Posted by: Rob Viens | April 27, 2012

Who’s Who Guide to 19th Century European Diplomats

Today, April 27th, marks the beginning of Darwin’s 5th month on the Beagle (he departed December 27, 1831).  Even though he still has a long way to go, 4 months “on the road” is pretty rare for most of us.  I think the longest time I have spent on a trip (for fun or for field work) was somewhere between 2 and 3 months – and that in the age of telephones, email and “overnight” mail service. Darwin just received his “first” mail a few weeks ago and has more than four years to go!

Over the next few days Darwin was “socializing” with upper-crusty types – ministers and high-ranking naval officers – and writing up his field notes.  For example, on April 27th he writes:

“In the morning arranged my collections from the Interior, & after dinner went with the Captain to Mr Aston, the English minister. — The evening passed away very pleasantly, & from the absence of all form almost resembled a Cambridge party.”  (Apr 27)

“Mr. Aston” is Sir Arthur Ingram Aston (1798-1859) who was the British Secretary of Legation in Rio de Janeiro from 1826 to 1833. A little lesson on 19th century diplomats is in order…

In 1814 Europe was recovering from the Napoleonic Wars, the French Revolution, and breakup of the Holy Roman Empire.  In an attempt to bring order to chaos, several European nations organized the Congress of Vienna (a sort of United Nations for early 19th century Europe).

Sidebar trivia #1 – The first representative for the United Kingdom to the Congress of Vienna, Viscount Castlereagh, was Captain FitzRoy’s uncle.  Castlereagh is seated right in the middle of the congress (#10) in the image below (from Wikipedia Commons):

Congress of Vienna
(Visit Wikipedia for a full list of the diplomats shown in the sketch.)

The main mission of the Congress involved redefining borders and figuring out who was in charge of what. As a side issue, however, they also worked to standardize the titles of international representatives / foreign dignitaries. Prior to this time each country used its own titles, each with different meanings.  Therefore, it made it hard to tell if the person you were making a deal with had any authority or not.

So the Congress came up with a pretty simply naming scheme that was broken down as follows (from highest to lowest ranking):

  1. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary (Ambassador)
  2. Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary (Envoy)
  3. Minister Resident (Minister)
  4. Chargé d’affaires (this is an “interim” diplomat that only serves when the boss is away)
  5. The highest-ranking diplomat in a diplomatic mission is called the “chief of mission” or “head of mission” regardless of their specific title.

Note that the first two are Plenipotentiaries.  That means that they had the full authority of the government and their word was as good as a countries highest authority.   Remember that if you were sent to Brazil to negotiate a political treaty (for example), communication with England would have taken weeks.  So, in order for any sort of international agreements to ever happen, someone had to have the authority to speak for the crown.

Now, in practice what happened was that the big and powerful countries would have ambassadors.  But Brazil was not considered “big and powerful” so countries such as England would send a lower ranking diplomat (an Envoy or more likely a Minister).  And they would call the official office a “Legation” rather than an embassy.  So as “Secretary of Legation”, Aston was probably the assistant to the highest-ranking British diplomat in Brazil. (Though it is hard to tell from the little information about him online.)

Sir Arthur Aston would hold some other diplomatic titles later in his career. In 1833 he was appointed Secretary of Embassy in Paris, and from 1840 to 1843 he was Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary in Madrid.

Sidebar trivia #2 – Since the US was not a major power until the later 19th century, it did not have anyone with the official rank of ambassador and it’s international offices were called Legations. (In fact, very few countries had official ambassadors and/or embassies.)  All that changed in the second half of the 20th century and now all major diplomats that represent their government are called ambassadors, and their diplomatic sites are called embassies.

Meanwhile, back on the Beagle – Captain FitzRoy was planning to head back north to check his measurements – fearing that his chronometers were already in error. Darwin notes:

“The Captain has informed me of the important fact that the Beagle will return to Bahia for a few days. — There has been a long dispute about the longitude of Rio, & everybody thought that when that was settled the whole coast of S America would likewise be so. — To the Captains astonishment he finds there is a difference between Bahia & Rio; that is, one side is right at the former place, the other at the latter. — It is in order to verify this, that the second trip is undertaken. — I have made up my mind quietly to remain here & be picked up on the Beagles return.” (Apr 27)

It would still be almost 2 more weeks before he left, so I’ll come back to that story another day. (RJV)


  1. Thanks for a bit of a history lesson, Rob…

    Five months into a five-year trip. What a commitment, especially at such a young age. Or perhaps it is easier commitment in youth, when you still have abundant energy. I spent three months studying in Germany in my second year of college, but that was a sedate adventure compared to Chuck’s.

  2. […] Darwin’s diary entry today is about the evening obligations (for more on Mr. Aston see Who’s Who Guide to 19th Century European Diplomats): “Dined with Mr Aston; a very merry pleasant party; in the evening went with Mr Scott (the […]

  3. […] The Doctor, the Admiral, and the Naturalist and Who’s Who Guide to 19th Century European Diplomats for more on Admiral Thomas Baker and Arthur Aston. Mr. Price, I’m afraid, has been lost to […]

  4. […] d’affaires is a type of diplomat  – typically one step down from a full ambassador (see Who’s Who Guide to 19th Century European Diplomats).  This particular “Mr. Gore” was Philip Yorke Gore – listed as Her Britannic […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: