Charles Darwin's notebooks from the voyage of the Beagle

'Coccatoos & Crows': An introduction to the Sydney Notebook

Darwin's Sydney Notebook is the last of the Beagle field notebooks preserved at Down House. It takes its name from the city of Sydney, Australia. It is the only notebook Darwin never used before 1836, since it was opened on 16 January 1836 at Sydney. He put it aside on 27 January for perhaps three months, until May 1836, when the Beagle was at Mauritius. The Sydney Notebook is also unique in being the only one never used in South America, so that the geological observations recorded in it are to be found published only in Coral reefs and Volcanic islands.

There is no other known notebook which covers any place between Sydney and Mauritius, unless one considers the reef soundings in the Despoblado Notebook to be records made at Keeling. As argued in the introduction to the Despoblado Notebook those soundings relate to Mauritius. There seems, therefore, to be a gap in notebook coverage for Hobart (5-16 February), where Darwin turned twenty-seven years of age, King George's Sound (6-13 March) and Keeling (1-11 April). Darwin's field notes for these locations were written on loose sheets now preserved at Cambridge University Library. Darwin used the Sydney Notebook in Mauritius (29 April-8 May), then the Despoblado Notebook for the Cape of Good Hope, St Helena, Brazil and the Cape Verdes.

The Sydney Notebook is the shortest of all the field notebooks, at c. 3,100 words, and therefore contributes a mere 2.6% to the total for the voyage. It has eleven rather simple sketches.

In order to place the Sydney Notebook in context, it may be helpful to reconsider Darwin's activities in the preceding months. The Beagle left Tahiti bound for New Zealand on 26 November 1835, giving Darwin the chance to draft his 'Coral Islands' paper. (See the introduction to the Santiago Notebook.) Gruber and Gruber 1969 have shown how, by seeing coral islands with 'the eye of reason', Darwin in that paper created a theory with strong logical parallels to the theory of natural selection which he formulated in England three years later. Mauritius was to provide him with additional observations of fringing reefs, and he linked these together as a historical series of increasing degrees of subsidence via barrier reefs to atolls. This methodological approach, of integrating a series of natural phenomena and then inferring a historical sequence from that series was a keystone of Darwin's argument for descent with modification in Origin.

Darwin may have at least started his coral paper between the Galápagos and Tahiti, as his opening line, 'Although I have personally scarcely seen anything of the Coral Islands in the Pacifick Ocean…' is unlikely to have been written after just spending a month looking at Pacific coral reefs. It is obvious, however, from statements such as 'Wytootacke (seen by the Beagle)', DAR41.6, that the bulk of the coral paper was written after sailing through the Cook Islands on 3 December 1835.

The ship arrived at the Bay of Islands, New Zealand, on 21 December and stayed for nine days. Darwin's activities there are very well described by Armstrong 2004. On 30 December the Beagle then continued on much the same bearing on the twelve-day voyage to Sydney, where she arrived at Port Jackson on 11 January 1836. The Sydney Notebook was first used on 16 January, three days before the much-discussed 'antlion' Beagle diary passage (see below). Darwin used the notebook for his rather grueling excursion to Bathurst, whence he returned, putting the notebook aside, on 27 January.

The Sydney Notebook contains few scientific notes apart from geology and questions about coral growth. There are only a few mentions of the famous Australian mammals and no mention at all of the antipodian 'antlion' (see Armstrong 2004, p. 170). Of course Darwin knew that the closer the ship took him back to England the less chance there would be for him to collect 'new' species, at least on land, so his scientific notes began to thin out. To obtain a rounded picture of Darwin's response to Australia it is, therefore, essential to read the Beagle diary alongside the notebook. It is critical to appreciate, however, that in the remaining months of the voyage Darwin had more and more time to start sifting out what he had seen that would break new scientific ground.

While in Australia, Darwin seems to have become rather despondent at the prospect of so many more months before returning to England. In his second from last voyage letter to Henslow, written 28 January, he lapsed into introspection:

Certainly I never was intended for a traveller; my thoughts are always rambling over past and future scenes; I cannot enjoy the present happiness, for anticipating the future; which is about as foolish as the dog who dropt the real bone for it's shadow. (Correspondence, vol. 1, p. 484).

