Posted by: Rob Viens | January 28, 2012

The First Ten Days – From Plymouth to Medeira

The first ten days of the voyage (Dec 27, 1831 – Jan 5, 1832) did not sound very pleasant for young Mr. Darwin, for on the 28th he “soon became sick” and pretty much stayed that way for some time. Many of these early entries refer to his “discomfort”:

“the misery is excessive & far exceeds what a person would suppose who had never been at sea more than a few days.” (Dec 29)

“wretchedly out of spirits & very sick. — I often said before starting, that I had no doubt I should frequently repent of the whole undertaking, little did I think with what fervour I should do so.” (Dec 30)

“The new year to my jaundiced senses bore a most gloomy appearance…This & three following days were ones of great & unceasing suffering.” (Jan 1)

Though he was not without some humor:

“using my eyes is not unpleasant: indeed it is rather amusing whilst lying in my hammock to watch the moon or stars performing their small revolutions in their new apparent orbits” (Dec 29)

I can’t imagine what was going though Darwin’s mind.  He was about to spend the next 5 years on a ship, and he was finding that sailing made him sick.  He had to be having some serious second thoughts.  But there is no doubt that he was dedicated to the cause.  A footnote in the published addition of the diaries, quoted from his later autobiography, shows just how dedicated he was:

“I was also troubled with palpitations and pain about the heart, and like many a young ignorant man, especially one with a smattering of medical knowledge, was convinced that I had heart-disease. I did not consult any doctor, as I fully expected to hear the verdict that I was not fit for the voyage, and I was resolved to go at all hazards.”


On the 4th, the Beagle passed Madeira (though Darwin was too sick to get up and even see it, which is saying a lot since we tended to make observations of most islands and oceanic phenomena). Since I know nothing about the island chain, I took the opportunity to learn something new (via the Madeira Wikipedia page.

Medeira, the “Island of Wood”, is part of an archipelago of islands in the eastern Atlantic Ocean.  It is an autonomous region of Portugal that is best known as a resort island and home to Madeiran wine.  Interestingly it is also know for having the largest New Year’s fireworks show in the world (I guess Darwin was a couple days to late).

Map of Medeira:

As a geologist, I have to note that the archipelago is a volcanic hot spot chain, formed as the African Plate moves eastward over a mantle plume. Older islands in the chain were formed ca. 20 million year ago.  Madeira is the youngest island in the chain, though the last eruption to occur there ended about 6,500 years ago. Darwin would go on to see a lot more hot spot islands in his journeys and I’m sure I’ll revisit the topic in the future. (RJV)

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