Posted by: Rob Viens | April 29, 2012

A Letter to Caroline

Whew, April 29th brought a break from all that socializing.  Darwin’s short entry reads:

“Delightfully quiet day, employed in writing up my journal during the Macaè excursion.” (Apr 29)

Over the past few days, however, Darwin also took the time to write home to his sister Caroline. I can only imagine that these letters were a pleasure for him to compose – you can tell in the tone of his writing.  He really seems to want to share his adventure with his family in a way he is not able to write in his diary.

Caroline Darwin (about 16 yrs old) and Charles (about 6 yrs old) in 1816 – note the resemblance:

Caroline DarwinDarwin at age 6

As always, I have to remind myself how different the style of communication was in the 19th century.  Today, this blog can be read and commented on all over the world within seconds of my uploading it.  (And I do appreciate those of you around the world who have been following along :)). But Darwin had to wait weeks or months for a letter to be sent, received and responded to. So I imagine it made each letter (sent and received) all the more precious.

I already quoted Darwin’s comments to his sister about the doctor departing and having his equipment washed overboard.  Here are a few more gems from his letter that are worth noting:

(1) Comments on the Macaé expedition – I particularly like the part about wearing the same cloths continuously for 5 straight days.

“My expedition lasted 15 days, most of which were ones of uncommon fatigue; I suppose for a civilized country travelling could not be worse.— the greatest difficulty in getting any thing to eat, & not undressing for the five first days.— I was very unwell for two days, & the misery of riding in a scorching sun for about 10 hours was extreme.— My horror of being left utterly destitute in a Venda will be better than any schoolmaster to make me learn Spanish, as soon as we get into those countries.— On the other side, there was a great interest & novelty in seeing the manner of living amongst the Brazilians, which rare of opportunity of doing during a few days in which I resided at a Fazenda, that is one of the most interior cleared estates.— Their habits of life were quite patriarchal.— Forest, & flowers & birds, I saw in great perfection, & the pleasure of beholding them is infinite.— I advice you to get an French engraving, Le Foret du Bresil: it is most true & clever” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, April 25/26)

Engraving of Forêt vierge du Brésil, by Charles de Clarac (1819) which Darwin refers to in the letter:

Forêt vierge du Brésil

(2) A description of the captain – Darwin really has a great respect for the FitzRoy and provides some interesting insights into his character.

“And now for the Captain, as I daresay you feel some interest in him.— As far as I can judge: he is a very extraordinary person.— I never before came across a man whom I could fancy being a Napoleon or a Nelson.— I should not call him clever, yet I feel convinced nothing is too great or too high for him.— His ascendacy over every-body is quite curious: the extent to which every officer & man feels the slightest rebuke or praise would have been, before seeing him incomprehensible: It is very amusing to see all hands hauling at a rope they not supposing him on deck, & then observe the effect, when he utters a syllable: it is like a string of dray horses, when the waggoner gives one of his aweful smacks.— His candor & sincerity are to me unparralleled: & using his own words his “vanity & petulance” are nearly so.— I have felt the effects of the latter: but the bringing into play the former ones so forcibly makes one hardly regret them.— His greatest fault as a companion is his austere silence: produced from excessive thinking: his many good qualities are great & numerous: altogether he is the strongest marked character I ever fell in with.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, April 25/26)

(3) Annotations to his diary – periodically Darwin would send his diary home for the family to read.  This was the first installment (the first 4 months). Like so many young writers, he is not all that confident about his writing abilities and apologizes in advance for the quality of the writing.  No need to apologize Charles – we are still reading along 180 years later.

” I send in a packet, my commonplace Journal.— I have taken a fit of disgust with it & want to get it out of my sight, any of you that like may read it.— a great deal is absolutely childish: Remember however this, that it is written solely to make me remember this voyage, & that it is not a record of facts but of my thoughts.— & in excuse recollect how tired I generally am when writing it….

Be sure you mention the receiving of my journal, as anyhow to me it will of considerable future interest as it an exact record of all my first impressions, & such a set of vivid ones they have been, must make this period of my life always one of interest to myself.— If you will speak quite sincerely,—I should be glad to have your criticisms. Only recollect the above mentioned apologies.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, April 25/26)

Any complaints, sicknesses or injuries aside, Darwin does seem to be enjoying himself, summarizing, “I like this sort of life very much: I can laugh at the miseries of even Brazilian travelling.” (RJV)


  1. Just curious what day we are on in this voyage of the Beagle? Imagine our surprise yesterday when taking Aidan to see “Pirates – A Band of Misfits” that on Day 93 of its voyage, the Pirates boarded the Beagle and absconded with its star passenger, Charles Darwin himself. I found it ironic that we are nearly on the same day of the journal!

  2. Close – I’m on post #96 today but I started late, so Darwin is on about day 120. But, alas, although he had many other types of adventures, Darwin did not have any pirate adventures (that part is all made up). Though, it is interesting (in a weird sort of way) that in the movie Darwin is voiced by David Tennant. Tennant was the 10th Doctor Who – related to post #94 (Saturday night) :).

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