Revisiting Darwin


Bosun Bird at anchor at the foot of Monte Darwin, in the Northwest Arm of the Beagle Channel

by Nicholas Coghlan

It was the late seventies and I had just graduated from University in Britain. The economy was depressed, the country was strike-bound and rainy. On the spur of the moment I married my girlfriend and took a teaching job in distant, exotic, sun-dappled Argentina. It was a country about which I knew remarkably little other than that they played great soccer, had gauchos and were ruled by a military junta with a dubious reputation.

I was no great shakes as a teacher but the job came with three-month-long summer holidays. Jenny and I would spend nearly all of our time in the far South, exploring the Cordillera, the desolate windswept plains of Patagonia and – at the very bottom of the world – exotic Fireland: Tierra del Fuego.

A quarter of a century later, we had both acquired a new nationality – Canadian – and I had also acquired a new career, as a diplomat in the Canadian Foreign Service. After postings in Mexico, Colombia and Sudan, together with the obligatory stints in Ottawa, I’d been dispatched with the grand title of Consul General to Cape Town, South Africa. The city was of course beautiful, but the job un-challenging – and my mid-life crisis was upon me. 

The motto of St George’s College, Buenos Aires had been “Vestigia Nulla Retrorsum”, which (freely translated…) means something along the lines of “You Can’t Go Back”. But of course you can, physically at least. We decided to give up the cushy diplomatic lifestyle, bought a small and rugged boat, and set off across the South Atlantic to rediscover Patagonia, in the manner of its first explorers and with an eye to their own adventures. This is the voyage recounted in my recent book: Winter in Fireland.

An essential volume in our necessarily tiny library on board was Charles Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle. It is set very largely in the waters off Chilean and Argentine Patagonia in the early 1830s, and in fact the long sail of HMS Beagle back to London via the Galapagos, the South Pacific, New Zealand and South Africa is accorded only a few pages of hurried narrative, almost as a postscript. Everywhere we sailed, it was with Darwin on hand, his descriptions often so precise that we could pick out glaciers, bays and peaks as we went, even though these often acquired their present names after the Beagle was back at Devonport and Captain Robert Fitzroy had submitted his detailed logs to the Admiralty for inspection and approval.

The Romanche Glacier, Northwest Arm of the Beagle Channel

Darwin’s description of the Northwest Arm of what would later become known as the Beagle Channel could be drawn from a modern guidebook:

The scenery here becomes grander than before. The lofty mountains on the north side compose the granitic axis, the backbone of the country, and boldly rise to a height of between three and four thousand feet, with one peak above six thousand feet. They are covered by a wide mantle of perpetual snow, and numerous cascades pour their waters, through the woods and into the narrow channel below. In many parts magnificent glaciers extend from the mountain side to the water’s edge. It is scarcely possible to imagine anything more beautiful than the beryl-blue of these glaciers…

HMS Beagle’s anchorage at Puerto Deseado, Argentine Patagonia

It was particularly interesting to leaf through the Voyage of the Beagle with the knowledge of how Darwin’s career would subsequently develop. In the desolate Patagonian port of Puerto Deseado (where we spent weeks stranded with engine problems) we find him quoting Shelley as he muses tentatively and – for the time – controversially, on the age of the Earth:

There was not a tree, and, excepting the guanaco, which stood on the hill-top a watchful sentinel over its herd, scarcely an animal or a bird. All was stillness and desolation. Yet in passing over these scenes, without one bright object near, an ill-defined but strong sense of pleasure is vividly excited. One asked how many ages the plain had thus lasted, and how many more it was doomed thus to continue.

“None can reply – all seems eternal now
The wilderness has a mysterious tongue,
Which teaches awful doubt”

Back at sea Darwin notices with interest that Jemmy Button, one of the Fuegian natives that Fitzroy had kidnapped on an earlier voyage and was now planning to return to his home, had preternaturally sharp vision; he wonders whether this gift could somehow be the result of the circumstances in which Jemmy grew up, and the great importance that sharp vision must have for hunter/gatherers such as the Yahgan people.