The Beagle left Sydney on 30 January. As FitzRoy wrote to the Hydrographer on 3 February, poor Darwin was always 'a martyr to confinement and sea-sickness when under way' (quoted by Francis Darwin 1912) and the passage down to Tasmania was no exception.

An overview of the Sydney Notebook shows that the first two back pages were excised and the remaining six back pages are undated lists of equipment and people's names which were probably written in Sydney and Hobart Town. Field notes begin on p. 1a in Sydney on 16 January 1836 and there are more or less continuous, mainly geological entries up to 27 January on about p. 57a. There follow perhaps eight or nine pages of less coherent, mainly geological entries which are difficult to date but which were probably written on Mauritius. Page 65a seems to date to 5 May and these apparently Mascarene entries continue up to 'sailed 9th [May]' on p. 79a. In the following account the Sydney and Mauritius sections are treated separately, including everything after p. 57a under Mauritius.

The Sydney Notebook has been well served by scholars. The Australian part of the present transcription was published in part by Nicholas and Nicholas 1989 as an integral part of the first three chapters of their magnificent treatment of Darwin's thirty-eight days in Australia. Nicholas and Nicholas 1989, p. 23, provide numerous quotations from the notebook and photographs of the front cover and first front page. The covers and pp. 1a, 3a, 5a, 7a, 9a and 11a are reproduced as a colour facsimile in van Wyhe 2008a. Armstrong 2004 gives excellent summaries of Darwin's fieldwork in both Australia and Mauritius.

As explained in the introduction to the Santiago Notebook, Darwin may have been using that notebook for theoretical jottings in parallel with The Sydney Notebook and in addition seems to have opened the Red Notebook around the time the Beagle left Mauritius. There are some cross references to Sydney and Mauritius in the Red Notebook, as for example p. 126, on droughts in Sydney, p. 17, on 'Mrs Power at Port Louis', who is mentioned in the Sydney Notebook entry for 8 May 1836, and pp. 71-2 and pp. 118-20 on the lavas of Mauritius.

Sydney, January 1836

The inside back pages of the notebook are impossible to date precisely as they consist of lists of names and places, apparently in Australia but also including Valparaiso, together with one of the most detailed lists of equipment in any of the notebooks. We assume they relate to preparations for Darwin's trip to Bathurst. 'Dr Jennerett', on the inside front cover and 'Dr Jennerat' on p. 6b was Henry Jeanneret (1802-1886), surgeon, dentist and amateur botanist in Hobart Town, Tasmania.

On p. 1a the entry begins '16th [January] Saturday Left Sydney'. Darwin was commencing his inland expedition to Bathurst, some 190 km away. He noted that there were 'fine trees' but that they were 'all peculiar'. He had lunch at a 'nice little Public House' which Nicholas and Nicholas 1989 locate at Parramatta, then 'rode on to Emu ferry on the Nepean: a broard [sic] river still as a pool', p. 2a. He was impressed by the 'escarpment of Blue mountains' and by the 'beautiful precision' of the 'black men' with their 'throwing darts', p. 3a, and he drew a comparison with the 'Fuegians going to fight some other people', p. 4a. In the next entry Darwin returned to technical descriptions of the clays, sandstones and 'Granitic Trappean rock', p. 5a, then noted 'Black men. See marks of Oppossum's feet. – chief food; no home', p. 6a.

The next page is dated 'Sunday 17th Started 6 o'clock – ferry'. Darwin commenced his ascent of the Blue Mountains, noting the 'Singularly uniform tint', p. 8a. There were 'pretty birds, magnificent parrots' and after lunch at the Weatherboard Inn he walked to see the 'most magnificent. Astounding & unique view'. Nicholas and Nicholas 1989, p. 35 provide a photograph of the 'oak' tree planted at Wentworth Falls on the site of the Inn in 1936 to mark the centenary of Darwin's visit. They also provide, p. 48, beautiful photographs of John Gould's illustrations of some of the 'magnificent parrots'.

