Charles Darwin's notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle

'Well wooded with willows': an introduction to the Copiapò Notebook

The Copiapò Notebook takes its name from the city of Copiapó on the coast of Chile. In it Darwin carried on, with only a very brief interruption, from where he left off in the Coquimbo Notebook at the end of May 1835.

Darwin used the Copiapò Notebook until 25 June 1835 to continue the recording of his expedition (no. 8 of Barlow 1933), from Valparaiso to Copiapó, and when he arrived at his destination he put the Copiapò Notebook aside, even though it was by no means full. The last dated note in the Copiapò Notebook is for 25 June and the first dated note in the next notebook, the Despoblado Notebook, is 26 June. In this way the Coquimbo Notebook, the Copiapò Notebook and the Despoblado Notebook are a trilogy to be considered together. Even more so than with the Coquimbo Notebook, Barlow 1945 gave the Copiapò Notebook barely one page out of 120 pages devoted to the field notebooks.

The Copiapò Notebook has a red cover and is of the same squareish shape as the other field notebooks of Type 5 begun in 1835 and 1836. It can be seen in the photograph taken at Down House in Tort 2000, pp. 58-59, just to the right of Darwin’s manuscript Beagle diary. The Copiapò Notebook is of average length, containing about 8,000 words, but has a very high and almost identical density of words per page to the Coquimbo Notebook. The Copiapò Notebook is also distinguished by having thirty-nine blank pages.

The Copiapò Notebook contains only about 6 sketches, but these are unusually complex and important, several of them forming the basis for Darwin’s published ‘sketch-section no. 3’ on plate 1 of South America (above) . He called this an ‘eye-section’ which, like the other two sections on plate 1, is visually ‘stitched together’ from a number of the diagrams in the Copiapò Notebook. As he explained, since these sections had to ‘straighten out’ what he actually saw on his zig-zag trek along the river valleys, they represent remarkably skilful pieces of graphic integration.

Coquimbo to Copiapo, June 1835

Entries in the Copiapò Notebook begin on the inside front cover with the note, dated 31 May, reminding Darwin that he owed FitzRoy some money and also that he owed his guide, Mariano Gonzales, ‘20 Riales in Quillota’. Judging from the entry at the end of the Coquimbo Notebook this was for some spurs. There is a reference to a ‘Don Pedro Jose Barrio Potrero Grande Hills with shells’. The gentleman concerned has not been traced, although there is a famous district in Coquimbo dating from this period called the Barrio Inglés. Also on 31 May Darwin wrote to his sister Catherine describing his mode of traveling and lamenting that: 'every month, my wardrobe becomes less & less bulky – By the time we reach England, I shall scarcely have a coat on my back'. (Correspondence, vol. 1, p. 450).

The next day, 1 June, is recorded on p. 1 with Darwin citing Charles Lambert’s opinions concerning veins at the Arqueros silver mine, opinions which Darwin published in South America, pp. 211-17. There is now a town called Lambert about 30km northwest of Coquimbo.

Darwin noted in the Beagle diary that he said farewell to the Beagle and set out northwards for Ballenar [Vallenar] in the Guasco valley on 2 June. There is a remarkable sketch map, hand drawn by Darwin and now in DAR44.28, which shows the coast from Coquimbo to Copiapó with most of the places mentioned by him in the Copiapò Notebook and the 1835 part of the Despoblado Notebook.

The notebook records the geology Darwin saw on this journey, during which his party met ‘occasional troops of mules’. That night he reached a house called Yerbabuena. In one of the most wistful entries in all the notebooks, pp. 3-4, which is copied almost verbatim into the Beagle diary, Darwin noted that:

the road with a tinge of green, just sufficient to remind one of the freshness of turf & budding flowers in the Spring – travelling in this country produces a constant longing after such scenes, a feeling like a prisoner would have

On 3 June they pressed on across the ‘mountainous rocky desert’ to Carizal, Darwin noted that there was ‘very little water & that bitter saline’ with ‘succulent plants’ providing the only botanical interest. In the Beagle diary Darwin recorded that the only abundant living animal was a species of snail, but in the notebook he recorded ‘Many P. St Julian finch & Dinca Turco & ….Tapaculo’, p. 5, thus painting an ornithologically more interesting picture than any recorded in the previous month. Today some of the world’s greatest astronomical observatories are located in the Cordillera in this region because of the extremely dry atmosphere and clear skies.

On Thursday 4 June they ‘continued to ride over desert plain with many Guanaco’ in the direction of Sauce, p. 7. At Chaneral [Chañaral] they found a ‘narrow green valley’ with a geological section showing uplifted sea shells ‘perhaps at higher level than at Coquimbo’. Further north they ‘entered a grand mass of fine true Granite hills’, p. 8, then ‘a grand mica slate district – mica slate, very much contorted like Chiloe’, p. 11, both described briefly in South America, p. 217. At Sauce the ‘Poor horses [had] nothing but straw to eat, after travelling whole day’.

The next day there was a ‘magnificent spectacle of clouds, horizon perfectly true’ and the coast seemed to Darwin ‘like most broken parts of Chonos Archipelago’, p. 12. The mountains were ‘covered with tiny bushes encrusted with a gree[n] filamentous Lichen, even the large candlestick cactus of Chile is succeeded by these species’, this description appeared almost verbatim in the Beagle diary. In the distance were the snowy Cordillera and when they reached Freirina they found the Guasco valley ‘certainly pretty’ and ‘well wooded with willows’. Darwin felt ‘Capt Halls description neutral’ but he had expected a luxuriant ‘valley as at C. Verd Isd.’, p. 12. In the Beagle diary this became 'all Capt. Hall’s beautiful descriptions require a little washing with a neutral tint'.1

The locals expressed envy that Coquimbo had had rain when the Guasco had only seen clouds. Darwin noted that in such a climate the occasional flood did more harm than drought because it covered the valley with sand and stones.

Darwin's hand-drawn map of the coast of Chile between Coquimbo and Copiapò (CUL-DAR 44.28).

On the 6th Darwin ‘Rode down to the Port’ of Guasco, where he wanted to rest his horses. There an encounter occurred which Darwin recorded on p. 14 but which in the Beagle diary version Darwin accused himself of a exaggeration in a marginal note. Darwin was staying with a mine owner named Hardy, and called in the evening at the Governor’s house. There the Signora was ‘the most learned Limenian lady’ by which he meant that that the pretentious woman was in a complete ignoramus in matters geographical, judging from the fact that Hardy told Darwin that this lady had mistaken an atlas for a ‘Contradanca’ (i.e. music for a country dance).2 In the notebook Darwin added ‘King of Londres’ (Barlow 1945 read this as ‘Kiss of Londres’) which seems to indicate that the lady meant ‘King of England’. Darwin elsewhere recorded meeting people who thought England was ‘a large town in London’ (Londres in Spanish) (see Beagle diary for 9 May 1833).

The account continues with an almost painterly ‘View up the valley very striking on a clear day infinity of crossing lines blending together in a beautiful haze, distant snow mountains clear outline – formal foreground’, pp. 14-15. Again this is repeated nearly word for word in the Beagle diary. This is followed by more geology, then a charming list of birds on p. 17: ‘Carrancha – T[h]enca – Lozca (Black & Gold finch) Dinca Chingola – Furnarius – Aricasina – Little Grey Bird of mountains – Blue finch with white dot in tail – no Chingola – C[aracara] Rancania [?]3 white tail Callandra’. Several of these species are discussed as observed in northern Chile in the 'Ornithological notes'.

