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Darwin’s Experiences in Australia

Paper presented by Emeritus Professor Frank Nicholas, University of Sydney
Darwin symposium, National Museum of Australia, 26 February 2009

NICHOLAS DRAYSON: I am sure that most of you know all about evolutionary relationships in terms of the extent of conserved synteny across sequenced animal species, so Frank Nicholas isn’t going to talk about that today, although he could. He is going to talk about another interest of his: Charles Darwin’s experiences in Australia.

[NOTE: the lecture from which this transcript has been derived made use of many images that are subject to copyright, and hence cannot be included in this transcript. Almost all of the images, however, are readily available in the 2008 (Anniversary) edition of the book Charles Darwin in Australia, published by Cambridge University Press, on which the lecture was based.]

Prof. FRANK NICHOLAS: I am going to give you a very quick Cook’s tour of Darwin’s experiences in Australia. Because of the time limit there is not time to go into a critical analysis of the comments he made. We have already heard some and we will hear more from other speakers during today.

I want to start with some acknowledgements. Firstly, the State Library of New South Wales and its various manifestations, because that is where most of the images I am going to be showing you today come from. This also provides me with an opportunity to acknowledge my co-author and wife, Jan, who is here in the audience today. She spent several years working in the pictures section of the Mitchell Library. It was through that association that we became aware of many of the beautiful images that I will be showing you. The National Library of Australia has also contributed some of these images. Hank Ebes has provided us with access to the Gould illustrations we use. A private owner has provided us with one really key Conrad Martens painting, and an anonymous donor from Melbourne more than 20 years ago made the whole exercise possible. We are still eternally grateful to that person. We don’t know who it was, but they made it all possible.

We are talking about the Beagle’s second voyage under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. This is a sketch of FitzRoy done by Philip Gidley King, [shows image] the grandson of the third governor of New South Wales and the son of Phillip Parker King - the famous surveyor who had actually been the commander of the Beagle’s first expedition.

A key person in the story I am going to tell you is Conrad Martens. Augustus Earle was the official artist employed on this Beagle voyage. He became sick when they were still on the eastern coast of South America. He returned to England and died soon afterwards, having been in Australia beforehand. That is an interesting story in itself, but we don’t have a chance to go into that today.

Martens just happened to be in South America at the time, so FitzRoy employed him. Martens spent some time on the Beagle when they were down in Tierra del Fuego but he was signed off when they got to the western coast of South America. He worked his way across the Pacific, arrived in Sydney a few months before the Beagle did, and stayed there for the rest of his life. So, that is the Martens-Darwin connection. That is what we make use of in the book Charles Darwin in Australia.

We transcribed everything that Darwin had written about Australia and basically we matched that up with beautiful Conrad Martens contemporary illustrations, as if Martens was the cameraman that Darwin didn’t have when he was here in 1836.

This is an extract from the official map of the voyage [shows image]. They spent Christmas in the Bay of Islands in New Zealand and then came across to Sydney, and the quotations I have here are all extracts from Darwin’s diary:

January 12th 1836
Early in the morning, a light air carried us towards the entrance of Port Jackson.

[shows image] This is the very first sketch - a very faint sketch - that Conrad Martens did of that exact scene. It is sketched from a ship with Martens on it, approaching Sydney Heads. You can see South Head and the Macquarie lighthouse. This was sketched on April 17, 1835 as Martens arrived in Australia. [Shows image] This is a beautiful Martens painting from the Macquarie lighthouse looking west up Sydney Harbour, with the Darwin quotation ‘At last we anchored within Sydney Cove’ up above.

[Shows image] This is a Conrad Martens sketch done on 8 January 1836, four days before the Beagle arrived - you can’t get any more contemporary than that! This is now Kevin Rudd’s view of Circular Quay. It is taken from the North Shore, with Circular Quay on the right-hand side, and Macquarie Fort right in the centre, where the Opera House is now. You can see that Martens has named all the buildings. The Conservatorium was there then as the Government Stables. Then of course, as artists do, this sketch was turned into a beautiful painting. [Shows image] Here is a painting of that same scene, also done in 1836. This is exactly what Sydney Harbour looked like when the Beagle arrived in Sydney.