The 'stupendous cliffs' of 2000 ft of white quartzite were so vertical that Darwin could 'pitch a stone over perhaps 800 ft', pp. 9a-10a. His published descriptions are to be found in the last chapter of Volcanic islands. As Armstrong 2004 points out, Darwin's obsession with elevation distorted his interpretation of Blue Mountains which he concluded, incorrectly, had formed under the sea. That night he stayed at Black Heath, which was 'comfortable as Welsh Inn', p. 11a. Descriptions of the strata continue and on p. 14a Darwin was reminded by a 'patch of shale' of 'Mica Slate in Gneiss at Rio' which he had seen almost four years previously.

On 'Monday 18th' Darwin continued westward up the 'Vale of Clwyd [Clwydd]' to Govett's Leap where the 'grand valley' was 'full of blue mist from rising sun' arising from the eucalyptus trees and giving the mountains their name, p. 16a-17a. He recorded having been told a 'bad account of men' who were 'quite impossible to reform'. There were 'white Coccatoos & Crows' and 'wild dogs tamed copulate freely', p. 18a a theme Darwin returned to in the Santiago Notebook, p. 130. He noted his somewhat harsh view of Sydney, meaning Australia, as a 'poor country; to be improved but limited' and 'not comparable to N. America', p. 19a.

Darwin continued describing the sandstones and granites of the valley. On p. 23a he predicted that 'The Chart will give correct idea of peninsula & Islands of the grand plain' which were in his view formed not by 'present causes' but he was clearly unsure, as 'Sea could not excavate?', p. 24a. Perhaps the explanation was 'Elevation acted upon by sea?', p. 25a.

On 'Tuesday 19th' Darwin 'Staid at Mr [Andrew] Browne's' sheep farm and went 'Kangeroo hunting'. Although he probably enjoyed the gallop, due to his 'usual ill luck' Darwin 'did not see one'. He did, however, kill a 'Kangeroo Rat' and 'Saw several ornithorynch: like water rats, in movements & habits:' and he 'Shot one', p. 26a. According to the Beagle diary, it was on this day that Darwin observed an antlion in its little 'conical pitfall' on a 'sunny bank'.

In the Beagle diary, pp. 402-3, he considered what a 'Disbeliever' might make of this case of 'double creation', with one antlion in the northern hemisphere and one extremely similar one in the southern.

Without a doubt this predacious Larva belongs to the same genus, but to a different species from the Europæan one. — Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. — The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe. A Geologist perhaps would suggest, that the periods of Creation have |695| been distinct & remote the one from the other; that the Creator rested in his labor.

This passage has been discussed by many scholars (see for example Armstrong 2004). Darwin had already noted the Copiapó grouse apparently 'representing' the grouse of his sporting youth (see introduction to the Despoblado Notebook ).

Darwin was no doubt greatly struck by the peculiarity of the marsupial 'Kangeroo Rat' (Potorous tridactylus) and especially by the 'ornithorych', that is the duck-billed platypus (Ornithorhynchus anatinus), an animal so strange that when bought back to London in 1798 it had been thought to be a taxidermist's hoax. At the time of Darwin's visit few Europeans credited the Aborigines' belief that the platypus laid eggs and in fact this was not demonstrated in Darwin's lifetime. Darwin might have wondered why such completely different mammals were created in Australia, yet the little antlion in its sandpit was virtually identical to the ones in Europe?

As a student at Christ's College, Darwin had been captivated by the logic of William Paley's Natural theology which taught that species were perfectly designed for their environments and that this design was evidence of the Creator.1 The possibility, as Lyell might have argued, that two creations had taken place at different epochs, 'that the Creator rested in his labor', would be beside the point for Darwin as it would merely substitute two logically inconsistent events for one.

Perhaps Darwin realised that a single, natural 'creation' of the antlion, followed by some sort of migration, would make more sense to the 'Disbeliever', since there would be no need for logical consistency in a natural creation. It is unknown why Darwin did not transfer his 'Creator' passage from the private Beagle diary to the published Journal of researches. From today's perspective we can see the enormous irony of what Darwin subsequently did to Paley. In the Origin Darwin accepted the adaptation of organisms to their 'conditions of life' but substituted the merciless scrutiny of natural selection for Paley's God as the explanation for this adaptation.

