils of Falklands of hot country??)', demonstrating that Darwin was well aware of the value of fossils for reconstructing past environments. In 1846 Darwin dated the fossils as Silurian or Devonian (the term ‘Devonian’ having only been proposed by Roderick Murchison (1792-1871) and Adam Sedgwick in 1839 (see Rudwick 1985), but they are now dated firmly to the Devonian. The age of the specimens is now thought to be the same as those of the South African Bokkeveld, thus Emsian-Eifelian (Stages of the Devonian), very approximately 386 million years old. What is now South Africa was in Devonian times close to that part of South America which underlies the Falklands.

One suspects that Darwin was pleased when the Beagle left the Falklands and headed back to the mainland. As he wrote to his sister Caroline on 30 March he longed to see the tropics again: 'No disciple of Mohamet ever looked to his seventh heaven, with greater zeal, than I do to those regions.' (Correspondence vol. 1, p. 303).

St Joseph's Bay, April 1833

The second week of April is not recorded in the Falkland Notebook, as the Beagle was at sea, and the Falkland Notebook picks up briefly on p. 28a on 17 April 1833 in St Joseph’s Bay [Golfo San José] in Patagonia. FitzRoy had specific instructions from the Admiralty to call there to explore the harbour, see Narrative 2: 27, giving Darwin a chance to explore what he called in his Beagle diary, p. 151, 'an El Dorado to a Geologist'. On p. 29a Darwin made a cross reference to his Beagle diary for around 19 April: ‘if new paper is used it will be [p.] (313)’.

Maldonado, May-June 1833

The Beagle went next to Maldonado for the winter, p. 30a, via a stop in Monte Video. Darwin took up residence on shore in Maldonado on 29 April and it was while there that he made a long series of entries for the whole of May (this is mainly the ‘Maldonado (excursion)’, from 9-21 May, noted on the notebook label). A parallel series of entries for the middle of May occurs at the back of the notebook (inside back cover to c. p. 7b).

The descriptions in the notebook from Maldonado are classic: the gauchos ‘would cut your throat & make a bow at the same time’, p. 34a, and on p. 38a ‘it is necessary to lounge all evening amongst drunken strangers.’ On the night of 11 May Darwin stayed at the house of the 'very sick' Manuel Fuentes, but the house which was described more fully in the Beagle diary was 'thoroughily uncomfortable' and the food just as bad. Darwin's great-grandson Quentin Keynes visited the house in 1970 and found that it was still standing, but was 'partly tumbled down'. (S. Keynes 2004, p. 172).

The notebook continues with pages of geology, interspersed with colourful notes of the travelling life: ‘the people all look at me rather kindly but with much pity & wonder’, p. 45a; 'Inglishman last night most hospitable: fresh horses', p. 47a; ‘I am considered such a curiosity that I was sent to be shown to a sick woman.’ p. 48a; 'at night curious drunken scene; knives drawn', p. 54a; 'This days ride interesting it is an alpine country in miniature slept at the most hospitable house', p. 63a.

At the end of this excursion Darwin listed a considerable number of books to read including ‘Humboldt (of course)’, p. 74a; almost the same list occurs in a letter to his younger sister Catherine started on 22 May in Maldonado (Correspondence vol. 1, p. 311).

The geology around Maldonado is described in South America, p. 1 on elevation, p. 90 on the Pampean Formation, p. 144 on the crystalline rocks. In the Falkland Notebook, p. 49a, Darwin noted of the ‘trap’ rocks (i.e. hard splintery lava rocks) that they are of ‘endless varieties: I have only selected a few: I could not bring any more’.

On p. 43a Darwin stated ‘I am inclined hence to believe this whole country to be of transition origin like so many primitive others:’ and ‘now no doubt that the whole country is Transition formation:’, p. 66a. The issue he was grappling with here was that, at the time, geologists tended to regard the crystalline rocks (i.e. those such as granite and gneiss which did not show obvious signs of having been laid down under the sea) as the oldest, hence ‘primitive’. Whilst it is generally true that the oldest rocks on Earth are crystalline, Darwin was already doubting that a granite, for example, had to be older than ‘transition’ and might in fact be even younger. See Pearson 1996 for a full discussion.

