The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 72 of 188

A sort of halo of sanctity was given to my father by the fact of his dining in the Captain’s cabin, so that the midshipmen used at first to call him “Sir,” a formality, however, which did not prevent his becoming fast friends with the younger officers. He wrote about the year 1861 or 1862 to Mr. P.G. King, M.L.C., Sydney, who, as before stated, was a midshipman on board the Beagle:–“The remembrance of old days, when we used to sit and talk on the booms of the Beagle, will always, to the day of my death, make me glad to hear of your happiness and prosperity.” Mr. King describes the pleasure my father seemed to take “in pointing out to me as a youngster the delights of the tropical nights, with their balmy breezes eddying out of the sails above us, and the sea lighted up by the passage of the ship through the never-ending streams of phosphorescent animalculae.”

It has been assumed that his ill-health in later years was due to his having suffered so much from sea-sickness. This he did not himself believe, but rather ascribed his bad health to the hereditary fault which came out as gout in some of the past generations. I am not quite clear as to how much he actually suffered from sea-sickness; my impression is distinct that, according to his own memory, he was not actually ill after the first three weeks, but constantly uncomfortable when the vessel pitched at all heavily. But, judging from his letters, and from the evidence of some of the officers, it would seem that in later years he forgot the extent of the discomfort from which he suffered. Writing June 3, 1836, from the Cape of Good Hope, he says: “It is a lucky thing for me that the voyage is drawing to its close, for I positively suffer more from sea-sickness now than three years ago.” Admiral Lort Stokes wrote to the “Times”, April 25, 1883:–

“May I beg a corner for my feeble testimony to the marvellous persevering endurance in the cause of science of that great naturalist, my old and lost friend, Mr. Charles Darwin, whose remains are so very justly to be honoured with a resting-place in Westminster Abbey?

“Perhaps no one can better testify to his early and most trying labours than myself. We worked together for several years at the same table in the poop cabin of the ‘Beagle’ during her celebrated voyage, he with his microscope and myself at the charts. It was often a very lively end of the little craft, and distressingly so to my old friend, who suffered greatly from sea-sickness. After perhaps an hour’s work he would say to me, ‘Old fellow, I must take the horizontal for it,’ that being the best relief position from ship motion; a stretch out on one side of the table for some time would enable him to resume his labours for a while, when he had again to lie down.

“It was distressing to witness this early sacrifice of Mr. Darwin’s health, who ever afterwards seriously felt the ill-effects of the ‘Beagle’s’ voyage.”

Mr. A.B. Usborne writes, “He was a dreadful sufferer from sea-sickness, and at times, when I have been officer of the watch, and reduced the sails, making the ship more easy, and thus relieving him, I have been pronounced by him to be ‘a good officer,’ and he would resume his microscopic observations in the poop cabin.” The amount of work that he got through on the Beagle shows that he was habitually in full vigour; he had, however, one severe illness, in South America, when he was received into the house of an Englishman, Mr. Corfield, who tended him with careful kindness. I have heard him say that in this illness every secretion of the body was affected, and that when he described the symptoms to his father Dr. Darwin could make no guess as to the nature of the disease. My father was sometimes inclined to think that the breaking up of his health was to some extent due to this attack.

The Beagle letters give ample proof of his strong love of home, and all connected with it, from his father down to Nancy, his old nurse, to whom he sometimes sends his love.

His delight in home-letters is shown in such passages as:–“But if you knew the glowing, unspeakable delight, which I felt at being certain that my father and all of you were well, only four months ago, you would not grudge the labour lost in keeping up the regular series of letters.”

Or again–his longing to return in words like these:–“It is too delightful to think that I shall see the leaves fall and hear the robin sing next autumn at Shrewsbury. My feelings are those of a schoolboy to the smallest point; I doubt whether ever boy longed for his holidays as much as I do to see you all again. I am at present, although nearly half the world is between me and home, beginning to arrange what I shall do, where I shall go during the first week.”

Another feature in his letters is the surprise and delight with which he hears of his collections and observations being of some use. It seems only to have gradually occurred to him that he would ever be more than collector of specimens and facts, of which the great men were to make use. And even as to the value of his collections he seems to have had much doubt, for he wrote to Henslow in 1834:–“I really began to think that my collections were so poor that you were puzzled what to say; the case is now quite on the opposite tack, for you are guilty of exciting all my vain feelings to a most comfortable pitch; if hard work will atone for these thoughts, I vow it shall not be spared.”

After his return and settlement in London, he began to realise the value of what he had done, and wrote to Captain Fitz-Roy–“However others may look back to the ‘Beagle’s’ voyage, now that the small disagreeable parts are well-nigh forgotten, I think it far the most fortunate circumstance in my life that the chance afforded by your offer of taking a Naturalist fell on me. I often have the most vivid and delightful pictures of what I saw on board the ‘Beagle’ pass before my eyes. These recollections, and what I learnt on Natural History, I would not exchange for twice ten thousand a year.”

In selecting the following series of letters, I have been guided by the wish to give as much personal detail as possible. I have given only a few scientific letters, to illustrate the way in which he worked, and how he regarded his own results. In his ‘Journal of Researches’ he gives incidentally some idea of his personal character; the letters given in the present chapter serve to amplify in fresher and more spontaneous words that impression of his personality which the ‘Journal’ has given to so many readers.]

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