Posted by: Rob Viens | December 25, 2013

Christmas in Port Desire

On the 23rd of December the Beagle arrived in Port Desire.  More on the town itself soon, but for today I just wanted to wish everyone a Happy Christmas and share Darwin’s holiday festivities in 1833.

Men worked hard in the Royal Navy and rarely had time off, but Christmas was an exception. It was a tradition for sailors to have the day off to play games, do as they pleased and frequently to get drunk.  If you recall, the Beagle would have left England on the 26th of December, but to many seamen where drunk from Christmas festivities – much to their dismay when the captain as forced to punish them for their conduct (see Stuck in Plymouth with Books, Drunken Sailors and the Rambling Blues). This year, however, the crew was in a remote port without a tavern in sight, so they resorted to another “traditionally male” form of enjoyment – a sports competition!

Darwin described these “Olympic games” in his diary:

“After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can.” (Dec 25)

Conrad Martens also captured the events in his drawing called Slinging the Monkey, Port Desirem Decr 25 1833:

Conrad Martens painting – Slinging the Monkey

Slinging the Monkey was a game enjoyed by sailors since at least the 16th century. Below are the rules of the game, in case you want to play along with Darwin.  This is a direct quote from Navy Songs – a site dedicated to preserving Royal Navy Songs (and some associated games).


  • Rope tied to the cross trees, with sufficient length to allow it to be tied (Bowline loop), around the chest of the Monkey.
  • The Monkey,( one of your messmates), must be able to touch the ground comfortably beneath the spar, so that by adjusting the rope length he can launch himself out into space, with some vigour and swing around to capture or mark one of the players.
  • The cross tree is to be of sufficient height to enable the Monkey to articulate his movements and swings outwards from this home circle, beneath the spar.
  • Piece of chalk by which the Monkey can mark his opponents.
  • Knotted Hankerchiefs to baste the Monkey, and thus score points.


To Play The Game

  • In concept this game is somewhat familiar to the childhood game of ‘Piggy in the Middle’ but more vigourous and skillful.
  • The monkey is chosen by lot, to take his place in the bowline loop, of the rope.
  • The loop hangs over a circle on the ground, into which his opponents cannot enter or crowd, if they do they become the Monkey.
  • The Monkey, is armed with a chalk to mark his opponents, if he suceeds he is instantly released and the other takes his place as monkey.
  • An active monkey, can be very difficult to approach with safety, whilst his opponents can produce quite a sting with their basting.
  • A monkey is at risk of becoming disoriented and so must make his score quickly, whilst it is understood that with players who don’t mind a little buffeting can make for a very lively game.
  • Obviously a weary monkey, can be pushed or buffeted around and around, before a lucky stab ends his misery. But a skilled antagonist can quickly, use the rope and his safety circle to great advantage.
  • One of the more effective ruses is to throw yourself forward on the rope to pretend you are making in one direction, but use that momentum to swing back in a loop to score on your opponent behind.

Jump to Christmas 2013 and here I sit with a Darwin ornament hanging on my Christmas tree*.

Darwin Christmas orniment

What on Earth would Darwin have said if someone told him in 1833 that his head would be hanging on a Christmas tree in 2013?  I can’t even begin to imagine … (RJV)

*A gift from my lovely wife who knows how much a like everything Darwin…produced by Archie McPhee’s in Seattle (if you want your very own). As their site says, “You can have one of your intellectual heroes hanging on your tree while everyone else thinks it’s Santa Claus.”


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