There are extensive zoological notes around 31 May, pp. 76a-83a; pp. 1b-7b, reflecting Darwin’s comments in letters that while in Maldonado he was very busy collecting. It is difficult to pick out any particular animal as any more interesting than another. The slug Limas described on p. 2b, as the Zoology notes, p. 151, show was collected on 14 May and was described in unusual detail. On p. 77a Darwin seemed to wonder if the presence of beetles in horse dung argues for horses being original inhabitants. Around p. 80a there are many birds listed, sometimes with fascinating behavioural observations. On p. 78a, for example he mentioned a ‘Picus’ (i.e. woodpecker) which formed the basis of a discussion in his 'Ornithological notes' and was eventually referred to in the Origin, p. 184. Darwin was later challenged by the ornithologist and popular writer William Henry Hudson (1841-1922), on his observations of the woodpecker. Darwin responded in Darwin 1870.

Entries suddenly become difficult to date around p. 84a. June and July 1833 are not clearly registered in the notebook. Darwin’s Beagle diary, p. 160, makes clear that up to June he was extremely busy with collecting zoological specimens and on 29 June he 'arrived safely on board with all my Menagerie'. He spent several days on paperwork, then the Beagle sailed for Monte Video on 9 July, then back to Maldonado on 13 July. His collections went off with a letter to Henslow on the 20th. On 24 July the Beagle sailed for the Rio Negro.

Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca, August 1833

The next dated entry, which is in ink on p. 86a, was apparently just before 2 August when the Beagle arrived at the mouth of the Rio Negro. See also Beagle diary, p. 164 note 1 and p. 166, note 2 for quotes from these pages. It is interesting to realise that much of the notebook for early August is concerned with the economy of the region, an aspect of Darwin’s interests during the voyage that requires more study. It is well known that his reading in political economy chanced to be one of the most important influences on the formulation of his theory of natural selection (see Schweber 1985), although Darwin's insight was derived from a biological argument about population growth.

There are extensive notes for early August, pp. 86a-124a, pp. 7b-8b, covering Darwin’s first major inland excursion, from Patagones [Carmen dé Patagones], about 30km up the Negro, to Bahia Blanca. This is ‘excursion number 1’ of Barlow 1933 and dates from 11-17 August. Darwin visited the ‘Salina or great Salt Lake’ and noted the sandstone which seemed to predominate and was covered by gravels with various types of pebbles including tosca. He was intrigued to know what relation these beds bore to those of Bahia Blanca which he saw the previous year and which he hoped soon to revisit. He concluded, p. 98a, that the gravel was deposited under the sea. The big question to be answered was whether these vast spreads of sediment were the result of gradual deposition, or of catastrophic floods. ‘I am inclined to think the Pampas not diluvial although little above level of sea.’, p. 113a.

There are scattered zoological references, for example, flamingos, p. 101a; shrike, p.106a; toco toco p.106-7a; guanacos, p. 111a; cuckoos, p. 117 and many references to the fruits and crops grown in the area. The reference to the tuco tuco is especially significant. At the time of making the notes on the habits of the animal from the Rio Negro on pp. 106-7a, Darwin was unsure of its relationship to the tuco tuco with which he was already familiar from his Maldonado explorations. Darwin's notes were expanded in his Zoology notes, p. 165, and by the time he wrote up his Animal Notes, DAR29.1.5-8v, sometime before April 1836, he had worked out that the Rio Negro species was separate from the tuco tuco. Keynes indicates that the species described in the Falkland Notebook is Kerodon kingii, see Mammalia, pp. 88-9, whereas the tuco tuco is Ctenomys brasiliensis, Mammalia, pp. 79-82. Nevertheless the two species had many similarities, including the fact that they lived in burrows and suffered from inflammation of the nictating membrane of their eyes, often leading to blindness, hence the note 'said to have no tail (?) & blind (?)', p. 107a.

The significance of all this is that Darwin was highly struck by the fact of an animal possessing eyes, when much of the time these delicate organs were of no use to the animal and were in fact so damaged that the animal often went blind. Why would any animal created for living in burrows have such an imperfect organ? As Darwin wrote in his Animal Notes, p. 8v (see also Natural selection, p. 295):

Considering the subterranean habits of the tuco-tuco, the blindness, though so frequent, cannot be a very serious evil. Yet it appears odd that an animal should possess an organ constantly subject to injury. The mole, whose habits are so similar in every respect, excepting in the kind of food, has an extremely small protected eye, which although possessing a limited vision, seems at once adapted to its manner of life.

