Posted by: Rob Viens | June 30, 2013

Darwin’s Apprentice – Syms Covington

As the middle of June rolled around, life was pretty routine for our young naturalist.  He writes:

“My time passes precisely in the same manner as the last 3 weeks. My collection of the birds & quadrupeds of this place is becoming very perfect. — A few Reales has enlisted all the boys in the town in my service; & few days pass, in which they do not bring me some curious creature.” (June 11-19)

It was not uncommon for Darwin to hire local boys to go out and collect samples for him.  This tradition started back home, where he would pay undergraduates to collect for him – sometimes scouring the docks for exotic stowaways that came in on the ships.

In June, Darwin decided to formalize this habit by taking on an assistant of his own – Syms Covington.  (Syms had been on the voyage since the beginning – being listed in the Beagle logs simply as “fiddler and boy to the Poop-cabin”.) Of course, before he could take on an assistant, Darwin needed to be able to pay him. So that meant asking dad for a little bit more money – only about £60 a year:

“The following business piece is to my Father: having a servant of my own would be a really great addition to my comfort.—for these two reasons; as at present, the Captain has appointed one of the men always to be with me.—but I do not think it just thus to take a seaman out of the ship:—& 2d when at sea, I am rather badly off for anyone to wait on me.— The man is willing to be my servant & all the expences would be under sixty £ per annum.— I have taught him to shoot & skin birds, so that in my main object he is very useful.— I have now left England nearly 1 & 12 years: & I find my expences are not above 200£ per annum:—so that it being hopeless from time to write for permission I have come to the conclusion you would allow me this expense.— But I have not yet resolved to ask the Captain: & the chances are even that he would not be willing to have an additional man in the ship.— I have mentioned this because for a long time I have been thinking about it.” (Correspondence to Catherine Darwin, May 22-July 14)

Just a reminder – if you put £60 in an inflation calculator it translates to about £6000 today.  That is in the range of about $9,000 a year. Fortunately, in a later letter, Darwin writes to tell his father that it was only going to be about half of that.  Still, it clearly showed that Darwin was not wanting for money.

Syms Covington:


Syms Covington was born in Bedford England in 1816, making about 15 years old when the Beagle departed in 1831. Around this time in 1833, FitzRoy agreed to turn him over to be Darwin’s “manservant”, as long as Darwin took on some of his expenses.  It appears that Syms had already been working with Darwin on some of his collecting trips (not that you could tell from Darwin’s journals, where is has yet to be mentioned). Syms traveled with Darwin, and helped to collect, catalog and prepare samples for transport. He would remain Darwin’s assistant for the rest of the journey and for several years after their return to England.

In 1839 Syms left Darwin’s service and emigrated to Australia where he married Eliza Twyford.  He worked as a clerk, served as the Postmaster of Pambula, and later opened the Forest Oak Inn. Syms and Charles remained in contact for the rest of their lives.  Not only did they correspond, but Syms continued to send Darwin samples, including Australia barnacles. Syms died in 1861 at the young age of 47.

You can read Syms journal from the voyage of the Beagle (which is far shorter than Darwin’s) online.

Darwin ends the day’s entry with a short update on the work being done on the Beagle:

“The progress with the Schooner has hitherto been very slow; but if the present fine weather lasts, another week will complete the coppering. — To day I returned from paying a visit to the vessel in order to see Mr Wickham after his return from the South. — The Beagle is in such a state of bustle, that I am sure I am for the present in the best quarters. (June 11-19)

It would not be long before Darwin left the “quiet life” in Uruguay and headed south for new adventures. (RJV)

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