Fifteen Eighty Four

Academic perspectives from Cambridge University Press


Darwin Letter Friday

From Mauritius, most of the way home to England after years at sea, Darwin recalls some of the highlights of his journey in a letter to his sister Caroline. He and the entire crew are very homesick, and it shows — much of his letter is occupied with musings about the publication of his field notes, as well as Captain FitzRoy’s own account of the journey.

As it is today, publishing in 1836 was a tricky prospect.

To Caroline Darwin 29 April 1836

Port Lewis, Mauritius.
April 29th. 1836.

My dear Caroline,

We arrived here this morning; as a Ship sails for England tomorrow, I will not let escape the opportunity of writing. But as I am both tired & stupid, my letter will be equally dull. I wrote from Sydney & Hobart town, after leaving the latter place, we proceeded to King Georges Sound. I did not feel much affection for any part of Australia; & certainly, nothing could be better adapted, than our last visit, to put the finishing stroke to such feelings.—

We then proceeded to the Keeling Isds.— These are low lagoon Isds. about 500 miles from the coast of Sumatra.— I am very glad we called there, as it has been our only opportunity of seeing one of those wonderful productions of the Coral polypi.— The subject of Coral formation has for the last half year, been a point of particular interest to me. I hope to be able to put some of the facts in a more simple & connected point of view, than that in which they have hitherto been considered. The idea of a lagoon Island, 30 miles in diameter being based on a submarine crater of equal dimensions,2 has alway appeared to me a monstrous hypothesis.

From the Keeling Id we came direct to this place. All which we have yet seen is very pleasing. The scenery cannot boast of the charms of Tahiti & still less of the grand luxuriance of Brazil; but yet it is a complete & very beautiful picture. But, there is no country which has now any attractions for us, without it is seen right astern, & the more distant & indistinct the better. We are all utterly home sick; I feel sure there is a wide difference between leaving one’s home to reside for five years in some foreign country, & in wandering for the same time. There is nothing, which I so much long for, as to see any spot & any object, which I have seen before & can say I will see again.— Our heads are giddy, with such a constant whirl. The Capt, continues to push along with a slack rein & an armed heel.— thank Heaven not an hour has lately been lost, or will again be lost.

It is probable, if we escape the heavy gales off the Cape, we may reach England 8 weeks after you receive this letter. Our course beyond the Cape & St Helena is not certain; I think it will end in touching at Bahia on the coast of Brazil. With what different sensations I shall now view that splendid scene, from formerly. Then I thought an hour of such existence would have been cheaply purchased with an year of ordinary life, but now one glimpse of my dear home, would be better than the united kingdoms, of all the glorious Tropics. Whilst we are at sea, & the weather is fine, my time passes smoothly, because I am very busy. My occupation consists in rearranging old geological notes: the rearranging generally consists in totally rewriting them. I am just now beginning to discover the difficulty of expressing one’s ideas on paper. As long as it consists solely of description it is pretty easy; but where reasoning comes into play, to make a proper connection, a clearness & a moderate fluency, is to me, as I have said, a difficulty of which I had no idea.—

. . .

The Captain is daily becoming a happier man, he now looks forward with cheerfulness to the work which is before him. He, like myself, is busy all day in writing, but instead of geology, it is the account of the Voyage. I sometimes fear his “Book” will be rather diffuse, but in most other respects it certainly will be good: his style is very simple & excellent. He has proposed to me, to join him in publishing the account, that is, for him to have the disposal & arranging of my journal & to mingle it with his own. Of course I have said I am perfectly willing, if he wants materials; or thinks the chit-chat details of my journal are any ways worth publishing. He has read over the part, I have on board, & likes it.—

I shall be anxious to hear your opinions, for it is a most dangerous task, in these days, to publish accounts of parts of the world, which have so frequently been visited. It is a rare piece of good fortune for me, that of the many errant (in ships) Naturalists, there have been few or rather no geologists. I shall enter the field unopposed.— I assure you I look forward with no little anxiety to the time when Henslow, putting on a grave face, shall decide on the merits of my notes. If he shakes his head in a disapproving manner: I shall then know that I had better at once give up science, for science will have given up me.— For I have worked with every grain of energy I possess.— But what a horridly egotistical letter, I am writing; I am so tired, that nothing short of the pleasant stimulus of vanity & writing about one’s own dear self would have sufficed.— I have the excuse, if I write about my self, Heaven knows I think enough about all of you.—

We shall leave this Isld. in 6 days time; if there is any opportunity, I will write from the C. of Good Hope & that letter possibly may be the last you will receive, before you see me arrive, converted into an ancient, brown-colored Gentleman. The minute the Ship drops her anchor in the mud of old England, I will start for Shrewsbury.— I trust we shall find letters at the Cape; but I have many fears; the date of the last letter I received was 13 months ago: This is a grievous period, to be entirely ignorant, about all, one care’s most for.—It is probable we shall arrive early in September; you must recollect the possibility of my not having received letters for 18 months, so retell me any thing important; if I do not come by the 14th of Septemb. write again to Plymouth post-office. So that when, I start for home—I may travel with a certain mind.

God bless you all. May you be well & happy. Forgive such a letter; I am sure, you would sooner have it, than nothing.— So once again farewell to you all.— give my most affectionate love to my Father & all | My dearest Caroline | Your affectionate brother | Chas. Darwin.

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