Posted by: Rob Viens | July 16, 2012

The Gales of St. Martha

Even with the discomfort of seasickness, Darwin maintained some sense of humor.  On July 16th he wrote:

“There was a good deal of sea up & I in consequence, with my spirits a good deal down.” (July 16)

Based on the knowledge of the more experienced crewmates, Darwin was aware of the fact that this particular region of the coast was known for its high winds, so the unpleasant seas where not a surprise.  Just yesterday he wrote:

“We are about 80 miles from the Morro de St Martha.— It is a curious fact, that often as the different officers have passed this point they have always met a gale.— The Beagle, on her return to England from the last expedition, experienced the heaviest she had had during the whole time.” (July 15)

FitzRoy had a few things to add to his experience regarding this stretch of coast. I thought I’d use today’s post to share a few excerpts from his Narrative.

In these first two quotes, FitzRoy sounds like he was on retainer for the Brazilian tourist bureau.

Praise for Isla Santa Catarina and the city of Florianopolis in southern Brazil.

 “Having mentioned Santa Catharina, I may as well add a few words to the many lavished in its praise by voyagers of all nations; for it is, excepting Rio de Janeiro, and perhaps Bahia, the best trading port on the east coast of South America; and, considering its situation, capabilities, and productions, is a place in which seamen must always have an interest. It enjoys the advantages of a temperate climate; an extensive and accessible harbour; a most fertile country, abounding in the necessaries of life; and a mercantile position of much importance. The people are more inclined to exert themselves than those in northern Brazil; a difference arising partly, no doubt, from effect of climate; but chiefly from their having descended from active and enterprising, though lawless settlers, who were ejected from other places; and from a few respectable colonists induced to emigrate from the Azores.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)

On Santos, Brazil (located roughly half way between Rio and Florianopolis):

“Before I quit the neighbourhood of frequented ports on this coast, one possessing peculiar interest, Santos, ought to be mentioned; to remind seamen that they may there also obtain any refreshments, and secure their ships in a sheltered creek, quite easy of access. For several leagues round Santos there is an extensive flat, covered with thick woods, but intersected by rivers and salt water inlets, whose banks are lined with thickets of mangrove trees. Inland a mountain range abruptly rises to the height of two or three thousand feet, every where clothed with almost impenetrable forests. The climate is, however, unhealthy in December, January, and February; and during the whole year there is a great deal of rain.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)

Santos, São Paulo (from Wikipedia Commons)

Santos, Sao Paulo

Other entries read more like a meteorological notebook. This is not a surprise (nor is it uncommon in his Narrative) as FitzRoy spent his life collecting data and looking to better understand weather patterns. His thought (and it was a good one) is that if you could predict the weather you could prevent major maritime disasters and loss of life at sea. (More on this aspect of FitzRoy’s life in a later post.)

Regarding the high winds found at this latitude (and his concern for the impact on the chronometers):

“Off Santa Martha, a sort of Cape Spartivento, near which one rarely passes without having a change of wind, if not a storm, we were detained by strong southerly gales, which raised a high sea. This extreme movement and delay I regretted much at the time, on account of the chronometers; but the sequel shewed that such motion did not affect them materially, and that alterations of their rates were caused chiefly, if not entirely, by changes of temperature.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)

On the local weather patterns:

“Gales in the latitude of Santa Martha generally commence with north-westerly winds, thick cloudy weather, rain, and lightning. When at their height, the barometer begins to rise (having previously fallen considerably), soon after which the wind flies round, by the west, to south-west, and from that quarter usually blows very hard for several hours. But these, which are the ordinary gales, blow from, or along the land, and do not often raise such a sea as is sometimes found off this coast during a south-east storm.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)

On temperature changes:

“While sailing along the level uninteresting coast just mentioned, with a fresh breeze off the land, we found it bitterly cold, though the thermometer never was below 40°. Faht: so much does our perception of heat or cold depend upon comparison. Some of our exaggerated opinions as to the coldness of the southern hemisphere may have arisen from the circumstances under which voyagers usually visit high southern latitudes, immediately after enduring the heat of the tropics, and without staying long enough to ascertain the real average temperature during a whole year.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)


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