Posted by: Rob Viens | August 29, 2012

Reflections on Wales, 29 August 1831

Today, August 29th, Darwin reflected on where he was one year ago today – the day he received the letter asking if he wanted to join a voyage to South America.  His writing style brings out his emotion:

“The morning was thick with rain: but in the afternoon in spite of the remaining swell, some miles of the coast were traced.— at night the weather looked dirty & we have stood out to sea.— This day last year I arrived home from N. Wales & first heard of this Voyage.— During the week it has often struck me how different was my situation & views then to what they are at present: it is amusing to imagine my surprise, if anybody on the mountains of Wales had whispered to me, this day next year you will be beating off the coast of Patagonia:— And yet how common & natural an occurrence it now appears to me.— Nothing has made so vivid an impression on my mind as those days of painful uncertainty: the clearness with which I recollect the most minute particulars, gives to the period of an year the appearance of far shorter duration.— But if I pause & in my mind pass from month to month, the time fully grows proportional to the many things which have happened in it.” (Aug 29)

I’ve written before about how Darwin was offered the position (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I for the story and the “offer letter” he received a year ago today). As he notes above, Darwin had been in the field in August of last year – on a geology trip with Adam Sedgwick. Darwin was on the trip at the recommendation of his mentor John Henslow, and it seemed to have been a very positive experience for him – a perfect lead up to his much longer voyage.  He writes of the experience:

“This tour was of decided use in teaching me a little how to make out the geology of a country. Sedgwick often sent me on a line parallel to his, telling me to bring back specimens of the rocks and to mark the stratification on a map. I have little doubt that he did this for my good, as I was too ignorant to have aided him. On this tour I had a striking instance how easy it is to overlook phenomena, however conspicuous, before they have been observed by anyone.” (Autobiography)

Adam Sedgwick:

Portrait of Adam Sedgwick

Sedgwick is credited with telling his students, “I cannot promise to teach you all geology, I can only fire your imaginations”. Clearly the bonfire was burning bright in young Mr. Darwin. He summarizes one of the lessons he learned from Sedgwick in his Autobiography:

“Nothing before had ever made me thoroughly realise, though I had read various scientific books, that science consists in grouping facts so that general laws or conclusions may be drawn from them.” (Autobiography)

After the field trip Darwin returned home with only a couple of things on his mind – visiting with friends and partridge-shooting. Little did he expect a letter waiting that would change his life.  He writes:

“At Capel Curig I left Sedgwick and went in a straight line by compass and map across the mountains to Barmouth, never following any track unless it coincided with my course. I thus came on some strange wild places and enjoyed much this manner of travelling. I visited Barmouth to see some Cambridge friends who were reading there, and thence returned to Shrewsbury and to Maer for shooting; for at that time I should have thought myself mad to give up the first days of partridge-shooting for geology or any other science.” (Autobiography)

I notice that in 1832 when writing his diary entry, Darwin had pretty much forgotten that it was partridge season. (RJV)


  1. A scientist in the making…

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