On this day: Charles Darwin departs Australia
ON 14 MARCH 1836, Charles Darwin – the father of modern biology – sailed away from Australia on the HMS Beagle.
Upon departing, he wrote: “Farewell, Australia! You are a rising infant and doubtless someday will reign a great princess in the South: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect. I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”
Aged just 27, Darwin was yet to realise that in his journal were observations on landscapes and wildlife that would shape key ideas in his theory of evolution by natural selection.
Just five years earlier, he had begun his life of adventure. Too squeamish to finish medical school and not ready for his second career choice as a clergyman, a young Darwin found himself attached to a geological expedition to Wales.
Upon his return from that to London in August 1831, he learned that he had been recommended to accompany Captain Robert FitzRoy on a two-year surveying expedition to South America. This later became a five-year journey around the world aboard the HMS Beagle.
Charles Darwin, painted by George Richmond in the late 1830s. CREDIT: George Richmond
Darwin and the Beagle in Australia
Captain FitzRoy wasn’t in search of an expert, but he needed a learned companion, as well as someone to collect specimens and record details of the journey. While Charles was not a formally trained scientist, his charisma and enthusiasm for natural history were credentials enough to get him aboard. Upon accepting the invitation, Charles wrote to Captain FitzRoy, “My second life will begin and it shall be as a birthday for the rest of my life.”
The voyage embarked on 27 December 1831 from Plymouth, England. After surveying the coast of South America, sailing west to the Galapagos Islands, then moving on to Tahiti and New Zealand, it arrived in Australia. The journey so far had already taken more than four years.
The Beagle arrived and anchored in Sydney Cove on 12 January 1836. Darwin was keen to explore the nascent city (population of 23,000) and was impressed by its progress compared to what he had observed in South America.
Despite his appreciation of Sydney’s built environment, Charles was initially underwhelmed by the landscape and vegetation, deeming it dry and uninteresting. “The nearly level country is covered with thin scrubby trees, bespeaking the curse of sterility,” he noted.
Charles Darwin’s thoughts on Australian wildlife
His tune began to change, however, when given the opportunity to indulge in geology, one of his great loves. On 16 January, Darwin set out on horseback to the Blue Mountains, which he speculated had been created by erosion but couldn’t believe. It wasn’t until years later, when he came to accept that the geological history of the world was far older than previously appreciated, that he came back to his notes and realised his assumptions had been right.
Three days later, Darwin encountered a platypus on the bank of the Coxs River at Wallerawang. Noting similarities between the platypus and the European water-rat, he was intrigued by shared features and behaviour. Later he would notice similarities between the marsupial potoroo and the European rabbit, shaping his thoughts on how animals adapt to the demands of the environment.
These observations and speculations were Darwin’s “most important scientific thoughts in Australia,” says Professor Frank Nicholas, an expert on Darwin at the University of Sydney. “He noticed that animals in the Southern Hemisphere were adaptively similar to animals of different species in the Northern Hemisphere. He questioned why two animals of a very different physical design would be ‘created’ to serve the same purpose within an ecological niche.”
This observation would later support Darwin’s theory of natural selection, detailed many years later in On the Origin of Species, published in 1859.
Observations of the platypus led Darwin to develop his theory about the adaptation of species to the environment. CREDIT: John Lewin (1808)
The Beagle in Tasmania
The Beagle sailed on to Hobart, Tasmania, arriving on 5 February. Here, Darwin admired the native vegetation and enjoyed a trek up Mount Wellington, writing:
“In many parts the Gum grew to a great size, and composed a noble forest. In some of the dampest ravines, tree-ferns flourished in an extraordinary manner…the foliage forming the most elegant parasols.”
His notes on Tasmanian wildlife contributed to the idea that species found on adjoining, yet separate landmasses will share similar traits, having arisen from the same ancestor (the theory of biogeography).
“Britain is separated by a shallow channel from Europe, and the mammals are the same on both sides,” Darwin wrote. “And so it is with all the islands near the shores of Australia.”
The Beagle then sailed to Albany, Western Australia on 6 March. In the area surrounding King George Sound, Darwin collected shells, barnacles and 48 species of insect new to science.
When he finally departed Australia from Albany on 14 March, Darwin was bound for the Keeling Islands in the Indian Ocean. Here he developed a theory on the formation of coral atolls (that they form as corals grow upwards atop a subsiding volcanic island), which persists today.
Darwin never returned to Australia, though he remained in close contact with collectors such as Syms Covington, the cabin boy aboard the Beagle, who migrated to Australia in 1838. Covington sent Darwin a collection of barnacles, and correspondence with him continued to inform Darwin’s developing theories.