The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 76 of 188

Charles Darwin to J.S. Henslow.

Rio de Janeiro, May 18, 1832.

My dear Henslow,

Till arriving at Teneriffe (we did not touch at Madeira) I was scarcely out of my hammock, and really suffered more than you can well imagine from such a cause. At Santa Cruz, whilst looking amongst the clouds for the Peak, and repeating to myself Humboldt’s sublime descriptions, it was announced we must perform twelve days’ strict quarantine. We had made a short passage, so “Up jib,” and away for St. Jago. You will say all this sounds very bad, and so it was; but from that to the present time it has been nearly one scene of continual enjoyment. A net over the stern kept me at full work till we arrived at St. Jago. Here we spent three most delightful weeks. The geology was pre-eminently interesting, and I believe quite new; there are some facts on a large scale of upraised coast (which is an excellent epoch for all the volcanic rocks to date from), that would interest Mr. Lyell.

One great source of perplexity to me is an utter ignorance whether I note the right facts, and whether they are of sufficient importance to interest others. In the one thing collecting I cannot go wrong. St. Jago is singularly barren, and produces few plants or insects, so that my hammer was my usual companion, and in its company most delightful hours I spent. On the coast I collected many marine animals, chiefly gasteropodous (I think some new). I examined pretty accurately a Caryopyllia, and, if my eyes are not bewitched, former descriptions have not the slightest resemblance to the animal. I took several specimens of an Octopus which possessed a most marvellous power of changing its colours, equalling any chameleon, and evidently accommodating the changes to the colour of the ground which it passed over. Yellowish green, dark brown, and red, were the prevailing colours; this fact appears to be new, as far as I can find out. Geology and the invertebrate animals will be my chief object of pursuit through the whole voyage.

We then sailed for Bahia, and touched at the rock of St. Paul. This is a serpentine formation. Is it not the only island in the Atlantic which is not volcanic? We likewise stayed a few hours at Fernando Noronha; a tremendous surf was running so that a boat was swamped, and the Captain would not wait. I find my life on board when we are on blue water most delightful, so very comfortable and quiet–it is almost impossible to be idle, and that for me is saying a good deal. Nobody could possibly be better fitted in every respect for collecting than I am; many cooks have not spoiled the broth this time. Mr. Brown’s little hints about microscopes, etc., have been invaluable. I am well off in books, the ‘Dictionnaire Classique’ is most useful. If you should think of any thing or book that would be useful to me, if you would write one line, E. Darwin, Wyndham Club, St. James’s Street, he will procure them, and send them with some other things to Monte Video, which for the next year will be my headquarters.

Touching at the Abrolhos, we arrived here on April 4th, when amongst others I received your most kind letter. You may rely on it during the evening I thought of the many most happy hours I have spent with you in Cambridge. I am now living at Botofogo, a village about a league from the city, and shall be able to remain a month longer. The Beagle has gone back to Bahia, and will pick me up on its return. There is a most important error in the longitude of South America, to settle which this second trip has been undertaken. Our chronometers, at least sixteen of them, are going superbly; none on record have ever gone at all like them.

A few days after arriving I started on an expedition of 150 miles to Rio Macao, which lasted eighteen days. Here I first saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grander–nothing but the reality can give any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is. If I was to specify any one thing I should give the pre-eminence to the host of parasitical plants. Your engraving is exactly true, but underrates rather than exaggerates the luxuriance. I never experienced such intense delight. I formerly admired Humboldt, I now almost adore him; he alone gives any notion of the feelings which are raised in the mind on first entering the Tropics. I am now collecting fresh-water and land animals; if what was told me in London is true, viz., that there are no small insects in the collections from the Tropics, I tell Entomologists to look out and have their pens ready for describing. I have taken as minute (if not more so) as in England, Hydropori, Hygroti, Hydrobii, Pselaphi, Staphylini, Curculio, etc. etc. It is exceedingly interesting observing the difference of genera and species from those which I know, it is however much less than I had expected. I am at present red-hot with spiders; they are very interesting, and if I am not mistaken I have already taken some new genera. I shall have a large box to send very soon to Cambridge, and with that I will mention some more natural history particulars.

The Captain does everything in his power to assist me, and we get on very well, but I thank my better fortune he has not made me a renegade to Whig principles. I would not be a Tory, if it was merely on account of their cold hearts about that scandal to Christian nations–Slavery. I am very good friends with all the officers.

I have just returned from a walk, and as a specimen, how little the insects are known. Noterus, according to the ‘Dictionary Classique,’ contains solely three European species. I in one haul of my net took five distinct species; is this not quite extraordinary?…

Tell Professor Sedgwick he does not know how much I am indebted to him for the Welsh Expedition; it has given me an interest in Geology which I would not give up for any consideration. I do not think I ever spent a more delightful three weeks than pounding the North-west Mountains. I look forward to the geology about Monte Video as I hear there are slates there, so I presume in that district I shall find the junctions of the Pampas, and the enormous granite formation of Brazils. At Bahia the pegmatite and gneiss in beds had the same direction, as observed by Humboldt, prevailing over Columbia, distant 1300 miles–is it not wonderful? Monte Video will be for a long time my direction. I hope you will write again to me, there is nobody from whom I like receiving advice so much as from you…Excuse this almost unintelligible letter, and believe me, my dear Henslow, with the warmest feelings of respect and friendship,

Yours affectionately,
Chas. Darwin.

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