Posted by: Rob Viens | August 19, 2012

Via Packet to England

On August 19th the Beagle continued to deal with unpleasant weather conditions.  I’m not sure if it is the time of the year that is so bad or if this is typical weather all year on the Río de la Plata.  But between the weather and the shallow, muddy water, it is no wonder that there are so many wrecks in the estuary.  Darwin describes the conditions today:

“In the morning there was a fresh breeze from the NW—A wind in this direction soon emptys the river; at night we had 18 feet under our stern, in the morning only 13: From this cause, independently of intending to sail in the course of the day, it was advisable to move our anchorage.— The instant we had tripped our anchor the wind drifted us within a few yards of the buoy which marks the old wreck. Then is the time to watch sailors working: one foul rope & we should have been on shore.— The sailors in the city were saying, A dios Barca Inglese, A Dios.— A merchant ship certainly would have had no chance of escaping: but with our body of men it is the work of a second to set sail & get way on the ship. This has been for me the first specimen of working off a lee-shore with a stiff breeze blowing.— During the morning we tacked about, waiting for the weather to moderate & at last again anchored.” (Aug 19)

Later that day, Darwin sent a bunch of materials to England via the Packet Emulous (commanded by a Capt. Cooke). (Recall that Packets are effectively fast sailing mail carriers (see Mail Trucks and Flying Fish.) In his diary he notes:

“In the afternoon we sent on board the Packet some parcels &c & my box of specimens, & the boats returning from the shore, we made sail.” (Aug 19)

Falmouth Packet Service (from

Packet ship

The specimens are addressed to Darwin’s mentor John Henslow who agreed to accept and hold Darwin’s samples. Darwin was very grateful for his help, noting:

“When I left England.—I was not fully aware how essential a kindness you offered me, when you undertook to receive my boxes.— I do not know what I should do without such head-quarters.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832)

This particular letter to Henslow, which was attached to the specimen boxes, also describes some of their content – in true apologetic Darwin style. He covers a number of items including:


“And now for an apologetical prose about my collection.— I am afraid you will say it is very small.—but I have not been idle & you must recollect that in lower tribes, what a very small show hundreds of species make.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832)


“The box contains a good many geological specimens.— I am well aware that the greater number are too small.— But I maintain that no person has a right to accuse me, till he has tried carrying rocks under a Tropical sun.— I have endeavoured to get specimens of every variety of rock, & have written notes upon all.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832)

Samples from the Beagle voyage at the Sedgwick Museum (from their website)

Packet ship


“As for my Plants, “pudet pigetque mihi”. All I can say is that when objects are present which I can observe & particularize about, I cannot summon resolution to collect where I know nothing.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832) The quote apparently translate as “to my shame and disgust”.

Collecting in the Forest:

“It is positively distressing, to walk in the glorious forest, amidst such treasures, & feel they are all thrown away upon one. …  I made an enormous collection of Arachnidæ at Rio.— Also a good many small beetles in pill-boxes; but it is not the best time of year for the latter.— As I have only 3⁄4 of a case of Diptera &c I have not sent them.— Amongst the lower animals, nothing has so much interested me as finding 2 species of elegantly coloured true Planariæ, inhabiting the dry forest! … I expect great interest in scouring over the plains of M Video, yet I look back with regret to the Tropics, that magic line to all Naturalists.— The delight of sitting on a decaying trunk amidst the quiet gloom of the forest is unspeakable & never to be forgotten.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832)

Initial Excursions in Montevideo:

“We have been here (Monte Video) for some time; but owing to bad weather & continual fighting on shore have scarcely ever been able to walk in the country.— I have collected during the last month nothing.— But to day I have been out & returned like Noahs ark.—with animals of all sorts.— I have to day to my astonishment found 2 Planariæ living under dry stones. Ask L Jenyns if he has ever heard of this fact. I also found a most curious snail & Spiders, beetles, snakes, scorpions ad libitum And to conclude shot a Cavia weighing a cwt.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832)

Along with notes about the specimens in the boxes, Darwin also shares his excitement (and fears) about the coming adventures in southern waters:

“On Friday we sail for the Rio Negro, & then will commence our real wild work.— I look forward with dread to the wet stormy regions of the South.— But after so much pleasure I must put up with some sea-sickness & misery.” (Correspondence to John Henslow, 15 August 1832)

While Darwin’s specimen’s began their journey to the north, the Beagle set out to the southern shores of the Río de la Plata to do a little survey work.  More on that tomorrow… (RJV)

PS – Here is the link to the entire letter to Henslow via the Darwin Correspondence Project for those who want to read more.

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