[shows image] This is another contemporary Martens view, looking east across Circular Quay and back up toward the Heads. [shows image] This is a sketch by Martens of the Beagle in Sydney Cove, but you can see it is done in 1839. This enables me to relate very quickly that the Beagle came back here on a third surveying voyage and was then based in Sydney. By that stage the people in charge of the Beagle were the people who had been the shipmates of Darwin on the second voyage. Their main task was to complete the survey of the northern shores of Australia. It was during that time that they came across yet another geographical feature, which they named Port Darwin in fond memory of their former shipmate. So Darwin never went to Darwin, but that’s how Darwin became named.

Why did the Beagle come to Sydney? It came to Sydney because FitzRoy had been instructed, after having completed the surveys of South America, to circumnavigate the globe and to check longitude using chronometers, which was the fairly new method, at that stage, of determining longitude. The Beagle had more chronometers on board than any other Royal Navy ship had ever had. [shows image] These are the records. FitzRoy kept meticulous records. You can see no two chronometers had exactly the same time. The person who was responsible for winding the chronometers had the most important job in the whole voyage because, if you forgot to wind them once, then that was data lost for the rest of the voyage. Interestingly, they took three of the chronometers by ship’s boat from Circular Quay up to Parramatta. Why did they do that? Because Governor Brisbane had built an observatory just behind what’s now called Old Government House at Parramatta. The remains of the observatory are still there. The only other way that you could determine longitude was by astronomical means. FitzRoy was instructed to compare his estimates of longitude obtained from the chronometers with the astronomical estimates wherever possible. So that is why they went up to Parramatta.

[shows image] ‘There is one advantage which the town enjoys in the number of pleasant walks in the Botanic Gardens & Government domain.’ Here is a Martens sketch done in 1835 of the Domain, with the Conservatorium in the background. [shows image] Martens established his first studio in Bridge Street, and this is a painting of Bridge Street. Darwin in his diary wrote:

I hired a man & two horses to take me to Bathurst, a village about 120 miles in the interior & the centre of a great Pastoral district; by this means I hoped to get a general idea of the country.

He did this quite often whenever the Beagle was in port for any length of time. When he did this, he carried a notebook with him. He started a new notebook in Sydney.

One of the really exciting experiences we had in the early 1980s when we discovered the existence of this notebook was to spend some time in Down House. The then curator Phillip Titheradge got out his big ring of keys, walked over to the cabinet, unlocked the cabinet and handed me the notebook. I spent a couple of very enjoyable days sitting in the kitchen of Down House transcribing the notebook:

16th Saturday. Left Sydney - soon entered country - excellent roads, turn pike; Pot houses, too much Woodland - some fine trees, all peculiar. - rails instead of Hedges: Many Carts, Gigs, Phaetons & Horses ...

So it goes on. Jan actually did most of the transcriptions and became very adept at interpreting Darwin’s handwriting. This map shows the first day of the trip: they got to Parramatta by lunchtime and then to Emu Ferry (near modern-day Penrith) by the evening.

[shows image] Here’s a very contemporary Conrad Martens sketch of the Penrith Road, done a few days before Darwin went along it. Darwin continues:

I slept at night at a very comfortable Inn at Emu ferry, which is 35 miles from Sydney ... Early in the morning we crossed the Nepean in a ferry boat.

[shows image] Here’s a Martens sketch of that ferry boat at Emu Ferry It was just a few planks of wood strung together. We have actually worked out how much it cost. With two men and two horses on a Sunday, it cost two shillings and eight pence. If you went there 20 years ago you could still see the spot on the riverbank where the Emu Ferry went across. There is a whole lot of trees there now that have grown up in the last 20 years. Having crossed the river, Darwin then went up Mitchells Pass which was brand new at that time:

The ascent is not steep, the road having been cut, with much care, along the side of some Sandstone cliffs.

