Posted by: Rob Viens | May 2, 2012

Milking the Cow

On May 2nd Darwin had to return to mundane tasks – he had to resupply.  His sole entry states:

“Walked to Rio: the whole day has been disagreeably frittered away in shopping.” (May 2)

What – not even a beetle on the walk to town, or a palm tree in the streets? Well, speaking of shopping…

Darwin had to “pay his way” on the Beagle – he was not in the Royal Navy or a representative of the crown – he was merely a “gentleman companion” and unofficial naturalist (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home I). So although he was given space on the ship, he did have to pay for food and supplies. (Though I do think FitzRoy helped cover the cost of shipping specimens back to England.)

So how did Darwin pay these costs? Or cover additional expenses, such as equipment or a rental cabin on Botafogo Bay? He asked his father, of course.

Robert Darwin – the man who financed Darwin’s education and adventures (by James Pardon, 1816ish):

Robert Darwin

Recall that Darwin came from a rather wealthy family – the Darwin side included well-respected doctors and investors, and the Wedgwood side was heir to the Wedgwood China fortune. Even before he went to university, Darwin, and his brother Erasmus used to get money from their father to fund their chemistry experiments and other endeavors.  (Not to mention that dad paid for their schooling and all related expenses.)  There was no raking the neighbor’s yard or bagging groceries for the Darwin boys.

In fact, the brothers had a name for getting money out of the old man – they called it “milking the cow”!  Seriously – “milking the cow”. Note the reference in the letter from Erasmus regarding glassware for their lab:

“It is quite wonderful how perverse the glass house people are, for I particularly told them to make the test tubes round at the bottom & they must need’s grind them flat. If the cow is not utterly consumed the next milking, it would be a very good thing to buy as many of the large green, stoppered, bottles, as possible, & have them all filled with distilled water” (Correspondence from Erasmus Darwin, December 1822)

At this rate it was not long before Darwin realized that he really did not have to worry about money. Describing his time at the University of Edinburgh, he noted:

“But soon after this period I became convinced from various small circumstances that my father would leave me property enough to subsist on with some comfort, though I never imagined that I should be so rich a man as I am; but my belief was sufficient to check any strenuous effort to learn medicine.” (Darwin’s Autobiography)

This led Darwin to rack up some debts during his time at Cambridge. These were large enough for Fanny Owen to suggest that he was going on the trip to get our of paying them off:

“Did you throw yourself on the Governor’s mercy, & confess your creditors, or what have you done? What a capital way of escaping ungentlemanlike Tailors &c— When you are far from the Land they may whistle for their cash for what you care!” (Correspondence from Fanny Owen, September 1831)

In the end Dr. Darwin paid the bills so Charles would not come home to debtors prison.

When he agreed to let Darwin go on the Beagle trip, Robert Darwin also agreed to give him an allowance to cover the costs (plus another £600 of up-front money to buy equipment).  Darwin records a telling exchange in his autobiography, where he tries to convince his father that the trip will not cost much:

“I had been rather extravagant at Cambridge, and to console my father, said, “that I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance whilst on board the ‘Beagle’;” but he answered with a smile, “But they tell me you are very clever.”” (Darwin’s Autobiography)

It was more-or-less true that Darwin lived within his means on the voyage. But every now and then he would write home for more money – though interestingly, he always seemed to ask for it in a letter to his sister, rather than asking Robert Darwin directly.  And example from later in the voyage:

“I drew a bill a month ago for 80£. I am very sorry to say I shall be obliged from these great unexpected misfortunes to draw another one.— After my Fathers first great growl is over, he must recollect we shall be now 8 months to the South, where as last time I can neither spend or draw money.—the only security, I can give which will be trusted.” (Correspondence to Caroline Darwin, October 1833)

Every time he asks for money he also notes that he is about to enter a period of several months at sea were his is will be unable to spend any money.  A clever boy, indeed…

I suppose this is not atypical of a young man in from a wealthy family in the early 1800’s. But it is rather telling of what Darwin may have become had he not gone on the Beagle voyage. And it is one of those little insights into who Darwin was as a young man, and how he grew during his 5-year adventure. (RJV)


  1. How would it be? I worked and had scholarships throughout an AA, two BAs an MA and part way through an EdDoc. All of them were pretty much unwanted degrees so I could get the scholarships. Always wanted science and math but there was more competition than my poor brain could handle. So ended up a dumb cop—but sure had some adventures. It is still amazing how he had so much information in his head on so many varied subjects. Pat Beatie

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