14 January 1833 to 28 November 1833

Survey of South America, Part 2:

The mission is started in Tierra del Fuego
A visit to the Falkland Islands
Darwin leads the Gaucho life
Darwin explores Buenos Aires
Darwin explores the Rio Negro


Two days later Capt. FitzRoy tried again for the Beagle Channel, but to no avail. Undaunted by this setback, FitzRoy remained determined to get his Fuegians home again. They left Windhond Bay ("W" on map, below) anchored at Goree Roads ("G" on map, below) and spent the next few days loading three whale-boats and the yawl with provisions. On 18 January 1833 Capt. FitzRoy took the three Fuegians, twenty-eight members of the crew, and Darwin, in the four boats down the Beagle Channel ("B" on map, below).

In the afternoon they headed into the eastern side of the Channel, and in a short time found a small cove hidden by a few little islets and camped there for the night. The next day they glided along the Beagle Channel under the watchful eyes of native Fuegians on shore. At their next camp the crew met with several natives who begged endlessly for the most trifling objects. Over the next few days they continued along the channel and camped near the northern point of Ponsonby Sound ("P" on map, above). The next morning several natives came to their camp, all of whom were very excited to see the strange "pale people" who have visited their land.

On 23 January the four boats proceeded down Ponsonby Sound, escorted by many canoes, and arrived at Woolya Cove ("M" on map, above) where the mission was to be started. Jemmy's mother, two sisters and four brothers came to visit a short time later. The next few days were engaged in setting up the mission at Woolya Cove among dozens of Fuegian onlookers. Three small huts were built and the provisions were unloaded from the boats and secured in them to discourage thievery, (despite this, the Fuegians still managed to snatch a few items). Gardens were planted with potatoes, carrots, turnips, beans, peas, lettuce, onions, leeks and cabbages. By 27 January the mission was complete and Revd. Richard Matthews and the three anglicized Fuegians settled down to run the mission.


The next day the yawl and one whale-boat were sent back to the Beagle. Darwin stayed with the other two whale-boats which continued along the Beagle Channel to survey as far west as Whale-boat Sound. Darwin marveled at the many cliffs of ice, deep blue water, and glaciers. While camping on shore one day the boats became caught up by the waves and nearly floated out into the Channel, but Darwin and three others were quick enough on their feet to save them. In honor of Darwin's courage, Capt. FitzRoy named the highest peak in the area Mount Darwin ("D" on map, above).

The boats returned to Woolya Cove on 6 February to check up on the Fuegians but en-route they noticed to their dismay that many of the natives walking along the shore wore strips of English cloth. Their worst fears were realized when they found the mission had been looted many times over and the gardens trampled upon. Revd. Matthews, in a fit of despair, packed his gear and returned with the boats. The three Fuegians were left to fend for themselves, and promised to carry on their mission duties. The two boats left the same day and reached the Beagle on the evening of 7 February.

Concern about the well being of the three Fuegians, FitzRoy and a few others took a boat out on the 12th to check up on the mission at Woollya (see map, below). He found that the Fuegians had fixed up the place, the gardens were replanted, and the huts in good repair. After staying at the mission for a few days the crew headed back to the Beagle.


The Beagle sailed from Goree Roads on 21 February, but was stuck at Good Success Bay for a few days due to violent storms.


The Beagle arrived at the Falkland Islands on 1 March and anchored in Berkeley Sound at Port Louis. The British Navy had just taken over the islands from Argentina last January, and the Beagle provided needed security until reinforcements from the Navy arrived.

Darwin's Discovery:

Darwin went on shore and spent the next few weeks engaged in fossil collecting. One thing that caught Darwin's attention was how different the fossils on the island were from those he found on the coast of South America. During his stay at the Falklands Darwin decided to do comparative studies between all the fossils, plants and animals he collected during the voyage. Such studies would later influence his views on plant and animal distribution, and eventually on the adaptation of similar species to different environments.

