Today in History, Darwin in Chile

charles-darwin-chileCharles Darwin is celebrating his bicentennial this year (his birthday was Feb. 12) is best remembered for On the Origins of Species and his theory of evolution. Darwin’s road to the Galapagos Islands are quite well known – he rejected medicine for biology and was encouraged to pursue natural sciences. Of course, we’re celebrating the one-hundred and fiftieth anniversary of his most famous book, but what of his time in South America.

The Beagle often surveyed and charted the land while Darwin would investigate the geology and natural history of lands from Australia to Brazil to the Galapagos. Much has been made of Darwin’s distaste for slavery in Brazil in the early 1830s. He traveled south from Brazil and investigated what was then referred to as Patagonia. It was there he found fossils of extinct mammals. He rode with gauchos to explore the geology of the area. Much has also been made of Darwin’s insights into an extraordinary time in Latin American history as nations became consolidated and people’s were forced into those cookie-cutter nations.

Today, in 1835 (174 years ago) Charles Darwin sailed from port in Valdivia, Chile, on his five year journey on the HMS Beagle, a journey across the imperial world.

For Darwin, Chile probably held as much allure as any other place. By now, Darwin’s journey just beginning (and coming to fruition at the Galapagos Islands). Said Darwin:

I believe every one was glad to say farewell to Chiloe; yet if we could forget the gloom and ceaseless rain of winter, Chiloe might pass for a charming island. There is also something very attractive in the simplicity and humble politeness of the poor inhabitants.

One important event did occur in Chile, however. He experienced an earthquake, of which he described faithfully:

This day has been memorable in the annals of Valdivia, for the most severe earthquake experienced by the oldest inhabitant. I happened to be on shore, and was lying down in the wood to rest myself. It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes, but the time appeared much longer…

A bad earthquake at once destroys our oldest associations: the earth, the very emblem of solidity, has moved beneath our feet like a thin crust over a fluid;—one second of time has created in the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would not have produced. In the forest, as a breeze moved the trees, I felt only the earth tremble, but saw no other effect. Captain Fitz Roy and some officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more striking; for although the houses, from being built of wood, did not fall, they were violently shaken, and the boards creaked and rattled together. The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm. It is these accompaniments that create that perfect horror of earthquakes, experienced by all who have thus seen, as well as felt, their effects. Within the forest it was a deeply interesting, but by no means an awe-exciting phenomenon. The tides were very curiously affected. The great shock took place at the time of low water; and an old woman who was on the beach told me that the water flowed very quickly, but not in great waves, to high-water mark, and then as quickly returned to its proper level; this was also evident by the line of wet sand. The same kind of quick but quiet movement in the tide happened a few years since at Chiloe, during a slight earthquake, and created much causeless alarm. In the course of the evening there were many weaker shocks, which seemed to produce in the harbour the most complicated currents, and some of great strength.

From Valdivia, he went to Concepcion. From there, to Galapagos. The rest is history (and, frankly, written better elsewhere).

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~ by Daniel on February 22, 2009.

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