The Beagle may have been delayed initially, first by unhelpful winds and then fears that the ship was carrying cholera, but Darwin nonetheless gets straight into the action, describing the geology of the first stop at Porto Praya (Jan 16, 1832). The rains only come a few times a year, and the wanton destruction of the island’s original covering of trees has caused “almost entire sterility”. He also describes a kingfisher, and contrasts it with a European kingfisher.
Curiously, a fine dust of “infusoria” – an obsolete name for minute marine protists including ciliates, euglenoids, protozoids, unicellular algae – falls on the ship around Porto Praya. Darwin sent a small sample to Professor Ehrenberg, an expert on African infusoria – who found 67 species of protists in it! The notion of organic dust falling from the sky is a new one to me, but, then, I’m not terribly well traveled. I can only wonder how many unknown phenomena await me in the next remaining 319 pages.
Darwin is also fascinated by an octopus in a rock pool – its intelligence, colour changes and ink. He tries poking it with a stick and with electricity, and notices that the affected skin turns black. Descriptions of these sorts of encounters will, I suspect, be a recurring feature of the narrative.
The Beagle then sails to St Paul’s Rock, arriving on the 16th of February. Darwin observes that almost all of the small islands, perhaps aside from the Seychelles and these – are either coral formations or volcanic. St Paul’s Rock has no vegetation, but is nonetheless populated by a number of birds (boobies and noddies). The island is covered with a “hard glossy substance with a pearly lustre” – their guano. He notes that they are tame and “stupid” – “I could have killed any number of them with my geological hammer”.
He inspects the birds, noting that there are several species of insects – a fly, a tick and a moth, all of which parasite the birds, plus a beetle and a woodlouse who eat the dung. There are also several species of spiders, which eat the insects, and a crab, which steal the birds’ food (and occasionally their young). So the entirety of the island’s life is making a living, one way or another, thanks to these birds. This is quite a change from the usual perception of island colonisation, first “the stately palm and other noble tropical plants, then birds, and lastly man”, and Darwin expresses the sentiment that this somewhat destroys the poetry of the story.
On February 20, the Beagle stops at Fernando Noronha. They don’t stop long, just long enough for Darwin to note that the archipelago is volcanic. Rather a pity, really. It looks rather a lovely place to visit.
On February 29, the HMS Beagle arrives in Brazil, at Bahia. He marvels in the novelty and delights of the Brazilian forest – and promptly gets caught out in a tropical storm. Darwin notes that the rocky terrain, all along South America, is granite – a rock which forms when heated under pressure, and wonders what sort of force could have created this effect.
Darwin here sees a Diodon antennatus (porcupinefish) – watching it inflate, and discovers that it can even maneuver (on its back) even when inflated, and writes that Dr Allan of Forres has found such porcupinefish living inside a shark, or having escaped from the inside of one.
Sailing from Bahia on March 18, and approaching the Abrolhos Islets (still in Brazil, not Australia), Darwin observes vast quantities of yellow-green algae in huge bands. He wonders at the quantities of microscopic life – here in the Abrolhos Islets, off Chile, around Tierra del Fuego, off the Galapagos, and asks why they tend to form into well-defined bands?
I’ve created a Google Earth .kmz file. The Voyage of the Beagle – Chapter 1.
Well, that’s Chapter 1. Next time, Rio de Janeiro.