A sealing schooner by the name of Unicorn arrived in port on the 8th. The owner, William Low, was nearly bankrupt as he had spent the past six months hunting seals and came back empty handed. As luck would have it, Capt. FitzRoy saw the need for an extra ship to speed up his survey work, and after examining the Unicorn, he bought her for £1,300. An additional £403 were spent on new fittings, ropes, and canvas. She was renamed, Adventure, after the supply ship used on the previous Beagle voyage, and John Wickham was put in command of her. Unfortunately, FitzRoy did not check with the Admiralty for permission to buy the ship, a mistake he would pay for later in the voyage.

The two ships left the Falkland Islands on 6 April 1833 and arrived at the Rio Negro amid strong winds on the 12th. The Adventure was sent a few days later to Maldonado for refitting.


The Beagle arrived at Montevideo on 26 April, dropped off some French passengers from the Falkland Islands, and sailed the next day to Maldonado to check on the Adventure. More mail arrived by packet ship a few days later and Darwin received six letters from his sisters: two from Caroline, two from Catherine, and two from Susan.


Darwin went on shore at Maldonado but found it to be a depressing and dull little place. He found that he could make it appear somewhat appealing only by comparing it to being cooped up in the Beagle. On 2 April 1833 he went on a twelve day expedition into the interior with two hired guides and a team of a dozen horses. Along the way he collected a large number of exotic animals, birds, and reptiles, and saw many herds of ostrich on the pampas (see map, below).


During this trek Darwin had a few interesting meetings with the inhabitants. While at one village the locals were astonished that he could find his way around the landscape guided only by his compass, and were even more shocked that he actually washed his face! At the village of Las Minas he met Gaucho soldiers for the first time and was impressed with their appearance and politeness. Darwin became very curious about the bolas the Gauchos used to catch game. He asked if they would teach them how to use it, and after a short demonstration he tried one himself. The results were disastrous! He caught his own horse in the leg while the other end flew into the bushes. This incited much laughter from the Gauchos, as they never saw someone catch their own horse! By the time he returned to Maldonado his collection of specimens had grown to a considerable sum. He took about eighty species of exotic tropical birds, nine species of snakes, a native deer, eight species of mouse, a Capybara, and a Tucutuco.

On 1 May a small boat named Constitution was loaned to FitzRoy, and Mr. Usborne and six others took her to survey up the Rio Negro until the end of the month. The following day the Beagle returned to Montevideo to buy copper sheeting and planking for the Adventure. Darwin stayed behind in Montevideo while the Adventure was being refitted.

Up to now Darwin had been very successful in collecting specimens - too successful in fact, as he found the work was getting in the way of him studying their habits in nature. In a letter to his sister, Catherine, Darwin asked his father to provide funds so he could hire a servant who would assist him in collecting specimens (CCD, 1:206). Darwin received permission from Capt. FitzRoy to take on Syms Covington, the Beagle's odd job man and fiddle player, to be his servant (at a reasonable rate of about £60 a year). Darwin spent a few weeks teaching Covington how to shoot and stuff animals, and he proved to be an eager student.

The Adventure was heaved onshore at Maldonado on 28 May and was prepared to receive a new copper hull. The Beagle stayed at Maldonado with the Adventure during all of June, probably because most of the crew was needed for the refit. About a week later Capt. FitzRoy heard that a packet ship was due at Montevideo, and on 8 July he sailed there to await the ship which arrived on the 18th of June.

Darwin sent a third load of specimens to Revd. Henslow in Cambridge on 18 July 1833. This shipment included: eighty species of birds, twenty quadrupeds, four barrels of skins and plants, geological specimens and some fish.

By early August the Adventure set sail and by 11 August the two ships arrived at the Rio Negro where Darwin started on another inland expedition. On this trip he went with Mr. Harris, a guide and five gauchos, upstream to the village of Patagones where Mr. Harris had a residence (see map, below). The next day he rode through the vast open plains of the Pampas and spotted several Guanaco (wild llama), deer, and the Agouti (a kind of large rodent). Darwin seemed to enjoy himself a great deal on the open plains; the nights were spent drinking, smoking cigars, and singing songs with the gauchos.