On the 7th Darwin ‘Ascended hill behind town’ to see the terraces which seemed to be more numerous than in Coquimbo. The next day he ‘Road [sic] up to Ballenar’, p. 19, the ‘considerable town’ established in 1789 by Ambrosio O’Higgins, father of the more famous Bernardo (1778-1842) who played a key role in the liberation of Chile, in memory of his home town of Ballinagh in Ireland (Harvey 2000). The view from Ballenar reminded Darwin of the Santa Cruz valley. He stayed there on the 9th and on that day ‘Found Terebratulida in the cherty rock as at R. Claro (V[ide] Specimen)’, p. 20). Whilst Darwin thought ‘Patagonia a garden compared to these plains’ there were ‘yet dormant seeds’ to ‘wait for wet year’, p. 21. In the Beagle diary at this point in his narrative Darwin compared the country to the ‘absolute deserts’ he saw in Peru, proving that the Beagle diary account for northern Chile is retrospective.

On 10 June Darwin ‘Started for Copiapo’. The ride was ‘very desolate but not quite uninteresting’. They encountered a few Indians and ‘Many donkey – eat wood’ referring to the fact that the donkeys had nothing but stumps of bushes to eat. There was also nothing for Darwin’s horses to eat. Darwin was dismayed by the ‘contrast of splendid weather & utterly useless weather’ by which, judging from the Beagle diary entry, he meant ‘useless country’.

On the 11th they ‘Travelled for 12 hours, never stopping’ but the poor horses were ‘wonderfully fresh’. The country was ‘much prettier than a forest’ but the ‘Geology (not being able to stop)’ was unintelligible, p. 25. Before noon on the 12th they arrived at the Hacienda of Potrero Seco in the Copiapó valley. This was presumably where the town of Potrero Seco is today. Here, in the most northern river valley before the Atacama Desert, Darwin saw a ‘Little wren’, p. 26.

In Darwin’s Beagle diary he recalls how he spent the 13th and 14th ‘geologizing the huge surrounding mountains’. His section was recorded in great detail in the notebook on pp. 27-43, and was published in South America, pp. 218-33. Darwin drew part of a spectacular section on p. 37 which is the prototype of the western part of the worked up section now in DAR 44.19 (there are two images for the west and east parts of this section in the Darwin-online version) and partly figured by Browne 1995, p. 271. This in turn is the basis of Darwin’s published sketch-section no. 3 (South America, pl. 1), showing at least seven ‘axes of elevation’. It is surely worth noting that the Cordillera above Copiapó are named after Darwin, and that at their northern end is the Ojos del Salado, at 6893m the highest active volcano in the world.

Darwin's northwest-southeast 'sketch-section' up the Copiapò Valley to the base of the main Cordillera of the Andes, published as sketch 3 of plate 1 in South America. Copiapò is shown at sea-level on the left, Los Amolanas in the centre and the western base of the Cordillera on the right. Darwin shows seven 'axes of elevation' from west to east, with rock types ranging from granites and porphyries to the Gypseous Formation and Porphyritic Breccias.

On the 15th Darwin ‘Rode up to Los Amolanas’, named after the grindstones made from the quartzite there, and the geologizing continued with a second section diagram on p. 44. Darwin noted that the river there was ‘size of large muddy brook’ which ‘for 30 years never reached sea’, presumably because not enough snow fell in the Cordillera. There is mention of Don Eugenio Matta, a ‘hospitable old Spaniard’ with whom Darwin dined and whose name also occurs on p. 130 of the Coquimbo Notebook.

On 16 June Darwin continued up the valley where he found ‘an enormous quantity of Gryphites’, p. 50, and other fossils allowing him to correlate the section with the one he had seen on the Rio Claro. The ‘Gryphites’ were probably the new species of Gryphaea described by Forbes in his appendix to South America. Darwin drew yet more of the section across pp. 62-63 and on the 18th as the valley became more fertile he collected his 150th specimen. He entered the Jolquera branch of the valley, but at midday Darwin could see no way to penetrate the Cordillera more deeply so he turned back towards the Pacific. He bivouaced and ‘experienced a trifling shock of an Earthquake’ which is mentioned in the Beagle diary but not the notebook. In Journal of researches, p. 431, Darwin took the fact that that evening there seemed to be a storm gathering as the starting point for a lengthy discussion, with quotes from Humboldt and others, of the possible linkage between earthquakes and weather.