[shows image] Here’s a beautiful Conrad Martens painting of that scene. And again, the scene hasn’t changed since. You can come down the mountain that way. It’s a beautiful place to take visitors.

In the middle of the day, we baited our horses at a little Inn called the Weatherboard.

The site of the Weatherboard Inn is in Pitt Park at modern-day Wentworth Falls. In 1936, on the centenary of Darwin’s visit, an evergreen oak tree was planted, and that is now called the Darwin tree.

About a mile & [a] half from this place there is a view, exceedingly well worth visiting. Following down a little valley & its tiny rill of water, suddenly & without any preparation, through the trees, which border the pathway, an immense gulf is seen at the depth of perhaps 1500 ft beneath ones feet.

[shows image] That’s a Conrad Martens painting of that exact scene. Nothing has changed if you go there today. Darwin goes on:

The point of view is situated as it were at the head of the Bay, for the line of cliff diverges away on each side, showing headland, behind headland, as on a bold Sea coast.

You can see those headlands there in the painting, and in the photograph as well. Darwin, being very much a geologist at that time, immediately asked himself: How can this have come about? His initial impression is that it’s been erosion but then he says, ‘This is preposterous. There has not been enough time.’ So he comes up with another (undersea) theory. But then later in life as he became more and more aware of the huge expanse of evolutionary time, he returned to the erosion idea which is now the accepted idea.

The class of view was to me quite novel & certainly magnificent.

Then on to Blackheath:

The Blackheath is a very comfortable inn, kept by an old Soldier; it reminded me of the Inns in North Wales.

The interesting thing about this is that Darwin, having mixed with the Kings and Macarthurs, developed a very jaundiced view about ex-convicts, but in fact it turns out that the inn-keeper (Gardiner) was an ex-convict passing himself off as an old soldier. Darwin was really impressed with this man. Here’s Gardiners Inn [shows image]. It was there until the 1930s and then it was knocked down. You can still go and have lunch and even stay in Gardners Inn [the ‘i’ has been dropped] but it’s a bit like grandma’s axe: there is none of the fabric left from when Darwin visited, maybe apart from the cellar. The next morning:

Very early in the morning, I walked about 3 miles to see Govett’s Leap; a view of a similar, but even perhaps more stupendous, character.

[shows image] This is a lovely photograph by a professional photographer of that view. Darwin comments in his diary that he had seen paintings by Conrad Martens of both these views. We have shown you the one of the Jamison Valley. [shows image] You can see from this page from Martens’ list of pictures that there’s a view of Sydney Harbour, then Govett’s Leap and then fall at Weatherboard. We have never been able to find a Martens painting of Govett’s Leap. If anybody knows of one, we would be really interested to find out. Darwin walked back to the hotel and then hopped on his horse and road down Victoria Pass, which was also new at that time.

A short time after leaving the Blackheath, we descended (about 800 ft) from the Sandstone platform, by the pass of Mount Victoria.

[shows image] Here is a contemporary Martens sketch of that pass, and of course that hasn’t changed much either. It is still the main road up the Blue Mountains. He stayed at what was then a sheep station called Wallerawang near the Cox’s River. They went kangaroo hunting, didn’t see any big kangaroos but saw some little ones:

The Grey-hounds pursued a Kangaroo Rat into a hollow tree out of which we dragged it: it is an animal, as big as a Rabbit, but with the figure of a Kangaroo.

[shows image] This is a beautiful Gould illustration. We put the Gould ones in here because Gould was the person who classified Darwin’s Beagle birds, as has already been mentioned, and then came to Australia. His diary records that earlier in the day:

I saw ... plenty of Crows, like our jack daws, & another bird, something like the magpie.

So they were similar but they weren’t exactly the same.

In the dusk of the evening, I took a stroll along a chain of ponds (which in this dry country represent the course of a river)

[shows image] Here’s a beautiful Conrad Martens painting of the Cox’s River:

& had the good fortune to see several of the famous Platypus or Ornithorhyncus paradoxicus. They were diving & playing in the water; but very little of their bodies were visible, so that they only appeared like so many water Rats.