But remember that at this time Darwin was only in his early twenties: he didn’t get it all right. He observes the Yahgan people of Tierra del Fuego with great interest and seems to register how resistant they are to cold, that they thrive where no European could so so. But he quite wrongly describes the Yahgan language as composed of about a hundred words, dismissing its speakers as “primitive beasts… cannibals.. the least civilised race on Earth”. Far from sharing the modern consensus – that there are no “inferior” or “superior” races, just races that have adapted in different ways to different environments – he develops the idea that the Yahgans are a primitive version of modern man, an ancestor rather than a variant.

The children of a disappearing race: Yahgan girls, circa 1882

And what would Darwin’s ghost have said if he had accompanied us as supernumerary crew in 2005, aboard our little 27ft cutter, Bosun Bird? Except for the distinctive Corcovado Mountain that towers over it, he would not have recognised Botafogo Bay, Rio de Janeiro, where he rented a cottage and wandered awe-struck in the luxuriant tropical jungle; today Botafogo is crammed with skyscrapers, criss-crossed with six-lane highways and swelters in a miasma of atmospheric pollution. He probably would not be surprised to learn that Britain had thirty years ago fought a war with Argentina’s military dictatorship over the Falkland Islands: the islands were a chaotic and violent no-man’s land with Argentina, Britain, France and the USA all periodically laying claim to them when Darwin visited, and to the extent that Argentina was governed at all, it was by a ruthless dictator by the name of General Rosas.

Other than the small settlements of Ushuaia and Puerto Williams, he would find Tierra del Fuego almost as empty as it was in his day.  But he might be surprised to find people visiting the archipelago on account of its scenic beauty: for early Victorians such as Darwin, landscapes such as this were not places to wonder at, except in fear. “Tourism” meant seeing the sights of Paris, Rome and Florence, with even the Swiss Alps still far from fashionable.

The wrong side of the tracks, Puerto Williams, Chile

Darwin’s ghost would surely be saddened, but not necessarily surprised to find that the proud Yahgan people are now reduced to one solitary old lady, Cristina Calderón, who lives on the wrong side of the tracks in Puerto Williams and who charges tourists to take her photograph. But he might be sobered to learn what brought about their demise: forced conversion to Christianity and equally forced re-settlement in confined, semi-urban circumstances. In the case of the Ona people on the big island of Tierra del Fuego, the story was even sadder: they were literally hunted to death, and ranchers rewarded with a five-pound bounty for Ona scalps. 

But above all our supernatural crew would be fascinated by Lucas Bridges’ account, in Uttermost Part of the Earth, of growing up with these “savages” – who were of course nothing of the kind – and with the legacy of Bridges’ father Thomas; a dictionary of the Yahgan (or Yamana) language. In the pages of this 32,000 word dictionary are glimpsed a people who lived in complex harmony with the apparently hostile natural world that surrounded them, that could describe that world with a precision and with detail that go far beyond English, and whose spiritual life was rich and sophisticated, if menacing. Darwin would, I think, have softly closed the dictionary – whose original lies quietly crumbling away in the British Museum – with a knowing, if rueful smile.

All photographs courtesy of the author

About the Author:

Nick Coghlan was educated at The Queen’s College, Oxford and Nottingham University (UK).  In 1978, accompanied by his wife Jenny, he took up a teaching post at St George’s College, Buenos Aires, Argentina. In 1981 they emigrated to Canada, bought a 27ft boat, and in 1985 set off aboard Tarka the Otter on what would become a circumnavigation of the world.  In 1991 Nick joined the Canadian Foreign Service; his postings have included Mexico City, Bogota, Khartoum, Cape Town and Islamabad. Nick’s postings in Colombia and Sudan are recalled in his two books The Saddest Country and Far in the Waste Sudan (both  McGill-Queens University Press). In 2005 Nick and Jenny embarked from Cape Town on the voyage recounted in Winter in Fireland; they are currently cruising on Bosun Bird in Japan.