"This was the first night which I had ever passed under the open sky, with the gear of the recado for my bed. There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life - to be able at any moment to pull up your horse, and say, 'Here we will pass the night."
-- Charles Darwin [15]

He reached the Rio Colorado on the 13th, and after presenting his passport and letter of recommendation from the Buenos Aires government, Darwin was allowed to proceed to a military outpost near the river (see map, above). The outpost was run by General Juan Manuel de Rosas who had the unpleasant occupation of maintaining control over the local Indian tribes. After staying at the camp for a few days, Darwin continued along the Colorado River and reached Bahia Blanca on the 17th.

The next day Darwin went with a guide and a few horses about twenty-five miles along the coast to where the Beagle was supposed to meet him. However, the ship was not there so he headed back to Bahia Blanca.

A few days later (21st) Darwin rode again to see if the Beagle had returned, but to no avail. The next day he continued on to Punta Alta where he could view the entire harbor and keep watch for the Beagle.

Darwin's Discovery:

While searching for fossils along the shore of Punta Alta, Darwin came across a very interesting find. He uncovered the complete fossil of a very large animal which he could not identify at all (it turned out to be a giant ground sloth). What struck Darwin as very odd was that this fossil was imbedded in a cliff face below a layer of white sea shells, similar to the layer he found on the island of Santiago the year before. Needless to say, this puzzled Darwin a great deal. Among the questions that ran through Darwin's head were:

- Why were there were no living animals in South America that looked remotely like the creature he found?

- Did changes in the environment cause its extinction? If so, why?

- If the environment did change, what caused those changes?

- How long ago did this creature die? According to Lyell's theory, land masses rose in tiny increments over eons of time. Based on where this fossil was situated, it must have died many thousands of years ago.

At last Darwin heard that the Beagle was anchored in Port Belgrano, near Bahia Blanca, and rode out to meet the ship there.


The Beagle left the Rio Negro on 1 September and headed north to survey near the Plate River. Darwin received permission to stay behind and explore on yet another inland trek, this time to Buenos Aires.


Along the coast Darwin discovered many fossils imbedded in the beach sand. He found the near perfect head of a Megatherium, part of another skull, the teeth of another, an animal of the Edentate order (armadillos, anteaters, sloths), more fossils related to the Edentate, a large Toxodon-like creature, a giant fossilized armadillo shell, the tusk of a boar-like creature, and a fossil tooth of some kind of horse-like animal. About 30 miles from here, in a red earth cliff, he found the fossils of rodent teeth, and the head of a Ctenomys (like the Tucutuco rodent).

Darwin's Discovery:

One thing that puzzled Darwin about the fossils he was collecting throughout South America was that many of them had obviously been huge animals in their day. The problem was, large animals require huge amounts of food to survive, and this area of South America had very sparse vegetation. Darwin theorized that during the time these huge animals roamed the continent the plains must have been covered in lush vegetation. Perhaps over time the vegetation became more sparse and the animals starved to death?

The obvious question was - what caused the environment to change so dramatically?

Darwin had second thoughts on this, however. He saw that by comparing the large size of modern animals in Africa, a region with sparse vegetation, to the fossils he was collecting in South America, that the bulk of an animal has no relation to the amount of food it needed to consume each day.

Therefore, an environmental change that reduced the vegetation in South America may not have caused the animals to die off.

The burning question remained - how did the animals become extinct?

When Darwin arrived back at Bahia Blanca on the 8th the Beagle had not yet returned from its surveying duties, so he set off overland to Buenos Aires with a Gaucho guide (see map, below). He reached the Rio Sauce by noon and then headed for the Sierra de Ventana mountains which Darwin was most interested in as it had remained entirely unexplored. On the morning of the 9th Darwin ascended the mountain only to find a valley between himself and the peak. He crossed the grassy valley and reached the top of the peak in the afternoon, but was not very impressed with the geology of the area.


