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The Journal of Syms Covington

Chapter 1

Expanding Worlds

An Introduction to the Journal

Maps for Mercantilists

We are in the early part of the nineteenth century. Napoleon is defeated, his Empire distributed among the victors and the Emperor himself, banished to a last, desolate prison on a Rock in mid-Atlantic. The armament of Europe is dismantled, the regiments are disbanded or sent to the new colonies, and the fleets turn from blockade to the pursuit of commerce.

Spain, once a weak ally of the French Republic, is impoverished. During the long years of warfare, she could not administer her vast American colonies: communications lapsed, her ponderous bureaucracy rumbled to a halt, and the once sparkling colonial fortresses of an Empire, fell into ruin. Spain's preoccupation with the war in Europe, disabled her capacity to contain provincial revolutions - revolutions encouraged and bankrolled by the British (and not infrequently led by British mercenaries).

The American colonies, by now split into nominal republics, are at once wrenched by domestic chaos and vulnerable to external coercion. Principal South American harbours hold British men-of-war as well as foreign trading vessels. This is both a sore point for the nationalist and a source of contentment for businessmen who suddenly find themselves doing fabulous business with England or rich English prodigals. Operating from these bases, the British fleet maintains a degree of stability by demonstrating what it considers judicious, tactful force in the face of the more unrestrained ambitions of fledgling governments. From nearby strategic points (Rio de Janeiro, Monte Video, Buenos Ayres(1) and the Falkland Islands), Britain will sweep the remnant of the age of the piracy from the sealanes. Whatever foreign paternalism may mean to the pride of the Latin Americans, a world without war, and an Atlantic without marauders suddenly makes sea trade much less of a gamble. European capitalists rediscover the New World and her unbelievable wealth.

Starting in the first decade of the century, English-speaking entrepreneurs come to South America to make a fortune. Fantastic opportunities suddenly emerge. Until now, the cattle barons of the pampas raised beef only for tanned hides; meat was just so much waste. Literally millions of head of cattle wandered loose, a walking larder for vagrant gauchos. But now foreign money helps establish salinas, saltworks, to prepare meat for an export market. Similarly, English and Yankee whaling and sealing now becomes possible from South American Ports watched by British squadrons. And just as surely, British imports flood local markets. The material for the dashing cloak of the gauchos is made from wool spun in Manchester [Parodiz 1981: 71].

However, there remain problem areas to the continued development of the region. Most important of these, as business minds look beyond the pampas, is to range from the Atlantic seaboard of South America into the great Pacific Basin. But how? There is no Suez Canal, the Isthmus of Panama is an unbroken jungle, and the fabled Northwest Passage is a hollow myth that will crush the ships and cost the lives of arctic explorers.

Trade from Europe to the Pacific requires ships to pass through one of two southern capes: either Cape Horn at the tip of South America or the Cape of Good Hope at the bottom of Africa. The Cape Horn is the shorter of the two, but it is also more treacherous, being closer to the frigid, intemperate Antarctic. Storms here almost routinely drown entire crews as if this were the home of some antipodean monster.

Finding safer, more practicable travel between oceans is vital to the expansion of World trade. This was the purpose of two British voyages: the first in 1826 under Captain Philip Parker King(2) and the second, five years later, commanded by young Captain Robert Fitz Roy. Their instructions were to provide accurate charts of the southern American coasts. In particular, they would map the tortuous, dissected channels of Cape Horn and its approaches, and give information about weather conditions and currents, hazardous shoals and safe embayments.

In the first expedition, a bark, the H.M.S. Beagle, captained by Pringle Stokes, was accompanied by King's larger mothership, the Adventure. The mission was not without misfortune: Captain Stokes, frustrated and tortured by the violent, unpredictable conditions of the Cape, shot himself -- ineffectively as it turns out. He took twelve days to die, in his final delirium imagining his worst fear: the Beagle driven hard aground and foundering in this horrid, blustering land [Ritchie 1967: 179].

The Commander in Chief of the South American station, Rear Admiral Otway, selected his Flag Lieutenant, Robert Fitz Roy, to replace Captain Stokes and continue the survey. Fitz Roy was only twenty-three years of age, but the intense, young man distinguished himself where a much older man had failed. Even so, on return to Plymouth two years later, their ships in drastic need of repair, they had only partly completed their mission.

Fitz Roy's immediate intention was to refit the Beagle for a second trip. But there was trouble. British capitalists, who had been sending upwards of 150,000,000 pounds each year into Latin America, became uneasy by the end of 1825. Immediate returns weren't as good as expected. After a great start, South America was starting to look more like a sinkhole. South American speculation slumped badly [Basalla 1963: 46], and the government had serious doubts about the economic rewards of still another expensive expedition to the frozen South.

Fitz Roy had by now had developed an obsession for the project; he would not give it up. He bargained tenaciously until he got permission to replank, retimber and refit the smaller ship for the extended journey required to map the entire southern American coast. Fitz Roy knew what the Cape was like, and in preparing the Beagle for these eventualities, he showed his skill as a naval scientist and architect. The Beagle belonged to that class of brigantines called 'coffins' by sailors, for a fatal error in design which caused them to capsize in rough weather. Fitz Roy increased the ship's stability by raising the decks between 8 and 12 inches. This way less water collected in the gunnels, and the decks drained more quickly so the Beagle was less likely to become top-heavy and overturn, but rather shed water and pop up like a 'diving duck' [Barlow 1933: 141]. Or so he hoped.

Fitz Roy removed four guns, added modern fittings and brought onboard twenty-two chronometers, each carefully packed in sawdust and five duplicates of another instrument, called the sympiesometer [Barlow 1967: 39]. This was a kind of barometer invented by Fitz Roy.

The Admiralty conceded to finance only one ship, the Beagle, and only on a tight budget. This was to be a cost-effective mission. Fitz Roy would hire or buy other ships after he arrived in South America, but the Admiralty was not at all prepared to pay for them. But Fitz Roy knew their worth. He got them with his own money.

Fitz Roy had one other reason, quite apart from cartography, to return to South America. In the last months of the first voyage, Indians from the West of Tierra del Fuego stole the Beagle's whaleboat. An incensed Fitz Roy went after the scoundrels, arresting suspicious young men, finally kidnapping even children as ransom for the boat. By the time they satisfied themselves that the carpenter would have to build a new whaleboat, they had traveled so far to the East that to return the hostages would have meant a difficult journey against strong winds. Fitz Roy decided instead to return to England with four remaining captives, who would be christianised and educated as much as was possible and then brought back to occupy the Cape as an outpost of British civilisation. They would service ships, he thought, and tend the victims of shipwreck. Naturally, such idealism was doomed, if not by a cultural gulf, than by the harshness of the Cape and equally rough European sailors (who were themselves little more than cutthroats). What made people like Fitz Roy humanists for their time, was a faith belief that 'savages' could be educated (as Europeans) and made to improve their station. It was the belief of a missionary.

One Fuegian died in England of smallpox (or perhaps it was the vaccine). The others were: a young man named York Minster, a boy Jemmy Button (reportedly purchased for small change: a pearl button), and a young girl, Fuegia Basket. Fitz Roy had promised he would send them back, and he was absolutely prepared to charter a boat to do so if the Admiralty had refused to recommission the Beagle.

By the Autumn of 1831 the Beagle was ready to return to the coasts of South America.

The Young Gentleman

If anything, the voyage of the Beagle has been styled the pilgrimage of Charles Darwin, co-author and primary exponent of the Theory of Evolution. But that is far from the truth. Darwin came as an afterthought. Just as ironically, it was Robert Fitz Roy, an ardent anti-evolutionist, who determined Darwin's career.

The Beagle already had a naturalist: Robert McCormick, the ship's surgeon. In this, McCormick followed a naval tradition, but one that was in the process of change. As the most qualified biologist aboard a naval vessel, the surgeon had usually been the man who collected biological specimens. McCormick always had an interest in biology and geology, which he augmented, precisely in preparation for this voyage, with a full year of coursework at Edinburgh.(3) But biology was not McCormick's sole interest; his father, also a naval surgeon, died at sea when McCormick was young, leaving the family impoverished. McCormick, whose pre-eminent wish had been to be a naval commander, entered service by the only door open to him [Keevil 1943: 38-9].

McCormick was also a man disinclined to accept orders if he felt them not to his liking; this alone gained him a bad reputation among his superiors [Gruber 1969: 275-6]. Fitz Roy was no exception. The grounds may have been his temperament, his social status, the fact that he was an Irishman (Fitz Roy was a grandson of the First Marquis of Londonderry, English domination of Ireland incarnate), or it could simply be that his technical qualifications were not up to scratch. Whatever the reason, McCormick was just not the sort of man Captain Fitz Roy wanted. Fitz Roy soon extended feelers to Cambridge for another man, a supernumary who could pay most of his own way. Above all, Fitz Roy "would not take anyone however good a Naturalist who was not recommended likewise as a gentleman [Barlow 1967: 30].

Charles Darwin was only twenty one and just out of Christ's College at Cambridge, where he ambled along with average marks towards a stable future in the clergy. In his travels he expected to go no further than North Wales, when this invitation to a World voyage came out of thin air. And he had mere days to decide, pack his things and head off. So when he ascended the Beagle's gangway in October of 1831, it was a long, blind step in his life. He was not at all sure of his future or of his abilities. When he returned - indeed, if he returned - he fully expected to continue on into the ministry, in which case his experience seeing foreign missions, not to mention the wonders of Creation, would serve him on the pulpit. But for now, Darwin was an unpolished, though enthusiastic, novice naturalist. His hurried preparations gave him little time to consider his limitations, or the prospect of failure.

