Posted by: Rob Viens | April 4, 2012

Charlie the Sailor Man

On April 4th the Beagle slowly worked its way along the coast and into the harbor of Rio de Janeiro.  Darwin described the scenery in his own poetic way:

“The winds being very light we did not pass under the Sugar loaf till after dinner: our slow cruize was enlivened by the changing prospect of the mountains; sometimes enveloped by white clouds, sometimes brightened by the sun, the wild & stony peaks presented new scenes. — When within the harbor the light was not good, but like to a good picture this evenings view prepared the mind for the morrows enjoyment. ” (Apr 4)

FitzRoy adds his own praise to this “magnificent harbor”:

“Often as it has been visited and described, I cannot expect any one to require another sketch, but will merely remark that I know no port equal to it in situation, security, capacity, convenience, and abundant supply of every necessary, as well as in picturesque beauty.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

The Sugar Loaf – one of the classic landmarks of Rio – is a monolith of stone that rises almost 400 meters above the harbor. Rocks like these that stick out as headlands along the coast – sometime referred to as “morros” – are found all along the coastline around Rio. They are made of the same granitic rocks that Darwin described earlier in Bahia (see Neptunists, Plutonists and the Significance of Granite).  In fact, it is almost certainly the fact that they are made of granite, a rock that is more resistant to weathering, which allows them to remain as peaks long after the surrounding rocks have eroded away.

Sugar Loaf (from Wikipedia Commons)

Sugarloaf Mountain

The big event for the day took place in the harbor.  While waiting to receiver orders on where to “park” the Beagle, FitzRoy had the crew run maneuvers to show off the skill of his little survey ship in front of all the big warships. (Rio was the base of operations for the British Navy in South America.)  Darwin describes it as such:

“In most glorious style did the little Beagle enter the port & lower her sails alongside the Flag ship. We were hailed that from some trifling disturbances we must anchor in a particular spot. Whilst the Captain was away with the commanding officer, we tacked about the harbor & gained great credit from the manner in which the Beagle was manned & directed.” (Apr 4)

But a much more colorful example of Darwin’s role in the event was written several years later by his friend and Beagle companion Midshipman Philip King.  King’s recollection is one of Darwin having fun:

“Though Mr. Darwin knew little or nothing of nautical matters he one day volunteered his services to the First Lieutenant. [On first entering Rio] it was decided to make a display of smartness in shortening sail before the numerous Men-of-War at the anchorage…Mr. Darwin was told off to hold to a main-royal sheet in each hand and top=mast studding-tack in his teeth. At the order “Shorten sail: he was to let go and clap on to any rope he saw was short-handed – this her did and enjoyed the fun of it, often afterwards remarking ‘the feat could not have been performed without him'” (Midshipman Philip G. King – as quoted in Charles Darwin: A New Life)

We so often see pictures of Darwin with piecing eyes, a white beard and a somber black outfit – the older Darwin, who had lived a long and productive life.  But here he is yet again, at age 23, acting like a fun-loving young man.  Trying to join in the spectacle of showing off the Beagle in front of the big guns of the British Royal Navy and loving every minute of it.  It is an image I will always have of him.

Today was also mail call – the first time since leaving England over three months ago. Darwin was excited to receive letters from family and friends that had been sent by Packet to reach the Beagle when it arrived.  Darwin writes:

“Then came the ecstasies of opening letters, largely exciting the best & pleasantest feelings of the mind; I wanted not the floating remembrance of ambition now gratified, I wanted not the real magnificence of the view to cause my heart to revel with intense joy; but united with these, few could imagine & still fewer forget the lasting & impressive effect.” (Apr 4)

More on any exciting postal news “on the morrow”. (RJV)

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