When Charles Darwin visited the Cape of Good Hope

Charles Darwin as a young man.

By Mike Bruton, mikefishesbruton@gmail.com

Towards the end of the five-year, round-the-world voyage of the HMS Beagle the famous scientist, Charles Darwin, visited the Cape of Good Hope.

The Beagle, a 10-gun sloop-brig of the Royal Navy, dropped anchor in Simon’s Bay on May 31 and departed for South America and England again on June 18, 1836.

Although he was exhausted and homesick following the long voyage, Darwin made good use of the 19 days that he spent in the Cape.

On June 1, after exploring the environs of Simon’s Town on foot, he hired a Cape cart and travelled via Fish Hoek and Muizenberg to Cape Town where he met with three famous scientists over the next two weeks.

He first met the Astronomer Royal, Sir Thomas Maclear, who helped Darwin and the captain of the Beagle, Robert FitzRoy, to calibrate his chronometers, which are important for accurate navigation at sea.

Darwin then met Dr Andrew Smith, the leading zoologist in the Cape Colony at the time and the first curator of the newly formed South African Museum.

Smith showed Darwin the specimens of living and extinct animals in the museum’s collection and took him on geological rambles on the foothills of Table Mountain and along the seashore.

In particular, they visited an important geological site, now known as the Sea Point Contact, which is commemorated with a plaque to celebrate Darwin’s visit.

Smith also arranged for Darwin to do a four-day trek on horseback to Paarl, Franschhoek, Houwhoek and across the strandveld of the Cape Flats back to Cape Town during which he made observations on plants and animals.

Darwin was astonished to find that mammals in the Cape tend to be larger than those he had encountered in South America even though the flora in the Cape is far less luxuriant.

Darwin was accompanied on his trip by a Khoi groom who greatly impressed him. The groom wore a long coat, black beaver hat and white gloves, spoke perfect English, and had a passing knowledge of local plants and animals.

Together they met immigrant farmers and recently freed slaves and noted that the Dutch burghers were unhappy with the role that the missionaries had played in the emancipation of over 38 000 slaves in the Cape.

Darwin celebrated the abolition of slavery as he came from a family that was vehemently anti-slavery. In his later research and books, he showed that there is only one species of modern human, Homo sapiens, and that the differences between the different races are cultural and not genetic.

The most important scientist that Darwin met in the Cape was the astronomer and natural philosopher, Dr (later Sir) John Herschel.

They dined together at Herschel’s home, Feldhausen, in Claremont and discussed what Herschel called the “mystery of mysteries”, i.e., the sequence of the fossil record and the origin of plant and animal diversity.

Herschel did not have the answer, and Darwin’s ideas were still in the formative stage, but Herschel did give Darwin sound advice on the scientific method and on the importance of cautiously but boldly pursuing a “big idea”.

After he returned to England, Darwin communicated regularly with Andrew Smith and John Herschel and visited them when they returned to the United Kingdom.

Furthermore, Darwin followed Herschel’s advice. He first wrote up the results of his discoveries during the voyage of the Beagle and then, for the rest of his life, devoted his time to developing and testing his revolutionary Theory of Evolution by Natural Selection.

When he wrote his historic book, On the Origin of Species, Darwin mentioned his meeting with Herschel, and their discussion on the “mystery of mysteries”, on the first page.

Although we cannot claim that Darwin developed his theory, which has been rated as one of the greatest discoveries in the history of science, in South Africa, we do know that his meeting with Herschel in Claremont set him on his life course and made his monumental discovery possible.

In order to commemorate Darwin’s historic visit to the Cape of Good Hope, the Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society has mounted a campaign to have a bust of Darwin, aged 27 years, to be mounted in the garden of the Rhodes Cottage Museum in Muizenberg. For more information, contact mikefishesbruton@gmail.com

Charles Darwin died in 1881 and was buried in Westminster Abbey next to John Herschel and near Sir Isaac Newton. Recently, Stephen Hawking was laid to rest at his side.

• Professor Mike Bruton is a Muizenberg Historical Conservation Society committee member and a former director of the JLB Smith Institute of Ichthyology (now the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity) and of the Two Oceans Environmental Education Trust. He is now retired and runs Mike Bruton Imagineering, a consultancy company in Cape Town.

The route that Darwin took during his four-day excursion into the interior of the Cape Colony in June 1836.
John Herschel, the astronomer whom Darwin met in the Cape.
John Herschel’s home, Feldhausen, in Claremont where he met with Charles Darwin.