The kangaroo rat looks like a rabbit; the platypus looks like a water vole [water rat]. [shows image] Here is the Gould illustration of the platypus. Darwin goes on:

Earlier in the evening I had been lying on a sunny bank & was reflecting on the strange character of the Animals of this country as compared to the rest of the World. A Disbeliever in everything beyond his own reason, might exclaim, “Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work; their object however has been the same & certainly in each case the end is complete”. -Whilst thus thinking, I observed the conical pitfall of a Lion-Ant.

[shows image] There’s the pitfall and there’s the lion ant. The pitfall was not above half the size of the one described by Kirby, which was the entomology book that was on the Beagle, so Darwin immediately assumes this is a different species. It turns out that his assumption may have been incorrect, but that is not of concern now. He has assumed that it’s a different species but same genus:

Without doubt this predacious Larva belongs to the same genus, but to a different species from the European one. - Now what would the Disbeliever say to this? Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance? I cannot think so. - The one hand has worked over the whole world.

That is a deliciously ambiguous statement, realising that these words had been written for the folks back home, many of whom still expected Darwin to take up a clerical appointment.

A Geologist perhaps would suggest, that the periods of Creation have been distinct & remote, the one from the other; that the Creator rested in his labor.

Again, that’s a deliciously ambiguous statement. You can interpret that in a number of different ways. This is the first time that Darwin has ever asked these sorts of questions in writing. So he is asking lots of questions and doesn’t provide many answers.

Then on to Bathurst and back. In the interests of time we have to race through this. Back up Victoria Pass. He spent a couple of nights at the Weatherboard Inn. He walked back down to see the view from the Jamison Valley again. He was sick there for a couple of days, and then finally descended to Emu Ferry:

A few miles further on, I met Capt. King [this is Phillip Parker King] who took me to his house at Dunheved. I spent a very pleasant afternoon walking about the farm & talking over the Natural History of T. del Fuego.

In fact, King gave him a reprint of a paper that had just been published about some of the observations that King had made in Tierra del Fuego on the Beagle’s first voyage. [shows image] Here’s King; [shows image] and this is a Conrad Martens painting of King’s farm, a very humble farmhouse. If you go there now, it’s rather a pathetic sight, although it has been scheduled as a heritage site. The next day:

Accompanied by Capt. King rode to Paramatta. Close to the town his brother in law Mr. MacArthur [Hannibal Macarthur] lives & we went there to lunch. The house would be considered a very superior one, even in England.

[shows images] That’s a Martens painting of Vineyard and that is what it looked like before it was knocked down in 1961:

There was a large party, I think about 18 in the Dining Room.- It sounded strange in my ears, to hear very nice looking young ladies exclaim, “Oh we are Australian & know nothing about England”.

If you go to the University of New South Wales now and you watch Geoff Lawson or his successors playing cricket, you will see those same pillars because they have been re-erected next to the Village Oval of the University of New South Wales:

In the afternoon I left this most English-like house & rode by myself into Sydney.

[shows images] Very quickly, just to give you an idea of the specimens that were collected. This is one of the ones that were subsequently illustrated. Overall in Sydney, Darwin and his servant Covington between them collected many insects and a whole lot of other things including a mouse that was then new - it is now extinct.

We move on to Hobart very quickly. I draw your attention to this wonderful book, Charles Darwin in Hobart Town, that has recently been published by the Royal Society of Tasmania. It gives a wonderful, very detailed account of Darwin’s experiences in Hobart. [shows image] This is a Syms Covington sketch of the Iron Pot lighthouse. Darwin writes a note for February 12th to 15th:

I had been introduced [to] Mr Frankland, the Surveyor General, & during these days I was much in his Society.- He took me two very pleasant rides & I passed at his house, the most agreeable evenings since leaving England.

