Posted by: Rob Viens | November 5, 2013

Escape to Montevideo

After more than a week of radio silence, pinned down by the revolutionaries in Buenos Aires, Darwin once again wrote in his journal on November 2nd.  At long last he was escaping what he clearly saw as a “miserable” situation:

“With sufficient trouble got on board the Packet; found it crowded with men, women & children, glad to escape from so miserable a town.” (Nov 2)

He spent two more days on the crowded mail ship before arriving back in Uruguay.  For the first time since early August (about 3 months), Darwin was again reunited with the Beagle.  (He did briefly meet up with the ship in Bahia Blanco, but did not really do more than cross paths for a couple of days in late August.) He writes:

“After a long passage, arrived at M: Video; I went on board the Beagle: Was astonished to hear we were not to sail till the beginning of December: the cause of this great delay was the necessity of finishing all charts, the materials for which had been collected by the Schooners.” (Nov 3/4)

Even now though, Darwin did not move back on board. Instead he planned to take advantage of the additional month in Uruguay (what would turn out to be his last time in the country).  On November 5th he added:

“The poop-cabin being full of workers, I took up my residence on shore, so as to make the most of this additional month.” (Nov 5)

In the end, he would be away from the ship for a total of about 4 months – exploring the pampas by horseback, riverboat, and on foot. Conveniently avoiding seasickness to boot.

While cooped up in Buenos Aires, Darwin was able to get caught up on some letter writing.  He wrote to his sister Caroline (October 23), cousin William Darwin Fox (October 25), and friend Frederick William Hope (November 1).

Frederick Hope was one of Darwin’s bug collecting pals from Oxford – about 10 years Darwin’s senior. Like Fox (see My Dear Old Fox), Hope also went on to become a reverend – following the path that Darwin himself almost traveled.

Frederick William Hope

Frederick William Hope

Hope was an entomologist who became well known for his studies of beetles (Coleoptera).  In fact, one of his main contributions to the field was his three-volume Coleopterist’s Manual published between 1837 and 1840. (That is what Hope was busy working on while Darwin cruised the world). Recall that beetles were Darwin’s weakness, too (see An Inordinate Fondness for Beetles).

Frederick Hope went on to found the Department of Entomology at Oxford, where he eventually left his own extensive insect collections. His colleagues praised his skills, even comparing him to some of the great vertebrate zoologists:

“What Baron Cuvier and Professor Owen have been able to accomplish in the building up of a mammal, or a bird, or other animal from a single bone, Mr. Hope could do with a portion of a wing, or limb, or wing-case of an insect.” (Hope’s obituary in the Journal of the British Archeology Association)

Hope was also a collector of engravings – preferring  portraits, topography (maps?), and natural history subjects.  His collection included almost a quarter million engravings!

Reverend Frederick Hope passed away on April 15, 1862 – a few years after the publication of Darwin’s famous little book on species.

In the letter written on November 1st, it is not surprising that the conversation turned to insects.  Among the mention of several specific species, here are a few highlights of their “beetle talk”:

“The Beagle for the last year has been cruizing either amongst the islands of Tierra del Fuego or on the barren coast of Patagonia.— Both these regions are most singularly unfavourable to the insect world:— In Tierra del I captured several Alpine Carabidous beetles, & one Carabus: & on the sandy desarts of the latter country, there are many of the Heteromeri.— But these in absolute numbers are not to be compared to the booty in one of your Achilles-like onsets. Before we came to these Southern regions inhospitable to Entomologists & Insects, I did pretty well amongst the Coleoptera.— I often thought of you, when sweeping the rich vegetation of the Tropics I captured the smaller Coleoptera by hundreds.”

“I shall bring home a very great number of undescribed species both from Brazil & the Rio Plata.— It may be a foolish fear, but I often wonder, if any person will be found who will describe so many minute insects. This fear is rather a drawback in my collecting.” (Correspondence with Frederick Hope, 1 November 1833)

Darwin signs off with a toast that he was known to have used among entomologist friends in London and a request for more information on the “scientific world”:

Floreat Entomologia —  I shall much enjoy some scientifico-entomologico-Gossip.”

Before I forget – although I doubt any intentional bonfires were burning in the restless capital city of Uruguay – Happy Guy Fawkes Day Darwin! (To “remember, remember the 5th of November” take a look at Dancing with Darwin around the Bonfire.) (RJV)

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