Darwin stopped at a Posta (a small military outpost) on the 12th and waited for some of General Rosa's soldiers to arrive and escort him to Buenos Aires. A few days passed and the soldiers had not arrived, so he left the posta with five other armed Guachos and headed back to Buenos Aires. Darwin arrived at Buenos Aires on the 20th, and took up lodgings with a local English merchant by the name of Edward Lamb.

In the evening of 27 September Darwin set out with some guides for the town of St. Fe on the Parana River. A few days later he arrived at the Rio Tererco ("A" on map, below) where some local men took Darwin in a canoe to some fossil beds along the Tererco, but he found only a few poor specimens there. He arrived at St. Fe on 2 October where he spent the next few days confined to bed with a headache and was attended to by an elderly lady.



On 5 October 1833 Darwin crossed the Rio Parana to the village of St. Fe Bajada ("B" on map, above). He stayed here five days and located several good fossils: a four foot long giant armadillo case, the molar tooth of a mastodon, and many other small fossils.

Darwin's Discovery:

While on this trek Darwin spent much time thinking about how species in South America were similar to those in Europe. He found it odd that within such different environments there existed the same types of animals. This conflicted with the notion that god created each species perfectly adapted to its particular environment.

About a week later Darwin wanted to continue exploring upstream, but he still felt a bit ill so he secured passage on a one-masted boat and headed back to Buenos Aires.

When Darwin arrived near the mouth of the Parana River on 20 October he went on shore and found out that a revolution had broken out at Buenos Aires. This made further travel on the river impossible so the next day he proceeded overland and with some difficulty made it to Buenos Aires. Two weeks later Darwin "escaped" from Buenos Aires amid much civil unrest and boarded a packet ship en-route to the Beagle at Montevideo. As was usually the case, when he arrived a few days later the Beagle was not there to pick him up. There was nothing to be done about it, so Darwin thought about taking another trek into the countryside.

While planning out his next adventure Darwin shipped his forth group of specimens to Cambridge. This load consisted of about two-hundred animal skins, some mice, a jar of fish, many insects, rocks, seeds, and naturally, his huge collection of fossils and geological specimens.

Darwin started his next trek on 14 November, traveling first to the village of Canelones, and over the next few days continuing on through the villages of St. Lucia and San Jose. On 20 November he rode to the headland of the Uruguay River at Punta Gorda where he tried unsuccessfully to hunt down a jaguar. In the evening Darwin proceeded to the town of Mercedes on the Rio Negro where he stayed at a large estancia and dined with an army Captain and some of his soldiers.


"The captain said at last, he had one question to ask me, which he should be very much obliged if I would answer with all truth. I trembled to think how deeply scientific it would be: it was, 'Whether the ladies of Buenos Ayres were not the handsomest in the world.' I replied, 'Charmingly so.' He added, 'I have one other question. Do the ladies in any other part of the world wear such large combs?' I solemnly assured him they did not. They were absolutly delighted. The captain exclaimed, 'Look there! a man who has seen half the world says it is the case; we always thought so, but now we know it.' My excellent judgment in beauty procured me a most hospital reception ..."
-- Charles Darwin [16]

Darwin headed back to Montevideo on 26 November, stopping by a small farm on the Sarandis river near the Rio Negro where he heard some large fossils could be found. At the farm he was shown the head of a large animal which he bought for 18 pence, but Darwin was unable to identify what species it belonged to (it was later identified by Richard Owen as the head of a Toxodon). He also found the fossilized shell of an gigantic armadillo nearby. As you can imagine, by this time Darwin had become totally hooked on fossil collecting.

The Beagle picked up Darwin at Montevideo on the 28 November. Ironically Darwin could not wait to get back onboard the Beagle even if it meant becoming seasick. They set sail on the 3rd and, you guessed it, Darwin became seasick again.

[15] Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, Volume 3, page 82. Darwin, Charles. New York: AMS Press, 1966. (a reprint of the 1839 edition, by Henry Colburn Publishers, London)

[16] Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, Volume 3, page 172.