Posted by: Rob Viens | August 20, 2012

Elementary, My Dear Watkins

The next few days see some fairly routine entries in Darwin’s diary – mostly dealing with general comments about the survey work.  Today, August 20th, he notes:

“In the afternoon we anchored 8 miles off Point Piedras on the Southern shore of the river.— At this distance there were only 18 feet water.— The Captain intends at present verifying the leading points in the coast.— The Spaniards on shore having already filled up the details.— Any minute knowledge of an almost uninhabited coast where shipping cannot approach, will never be of any great value.” (Aug 20)

Along with the boxes of specimen’s Darwin sent off yesterday, he also sent a letter to his friend Frederick Watkins.  Watkins was a friend of Darwin’s from Cambridge – one of the “wild bunch” who were all studying for the clergy. Watkins spent the bulk of his career (1841-1873) in the role of Her Majesties Inspector of Schools (HMI). In 1832, at the time of Darwin’s letter, there was no state system of education in England.  In 1839, the Parliament decided it was not going to grant money to education without the ability to inspect and assess the performance of a school. And thus, the first HMI was appointed in 1840 Interestingly, this implies that Watkins was one of the first to fill the role. (This is not a single position  – one sources notes that during Watkins tenure in the role the number of HMI’s went from 2 (1840) to 23 (1846) to 166 (1871).)

Down House – Darwin’s home for most of his later life (from Wikipedia Commons)

Down House

Anyway….I thought I’d share a few thoughts that Darwin sent to his friend Watkins on the Packet Emulous this week in 1832. All of the quotes are from Darwin’s Correspondence to Frederick Watkins, 18 August 1832.  Feel free to follow the link above to read the entire letter. I’ve just extracted a few parts that reflect the flavor of the letter and show more of Darwin’s witty prose.

“In the different countries we visit the entire newness and difference from England only serves to make more keen the recollection of its scenes & delights. In consequence the pleasure of thinking of & hearing from ones former friends does indeed become great— Recollect this & some long winters evening sit down & send me a long account of yourself & our friends; both what you have, & what intend doing; otherwise in 3 or 4 more years when I return you will be all strangers to me.”

“We staid three weeks at the Cape de Verds, it was no ordinary pleasure rambling over the plains of Lava under a Tropical sun but when I first entered on and beheld the luxuriant vegetation in Brazil it was realising the visions in the Arabian nights— The brilliancy of the Scenery throws one into a delirium of delight and a Beetle hunter is not likely soon to awaken from it, when whichever way he turns fresh treasures meet his eye.”

“To seat oneself amidst the gloom of such a forest on a decaying trunk, and then think of home, is a pleasure worth taking some trouble for— We are at present in a much less interesting country— One single walk over the undulatory turf plain shows every thing which is to be seen.”

“All S. America is in such an unsettled state that we have not entered one port without some sort of disturbance— At Buenos Ayres, a shot came whistling over our heads; it is a noise I had never before heard, but I found I had an instinctive knowledge of what it meant. The other day we landed our men here & took possession at the request of the inhabitants of the central fort. We Philosophers do not bargain for this sort of work and I hope there will be no more.”

“If you were to meet me at present I certainly should be looked at like a wild beast, a great grisly beard and flushing jacket would disfigure an angel.”

Throughout the letter there is a regular reference to returning home to see friends.  I imagine it was about that time in the trip that Darwin was getting a little bit homesick again … especially in such “uninteresting country”. (RJV)


  1. Thanks for the excerpts of Darwin’s writing…quite an enjoyable read!

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