Posted by: Rob Viens | April 11, 2012

Sick and Tired in Brazil

Today, April 11th Darwin was forced think about his own mortality and what happens when you get sick in a strange land, with a strange illness, and there is no doctor to be found.

The day started out innocently enough:

“Passed through several leagues of a thick wood.” (Apr 11)

Incidentally a league is a vague unit of measure that translates roughly to about 3 miles (or about 5 km).  It typically referred to the number of miles a horse or man could walk in an hour.  In a sense, several leagues means several hours of riding.

When they reached the Barra de São João (Barra in this sense refers to an estuary) they crossed, “in a canoe, swimming alongside our horses”.  What an image – Darwin and his party paddling across a river mouth, horses swimming alongside.

Barra de São João (from


By the end of the day, they had nearly reached their final destination, and “slept at the Venda da Matto, 2 miles S of the entrance of the Rio Macaè into the sea.” (Apr 11)

Macaé excursion – April 11

Map of Darwin's Expedition – April 11. 1832

However, what really stood out in Darwin’s diary today, was that he was sick. In fact, it was safe to say that he was really sick. In his own words:

” I felt unwell, with a little shivering & sickness… could eat nothing at one oclock, which was the first time I was able to procure anything. — Travelled on till it was dark, felt miserably faint & exhausted; I often thought I should have fallen off my horse. … All night felt very unwell; it did not require much imagination to paint the horrors of illness in a foreign country, without being able to speak one word or obtain any medical aid.” (Apr 11)

It is interesting when Darwin’s emotions come out in his diary.  Not surprisingly, these are often lost by the time he translates the adventure into Voyage of the Beagle, some 7 years later.  But it is pretty clear that on this night 180 years ago, Darwin was more than a little scared.

And really, who could blame him.  He felt terrible all day and had no idea why (did he drink the water?).  He had not doctors in his party, nor did he know how to communicate with the locals (language never seemed to be a strong subject for him – I can relate.) And the reality was that people died of tropical diseases in the 1800’s much more frequently than today.  He knew that there was a chance that he might not survive the trip and I’m sure moments like this made that thought seem a real possibility. I’d be scared, too.

It is easy to forget this concern in the modern world, where travelers get multiple vaccines before being exposed to tropical diseases.  We take our malaria pills, drink bottled water, and have cell phones that allow us to get help almost instantly. Heck we actually know what causes these diseases now – in Darwin’s time it was not known that it was mosquitoes that carry malaria. Not to say that we have nothing to fear when we travel today, but we sure have it a lot easier.

It reminds me about a time when I was doing field work in a remote part of SE Alaska. One day I took a fall down a steep embankment – hitting my head on a large rock on the way down. (OK – to be fair – the rock was falling, too, and it hit me.) But I remember thinking that if I had gotten seriously hurt, and I was even able to contact help, who knows how long it would take help to get to me (10 hrs?), let alone how they would find me.  It was thick forest in a narrow valley – there was no way to land a helicopter anywhere nearby.  It ended up that I was OK – but I was much more careful for the rest of the field season.

I have no doubt Darwin thought back on this illness a couple of months later when several Beagle crew members died of malaria.  There but for the grace of God go I…and so forth. Maybe it was good that it happened to him early in the trip – forcing him to be more careful in the future.

Did he make it?  Well, I think we all now the answer, but I’ll make you wait till tomorrow to hear Darwin’s secret cure! (RJV)


  1. Great piece – vividly remember reading this in ‘Voyages’ + empathising. Will cross-post to HMS Beagle Project blog; good for budding expeditioneers to think about!

    • Thanks Lisa! It’s wonderful to have the plug and am looking forward to guest blogging.

      For readers of this blog – there are some great posts on our “older cousins” HMS Beagle Project blog. Check it out at – A link to their main page can also be found in the resources link at the top of this page.

  2. […] not write in much detail about this leg, I imagine that Darwin was much more observant this time (it was on this leg that he was so sick last week). His full entry today notes: “Returned by the old route to Campos Novos; the ride was very […]

  3. […] in the tropics – that is never good. As noted before (see Sick and Tired in Brazil), Darwin is very aware of the perils of tropical illness in the 1830′s.  It makes the last […]

  4. […] during his first year away from home, travel can be a dangerous and frightening endeavor (see Sick and Tired in Brazil). Most of the time, the nearest doctor was the ship’s surgeon (though that is not even true […]

  5. […] experienced all of these to some degree or another (see the South American Homesick Blues and Sick and Tired in Brazil for a couple of examples). Today, he had another travelers experience – he fell victim to a […]

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