Posted by: Rob Viens | December 17, 2012

Stranger in a Strange Land: First Impressions

December 17th saw Darwin traveling to the southeastern tip of Tierra del Fuego.  His diary entry reads like a an old adventure novel, filled with the wonder of exploration. So today, I’ll let Darwin’s first impressions of the “Land of Fire” carry the day. He starts with the night before – anchored near San Sebastian:

“The Ship rolled so much during the night from the exposed anchorage, that there was no comfort to be obtained.— At daylight which is about 3 oclock we got under weigh & with a fair breeze stood down the coast. At Port St Policarpo, the features of the country are changed.— high hills clothed in brownish woods take the place of the horizontal formations.— A little after noon we doubled C. St. Diego & entered the famous Straits Le Maire.” (Dec 17)

Map of Tierra del Fuego showing points of interest mentioned in Darwin’s diary today (modified from Google Maps):

Tierra del Fuego Dec 17 1932

The Beagle was clearly making good time, though the dangers of the southern ocean began to become evident:

“We had a strong wind with the tide; but even thus favoured it was easy to perceive how great a sea would rise were the two powers opposed to each other.— The motion from such a sea is very disagreeable; it is called “pot-boiling”, & as water boiling breaks irregularly over the ships sides.— We kept close to the Fuegian shore; the outline of the rugged inhospitable Staten Land was visible amidst the clouds.— In the afternoon we anchored in the bay of Good Success, here we intend staying some days.” (Dec 17)

Darwin’s arrival did not go without notice to the locals:

“In doubling the Northern entrance, a party of Fuegians were watching us, they were perched on a wild peak overhanging the sea & surrounded by wood.— As we passed by they all sprang up & waving their cloaks of skins sent forth a loud sonorous shout.— this they continued for a long time.— These people followed the ship up the harbor & just before dark we again heard their cry & soon saw their fire at the entrance of the Wigwam which they built for the night.” (Dec 17)

Darwin excitement of being in a new land becomes evident as he continued to describe the landscape – especially as he compared it to home.  In addition, you can almost feel the thrill he experienced as he realize how closely he was following in the footsteps of the man who started the tradition of the naval scientist. THis, of course, was the captain who sailed around the world (and ultimately gave his life) in the name of the crown and scientific discovery – James Cook.

“After dinner the Captain went on shore to look for a watering place; the little I then saw showed how different this country is from the corresponding zone in the Northern Hemisphere.— To me it is delightful being at anchor in so wild a country as Tierra del F.; the very name of the harbor we are now in, recalls the idea of a voyage of discovery; more especially as it is memorable from being the first place Capt. Cook anchored in on this coast; & from the accidents which happened to Mr Banks & Dr Solander. The harbor of Good Success is a fine piece of water & surrounded on all sides by low mountains of slate.— These are of the usual rounded or saddle-backed shape, such as occur in the less wild parts of N: Wales.— They differ remarkably from the latter in being clothed by a very thick wood of evergreens almost to the summit. The last time Cap. FitzRoy was here it was in winter; he says the landscape was of the same brownish green tint & but little more snow on the hills.” (Dec 17)

Unfortunately Cook’s men had an accident while exploring around the bay which resulted in the death of two men.  Not really a “good success”…

Lastly Darwin leaves us with the visceral experience of a good storm. In the past year, the naturalist has been stuck in his share of bad weather – often getting soaked in the process.  However, there is nothing like listening in a storm going on outside – all the while knowing you are safe and dry inside.  It reminds me the soothing nature of rain on a tent after a long and productive day:

“The Barometer had been very low & this evening it suddenly rose 3/10 of an inch, & now at night it is blowing a gale of wind & rain & heavy squalls sweep down upon us from the mountains: Those who know the comfortable feeling of hearing the rain & wind beating against the windows whilst seated round a fire, will understand our feelings: it would have been a very bad night out at sea, & we as well as others may call this Good Success Bay.” (Dec 17)



  1. […] Bay of Good Success, where Darwin had first set foot in Tierra del Fuego two months earlier (see Stranger in a Strange Land: First Impressions).  While in the bay, he had a chance to again climb Banks […]

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