Posted by: Rob Viens | January 26, 2012

Stuck in Plymouth with Books, Drunken Sailors and the Rambling Blues

To be fair, I’m actually starting about 1 month late – Darwin departed Plymouth exactly one month (and 180 years) ago tomorrow – December 27, 1831. Fortunately it took little while to cross the Atlantic in the early 1800’s, so I’m going to use the first few entries to get caught up.

The diaries actually start on the 24th of October 1831 as Darwin prepared for his 5-year journey. I have to keep reminding myself that he was 22 at the time- effectively a college student in some ways very similar to the students I see on my college campus every day.  He seems to angst over his father’s approval of the trip, at first actually declining the offer because his father did not think it would be worthy. At 22, I enthusiastically moved across the country to find my fortune (maybe not the right word since I was going to grad school), so I can relate to the general feeling of excitement.  But in this day and age, it was almost more akin to my committing to a 5-year expedition to Mars.  It must have been thrilling and terrifying at the same time.

What strikes me the most about the pre-voyage entries is the little insights they provide into Darwin as a human being.  There are three that stood out to me:

  1. Darwin loved his books. This one is probably my favorite revelation, because I love books, too, and so it gives me a very person connection to this now legendary man.  Most of the entries are relatively short, but books seem to show up a lot. For example, on the 21st of November he “carried all [his] books & instruments on board the Beagle” and both on the 25th and 26th he talks about being “employed all day long in arranging the books”. The last time I move into a new office space I remember taking weeks to carefully arrange books on shelves  – it is almost a ritual. And I never go anywhere without a book, so it completely makes sense to me.
  2. Darwin did not seem to think very highly of the sailors, nor did he have a high opinion of anyone who drank too much (which pretty much covers his opinion about sailors). Again this comes up several times, but most humorously on the day after Christmas: “A beautiful day, & an excellent one for sailing, —the opportunity has been lost owing to the drunkedness & absence of nearly the whole crew. — the ship has been all day in state of anarchy. One days holiday has caused all this mischief; such a scene proves how absolutely necessary strict discipline is amongst such thoughtless beings as Sailors.” Considering these were the guys he was about to spend 5 years with, I hope he kept his mouth shut.
  3. Darwin was anxious. He was ready to go, and a lot of the December entries express his frustration with being held back by the weather. In at least one case (December 21), they even started and were turned back by stormy conditions.  Again, I can’t help but think of the modern analogy – astronauts gearing up daily for an interplanetary trip only to have it scrubbed for bad weather.

At last, at around 11 am on the 27th of December, they finally “hit the road” and after months of excitement and preparation, Darwin promptly got seasick. (RJV)


  1. […] seemed to have a pretty poor view of sailors when he departed Plymouth in December (see Stuck in Plymouth with Books, Drunken Sailors and the Rambling Blues from January 26).  But as the journey progressed and he lived, ate, hiked, explored and talked […]

  2. […] – much to their dismay when the captain as forced to punish them for their conduct (see Stuck in Plymouth with Books, Drunken Sailors and the Rambling Blues). This year, however, the crew was in a remote port without a tavern in sight, so they resorted to […]

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