On the 19th Darwin ‘Returned down the solitary ravine to Los Amolanas’ but there was ‘difficulty in descending steep mountains’, p. 73. The geology was complex but he found it ‘very interesting finding grand Volcanic Lava formation of age of Ammonites &c &c separated by what must have been true conglomerates & Brongniarts name for Volcanic sandstone’.4 This is immediately followed by a reminder to himself to reconsider some much more ancient fossils he had found over two years previously ‘(NB fossils of Falklands of hot country??)’, p. 72. See introduction to the Falkland Notebook.

The entry for 20 June seems to have been written up at the end of the day as Darwin ‘Staid whole day at Hacienda’, p. 81. He noted on. p. 75 ‘Examined to day the supergypseous an immense thickness 2000-3000 ft thick almost entirely red Sandstones & Conglomerate’. His specimen tally reached 160 and the geology was difficult: ‘No one can imagine such glorious confusion’, p. 80.

It was here that Darwin made one of his most significant palaeontological discoveries. He found ‘thousand of great blocks of petrified Dycot wood’ including ‘several in situ’, p. 77. One of the petrified trees was ‘nearly 6 ft in diameter – What an extraordinary prop.!!’ and there were various marine fossils, clearly demonstrating a cycle of subsidence and uplift comparable to the one Darwin had unraveled in the Uspallata range in early April, but here ‘age from fossils greater than what I supposed at Uspallata = Now there is good comparison with Humboldt’, p. 81; See introduction to the St. Fe Notebook. This reference to Humboldt, which followed on a few pages after Darwin had described on p. 76 how the fossil wood was strewn over the surface of the ground, makes sense when compared to the Santiago Notebook, p. 111. On that page Darwin made explicit reference to the citation by Humboldt in his Personal Narrative, vol. 6, p. 626, of silicified wood, due to its great hardness, tending to form a residue after erosion of the sediment in which it is embedded. In the Beagle diary Darwin combined these two finds into a single short retrospective essay dated 5 April in which he seemed to quote from the Copiapò Notebook. The notebook entry on p. 80 reads ‘The red Conglom &c….were formed at period of great volcanic agency amongst luxuriant islands’ became in the Beagle diary, p. 321: 'I can show that this grand chain consisted of Volcanic Islands, covered with luxurious forests; some of the trees, one of 15 ft in circumference, I have seen silicified & imbedded in marine strata.'

In the Beagle diary he went on to make the extraordinary supposition that the uplift after the marine sediments were laid down may have in large part ‘taken place since S. America was peopled’. Darwin supported this with evidence he gleaned in July 1835 for Indian settlement in Peru at far higher altitudes than he would have expected people to settle, thus suggesting dramatic rates of uplift. By the time he published South America in 1846, however, Darwin had wisely retreated from such claims, citing instead known uplift at Lima of ‘at least eighty-feet since Indian man inhabited that district’, p. 246.

On Sunday 21 June Darwin ‘Returned to Hacienda of Potrero Seco’ where he had stayed the night of 12 June with Mr Bingley, an English copper merchant to whom Darwin had a letter of introduction. From there the next day Darwin had a long ride: ‘Descended the valley to town of Copiapo’, pp. 83-4, where he stayed with Mr Bingley for three days. Darwin noted on the 23rd that the ‘Town of Copiapo miserable, so often shaken down by earthquakes’, p. 92. He continued to geologize, collecting another nine specimens, and closing the day with an unusually theoretical entry: 'When reading Lyell, often said there ought to be Tertiary strata in other parts of world of the Secondary period, although in Europe from his hypothesis there could not be', p. 91.