Sadly there is no mention of the antlion in the notebook, which continues with a list of rocks including 'One layer of coal nearly a foot thick', p. 29a, and a 'Blue Slate with impressions of leaves', p. 30a. He assumed the valley had been 'modelled by water' but was puzzled by the valley exit being 'a narrow crack a few hundred yards wide, with stupendous vertical sides', p. 32a, so how had the water 'removed the whole mass of rock'?, p. 34a. 'After sea, the lake saw an exit', p. 35a, is clearly Darwin's visualisation of the sequence of events, and there had been '[countless] time to form so much coal & sandstone', p. 36a.

The next day (20 January) Darwin noted the 'Squatters Huts' and 'Crawlers' at Bathurst. Darwin explained in the Beagle diary the niceties of distinction between the 'squatters' and the 'crawlers', both varieties of ex-convict. There was a 'hot wind [and] clouds of dust', p. 36a, and 'here & there a good house'. Darwin noted the 'gentleman houses' and the 'Soldiers &c &c', p. 38a, and the prevailing drought 'R. Macquarie just flowing', p. 37a. He 'Was told not to form too high an opinion of Australia' on the basis of what he saw at Bathurst. From this he wrote in the notebook 'my opinion [was] stamped', p. 38a, and in the Beagle diary he declared that he felt no danger of forming an overly high opinion on that basis!

Darwin's rock collection reached specimen no. 12 'Hornblendic Greenstone', p. 39a and 'Mem. Capt King Mica Slate', p. 41a presumably refers to a specimen collected by Philip Parker King (1793-1856), commander of the Beagle's first voyage, perhaps from South America, which Darwin had seen. The two men met on 26 January at King's house at Dunheved. Darwin discerned 'two grand formations' at Bathurst, p. 45a, a 'Primitive' one of granite 'smoothed over with shingle & Diluvial (as would be called) matter', p. 44a.

On 21st January Darwin 'Rode about Bathurst – saw nothing – pleasant mess party', p. 46a. On the 22 January he was no doubt anxious to leave the baked town of Bathurst. He started on his way back to Sydney across the 'O'Connel Plains' and 'baited at Midday', that is stopped for lunch at a farmhouse, p. 48a. His hosts were '2 years from England'. The somewhat laconic 'pretty daughter' entry may conceal an impatience to return to the company of English ladies. That evening he arrived amid 'great fires' at another farmhouse where there was 'general civility' but during the night Darwin endured 'horrid filth'.

The next day the fires were still 'raging' and Darwin set out for the Weatherboard, arriving there soon enough and before dark walking again to the Cascade. On p. 50a he noted 'I do not perceive any difference in manners at the Inns from England'. On the 24th Darwin was 'Ill in bed'. As Nicholas and Nicholas 1989, p. 62, suggest, he may have just been exhausted from a tortuous journey in temperatures that were in the 40ºs every day. On the 25th, however, it was 'cold – great contrast with former weather' and there was 'Quiet drizzly rain: all still dripping from eaves'. Darwin wondered if this change would be 'Perhaps good for me', p. 50a.

On the 26th Darwin went to see 'Capt King' who presented him with a copy of his paper on barnacles and molluscs. The next few notebook entries can certainly be read as a record of some of King's opinions on the geology Darwin had seen, for example 'much Quartz rock South of Bathurst – King', p. 52a. The 'pieces of shale' Darwin sketched, p. 53a seem likely to be the 'patches of shale' he compared in Volcanic islands, p. 132, to the similar fragment of gneiss from Rio (see introduction to the Rio Notebook). He noted the 'current cleavage' of the sandstones, p. 54a which is today called cross-bedding to avoid confusion with metamorphic cleavage. Again, this became a published discussion in Volcanic islands.

The next day is the last recorded in the notebook from Sydney. Darwin 'Returned Mac Arthur', that is rode with King to his brother-in-law Hannibal Macarthur's big house for lunch in Parramatta, p. 54a. There were some more 'nice looking young ladies' there, two of whom subsequently married shipmates of Darwin. After lunch he rode by himself into Sydney, where he spent the next two days writing to his sister Susan and to Henslow, visiting Conrad Martens and perhaps collecting insects. From Martens he bought two watercolours for three guineas each: Hauling the Boats up the Rio Santa Cruz and The Beagle in Murray Narrow, Beagle Channel. On 30 January the Beagle weighed anchor and made all sail from Port Jackson for Hobart.

