Odyssey Young Charles Darwin, the Beagle, and the Voyage that Changed the World
An illuminating and lively narrative of Charles Darwin’s formative years and his adventurous voyage aboard H.M.S. Beagle.
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Charles Darwin—alongside Isaac Newton and Albert Einstein—ranks among the world’s most famous scientists. In popular imagination, he peers at us from behind a bushy white Old Testament beard. This image of Darwin the Sage, however, crowds out the vital younger man whose curiosities, risk-taking, and travels aboard HMS Beagle would shape his later theories and served as the foundation of his scientific breakthroughs.
Though storied, the Beagle’s voyage is frequently misunderstood, its mission and geographical breadth unacknowledged. The voyage’s activities associated with South America—particularly its stop in the Galapagos archipelago, off Ecuador’s coast—eclipse the fact that the Beagle, sailing in Atlantic, Pacific and Indian ocean waters, also circumnavigated the globe.
Mere happenstance placed Darwin aboard the Beagle—an invitation to sail as a conversation companion on natural-history topics for the ship’s depression-prone captain. Darwin was only twenty-two years old, an unproven, unknown, aspiring geologist when the ship embarked on what stretched into its five-year voyage. Moreover, conducting marine surveys of distance ports and coasts, the Beagle’s purposes were only inadvertently scientific. And with no formal shipboard duties or rank, Darwin, after arranging to meet the Beagle at another port, often left the ship to conduct overland excursions.
Those outings, lasting weeks, even months, took him across mountains, pampas, rainforests, and deserts. An expert horseman and marksman, he won the admiration of gauchos he encountered along the way. Yet another rarely acknowledged aspect of Darwin’s Beagle travels, he also visited, often lingered in, cities—including Rio de Janeiro, Buenos Aires, Montevideo, Santiago, Lima, Sydney, and Cape Town; and left colorful, often sharply opinionated, descriptions of them and his interactions with their residents. In the end, Darwin spent three-fifths of his five-year “voyage” on land—three years and three months on terra firma versus a total 533 days on water.
Acclaimed historian Tom Chaffin reveals young Darwin in all his complexities—the brashness that came from his privileged background, the Faustian bargain he made with Argentina’s notorious caudillo Juan Manuel de Rosas, his abhorrence of slavery, and his ambition to carve himself a place amongst his era’s celebrated travelers and intellectual giants. Drawing on a rich array of sources— in a telling of an epic story that surpasses in breadth and intimacy the naturalist’s own Voyage of the Beagle—Chaffin brings Darwin’s odyssey to vivid life.
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