Posted by: Rob Viens | June 29, 2012

Packing Supplies and Packet News

On June 29th Darwin was back to preparing to leave Rio, writing:

“We go to sea on next Tuesday, so that I have a nice short time for finishing the collections I made at Botofogo.” (June 29)

It seems like he spent a lot of time getting ready to sail, but as always, I have to remind myself that (1) it took time to collect the things he needed (no calling in an order and having it over-nighted) and (2) if he forgot anything he was out of luck for at least a month (when the ship arrived in Uruguay and Argentina).

I never worry too much about packing for a trip – if I forget my toothbrush or jacket, I know I can easy purchase a new one on the road. On the other hand, having done some field work in relatively remote areas, I know how much time I mulled over making sure I had all the right supplies and enough food and books to keep me going.  Thinking back, I easy spent a week or two on preparations.  So it makes sense that this topic dominates Darwin’s diary for a couple of weeks.

On the 29th Darwin also writes about keeping up on the political news from home:

“The very interesting & important news of the minority of Earl Grey on the reform was brought late last night by the Packet. The latest information is 20th of May.— The distance of time & space from the events takes from me the keen interest for Politicks & Newspapers.” (June 29)

It is incredibly easy on a long trip (work or vacation) to become completely separated from the “daily news”.  Actually, I think this is probably a very good thing for our mental health.  But it is always interesting to return to town after a 4-day backpacking trip (with no cell phone) and see how the world has changed.  Most of the time, it is reassuring to see everything goes on more or less as it was before.  Reinforcing the notion that it is okay to remove ones self from the world now and then.

And when something does happen, it really stands out.  I can think of two examples that stick out in my memory,which I learned about them after returning from the wilderness.  The first was in the summer of 1991 where I can distinctly remember reading a newspaper headline (in a newspaper box in front of a hotel) about the coup against Mikhail Gorbachev.  A friend (who happened to be a Russian Studies major at the time) and I had been traveling and were amazed to see how much had happened in a few days.

The second incident (which stands in stark contrast to the first) was the death of Jerry Garcia.  I’m no “Dead Head” but I like the Grateful Dead as much as the next guy. So it seems odd how stark this memory s for me.  But I cn picture the time and place that I heard the news. And I’m sure this is due to the fact that it was one of the first bits of news I heard after two weeks in the Alaska wilderness.

Jerry Garcia – who, other than his beard, really had nothing to do with Darwin (from Jerry
Jerry Garcia

Anyway, for Darwin in 1832 there seems to be at least a month delay in receiving any political news from back home  – and that was by Packet (which, if you remember, are relatively fast ships (see Mail Trucks and Flying Fish).  Like letters from home, word of the political situation back home was probably very welcome news.  As a member of an affluent family, Darwin would have grown up discussing political issues around the table. It must have been odd for him to be so “out of touch”.

On this particular day Darwin is specifically referring to the Prime Minister Charles Grey’s Reform Bill, which would have been in the headlines at that time. (Grey was the second in his line to hold the title Earl Grey). There is no doubt that Darwin and his family followed earlier versions of this Bill before Darwin left in late 1831.  The idea of reforming parliament was a “hot button” item in the early 1830’s, and at various stages of the process there were public riots and protests when the bill failed to pass.  Interestingly, if Darwin’s latest information was based on news from May 20th, he probably left Rio assuming the Reform Bill (which he supported) had failed to pass. Ironically, by this time in June 1832, there had been some political maneuvering and the bill had in fact passed.  Since he was about to head to sea, it is likely that Darwin did not hear the “good news” until at least the end of August. In fact, he writes to his sister on July 5th saying, “we are all very anxious about reform”. (After past conversations about slavery, I’m sure that this is a subject that Darwin did not take up with Captain FitzRoy, as the two clearly sat on opposite sides of the political aisle.)

Prime Minister Charles Grey, the Second Earl Grey – who most American’s think is a tea – in 1828, by Sir Thomas Lawrence:

Earl Grey in 1828

Incidentally Earl Grey was the Prime Minister when Briton abolished slavery in 1833 – another reason Darwin liked the prime minister. (RJV)

PS – Piter Kehoma Boll, one of the authors of the blog Earthling Nature studies land planarian in southern Brazil.  He posted some info on his blog today about another flatworm species from the area – Luteostriata abundans. Be sure to check it out.

PSS – As I wrap up this evening, I find myself wondering how on Earth I just put Jerry Garcia, Charles Darwin, Mikhail Gorbachev, Earl Grey and a planarian in the same blog post?  That has got to be a first…


  1. As a “Dead Head” with a love for Science and Politics, I thank you.

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