Posted by: Rob Viens | January 31, 2012

Cape Verde – Not So Bad After All

On January 16th the Beagle arrived Santiago (what Darwin refers to as St. Jago) in the Cape Verde Islands, where it stayed for the better part of the next month (Fitzroy was making measurements of the island location and doing experiments with “magnetism”). It is interesting to note that Darwin approached Santiago with low expectations. As a well-read man, he must have read about the beauty of the Canaries and the ugliness of the seaport of Porto Praia (the largest city on the island, Darwin spells it Praya).  The history of Cape Verde, until recently, had been steeped in the slave trade, which may have also contributed to its reputation in Darwin’s time. He writes:

“I cannot help much regretting we were unable to stay at Teneriffe: St Jago is so miserable a place that my first landing in a Tropical country will not make that lasting impression of beauty which so many have described.” (Jan 12/13)

“St Jago viewed from the sea is even much more desolate than the land about Santa Cruz. — The Volcanic fire of past ages & the scorching heat of a tropical sun have in most places rendered the soil sterile & unfit for vegetation.” (Jan 16)

Map of Santiago and the Cape Verde Islands (note that you can zoom in and out):

Read more about Cape Verde on Wikipedia

Though his diary still does not speak highly of Praia and its inhabitants, as the days go on and Darwin has a chance to explore beyond the “dirty” seaport town (he makes several excursions) his appreciation for the islands quickly grows.

“Let those who have seen the Andes be discontented with the scenery of St Jago. I think its unusually sterile character gives it a grandeur which more vegetation might have spoiled.” (Jan 17)

There are several topics that Darwin dwells on while in the Cape Verde Archipelago (between Jan 16 and Feb 8) but I’m going to comment on the three in particular that struck me –  (1) topical climate, (2) tropical food and vegetation, and (3) geology.  I’ll comment on the first today and come back to the later two in the coming days.

Climate: Darwin is clearly very excited to be (at last) in the tropical sun. He frequently refers to the warm temperature, lack of rain (“at present it has not rained for a year”) and dust. However, all in all, Darwin is pleased with the balmy weather.

 “And yet there was a grandeur in such scenery & to me the unspeakable pleasure of walking under a tropical sun on a wild & desert island.” (Jan 19)

So what is the climate like on Santiago?  Well, below is a climate graph of the islands juxtaposed with one from Plymouth, England (from climatetemp.info).  Notice that Darwin was there in January when temperatures average a little over 20°C and there is virtually no rainfall. Considering that he left Plymouth a month before where it was wet, stormy and averaging 7°C, it is no wonder that he was writing about the climate!

climate graph for Santiago and Plymouth

One last “discovery” – a Peace Corps volunteer working in Cape Verde wrote an excellent blog entry a few years ago about Darwin’s lasting impact on the islands.  Check out In the Footsteps of Darwin witten by Robert S.

More on the vegetation and fruits of Cape Verde tomorrow… (RJV)

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