These observations were repeated in Darwin's Journal of researches, p. 60, and eventually became a cornerstone of his discussion of 'use and disuse' in Origin, p. 137. Clearly by 1859 he took it as read that the tuco tuco had eyes because it had inherited them from some surface-dwelling ancestor and he suggested that natural selection would eventually result in some protection for the animals' eyes. It is clear from the Animal Notes that the case had already started him thinking some time before the end of the Beagle voyage, but we can only speculate as to how much this contributed to his growing doubts about the supernatural creation of perfectly adapted organisms.

Darwin described the Indians as 'brown status', p. 106a, and his gaucho companions 'in a line robes flowing', p. 113a. On 12 August he recorded information from them about the most powerful man in the Buenos Ayres region: ‘General Rosas Extraordinary man nearly 300 thousand cattle‘, p. 114a. They travelled from Posta to Posta, these being the staging posts along the main routes across the pampas. Darwin eventually met Rosas at the Posta by the Rio Colorado on 15 August.

Darwin must have realised that he was witnessing part of Rosas’s systematic eradication of the Indians, usually excused as retaliation: ‘Posta 5 men murdered’, p. 123a. Sometimes Darwin could not travel and was frustrated: ‘no clean cloths, no books. I envied the very kittens playing on the mud floor’, p. 124a, and he was appalled by the treatment of the horses ‘dreadful inhumanity riding sick horses’, p. 126a.

Entries continue unabated to 22 August when, because the Beagle was not around for her rendezvous, Darwin returned to the site of his first fossil bone excavation at Punta Alta. Several important entries occur on p. 131a-138a which show Darwin’s altered view of the geology and have been much discussed by historians since Barlow 1945, p. 194, first published them. The most celebrated of these passages, which refers to the beds in which Darwin had found fossil rodents during a half hour stop at Monte Hermoso on 19 October 1832, p. 138a, is as follows:

My alteration in view of geological nature of P. Alta is owing to more extended knowledge of country it is principally instructive in showing that the bones necessarily were no coexistent with present. though old shells: they exist at M: Hermosa pebbles from the beds of which occur in the gravel: therefore such bones as those at M: Hermosa must be anterior to present shells: How much so? Quien Sabe?

For recent commentary on this passage see for example Hodge 1983, p. 100, note 23 and Beagle diary, p. 176 footnote. Unfortunately the visit to Monte Hermoso does not appear to be recorded in the Rio Notebook.

The B. Blanca Notebook also deals with this second visit to Punta Alta at the end of August, and its geology is further discussed in the introduction to that notebook.

There is a delightful note at the end of the front pages of the Falkland Notebook which conveys Darwin’s intense satisfaction at being back on board the Beagle on 27 August and his deep friendship with FitzRoy: ‘Whole day consumed in relating my adventures & all anecdotes about Indians to the Captain’, p. 142a. In the following note written the next day, Darwin is preparing for Buenos Ayres: ‘Most delightful the feeling of excitement & activity after the indolence of many days in the last fortnight. Spent in the Spanish settlements!’

These entries are followed by a sequence of blank pages as the B. Blanca Notebook was then used for what Barlow called ‘excursion number 2’, the 600km continuation of the overland trek to Buenos Ayres in September. The very last few pages of the back sequence of the Falkland Notebook appear to overlap with the B. Blanca Notebook.

Gordon Chancellor and John van Wyhe

August 2008

'Falkland Maldonado (excursion) Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca' (2-5.1833; 8.1833). Beagle field notebook. Text EH1.14

1 Although there is this resemblance between the Red Notebook and the Falkland Notebook, it is probably a co-incidence that Falkland is the first notebook in which ink is used for more than the odd entry, at the beginning of August 1833. The first 112 pages of R. N., which is the ‘voyage’ part of the notebook, are also in pencil. The remaining eighty pages or so of R. N., the ‘post-voyage’ part of the notebook, are also written partly in ink. In respect of the way it was used, however, the Falkland Notebook is uniform with the first three field notebooks, whereas it seems R. N. was never used in the field.



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