Posted by: Rob Viens | April 25, 2012

Head Over Heels in Botafogo Bay

On the 25th of April, Darwin began to move his equipment from the Beagle to his temporary house on Botafogo Bay (which he spelled Botofogo).  On his very first day in Rio (before the Macaé expedition) Darwin had already arranged temporary lodging noting:

“At Botofogo Earl & myself found a most delightful house which will afford us most excellent lodgings” (Apr 5)

It would be in this home, that Darwin (along with Augustus Earl, Fuegia Basket, Philip Gidley King and the sergeant of the ship’s marines (named Beareley?)) would spend most if not all of the next two months, while the Beagle continued it’s survey work.

Botafogo Bay is a small (and beautiful) bay near the entrance of the much larger Guanabara Bay. Botafogo Bay is surrounded by Rio to the northwest, Botafogo beach and Corcovado Mountain (where the famous Christ the Redeemer Statue is located) to the west and Sugarloaf Mountain to the south – more or less in sight of many of the famous landmarks of Rio de Janeiro.

Map of the Botafogo Bay region, showing landmarks and approximate location of Darwin’s house (modified from Google Maps):

Botafogo Bay Map

The name Botafogo Bay (which I can’t help but keep saying out loud) has an interesting history.  It originally comes from the name of a Portuguese galleon from the 16th century.  The ship was massive (one of, if not the, largest warship of its time), and carried an enormous amount of firepower (366 cannons).  Because of this heavy artillery it earned the name the Botafogo – which means fire maker or spitfire.

So you are probably asking, “what does that have to do with Brazil?” Well, the crew member in charge of the ships artillery, João de Sousa Pereira, later took the name Botafogo as part of his family name – becoming João de Sousa Pereira Botafogo. He later moved to Brazil and was granted land in the vicinity of the bay, which would later take his name.

Botafogo Bay painted by Conrad Martens in the 1830’s:

Botafogo Bay by Conrad Martens

What made this particular day so eventful is best described in Darwin’s own words:

“Whilst landing on the beach I suffered on a small scale, sufficient however to paint some of the horrors of shipwreck. — Two or three heavy seas swamped the boat, & before my affrighted eyes were floating books, instruments & gun cases & everything which was most useful to me. — Nothing was lost & nothing completely spoiled, but most of them injured.” (Apr 25)

He adds more emotion to the incident in writing to his sister Caroline:

“Earl & myself are now living in this most retired & beautiful spot.— I trust to spend a most delightful fortnight.— I have begun however with a bad omen.— whilst landing the boat was swamped; a heavy sea knocked me head over heels & filled the boat.— I never shall forget my agony, seeing all my useful books, papers,—instruments microscopes &c &c gun rifle all floating in the Salt Water: every thing is a little injured, but not much: I must harden myself to many such calamities.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, 25 April 1832)

I have no doubt that this was probably the most tragic event that Darwin had suffered since leaving Plymouth about four months ago.  These items were extremely important to Darwin – he spent a lot of time outfitting himself before leaving to assure that he had exactly what he needed to be the perfect naturalist.  For a brief few minutes, it must have seemed that it was all lost.

On a small scale I can relate to this incident.  I remember working near the mouth of the Stikine River in Alaska in early summer 1994.  The mosquitoes were the worst I had ever experienced in my life.  I remember sticking my hand out as bait, and then swatting it only to find what seemed like 50 dead mosquitoes.  (OK that is an exaggeration, but it was a lot.)  During the day we always covered up to prevent bites and even wore mosquito nets to project our heads from aerial assault.  Maybe this was overkill, but at the time it seemed essential.

About a week into the field season we were paddling up the Stikine River, head nets off since there was a breeze, when suddenly I dropped by mosquito net into the river. One would think a net would float, but before I could do anything I watched in utter disbelief as the net rapidly sank into the dark waters of the river, never to be seen again.  To this day I can still remember the deep despair that I felt that day – knowing that the minute I steeped foot on shore again I would be doomed to suffer hoards of mosquitoes, and that I had no choice but to continue the work without this protection.

Not surprisingly I lived (and maintained most of by blood) – I had some alternative (nasty chemical-based) methods to keep the bugs away.  But I can truly imagine what Darwin must have felt that day in Botafogo Bay – thinking he was losing all of his equipment and resources with little change of replacement.  It was a naturalist’s nightmare. (RJV)



  1. Hi, Would you mind if I reblogged your article?

    • Sure -it would be a pleasure – thanks for asking! I look forward to learning more about Brazil on your blog, too.

  2. Reblogged this on Lost Sambista.

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