[shows image] This is a map of Hobart and surroundings, showing all the places that Darwin went to. He was very busy there. He celebrated his 27th birthday in Franklin’s house Secheron, which until recently was the Maritime Museum of Australia and open to the public - it is now in private hands. Darwin writes in a letter to his sister Catherine:

You would be astonished to know what pleasant society there is here. I dined yesterday at the Attorneys General, where, amongst a small party of his most intimate friends he got up an excellent concert of first rate Italian Music. The house large, beautifully furnished; dinner most elegant with respectable! (although of course all Convicts) Servants.- A Short time before, they gave a fancy Ball, at which 113 people were present.

That house is still there, now called Stephenville. [shows image] This is Alfred Stephen who came up to New South Wales subsequently. His house is now part of a school.

[shows images] This shows an oak skink, which is shown in the exhibition here. He also collected five lizards and a snake. He actually killed this snake. There’s an example of one down in the exhibition. He actually opened it up and noticed that it is live-bearing. He says, ‘Is not this curious in Coluber?’ The answer is it’s not a colubrid at all, it’s an elapid, a live bearing and venomous snake. The question is: what would have happened to the history of biology if Darwin had been killed by a snake in Hobart in 1836? He also collected some planaria - he did lots of experiments on those - and a huge number of insects. [shows image] Here is just one of them.

Off to King George Sound in Western Australia. [shows image] Here is a Syms Covington sketch. It was a very primitive settlement at that time. But Darwin saw a lot of interesting natural history as well as a corroboree, and made some other interesting observations. I will just concentrate on the natural history here. [shows image] This is a bush rat and is one of the ones that was published in the Zoology. Here’s another one, a Southern Frog, that was published in the Zoology. They collected lots of fish. There were 10 species that were subsequently published, two of them which turned out to be new. [shows image] This is one of them. Lots of shells, barnacles and a huge number of insects. [shows image] Here is the other three that were actually published.

What’s the impact of Darwin’s visit to Australia? There was no eureka moment. The ant-lion passage is certainly important. It’s the first time he asked questions like this in any written form. But really I think the best way to view this is that this is just part of 28 years until the publication of Origin of Species - or 51 years if you add up the rest of his life - when he was just accumulating information from the voyage and from correspondents all around the world.

Very briefly, after the voyage he corresponded with a lot of people with whom he was first associated during the voyage. There are 10 letters from Darwin to Covington, including one which really puts paid to any thought that that Wallace letter arrived in May rather than June. There is one letter from Martens to Darwin. There is a really interesting William Braithwaite Clarke connection, which we don’t have time to go into, but Clarke was one of the few clerics who wrote to him and said (about the Origin of Species), ‘What a wonderful book, but you have left out some observations I have made which really would make it better,’ and Darwin actually stuck those observations in later editions.

[shows image] Wickham - I have put this in here because he married one of those girls that Darwin met at Hannibal Macarthur’s. There are questions about Darwin’s tortoise which we don’t have time to talk about. Darwin exchanged many letters with Philip Gidley King. As has already been mentioned, Darwin did a lot of work on barnacles -eight whole years devoted to barnacles. There were 31 species collected in Australia and the locations from which they were collected correspond to where many of his former shipmates lived. [shows image] This is just one of the Australian species.

Robyn has already quoted the well-known farewell-to-Australia message from Darwin’s diary, but Michael Pickering in the book for the exhibition here points out that in September 1836 Darwin actually wrote in his diary before they had reached home:

In the same quarter of the globe Australia is rising, or indeed may be said to have risen, into a grand centre of civilisation, which, at some not very remote period, will rule the empress of the Southern hemisphere. It is impossible for an Englishman to behold these distant colonies, without a high pride and satisfaction. To hoist the British flag seems to draw as a certain consequence wealth, prosperity and civilisation.

Just to finish off, in 1854 when Hooker had received the very good news that the government of Tasmania was going to provide financial backing to enable him [Hooker] to publish the flora of Tasmania, Darwin writes back:

What capital news from Tasmania: it really is a very remarkable & creditable fact to the Colony: I am always building veritable castles-in the air about emigrating, & Tasmania has been my head quarters of late, so that I feel very proud of my adopted country.

I will leave you on that positive note.

Date published: 30 April 2009