Posted by: Rob Viens | August 5, 2012

A Good Man Goes to War II – A Man of Action

On Darwin’s first day in Montevideo the Beagle was used as a show of force.  A few days later, the Beagle was fired upon by an Argentinean ship (granted, for entirely different reasons).  Now back in Montevideo, on August 5th, the Beagle crew was asked to come ashore and help quell an insurrection.  If there was ever an image that broke all stereotypes of Charles Darwin, it has to be Darwin joining a force of armed men to keep the peace. Charles writes:

“This has been an eventful day in the history of the Beagle.— At 10 oclock in the morning the Minister for the present military government came on board & begged for assistance against a serious insurrection of some black troops.— Cap FitzRoy immediately went ashore to ascertain whether it was a party affair, or that the inhabitants were really in danger of having their houses ransacked.— The head of the Police (Damas) has continued in power through both governments, & is considered as entirely neutral; being applied to, he gave it as his opinion that it would be doing a service to the state to land our force.” (Aug 5)

The Beagle crew, after all, was part of the Royal Navy.  So even though their mission was to survey the coast, when duty called it was their job to take action.  Darwin continues:

“Whilst this was going on ashore, the Americans landed their boats & occupied the Custom house.— Immediately the Captain arrived at the mole, he made us the signal to hoist out & man our boats. In a very few minutes, the Yawl, Cutter, Whaleboat & Gig were ready with 52 men heavily armed with Muskets, Cutlasses & Pistols. After waiting some time on the pier Signor Dumas arrived & we marched to a central fort, the seat of government.” (Aug 5)

I want to point out Darwin says “we” here. I’m sure that he had the option to stay on the ship, but instead he chose to be part of the “troops” headed to town. He clearly felt a part of the crew. This is not the Darwin most people know.

The Mole at Montevideo by Augustus Earle (1832):

Mole at Montevideo

Darwin clearly saw this as a potentially dangerous undertaking based on what he knew of the situation:

“During this time the insurgents had planted artillery to command some of the streets, but otherwise remained quiet. They had previously broken open the Prison & armed the prisoners.— The chief cause of apprehension was owing to their being in possession of the citadel which contains all the ammunition.— It is suspected that all this disturbance is owing to the mæneuvering of the former constitutional government.— But the politicks of the place are quite unintelligible: it has always been said that the interests of the soldiers & the present government are identical.—& now it would seem to be the reverse.— Capt. FitzRoy would have nothing to do with all this: he would only remain to see that private property was not attacked.— If the National band were not rank cowards, they might at once seize the citadel & finish the business; instead of this, they prefer protecting themselves in the fortress of St. Lucia.” (Aug 5)

Once on the ground things seemed pretty mild as the troops waited and Darwin munched on beef jerky. And after a lot of waiting around, he returned to the Beagle while most of the crew spent the night in the city. The Beagle, however, was also prepared for action in the event the troops tried to take the ship.

“Whilst the different parties were trying to negociate matters, we remained at our station & amused ourselves by cooking beefsteaks in the Courtyard.— At sun-set the boats were sent on board & one returned with warm clothing for the men to bivouac during the night.— As I had a bad headache, I also came & remained on board.— The few left in the Ship under the command of Mr Chaffers have been the most busily engaged of the whole crew.— They have triced up the Boarding netting, loaded & pointed the guns.—& cleared for action.— We are now at night in a high state of preparation so as to make the best defence possible, if the Beagle should be attacked.— To obtain ammunition could be the only possible motive.” (Aug 5)

No doubt it was a restless night for Darwin as he hung from his hammock in the poop cabin. (RJV)


  1. […] On the 23rd and 24th of November Darwin was out of the fields and swamps and back fulfilling social obligations.  On Friday night he attended a ball celebrating the inauguration of the president of Uruguay (the very same president Darwin helped during a recent uprising (see A Good Man Goes to War II – A Man of Action)). […]

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