«Monday 9 January 1833. Today the weather has been a little better, but now at night the wind is again drawing to the old quarter. – We doubled Cape Horn on the 21st, since which we have either been waiting for good or beating against bad weather […] Besides the serious & utter loss of time […] & the miseries of constant wet & cold, I have scarcely for an hour been quite free from sea-sickness: How long the bad weather may last, I know not; but my spirits, temper, & stomach, I am well assured, will not hold out much longer.»
Thus writes the 22-year-old Charles Darwin in his journal, while on board the HMS Beagle. He is making the journey of his life, but is once again troubled by sea-sickness. He never became accustomed to a life at sea. In his detailed journal entries he often mentions his struggle with nausea – a struggle to which he generally had to admit defeat.
However, without the voyage his ground-breaking theory on the development of life on earth might never have been formulated. It was a matter of coincidence that this journey round the world came into being. Charles Darwin did not actually join the expedition as a scientist.
Captain Robert FitzRoy of the HMS Beagle was on the lookout for someone to keep him company on the long voyage. It needed to be a cultivated man of the right class. Darwin, who came from an aristocratic family and had studied both theology and medicine, seemed a good candidate. Robert Darwin, Charles’s father, was however not happy about the invitation. He wanted his son to pursue a career, and feared that the voyage would be a complete waste of time. However, young Charles received strong support from his influential uncle Josh.
On 27 December 1831 the HMS Beagle left Plymouth with Charles Darwin on board. He did not know at the time that he would be away for almost five years, and not just two as he was expecting from the invitation.
The first sight of land after departure from England was the Cape Verde islands, where Darwin noticed a belt of light-coloured rock 10 to 15 metres over sea level, running several miles along the coast of Santiago, the main island. The fact that the belt was even and unbroken suggested to Darwin that the land must have risen slowly over a long period of time. This did not correspond with the view current at the time that the earth’s landscape had come into being through short-lived, dramatic processes.
This view emanated from Bishop James Ussher’s interpretation of the bible – that the creation of the world started on Sunday 23 October 4004 BC, and that hills and dales were the result of sudden processes, including the Flood. This view was not supported by the unbroken miles of rock which Darwin observed. His observations pointed towards the theory freshly propounded by Charles Lyle in Principles of Geology: that the earth’s crust had been formed over a much longer period, involving the slow effect of erosion. Darwin now subscribed to Lyle’s view.
What is best known from Darwin’s voyage is from his time on the Galapagos Islands, isolated in the Pacific Ocean, the home of many specialised species. Here Darwin observed the enormous elephant tortoise, so large that it took eight men to lift. Even more interesting was the fact that the shell of the tortoise varied from island to island, indicating environmental adjustment. The same variation applied to the species of birds that Darwin observed, particularly mockingbirds and finches. These birds are all highly adapted to their local environment, which for the finches has involved variations in the shape of the beak.
The Galapagos Islands were thus a unique showcase for the evolution theory for which Darwin was later to become renowned.
Text: Espen Eggen & Ivar Grydeland
EKKO, NRK P2
English text: Roger Martin