Of course, he didn't fail. Darwin collected everything he could drag on board the little brig. He also took volumes of notes, organising them carefully into categories, and preparing as well a longish, but none the less succinctly observant journal. Yet he always remained in contact with his scientific mentors in England, notably the Reverend Professor John Stevens Henslow. It was after his travels, and no doubt as a consequence of them, that Darwin became a proficient and acknowledged scientist. But in October of 1831, he was just a college student, starting out.

The Amanuensis

The Beagle's first major stop in early 1832 was Bahía, in Brazil. Darwin had been violently seasick for most of the passage, and spent most days clinging to his hammock. But he recovered when he saw what until then he only knew from inaccurate woodcuts and colourless drawings - he met the unbelievably lush, towering tropical forest.

Darwin bounded into the jungle like a schoolboy into a mud puddle. He says in his diary, "I have been wandering by myself in the Brazilian forest: amongst the multitude it is hard to say what set of objects is most striking; the general luxuriance of the vegetation bears the victory, the elegance of the grasses, the novelty of the parasitical plants, the beauty of the flowers, the glossy green of the foliage, all tend to this end...To a person fond of Natural History such a day brings with it pleasure more acute than he ever may again experience" [Barlow 1933: 39-40]. And the next day, "I can only add rapture s to the former raptures" [Barlow 1933: 40]. And so it continued, any thoughts of life in a little country parsonage were engulfed by a fanatic need to collect all the things before him: spiders, shells and sealife, birds, little mammals - less botany than he would have liked - there was so much!

Within a few weeks he had a barrel full of specimens to send to Henslow, and more were cluttering up the tin y cabin he shared with the Captain. But he procrastinated any further packing because he "grudged the time it would take" [Barlow 1967: 57]. There was too little time. Too much to do. "It i s positively distressing," he writes Henslow, "to walk in the glorious forest, amidst such treasures, and feel they are all thrown away upon one" [Barlow 1967: 58]. Darwin naturally employed guides for his inland ventures, and he was also regularly offered a small reward to village children bringing in "some curious creature" or another [Barlow 1933: 153]. But what he needed was someone to help him t end and order his building inventory of living things.

Under other circumstances, such zeal would fritter away under the enormity of the work at hand. Fortunately Captain Fitz Roy was at times a discerning man; he knew his dining companion, the 'flycatcher', who had not afforded himself personal servant for the voyage [Barlow 1946: 85; contra Gruber 1969: 271], needed substantial help. Fitz Roy detailed one of the crew to help. This was no more than a stop gap, since it meant a seaman was kept from his regular duties, and this was guarantied to be unpopular with the crew [Darwin 1887: (1)244 ].) Darwin very briefly employed an unknown amanuensis, as the first page of his ornithological notes, compiled in early 1832, is not in his own hand [Barlow 1963: 211].

Meanwhile, Doctor McCormick felt an outcast. He fumed, "[I] found myself in a false position on board a small and very uncomfortable vessel, and very disappointed in my expectations of carrying out my natural history pursuits, every obstacle being placed in the way of my getting on shore and making collections" [McCormick 1884: (2)222]. In this way McCormick made himself "disagreeable" to the Captain, to his Lieutenant, and it seems, to Darwin. The normally polite and gregarious lad writes Henslow unequivocally, "my friend the Doctor is an ass," adding a ruffle of apology, "but we jog on very amicably: at present he is in great tribulation, whether his cabin shall be painted French Grey or a dead white -- I hear little except this subject from him" [Barlow 1967: 46]. Darwin felt no loss when the man he sniped at as a "philosopher of rather antient date" [Barlow 1967: 56], invalided himself home at Rio de Janiero. We are therefore drawn to believe there was a personal as well as philosophical difference between Darwin and McCormick. In this, the Captain sided forcefully with the Darwin [Gruber 1969: 266].

After eighteen months with only temporary help, Darwin finally decided to spend a portion of his allowance on a full time assistant. He put the case indirectly to his father in a letter to his sister Catherine in May of 1833, "Having a servant of my own would be a really great addition to my comfort" ... "when at sea I am rather badly off for any one to wait on me" [Barlow 1946: 85].

