Sunday, February 6, 2011

Tracing Darwin

On 27th December 1831, the HMS Beagle set sail from the UK on a journey that would ignite a change in the way we view the human race forever. Led by Captain Robert FitzRoy, the Beagle's primary objective was to continue the work of its last expedition in conducting a hydrographic survey of southern South America.

FitzRoy had been known to suffer from bouts of depression (a disease that would eventually lead to his death in 1865) and it was partially to help counter this that he invited a naturalist to join the crew to make observations on the creatures and geology of Patagonia. The young scientist would be FitzRoy's equal in rank and keep him company with lively intellectual debates.

The naturalist chosen was the 22 year old Charles Darwin.

Darwin's observations led to the publication that is the source of all modern evolutionary theory, 'On the Origin of Species', the contents of which drove a wedge between himself and FitzRoy who never accepted the idea.

Also aboard the Beagle were three indigenous people from the southernmost tip of South America, Tierra del Fuego. The Beagle had 'collected' these individuals (possibly rather unintentionally) during its first voyage around the coast and had brought them to the UK to be educated. The plan was now to return the Fuegians to their former home accompanied by missionary Richard Matthews, to start the bulk enlightenment of the Yaghan natives in Christian and British ways.

The only real suspense in this tale is how long this took to fail. The answer to that is nine days.

After that time, all three Fuegians had returned to their former (undoubtedly country appropriate) habits and Richard Matthews begged transport back on the Beagle.

It was reading a fictional account of this journey in 'This Thing of Darkness' by Harry Thomas that had led me to suggest this trip south. I was therefore VERY EXCITED(TM) to touch down in Ushuaia and see the Beagle Channel for the first time.

Ushuaia's claim as the southernmost city in the world makes it a tourist town, with much of its human traffic passing through on cruises to the Falkland Islands (sorry, sorry, in my current location I naturally mean 'Islas Malvinas') and Antarctica. Its port, however, is on the banks of the Beagle Channel, named by FitzRoy as he recorded its location on the first voyage to Tierra del Fuego.

While a catamaran might not have been an exact replica of the HMS Beagle, it was a pretty good alternative. We hopped onboard to cruise down the Beagle Channel and see the local sea life. I stood on the metal bridge linking the two hulls and pretended I was captain.

Then a huge wave swamped me and I was forced to beat a tactical retreat.

I should mention that even though February is the height of summer for Patagonia, the weather isn't super warm, hovering around the mid-teens in centigrade. We were extremely lucky that we had a series of clear, dry days (although the latter was now rather academic for me) even though the forecast had predicted rain.

The wildlife was spectacular and apparently completely unconcerned by the presence of a large boat full of pointing people. We saw islands of cormorants --declared 'fake penguins' by our tour guide due to their black and white colour-- and sea lions as well as real penguins that bounced out of the water while swimming in a similar manner to dolphins.

Our cruise ended at the small farmstead of one of the first successful missionaries, Thomas Bridges, who settled and raised his family there later in the 1800s. Part of the site is a small museum displaying the skeletons of sea mammals. It is run by a marine research team that is based in Ushuaia and it was possible to visit the shed where the bones were being cleaned.

This delightful job appeared to be a task for graduate students.

One of the most amazing sights in the museum was the comparison of the skeletons of a specked porpoise and a leopard seal. While the porpoise's tail consisted of the expected single line of bone, the seal had two separate limbs contained within the tail (bottom right image). It was amazingly human-esque and a beautiful example of a half-way step in evolution, from land animal to sea animal.

While it is true that FitzRoy was not greeted by a seaside town selling stone penguins (in fact, he was greeted by Fuegians who stole his boat), the landscape of the area would have changed little since the Beagle's journey. I woke up in the night to hear the wind howling down the mountains and turning the channel into a continuous crash of white crested peaks.

It was around then that I concluded that a hotel room in a tourist town was probably as authentic as I wanted this historical recapturing to be.


  1. Hi.

    Totally random question: you're British... you went to British schools. Were you ever taught to say "ma'am as in ham" (when addressing the monarch)?

    Background: I remember back in the 80s, we were always told it was "ma'am as in farm". British period dramas made before the 21st century attest to this pronunciation.

    Ever since the movie, "The Queen" everyone's been going "oh, it's ma'am as in ham". Buck House did issue new rules in 1990 confirming this pronunciation, but my feeling is this is a fairly recent development.

  2. I was never taught how to address a monarch or say 'ma'am' :)

    Normally, the difference is simply due to local accents. I've never heard anyone use 'ma'am' (not exactly being a day-to-day word) but for something like 'bath', you're more likely to say ba-ath if you're from the north and bar-th if you're from the south. Addressing the Queen might well be different though, but I've never been in a situation where it was an issue!

  3. Thanks for the explanation, marm. You're right, it could be a north-vs-south thing.

    The English language (as it is spoken by the English) is full of charming peculiarities and non-phonetic pronunciations (e.g. Pall Mall, Gloucester, Derbyshire, etc.). The other peculiarity I find very charming is the use of plural conjugation for singular subjects, e.g. "The BBC are" vs. "The BBC is".

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