Darwin at the Cape

Barnard W.S. (2004)


Of the thirteen ports where HMS Beagle called on its homeward voyage from South America to England, it stayed longer at Simon's Bay (31 May - 18 June 1836) than anywhere else except for the Galapagos Islands. Yet Charles Robert Darwin, the 27-year-old naturalist on board, practically ignored the Cape in his subsequent publications and many Darwin scholars hardly mention the visit. This silence raises two questions: why did Darwin have so little to say about the Cape, and did the visit in any way contribute to his intellectual development? There are two possible answers. After four and a half years of voyaging, Darwin was stale and found the Cape environment well-studied but uninspiring. At the Cape, secondly, Darwin met Sir John Herschel, the leading British scientist of the day, then cataloguing southern hemisphere stars. Herschel probably directed him to granite outcrops in the Cape Town hinterland, about which Darwin made notes but published little. More importantly, Herschel, through an earlier book and in discussion, made Darwin aware of his ideal of scientific explanation: to look for one comprehensive 'true cause' which could be transferred from one set of phenomena to another. Herschel also showed Darwin his garden of Cape fynbos bulbs, which led the former to speculate on 'the origination of fresh species' as a natural process. For Darwin the Cape must have been an important place of encounter with ideas, some already half formed in his mind and others new, which he developed fully in the years to come.

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