Posted by: Rob Viens | February 1, 2012

Of Tamarinds and Baobabs

Not surprisingly after being cooped up on a ship, seasick no less, that Darwin writes a lot about eating tropical fruit during his first several days in Cape Verde.

“We then strolled about the town, & feasted upon oranges: which I believe are now selling a hundred per shilling. I likewise tasted a Banana: but did not like it, being maukish & sweet with little flavor.” (Jan 16)

“I have feasted on Tamarinds & a profusion of oranges. —for dinner I had Barrow Cooter for fish & sweet potatoes for vegetables: quite tropical and correct.” (Jan 18)

It is easy to take for granted that bananas and oranges can be found year-round at almost any grocery in North America. In Darwin’s time, these where a luxury – it would have taken three weeks to ship them back to London from Cape Verde alone (and there was no real refrigeration). I savored my orange juice as I thought about this today.

Tamarinds, a fruit of the Tamarindus indica are a little less common in the states, but you can often find the candied variety.  I have never tasted a fresh tamarind – straight out of the pod.  They sound a bit like dates. (Though I did learn that they are an ingredient in Worcestershire sauce.) Scholars suggest that Darwin’s Barrow Cooter fish was a barracuda. (OK – So now the Heart song will always be Barrow Cooter to me.)

Photo of a tamarind pods (Wikipedia commons):

tamarind pods

Ironically, the bananas Darwin tasted were probably more flavorful than those we eat today.  Since that time they have been cultivated and breed for transportability – resulting in a relatively bland banana and a population that has very little genetic diversity.  This has made them more susceptible to disease – one of the side effects of extreme artificial selection. I like bananas, and eat them quite often, but if the current banana cultivar (the Cavendish) is impacted by disease, they may be hard to come by in the future.

Cape Verde was Darwin’s first real “taste” of tropical vegetation, too. The islands was quite dry, exposing a lot of rock, but leaving far less vegetation then he would see in Brazil. But to Darwin, and his ever-prominent sense of wonder, it was fabulous:

“Here I first saw the glory of tropical vegetation. Tamarinds, Bananas & Palms were flourishing at my feet. — I expected a good deal, for I had read Humboldts descriptions & I was afraid of disappointments: how utterly vain such fear is, none can tell but those who have experienced what I to day have. — It is not only the gracefulness of their forms or the novel richness of their colours, it is the numberless & confusing associations that rush together on the mind, & produce the effect. — I returned to the shore, treading on Volcanic rocks, hearing the notes of unknown birds, & seeing new insects fluttering about still newer flowers. — It has been for me a glorious day, like giving to a blind man eyes. — he is overwhelmed with what he sees & cannot justly comprehend it. — Such are my feelings, & such may they remain.” (Jan 16)

On January 20th, Darwin’s explorations led him down a path that “by the greatest good luck … lead us to the celebrated Baobob trees”. Baobabs, referred to as the “tree of life” in parts of Africa, are found in arid regions and have adapted to store water in their trunks (up to 32,000 gallons some sources say).  Darwin was fascinated by the size of his tree and four days later brought Captain Fitzroy (and his survey equipment) back to the tree to accurately measure its size.  Turns out it was about 45 feet tall and 13 feet in diameter.

Baobab tree in the Cape Verde islands (1873, from the voyage of HMS Challenger). – Natural History Museum, London

Baobab tree in Cape Verde

There are baobab trees have been estimated to be over 6000 years old. I have not been able to find a reference to it, but there are many large baobab trees on Santiago, so it is possible that Darwin’s tree still stands there today.

Darwin also collected and observed many different plants and animals on (and in the waters around) Santiago. During this time he noted the amazing variety of colors found in tropical species.  In these statements, you can begin to see him asking “why” this was the true – question that would ultimately lead to the Origin of Species.

“Collected a great number of curious & beautiful animals from the little pools left by the tide. The colours of the sponges & corallines are extremely vivid & it is curious how all animated nature becomes more gaudy as it approaches the hotter countries. — Birds, fishes, plants, shells are familiar to every one. — but the colours in these marine animals will rival in brilliancy those of the higher classes.” (Jan 28)

Next – Darwin’s first calling – geology! (RJV)


  1. […] and blackberries of home, it was typically a rare treat.  As I mentioned in an earlier post (see Of Tamarinds and Baobabs) the long shipping times and lack of refrigeration made these fruits a true delicacy back in […]

  2. […] experience” Darwin had with trees.  His stories about the baobab tree in Cape Verde (see Of Tamarinds and Baobabs) and the forest of Brazil (for a couple of examples see Oh verdure New World, that has such forests […]

  3. […] tree : — in Sao Domingos, Cape […]

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