Friday, May 24, 2019

Darwin's Spanish Connection

When the name Charles Darwin is mentioned, wherever you are in the world, it is invariably in the context of nature and especially on the evolution of the species. In his work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, he was perhaps the first big-name scientist to clearly challenge the biblical account of creation.

Charles Darwin

But the idea of evolution, that plants and animals had changed and developed in the course of time, was not new. Even in classical Greece such an idea existed and geological discoveries in the 19th century gave rise to considerable scientific speculation. What Darwin did was to provide an acceptable explanation of how such development could take place. This was his theory of natural selection, that all living things reproduce themselves with slight variations to adapt to a changing environment.

But behind a great mind which was in the right place at the right time, there is often another great character, or several, who manage to remain less acclaimed or even anonymous, depending upon whose history books one prefers to read. Alexander Von Humboldt, for example, is perhaps the best known of these and, if you were to read Andrea Wulf’s The Invention of Nature, in which she describes Humboldt as “The Lost Hero of Science”, you might be forgiven in thinking that perhaps Mr Darwin was, in fact, behind the times.

The Invention of Nature, by Andrea Wulf

In fairness, Charles Darwin was a huge admirer of Humboldt and, having read so much of the Prussian’s writings, how disappointed he was in January 1832 when he and his expedition were prevented by the local authorities from exploring the island of Tenerife, from seeking out the amazing Dragon Tree in the Orotava Valley and from climbing the great Mt Teide volcano.

Mount Teide through the retama and flixweed in Spring
The famous Dragon Tree (Dracaena draco) at Icod de los Vinos

HMS Beagle anchored in the Bay of Santa Cruz on 6th January but, before anyone could be rowed ashore, a little pale-faced man, as described by Darwin, informed them that the Beagle was to be placed in quarantine for twelve days because of a suspected outbreak of cholera in England. HMS Beagle sailed on her way, catching los Alisios, the north easterly trade winds, towards the Cape Verde Islands.

Painting by Conrad Martens of the Beagle at anchor whilst surveying Tierra del Fuego

One of Spain’s own great adventurers and travellers had also been discovering the wonders of nature before Charles Darwin, and perhaps never received the attention he deserved. This often happens when a great nation or empire is in decline, as Spain’s was in the early 19th century. His name was Felix de Azara. He was a soldier, mathematician and engineer by profession. However, he was a marvellous naturalist at heart and has numerous species named after him, like Azara’s Night Monkey (Aotus azarae)

Azara´s Night Monkey at Cristalino Jungle Lodge, Matto Grosso, Brazil

He is also believed to have had a considerable, if unrecognised, influence on Darwin’s philosophy. Whilst Azara played out his role as a military defender of the Spanish Empire he still found time to make amateur notes on the virgin ecosystems of the South American continent. 

Azara's illustration of his "Tamandua noir", a species of anteater

He illustrated over five hundred birds and fifty mammals in a military exact manner but, what caught Darwin’s eye were Azara’s ideas about evolution which appeared in his later manuscripts. Azara´s findings were published in England and France but not in Spain, possibly due to greater religious pressures.

Sculpture of Felix de Azara by Eduard Alentorn (Barcelona's Martorell Museum)

Felix de Azara was more than a just naturalist. Indeed his adventures in the name of the King of Spain would make a thrilling movie. It all began in 1781 when he was ordered to set sail for Montevideo on a secret mission. He was a reputed engineer and loyal to King Carlos III when he was commissioned to draw up the borders between the Spanish and Portuguese South American territories, as agreed under the 1777 Treaty of Ildefonso. In this task he covered a surface as big as Western Europe from the Andes to the Atlantic coast, from Patagonia to the dense forests of Brazil and the Bolivian hills. 

It was evident, perhaps as scientists like Humboldt, Azara and Darwin began to understand that everything in nature appeared to be connected somehow, that the Spaniard had also, by accident, become a pioneering anthropologist. He identified forty different tribes or nations, as he preferred to call them, and studied their customs. Running against the tide of European colonial methods Azara is possibly one of the earliest Europeans to have shown concern for the manner in which different peoples in remote parts of the world were being cultured by advanced civilisations. Some movements today, in their absurd quest to annihilate history as a remedy for our sins, are asking Europeans to apologise for what Felix de Azara already recognised over two hundred years ago.

What a pity to see such beautiful and strong nations extinguished by our intervention. What I find most sad is that there appears to be no remedy”. 

It is no wonder his views were kept quiet in those days, but it is no surprise also that relatively new "nationalisms" are using these very understandable feelings to stir up nationalist sentiment today. On this side of the Atlantic, the Canary Islands were a stepping-stone for early American exploration and exploitation, and the islands' own indigenous nations or kingdoms, the Guanche people, were, as Azara would say, "cultured" and to a great extent, extinguished. It is since the Canary Islands were given the chance to have their autonomous governments, and have been governed by semi-nationalist coalitions, that interest in the Guanche heritage has become much more than just anthropological and, rightly so, helped Canary Islanders today to feel very proud of their indigenous background.  

Azara, Darwin’s Spanish connection, returned to Spain in 1801. In what is an early example of man’s continuing need to progress, even if it involves evident destruction of the environment and of the species, he discovered that many of the reports and birds he had sent back to Spain had vanished in mysterious circumstances. Nevertheless he continued to serve Spain as a soldier, especially against the French, whose culture, incidentally, he greatly admired.

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

By John Reid Young

Author of books "A SHARK IN THE BATH AND OTHER STORIES" and "THE SKIPPING VERGER AND OTHER TALES", collections of his short stories set in Tenerife and the Canary Islands.

John Reid is also owner of Tenerife Private Tours


  1. What a shame Darwin couldn't visit!

  2. Thank you for commenting. Yes, it was a great shame. Had he managed to leave his mark in the Canary Islands, perhaps we would not have what is today referred to as "over-tourism" and nature might have been more protected against the rabid construction of modern times.

  3. I always do solo travelling as I love to travel alone and take as much pictures as I could in my travelling, this time I will be travelling to Spain once I get my short stay tourist Spain visa, I am just getting contact with an agency and then I will travel and share the blog.