Mauritius, May 1836

As explained above, the notebook entries from p. 56a to p. 64a are almost impossible to date and do not relate to Australia. The first reference is to Huafo Island off Chiloé, then the rest of p. 57a and p. 58a are concerned with coral reefs, and seem to indicate that Darwin had reached Mauritius and picked up the notebook again after the long gap for the rest of Australia and Keeling. The Beagle diary records that Darwin and Stokes met the surveyor-general Captain Lloyd on Mauritius on 3 May. Since Lloyd was an expert on Panama, the note 'Corals on Panama Coast = Rodriguez' on p. 58a suggests that the meeting, also referred to in the introduction to the Santiago Notebook, had occurred. That Darwin was keenly interested in the corals of Panama is confirmed by the reference to their absence there, on p. 72a.

Slates and sandstones are mentioned, pp. 58a-59a, then a note about 'Mr Seales – Museum' which is a reference to Robert Seale's Museum on St Helena. As explained in the introduction to the Despoblado Notebook this note and all the following entries on pp. 59a to the start of 62a are a response to reading Seale 1834.

The next entry on p. 62a relates to Ascension and Fernando Noronha and Darwin seems to have thought that what he was reading was 'precious nonsense'. Obviously Darwin was familiar with the geology of Fernando Noronha (see introduction to the Cape de Verds Notebook) and declared the account 'trash!!!', p. 63a. The entries then switch to 'granite in the [South] Shetlands', with 'vast blocks of granite' at Kemp Bay, p. 64a, the 'Lion's Head' and 'Turk's Bay', p. 65a.

Whether or not these pages were written on Mauritius, where the Beagle arrived on 29 April 1836, the first and only dated entry 'Thursday Rode on Elephant' is unambiguously 5 May on the island. Captain Lloyd was taking Darwin to see 'Flat plain covered with Coral' on the only elephant on Mauritius, p. 66a. The elevated coral was on the southwest side of the island and was eventually described in Volcanic islands, where Darwin also discussed the volcanic structure of the island: 'Grand quaqua versal dip on all the west side; certainly distinct craters on the Isld.', p. 70a, later gave him the evidence for including Mauritius as an example of a 'crater of elevation'.

Darwin noted that the 'Elephant [was] noiseless' and he may have written this while actually sitting on the animal, p. 65a. He described the landscape as 'charming country mango avenues, nice gardens' and the 'Mimosa hedges, Sugar cane, prosperity', p. 72a, clearly left a favourable impression.

Darwin was by now confident that his coral reef theory was a breakthrough and he had started to collect information on reef distribution whenever it presented itself: 'Coast of Guinea? Coral?', p. 72a, and 'coral grows highest & most solid & apparently more abundantly on windward side', p. 73a. He drew two sketches, the first a section through the reef 'off Grand Port', the second a map showing the 'bites' or indentations along the reef where fresh water streams came into the sea, but he declared 'I do not understand this', p. 75a. His observations on the fringing reefs of Mauritius were eventually published in chapter three of Coral reefs.

On p. 79a Darwin mentioned Mrs Power and 'Miserable quarrels between French & English'. On the next page he noted 'Hindoo convicts, most extraordinary white beards black as negros plenty of intellect' and he judged the English parts of the island better than the French island of Bourbon.

There are no more entries from Mauritius and finally the Beagle 'sailed 9th [May 1836]', p. 79a. In Darwin's Beagle diary entry for that day he confessed that: "Since leaving England I have not spent so idle & dissipated a time. I dined almost every day in the week: all would have been very delightful, if it had been possible to have banished the remembrance of England." The little Beagle still had many thousands of miles to sail before Darwin would see the green fields of Shropshire again.

The next time Darwin selected a field notebook it was for the last time and that notebook saw him all the way back to England. It was the Despoblado Notebook, as Darwin prepared, three weeks after leaving Mauritius, to disembark at the Cape of Good Hope.

Gordon Chancellor and John van Wyhe

September 2008

'Sydney Mauritius' (1-4.1836). Text EH1.3 [English Heritage 88202323]

1 There is a tradition that Darwin's rooms at Christ's College were once William Paley's. However no College records have been found to substantiate this.



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