Posted by: Rob Viens | March 5, 2013

“An Air of Extreme Desolation” in the Falkland Islands

On March 1st, the Beagle arrived at it latest destination – Port Louis in the Falkland Islands. In 1833, Darwin and the crew spent about a month in the islands surveying the coast. So I’ll have some time to share a little bit about the history of the islands – both human and natural.  But for today, let me just share a little of the general geography of the islands and let Darwin’s first thoughts speak for themselves.

The Falklands are a group of islands located on the continental shelf about 300 miles (~500 km) from the coastline of South America. They consist of two large islands (simply named West Falkland and East Falkland) separated by Falkland Sound. Along with the two large landmasses, the archipelago is also peppered with over 750 smaller islands and islets (which have much more creative names than the big islands).  The terrain consists of flat plains in the southeast and mountainous areas (with the highest peaks at about 2200 ft / 700 m) covering much of the remaining islands. All of the small islands, as well as the major inlets along the coast, create a significant amount of coastline (2200 miles/3500 km) compared to the overall area of the Falkland Islands.

Today the capital city (located on East Falkland) is the port city of Stanley, however, in Darwin’s time, the only major settlement was located in Port Louis – located on the northern shore of Berkeley Sound (just north of present-day Stanley). Interestingly, you will also see that out young hero left his own legacy in the islands.  In the middle of East Falkland on the map below you can find the town of Darwin. (OK – to be fair, it’s small size probably suggests we should just call it a “settlement”.)

Map of the Falklands – click to see a larger version of the map (from Wikipedia Commons)

Falkland Islands

Darwin seemed to have been fascinated with the presence of Englishmen and used most of his diary entry on this day to describe the population of the islands.  Here are his first impressions:

“We arrived early in the morning at Port Louis, the most Eastern point of the Falkland Islands. The first news we received was to our astonishment, that England had taken possession of the Falklands Islands & that the Flag was now flying.— These Islands have been for some time uninhabited, untill the Buenos Ayres Government, a few years since claimed them & sent some colonists.— Our government remonstrated against this, & last month the Clio arrived here with orders to take possession of the place.— A Buenos ayrean man of war was here at the time, with some fresh colonists.— Both they & the vessel returned to the Rio Plata.— The present inhabitants consist of one Englishman, who has resided here for some years, & has now the charge of the British Flag, 20 Spaniards & three women, two of whom are negresses.— The island is abundantly stocked with animals.— there are about 5000 wild oxen, many horses, & pigs.— Wild fowl, rabbits, & fish in the greatest plenty.— Europæan vegetables will grow.— And as there is an abundance of water & good anchorage; it is most surprising that it has not been long ago colonized, in order to afford provisions for Ships going round the Horn.— At present it is only frequented by Whalers, one of which is here now.” (Mar 1)

He continues the next day with a short thought about the “spread” of Englishmen around the world:

“Mr Dixon, the English resident, came on board.— What a strange solitary life his must be: it is surprising to see how Englishmen find their way to every corner of the globe. I do not suppose there is an inhabited & civilized place where they are not to be found.” (Mar 2)

Darwin’s Mr. Dixon was William Dixon – a Dubliner who had settled in the Falklands and had been asked to represent the British presence in the islands (by “flying the flag”). These  were contentious and dangerous times in the Falklands, as several nations argued over who was in charge. In fact, Dixon died later that same year (August 1833) along with 4 others, in what are referred to as the Gaucho Murders.

When he finally gets out and is able to walk around, Darwin’s first impressions of the island paint a “dreary” picture:

“Took a long walk; this side of the Island is very dreary: the land is low & undulating with stony peaks & bare ridges; it is universally covered by a brown, wiry grass, which grows on the peat.— In this tract, very few plants are found, & excepting snipes & rabbits scarcely any animals.— The whole landscape from the uniformity of the brown color, has an air of extreme desolation.” (Mar 3)

Stay tuned to find out if his explorations uncover anything less “brown”…(RJV)

PS – Check this out – in an interesting coincidence, a study on Darwin and the Falkland Island wolf was released today in Nature Communications. Here is a brief summary of the article in the Huffington Post – Falklands Wolf DNA Helps Explain How Extinct Predator Reached Remote Islands.


  1. Thanks Rob! Is there any “air of desolation” you’re experiencing yourself from working so hard on these hiring committees?

    • Well….I think I’d rather be visiting the Falklands… But I can’t really call it desolate – something is always going on 🙂 Thanks Jennie!

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