Darwin’s Cargoes |Digital Collections Programme

A guest blog by Prof Adrian Lister

HMS Beagle took Charles Darwin on his famous voyage of discovery from 1831-1836. Darwin collected thousands of specimens, many of which survive in the collections of the Museum, but how did these specimens make their way to the UK from remote locations around the world?

In this blog, marking Darwin’s first fossil discovery on 22nd September 1832, Prof Adrian Lister retraces the journey of Darwin’s Cargoes.

Darwin was the ship’s naturalist on board the Beagle and collected specimens covering every branch of natural history. The voyage, originally planned for two years, was extended to five, giving Darwin three years in South America, then continuing around the world via the Galápagos, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia, islands of the Indian and Atlantic Oceans and South Africa, before returning to England.

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan Image by R.T. Pritchett, Wikipedia, Public Domain

The Beagle was a small vessel, only 90 feet in length, within which a crew of 75 men and all their supplies were accommodated. Darwin was given space within the ship’s map room, where he had a few small drawers for his clothes and shelves for his books; he slung his hammock every night above the large map table that dominated the room.  As he wrote to his Cambridge mentor John Stevens Henslow, “The corner of the cabin, which is my private property, is most woefully small. I have just room to turn around and that is all’. 

The Captain (Robert FitzRoy) also gave Darwin a small cabin for his specimens at the opposite end of the ship.  However, five years’ worth of collecting could not be stowed on board until their return.  The specimens collected included massive objects like the metre-long skull of the extinct giant sloth Megatherium. First Lieutenant John Wickham, Darwin reported, was “always growling about me bringing more dirt on board than any ten men.”

All this had been foreseen, and Darwin had arranged before his departure that Henslow would receive the crates of specimens he would send home, keeping them safely in Cambridge to await his return. However, there were no regular mail or parcel deliveries from South America to the UK. Ships in port would await the arrival of a suitable vessel able to carry letters and packages back to the home country. The commonest were ‘packet ships’ – small, fast vessels whose main function was transport mail around the world. Darwin’s diaries, as well as his letters home, provide information about when and how this was achieved. The first recorded cargo was in mid-August 1832, when the Beagle was docked at Montevideo, and Darwin wrote to Henslow that the box contained ‘a good many geological specimens… four bottles with animals in spirits…an enormous collection of Arachnidae and small beetles in pill-boxes. In a few days the box will go via the Emulous packet to Falmouth‘. With the cargo went papers requesting the package’s onward journey on arrival, generally to Cambridge, the costs to be paid by Darwin’s father in Shrewsbury.

In November 1832 the Beagle was again docked at Montevideo, and Darwin sent his second consignment to Falmouth, this time via the Duke of York packet. The two cities of Buenos Aires (now the capital of Argentina) and Montevideo (the capital of Uruguay), both on the estuary of the great Rio de la Plata, were the major ports on the Atlantic coast of South America, and it was from here that most of Darwin’s cargoes were sent, whenever the Beagle docked for supplies. It was also where they were most likely to find a homebound vessel.

In his accompanying letter to Henslow, Darwin wrote: ‘I think the dried plants contain nearly all that have been in flower in this region.’ The consignment also contained more rock samples and the first of his celebrated collection of fossil bones of extinct South American mammals. ‘I am afraid you will groan (or rather the floor of the lecture room will) when they arrive‘. Darwin undoubtedly had help in packing up all his specimens. His personal servant, Syms Covington, was a willing assistant, and the crates and casks were most probably made by the Beagle’s carpenter, Jonathan May, and her barrel-maker James Lester.

Darwin was a meticulous collector, and understood very well that the scientific value of a specimen often depended crucially on accurate recording of its place of discovery (and in the case of fossils and rocks, the stratum in which it was found). To each specimen or its container he affixed a coloured number label, and in his notebooks Darwin wrote all the details against each number. With his cargo of November 1932 he emphasised to Henslow, ‘Care must be taken… not to confuse the tallies‘.

Fossil wood with a label from Darwin that says 444 and also a Museum label that says V.5284
This fossilised wood is some 300 million years old and was found by Darwin at Illawara, New South Wales (Australia). The specimen is some five centimeters across and is believed to be from a species of the monkey-puzzle tree family. You can clearly see Darwin’s 444 label.

In reply, Henslow had advice of his own: ‘don’t wrap specimens in fibre before first wrapping them in paper, because the fibres get caught up with the specimen, for example an excellent crab has lost all its legs‘.’ He also admonished: ‘Another caution I would give you is to place the number on the specimen always inside & never outside the cover. The moisture & friction have rubbed off one or two – & I can’t replace them‘. But he was highly satisfied with the fruits of Darwin’s collecting, including plant seeds that he grew on in his Cambridge hothouse, revealing plants never seen before in Europe.

