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Darwin and Australia

Darwin and Australia

A portrait of 31-year-old Charles Darwin
Young Charles Darwin. A portrait of 31-year-old Charles Darwin by George Richmond in 1840. Courtesy of the Darwin Heirlooms Trust, copyright English Heritage Photo Library.

Developed by the National Museum of Australia to accompany the Darwin exhibition in Australia, Darwin and Australia represents Darwin's experiences and encounters during his visit to Australia.

The exhibition includes artworks and graphics by Australian artists which reflect the landscapes that Darwin encountered as well as specimens of plants and animals that he observed and described in his diary. It explores Darwin's travels in Australia and his associations with prominent Australians. It also profiles Darwin's analogous observations in Australia, and subsequent and contemporary Australian research that continues his intellectual legacy.

To many of the people he met and travelled with in Australia, Darwin was simply a visiting young naturalist — none could have imagined how he would later shift our understandings of the world.

Darwin's visit to Australia

Darwin was a young man at the start of his career when he visited Australia. A snapshot of Charles Darwin as a young man can be gleaned from his writings of his Australian experiences. Although Australia was not to feature strongly in Darwin's later writings it was to leave its legacy on Darwin's later life.

Charles Darwin's visit to Australia in early 1836 came towards the end of a long voyage. Almost four years after departing England, the Beagle and its travel-weary company arrived on Australian shores. During the 61 days spent in Australia, Darwin visited Sydney, the inland settlement of Bathurst, Hobart Town in Tasmania, and King George's Sound in Western Australia.

Darwin confided in a letter to his sister Caroline that he was 'looking forward with more pleasure to seeing Sydney, than to any other part of the voyage'. On first impressions he was not disappointed. Sydney's roads, houses and even the shops all met with Darwin's enthusiastic approval. In his diary he declared the colony 'a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation' and was moved 'to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman'. Darwin's elation did not last. Four days after his arrival in Sydney he headed west to Bathurst, across the Blue Mountains, to gain a general idea of the country's appearance. Beyond Sydney he found the landscape arid and sterile, and the vegetation unappealing.

Kings Table Land Blue Mountains depicts the road and country Charles Darwin travelled between Sydney and Bathurst
Table Land Blue Mountains,1826, by Augustus Earle. National Library of Australia nla.pic-an2818309-v. Augustus Earle was one of Darwin's friends and a significant Australian colonial artist. This painting depicts the road and country Charles Darwin travelled between Sydney and Bathurst.

Before leaving England in 1831, Darwin had paid sixpence to see a panorama of Hobart Town. He had thought the scenery 'very magnificent'. However, on sailing into the colony he initially dismissed the place as 'very inferior to that of Sydney; the latter might be called a city, this is only a town'. Bad weather delayed the Beagle's departure from Hobart by 12 days, allowing Darwin to continue his natural history studies and collect specimens of fossils, rocks, flora and fauna. He also met with members of Hobart's elite.

Beetle specimen. Label reads 'Hobart Town. C. Darwin'.
Beetle specimen of Onthophagus australis collected by Darwin in Hobart Town 1836. Photo: Zoë Simmons, Oxford University Museum of National History.

On March 6th 1836 the Beagle sailed into King George's Sound on Australia's south-west coast, where it remained at anchor for eight days. Darwin was frustrated by this hiatus in the homeward journey and the prospect of spending time at the Albany settlement. Despite his annoyance he was extremely active during his stay. He collected shells, barnacles, 10 species of fish and 66 species of insects, many of which were unknown to British scientists at the time.

Caricature of a young Charles Darwin riding a giant beetle. The caption is 'Go it Charlie!'

Go it Charlie! Cartoon. This caricature of a young Charles Darwin riding a giant beetle was drawn by fellow beetle collector Albert Way in 1832. © By permission of the Syndics of Cambridge University Library.

On March 14th the Beagle left King George's Sound and Australian shores, on a homeward course via the Keeling (Cocos) Islands, Mauritius and the Cape of Good Hope. Despite Darwin's strong desire to be home, which possibly jaded his view of Australia, his writings are rich in observations of the continent's landscape, fauna, flora and people. These, and the insights he gained from his Australian associates, contributed to the development of his theories and ideas.

A legacy - Darwin and Indigenous Australians

Darwin's work liberated the ways in which scientists interpreted the origins, dynamics and distribution of different species of plants and animals.

Close up of the spines of six books: The Last of the Tasmanians, James Bonwick; Wanderings in Wild Australia, Baldwin Spencer; On the Origin of Civilization and Primitive Condition of Man, Sir John Lubbock; Early History of Mankind, Tylor; Antiquity of Man, Lyell; and Native Tribes of the Northern Territory of Australia, Spencer.
Books from the collection of the National Museum of Australia Library.
Photo: Christine Hansen, National Museum of Australia.

However, his work was also applied to interpreting perceived racial and cultural differences among human populations. It contributed to a popular belief that these different populations could be classed according to a hierarchy of social and technological development. Such theories placed Australia's Indigenous people at a lower stage of human evolution. Although such views have been shown to be ill-informed, Australia's Indigenous people continue to confront the consequences of such inappropriate application of Darwin's work.

Australian connections

Illustration of a monkey standing upright. It has a a sign around its neck that reads 'Am I a man and a brother?'
Monkeyana 1861. Illustration from Punch referring to Darwin's theory of evolution. British Library Board.

Darwin maintained his connections with Australia long after his visit in 1836.

He continued to speculate on how the continent's flora and fauna were related to what he had seen in other parts of the world.

As in England, the publication of Darwin's On the Origin of Species provoked great controversy in Australia and divided the scientific community. In August 1863 during a spirited exchange of ideas with Joseph D Hooker, the prominent botanist at Kew Gardens, Darwin wrote:

About New Zealand, at last I am
coming round & admit it must have
been connected with some Terra firma;
but I will die rather than admit
Australia.

His work also influenced how Australians interpreted the widening gap between scientific theory and theology.

Darwin is based on an exhibition organised by the American Museum of Natural History, New York (www.amnh.org) in collaboration with the Museum of Science, Boston; The Field Museum, Chicago; Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto; and the Natural History Museum, London.

Presented in conjunction with Art Exhibitions Australia.