Posted by: Rob Viens | June 5, 2012

“Bad Air” on the Beagle

June 5th and Darwin was reconnecting with his old friends:

” Worked at the produce of yesterdays hunt; in the evening went out geologizing.— Earl has returned (he has been staying for a week with some friends in the city) & brought a good deal of news from the Beagle.” (June 5)

What news did the Beagle bear?  Sadly, it was not good.  Darwin tells the story after meeting with Philip Gidley King late the night before:

“He brought the calamitous news of the death of three of our ship-mates. — They were the three of the Macacù party who were ill with fever when the Beagle sailed from Rio. — 1st Morgan, an extra-ordinary powerful man & excellent seaman; he was a very brave man & had performed some curious feats, he put a whole party of Portugeese to flight, who had molested the party; he pitched an armed sentinel into the sea at St Jago; & formerly he was one of the boarders in that most gallant action against the Slaver the Black Joke. — 2nd Boy Jones one of the most promising boys in the ship & had been promised but the day before his illness, promotion. — These were the only two of the sailors who were with the Cutter, & picked for their excellence. — And lastly, poor little Musters; who three days before his illness heard of his Mothers death. Morgan was taken ill 4 days after arriving on board & died near the Abrolhos, where he was lowered into the sea after divisions on Sunday — for several days he was violently delirious & talked about the party. — Boy Jones died two days after arriving at Bahia, & Musters two days after that.— They were both for a long time insensible or nearly so.— They were both buried in the English burial ground at Bahia; where in the lonely spot are also two other midshipmen. The other five of the party were all slightly attacked; none of them for more than a day or two.— Macacù has been latterly especially notorious for fevers: how mysterious & how terrible is their power. It is remarkable that in almost every case, the fever appears to come on several days after returning into the pure atmosphere.— I could quote numbers of such cases: is it the sudden change of life, the better & more stimulating food, which determines the period?” (June 4)

In terms of loss of life, this was the single largest disaster that the Beagle experienced in the entire voyage. No record remains of the two sailors, other than the words of Darwin and FitzRoy, however, I wrote a little bit about Mr. Musters back when he and Darwin were hiking together in Cape Verde (see Guineafowl encounters with Mr. Musters). I think Darwin was quite shaken by the loss of such a young boy.

Not surprisingly this was tough on FitzRoy, too,  and in his own Narrative he strived to try to understand the cause of the deadly fever – malaria.  It is worth including his comments in their entirety, because I think it gives some insight into FitzRoy’s need to both take care of his crew and make sense out of the world.  He writes:

” My chief object in now mentioning these melancholy facts is to warn the few who are not more experienced than I was at that time, how very dangerous the vicinity of rivers may be in hot climates. Upon making more inquiry respecting those streams which run into the great basin of Rio de Janeiro, I found that the Macacu was notorious among the natives as being often the site of pestilential malaria, fatal even to themselves. How the rest of our party escaped, I know not; for they were eleven or twelve in number, and occupied a day and night in the river. When they left the ship it was not intended that they should go up any river; the object of their excursion being to visit some of the beautiful islets which stud the harbour. None of us were aware, however, that there was so dangerous a place as the fatal Macacu within reach. I questioned every one of the party, especially the second lieutenant and master, as to what the three who perished had done different from the rest; and discovered that it was believed they had bathed during the heat of the day, against positive orders, and unseen by their companions; and that Morgan had slept in the open air, outside the tent, the night they passed on the bank of the Macacu.

As far as I am aware, the risk, in cases such as these, is chiefly encountered by sleeping on shore, exposed to the air on or near the low banks of rivers, in woody or marshy places subject to great solar heat. Those who sleep in boats, or under tents, suffer less than persons sleeping on shore and exposed; but they are not always exempt, as the murderous mortalities on the coast of Africa prove. Whether the cause of disease is a vapour, or gas, formed at night in such situations, or only a check to perspiration when the body is peculiarly affected by the heat of the climate, are questions not easy to answer, if I may judge from the difficulty I have found in obtaining any satisfactory information on the subject. One or two remarks may be made here, perhaps.—The danger appears to be incurred while sleeping; or when over-heated; not while awake and moderately cool; therefore we may infer that a check to the perspiration which takes place at those times is to be guarded against, rather than the breathing of any peculiar gas, or air, rising from the rivers or hanging over the land, which might have as much effect upon a person awake, as upon a sleeper. Also, to prevent being chilled by night damp, and cold, as well as to purify the air, if vapour or gas should indeed be the cause of fever, it is advisable to keep a large fire burning while the sun is below the horizon. But the subject of malaria has been so fully discussed by medical men, that even this short digression is unnecessary.” (FitzRoy’s Narrative)

In 1832 the cause of malaria was not known.  In fact, as FitzRoy suggests, it was believed to be the result of “bad air” (or in medieval Italian “mala aria”).  It is interesting to see how he tries to use his own observations to try to deduce the cause, and more importantly makes a point to prevent this sort of tragedy from happening in the future.

He also praises the care given by the new ship’s surgeon, Benjamin Bynoe, who took over after Robert McCormick left the Beagle (see “My Friend the Doctor is an Ass”).

“Mr. Bynoe consulted with the best medical advisers at Bahia, and afterwards at Rio de Janeiro, and he and I had the melancholy satisfaction of knowing that the best had been done for his patients. The affectionate kindness of Mr. Bynoe on this, and indeed every occasion where his skill and attention were required, will never be forgotten by any of his shipmates.” (FitzRoy’s Narrative)

Thanks to several scientists who worked on the problem in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, we now know that malaria is caused by a protist belonging to the genus Plasmodium. Plasmodium is a human parasite that lives within (and off of) our red blood cells. We also now know that the disease is carried by mosquitoes (the “disease vector”), which explains why it is often related to swampy regions with bad (smelling) air. Unfortunately, although malaria has probably plagued humanity for all of human history, we still do not have an effective vaccine against it. Therefore, it is still a major killer of humans, particularly children, in many parts of the world.

Old NIH anti-malaria campaign:

NIH ant-malaria campaign

Because of the long relationship between the human race and the disease, it is likely that the evolution of humans has been influenced by the malaria parasite. This type of relationship, where two species exert natural selective pressures on one another is what is referred to as coevolution.

PS – Well, as expected, we were clouded out in Seattle, so no personal viewing of Venus today.  However, there were some wonderful live feeds and it was great to share in the excitement with out local community. It truly was one of those naturally poetic events that brings together science and art, and makes one feel a part of something bigger.  The universe is an amazing place. (RJV)


  1. […] Morgan (seaman), Jones (boy) and Charles Musters (Voulunteer 1st Class) – died of Malaria in Brazil (May 1832) – see Bad Air on the Beagle […]

  2. […] (about a year ago) resulted in the death of two men and one boy who contracted malaria (see “Bad Air” on the Beagle).  This time it was the captain’s clerk – Edward. Hellyer – who wandered off on his own […]

  3. […] Luckily for both of us, these mosquitoes were not bearers of malaria, like those found in warmer climates.  The Beagle voyage had already been plagued by that disease in Brazil – and 3 people died (see “Bad Air” on the Beagle). […]

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