While Henslow retained the majority of the collections, Darwin asked him to forward the packages containing mammalian fossils on to William Clift, curator of the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons (RCS) in London, to clean and repair. The RCS was the foremost UK centre for comparative anatomy at the time, its rising star being none other than Richard Owen, who later would be the founder and first director of the Natural History Museum. At the time Owen was Clift’s assistant, but later described and named all of Darwin’s fossil mammals. To reduce risk to the specimens, later packages containing fossil mammals were sent directly to the RCS from their port of arrival.

Papers conserved at RCS document the receipt of some of Darwin’s packages. When the first consignment arrived in June 1833, Clift wrote in his diary that a package had arrived ‘apparently from a Mr Darwin at Rio de la Plata’. Darwin, a 23-year-old theology graduate, was quite unknown to them. For Darwin’s part, thousands of miles from home, Henslow’s somewhat erratic correspondence left him worrying about the safe arrival of his cargoes. Darwin wrote to him in July 1833 ‘Amongst a heap of letters which awaited me, I was sadly disappointed not to see your hand-writing… I feel a good deal of anxiety respecting the fate of my collections‘.

At last an apologetic letter arrived from Henslow, and it contained surprising news: not only had his specimens arrived, but they had caused quite a stir. The back part of a skull of Megatherium, that Darwin had collected in a cliff at Punta Alta turned out to be a part previously unknown, the missing piece of the jigsaw of this extinct species, and had been exhibited by William Clift at a meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science. Darwin’s friend Frederick Hope, who had attended the meeting, wrote to him that “your name was in every mouth.” Darwin replied to Henslow with relief: “Your account of the safe arrival of my second cargo & that some of the specimens were interesting, has been, as you may well suppose, most highly satisfactory to me.”

Darwin’s most celebrated fossil find, the skull of a previously unknown extinct mammal later named Toxodon by Richard Owen, arrived safely in London after a journey of nine months. Darwin had purchased it in November 1833 at a farmhouse in a remote part of Uruguay, far from the sea, to which he had ridden over several days on horseback. How to get the massive skull home? Darwin had been staying on the farm of a Mr & Mrs Keen, who packed up the skull for him and put it on a boat down a series of small rivers until it joined the great Rio de la Plata, addressed to Edward Lumb, another British ex-patriate living in Buenos Aires. Lumb duly received the skull and put it on a commercial vessel, the Bassenthwaite, bound for Liverpool, that he thought it would be safer than trusting it to a naval ship. At the same time he wrote to Henslow, who arranged for the package to be sent to the RCS on arrival, and to Darwin’s father who would pay the carriage. It duly arrived at the RCS in August 1834, but Darwin himself only learnt of its safe arrival through a family letter he received in Peru a year later, after agonising about its safety for the intervening 18 months.

In total, ten separate shipments can be traced through Darwin’s diaries and correspondence. Remarkably, all of them appear to have arrived at their destination. The last shipment was sent in April 1835 from Valparaíso, the major port on the Pacific coast of Chile, including specimens from his exploration of the Andes. The specimens Darwin collected from that point on, though the final year or so of the voyage, he kept with him on the Beagle up to his return.

Darwin’s Beagle specimens were vital evidence for the theories he had been developing. As he wrote to Henslow from Valparaíso, “I am getting ready my last cargo of specimens to send to England; this last trip has added half a mule’s load; for without plenty of proof I do not expect a word of what I have written to be believed.” As I have described in my book Darwin’s Fossils, the fossil mammals and other specimens Darwin collected in South America were among the first clues that led him to his theory of evolution; even for the celebrated finches and other species from the Galápagos, it was only thanks to the specimens he brought home and their identification by specialists that their significance became clear to him.

Among Darwin’s ‘cargoes of apparent rubbish’ there were also hundreds of new species that would be described by various specialists after his return, several of them (such as the extinct giant sloth Mylodon darwinii named by Richard Owen) named in his honour.  The skull of Toxodon that had been shipped from rural Uruguay to Liverpool via Buenos Aires proved to represent not only a new species but an entirely new group of extinct South American mammals (the notoungulates) previously unknown to science.

Mylodon darwinii collected by Charles Darwin in 1832 at Punta Alta in Argentina.

Darwin’s cargoes had further importance in establishing his position within the scientific community. Not only had some of his specimens been put on display, but Henslow and the geologist Adam Sedgwick had read extracts from his letters at scientific meetings, and had even had them published and circulated in booklet form. When Darwin’s sister Susan wrote to tell him of these events, Darwin was at first horrified to learn that his letters had been made public in this way, not so much from a perspective of confidentiality but because he felt his observations were still preliminary. But Susan quoted from a letter from Professor Sedgwick, stating that ‘he has sent home a collection  above all praise… and will have a great name among the naturalists of Europe” – upon which, Darwin later recounted, “I clambered over the mountains with a bounding step and made the volcanic rocks resound under my geological hammer!”

The unknown student who had set sail five years previously was eagerly awaited on his return in late 1836, thanks largely to the specimens and letters he had sent home.  They paved the way for his rapid acceptance in the scientific community, as well as providing the raw materials for his theorising about evolution which began within months of his return. Those theories led, more than 20 years later, to On the Origin of Species, the book that revolutionised the study of the natural world.

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