Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Had Charles Darwin landed on the island of Tenerife


Just over a century and a half ago, in 1859, Charles Darwin published his theory of evolution with compelling evidence in On the Origin of the Species by Natural Selection. His interest in natural evolution had gown as a result of his five year voyage of natural exploration around the world aboard H.M.S. Beagle.

Charles Darwin joined the scientific elite as a young man

What many people living in the Canary Islands don’t know is that he came so close to being yet another of the great scientists who fell for the charms of Tenerife before the island became a victim to the onslaught of progress. According to his autobiography of 1881, Darwin’s interest in the island stems from his days as a young student at Cambridge. Some of his letters refer to his desire to live in Tenerife for a time in order to study the unique nature of the island’s flora. 


Echium Wildprettii, the tower of jewels, the red Tajinaste, Tenerife Burgloss

In fact Darwin longed to visit the island, particularly the Valley of La Orotava, after reading so much about the island in the works of Friedrich Alexander von Humboldt, the famous German naturalist and geographer.

Alexander von Humboldt painted by Friedrich Georg Weitsch in 1806

The young fellow was evidently not a good student in spite of his father, Robert Darwin, being a physician, poet and naturalist. On the contrary, he rather enjoyed his early student days riding, shooting, listening to music and collecting beetles, a popular craze in those days and which he was particularly good at. Putting the pleasures of life before study is not surprising. His father sent him to Cambridge to prepare himself as an Anglican parson because he wouldn’t take his learning seriously at the University of Edinburgh’s Medical School. Preaching the word of God was not his thing. Nevertheless he settled down after making friends with clergyman and Professor of botany and geology, John Stevens Henslow, who persuaded him to study geology. Indeed it was Henslow, in 1831, who secured his position as naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle, commissioned to carry out a five-year voyage surveying different parts of the world. 

John Henslow, Darwin's friend and mentor

Charles Darwin was delighted, especially after learning that one of the first ports of call was going to be Tenerife. However, he was to be terribly disappointed a few months later, and one has to wonder if the island and the Orotava Valley would have evolved as they have had Charles Darwin landed in Tenerife. Would he, like today’s beautiful statue of Alexander von Humboldt, which sits above the valley, also turn his back to what paradise has become as a result of human progress?

The beautiful statue of Alexander von Humboldt

The naturalist had planned a thorough exploration of the island with his friend Ramsay. But just as they released anchor off the port of Santa Cruz, a small rowing boat from the island Health Office came out to meet the Beagle. An officer informed Captain Robert Fitzroy that they were prevented from going ashore. News had arrived that there had been an outbreak of cholera in England and therefore, as a precautionary measure, the crew and passengers aboard H.M.S. Beagle would have to wait out a quarantine period of twelve days before setting foot on Tenerife.

H.M.S. Beagle

As Fitzroy recorded, “this was a great disappointment to Mr Darwin, who had cherished a hope of visiting the Peak. To see it, to anchor and be on the point of landing, yet be obliged to turn away without the slightest prospect of beholding Tenerife again, was indeed to him a real calamity”.

Capt. Robert Fitzroy

As Alan Moorhead suggested in his book “Darwin and the Beagle” in 1969, it was also a disappointment for the island’s inhabitants. Local daily newspaper, El Día insisted the island had been denied the visit and investigations of one of the greatest scientists of the time.

On the Beagle was Darwin’s great friend, Auguste Earle, the painter. He had embarked with Charles Darwin in April 1832 as topographical artist and draughtsman aboard the Beagle although problems with his health forced him to leave the ship at Montevideo and return to England. He too was disappointed at being prevented from going ashore in Tenerife. His sketches would sit proudly alongside those of so many fine artists who have captured the charms of the island. 


The Botanical Gardens in the Orotava Valley, in the Marianne North Gallery at Kew

Nevertheless it appears Earle was able to paint what his eyes could see from aboard the ship and it would be interesting to find an example of that particular work. H.M.S. Beagle went on her way before the twelve days of quarantine were up because Captain Fitzroy felt he needed to take advantage of perfect weather conditions for crossing the Atlantic.

  
                                             Euphorbia Canariensis (courtesy of The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens)
           
A Phoenix Dactylifera palm overlooking the old Port Orotava (courtesy of The Marianne North Gallery at Kew Gardens)

 It was many years later that Charles Darwin’s attention was drawn again to Tenerife. Through conversations with other botanists and admirers of Tenerife like Sir Charles Lyell and Marianne North, he was able to sense the gentle and often spectacular and colourful nature of the island which he had so cruelly been deprived of exploring all those years before.Indeed, Marianne North was able to enchant Darwin when he was an old man with her paintings of botanical species in Tenerife.

(Some images have been reproduced from internet with no personal financial gain intended.)

By John Reid Young
Author of The Skipping Verger and Other Tales


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