Lyell 1830, especially chapter 8, suggested, to bolster a ‘steady state’, anti-progessionist history of the Earth, that it was the shifting distribution of the land and sea which drove climate change, and that there were no ‘global’ warmer or cooler periods. The apparently warmer conditions recorded in the European Secondary rocks, Lyell argued, were a local phenomenon and reflected a higher sea to land ratio in Europe during that period. Lyell even went so far as to suggest that giant fossil reptiles, like those known from the European Secondary rocks and which he believed to be better adapted to hot conditions than mammals, might return to Europe if the climate there became tropical once more. Darwin seems to have inferred from this that geologists should thus find cooler ‘Tertiary strata’ on other continents where, during European ‘Secondary’ times, there had been more land and less sea. The notebook entry suggest that Darwin was testing this idea in South America though doubting its validity because Lyell’s own ‘hypothesis’ did not work in Europe. Unfortunately Darwin is not explicit enough in his note for us to know precisely to which of Lyell’s hypotheses he referred.

The following thirty-six pages of the notebook are blank. On pp. 132-3 there is an undated note about the Culpen, Canis magellanicus [Lycalopex culpaeus] (see Mammalia, pp. 10-12), ‘pupil round – destroy immense quantity of poultry – Molina’s account of boldness true – Bark exactly like a dog when chased – so that I did not know – very heavy animal’. This note is copied almost verbatim into the specimen list against number 3187 (see Zoology notes, p. 411) and expanded in the Animal Notes, p. 20) where Darwin added that this individual ‘& a bitch fox’ had together destroyed ‘no less than 200 fowls’ at a farmhouse during the previous year.

The Culpeu, Canis magellanicus, collected in Chile. Plate 5 from Mammalia.

This entry is followed by ‘؟ I suspect the young of Caracara Barranca — is brown all over’ (apparently referring to specimen number 2029, now identified as Phalcoboenus albogularis; see 'Ornithological notes', p. 238).3 Next there is a question whether the Carrancha (Polyborus brasiliensis) exists at Copiapó. Since these notes come after a list of rock specimen numbers 107-115, which were collected on 13 June (see notebook pp. 27-31), this provides a clue to their date.

On the inside back cover there is a note that ‘Beechey says that Humming Birds stay all winter in N. California’. This reference to Beechey 1831 is copied into the 'Ornithological notes', p. 252. It is presumably a co-incidence that there is another reference to Beechey on p. 5a of the Despoblado Notebook, as that entry was made about one year later.

Thus ended expedition no. 8, but Darwin still had time before his rendezvous with the Beagle in early July to see some more of the geology of Chile, so he immediately started planning a trek up the Despoblado (‘uninhabited’) valley. Presumably he commenced the Despoblado Notebook because the remaining thirty-six pages of the Copiapò Notebook might not be enough for this four day expedition. The earliest entry in the Despoblado Notebook follows on immediately from the Copiapò Notebook, as Darwin headed off from Copiapó with Mariano, plus a Vaqueano and eight mules.

The Despoblado trip was to be Darwin’s last close encounter with the Andes before sailing north on 6 July for Iquique in Peru.5 By the time of sailing Darwin would have been in the saddle almost continuously since leaving the Beagle at Valparaiso on 11 March, almost four months before.

Gordon Chancellor and John van Wyhe

August 2008

'Coquimbo to Copiapo' (6.1835). Text EH1.7 [English Heritage 88202327]

1 Keynes, in the Beagle diary, indicated that Hensleigh Wedgwood had written ‘A very happy expression’ in the margin against this phrase.

2 Barlow 1933, 1945 and Beagle diary give the word as ‘Limerian’, although Keynes 2004 stated that the lady was from Lima.

3 Referring to the entry on p. 133, Barlow 1945, p. 242, read this word as ‘Raucaria’ but gave ‘Raucanca?’ in her edition of the 'Ornithological notes', p. 238. Keynes read ‘Rancanas’ in his edition of the Zoology notes, p. 230.

4 This is a reference to Alexandre Brongniart (1770-1847), Professor of Mineralogy at the Natural History Museum in Paris and co-author with George Cuvier in 1811 of the classic geological description of the Paris Basin. The specific reference may be to Brongniart 1833 which was in the Beagle library (Correspondence vol. 1, p. 558) and is referred to in the geological diary (DAR35.396).

5 Iquique was ceded to Chile in 1879.



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