A Long Way From Home

Darwin's papers on view at Down House © AMNH / Denis Finnin

Darwin's papers on view at Down House

© AMNH / Denis Finnin

All through the voyage, Darwin kept in touch by letter, writing to his father, sisters, brother, cousins, colleagues and school friends about his adventures. From his family he received regular updates on local politics and gossip. One by one, his cousins were marrying and settling down. News of the marriage of his old girlfriend, Fanny Owen, left him "melting with tenderness." Later, his sisters reported that Fanny's husband was "desperately selfish" and that she had been asking "prettily & coquettishly" about Charles--but it was too late. For the time being, Darwin threw himself into work.

Along with the personal connections, his letters cemented his professional ties to British scientists. Darwin sent crates of specimens and detailed letters to J. S. Henslow, his Cambridge mentor, describing plants, animals, and geological observations. Far from isolating him from the scientific community, the voyage helped Darwin move into their circle. By his return, he was ready to take his place among them, not just as an accomplished observer and collector, but as a theorist.

Sail Mail

Darwin sent numerous letters and specimens home by boat throughout the voyage. England was a thriving colonial power at the time, with a network of ships that literally spanned the globe, so Darwin could send and receive mail from almost anywhere in the world.

Letter: Charles Darwin to Robert Darwin

"Good-Humoured Energy"
 February 8-March 1, 1832
 Page 4 of 11

Darwin's lengthy letters home are filled with detailed, enthusiastic observations. As his father noted, "There is a natural good-humoured energy in his letters just like himself." Early in the voyage, Darwin wrote his father an 11-page letter about the almost indescribable wonders of the tropics.

"Nobody but a person fond of Nat: history can imagine the pleasure of strolling under Cocoa nuts in a thicket of Bananas & Coffee plants, & an endless number of wild flowers.- And this Island that has given me so much instruction & delight, is reckoned the most uninteresting place, that we perhaps shall touch at during our voyage...
 It is utterly useless to say anything about the Scenery.-it would be as profitable to explain to a blind man colours..."
 Despite his seasickness, which was far worse than anything he'd predicted, Darwin found that he liked living and working on a ship.
 "I find to my great surprise that a ship is singularly comfortable for all sorts of work.- Everything is so close at hand...if it was not for sea-sickness the whole world would be sailors."

English Heritage (Down House)

Letter: Charles Darwin to J. S. Henslow

"Red-Hot with Spiders"
 May 18-June 16, 1832
 Page 4 of 6

In this letter to J. S. Henslow, Darwin describes his vast beetle collections, joking, "I tell Entomologists to look out & have their pens ready for describing."

"I am at present red-hot with Spiders, they are very interesting, & if I am not mistaken, I have already taken some new genera.-I shall have a large box to send very soon to Cambridge..."
 Darwin's relationship with Henslow went well beyond business. Later in the letter he confides some personal feelings, including his longing for family and friends left behind and his gratitude for the help he received:
 "I am sometimes afraid I shall never be able to hold out for the whole voyage. I believe 5 years is the shortest period it will consume.-The mind requires a little case-hardening, before it can calmly look at such an interval of separation from all friends...
 Tell Prof: Sedgwick he does not know how much I am indebted to him for the Welch expedition.-it has given me an interest in geology, which I would not give up for any consideration."

Courtesy of the Archives of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Folio 12; in volume of letters from Charles Darwin to Professor Henslow

Charles Darwin's "Beagle Notebooks"

Cape Verde Islands to Rio de Janeiro;
 Buenos Aires to the Chilean Andes
 Date: ca. January-April 1832; ca. October 1833-August 1834

During his voyage, Darwin filled numerous notebooks with detailed observations on geology, plants, and animals. These notebooks contain his notes from the Cape Verde Islands to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and from Buenos Aires, Argentina, to the Chilean Andes. Darwin was a precise and patient observer of animals, but his main interest at the time was geology. Over the course of the voyage, he made 368 pages of notes about animals but filled 1,383 pages with geology.

The raw observations Darwin put in his notebooks were just the starting point. Later he painstakingly transcribed them by topic into new notebooks, crossing out completed pages as he went--which is why most pages in his Beagle notebooks have a line through them.

Darwin mulled over his data on the trip back, puzzling out mysteries and searching for patterns. By the time he returned he had several books planned on geology and zoology--and some private lines of inquiry he intended to keep to himself.