Darwin found a man who was willing to be his servant at the cost of 60 pounds a year. He already taught the man "to shoot and skin birds, so that in my main object he is very useful" [Barlow 1946: 85], and this would leave Darwin time to work up his notes. Frankly, it was still something of an imposition, as he admits "I have not yet resolved to ask the Captain: and the chances areeven that he would not be willing to have an additional man in the ship. I mentioned this because for a long time I have been thinking about it" [Barlow 1946: 86]. By the time Darwin finished writing that letter months later (he was very busy), we find the Captain was approached successfully and one of the crew, the ship's entertainer (officially, "fiddler and boy to the poop cabin") rather than a able seaman was given the job. Syms Covington, who was only three years Darwin's junior, would be seconded to Darwin as a servant, at least pending permission from the Admiralty. After that, Fitz Roy generously kept Covington in his books for food, saving Darwin some 30 pounds yearly [Barlow 1946: 88].

Darwin beams in anticipation, "I shall now make a fine collection in birds and quadrupeds, which before took up far too much time" [Barlow 1946: 88]. When his father approved the expenditure, a relieved Darwin, replied through his sister, "Tell my father also, how much obliged I am for the affectionate way he speaks about my having a servant. It makes a great difference in my comfort: there is a standing order that no one excepting in civilized ports leaves the vessel by himself. By thus having a constant companion I am rendered much more independent in that most dependent of all lives, a life on board." He then adds a personal comment about Covington, "My servant is an odd sort of person: I do not very much like him: but he is perhaps from this oddity, very well adapted to all my purposes" [Barlow 1946: 102].

Odd but Adapted

We can speculate only in a limited way about Covington's "oddity;" whatever Darwin meant by this (and remember, he was speaking in a private letter), it clearly did not impede a friendship that lasted through the years until Covington's death in 1861.

One or two things about Covington are are apparent from his Journal. The most obvious is that Covington was what Australians call a "whinging Pom." He did not like the fact that he was on this voyage -- a sharp contrast to Darwin's ebullience. It was probably the first sea voyage for both of them, for it is difficult to imagine from Covington's disparaging words that he could possibly be coaxed into second journey for the Admiralty.(4) Covington would have preferred to be elsewhere. He did not like the ship, which he thought uncomfortable, he did not appreciate most of the places he visited, nor was he much impressed with foreigners.

In this he was not unlike his shipmates. He least of all liked the naked Indians of Tierra del Fuego. Covington of course lived in a society which still clearly differentiated the English from Europeans from everyone else, and put Aboriginals, Indians and the Irish, among others on a lower evolutionary rung.(5) You will read in Covington, Darwin or Fitz Roy, the description of the facial features of the peoples of various lands. Physiognomy, as it was called, was a way to determine what was then thought of as "cultural evolution." Low, rugged features indicated a barbarian, just as a high Anglo-Saxon forehead was "pleasing." They all agreed: the speech of these creatures was so much babble, and their customs, impoverished. Uncomfortably perhaps for us, Covington echoed the academic dogma of the day.

It is certainly not unexpected for a homesick lad to compare the cities of the New World with those in England, or to judge Catholic mysticism against a more utilitarian English Protestantism. Covington is both bemused and distressed by the gaudiness of South American Catholic churches. They were "more like fairy castles than places of Divine worship," but he seriously questions the need for such expensive ornamentation!

From the beginning, Covington is about something more practical than tourism. He gives every evidence of being a man in search of property; he may have joined the Beagle solely to look for a place to settle. Churches and palaces were of little interest to him, but at his first glimpse of the endless, well-watered pampas stretching behind Monte Video, he saw his own future in reflection. "Here, if a man is willing to work, he can save money however humble his situation may be." Like many of his countrymen, Covington -- at least then -- had his eye on land in South America. Throughout his journey, he kept a close eye on the the quality of the land, its crops, and the probability of a good return for one's effort.

Covington, therefore, wasn't just a fiddle player. He was thoughtful and practical young man, harbouring the same aspirations and beliefs of countless poor but hopeful emigrants in the age of European expansion into the wilderness of the New World.

Covington's job aided him in this respect; it allowed him to see the countryside, and also because one of his duties was to get food for Darwin. Covington's Journal is a catalogue of meat and vegetable prices. It sets down at length the variety, palatability and cost of fruit at each port of call. Wild game is in his pantry as well as domestic. Between Covington and the cook, the Captain's mess must have been both sumptuous and varied, as Darwin reprimands, "You shore-going people are lamentably mistaken about the manner of living on board. We never yet (nor shall we) dined off salt meat. Rice and peas and calavanses(6) are excellent vegetables, and, with good bread, who could want more?" [Darwin 1958: 133]

Finding drinking water was another of Covington's duties, and one worthy of considerable space in his Journal. Fresh food was a luxury, but fresh water was the Beagle's greatest necessity. As a measure to extend her surveying range, the Beagle had been fitted with massive iron tanks holding up to nineteen tons of water [Thomson 1975: 666]. They needed filling every few weeks. Sources of good (as opposed to brackish or sulphurous) water were sometimes on the map; just as often they were not. Watering parties went out with shovels and a whaleboat full of empty casks. Water could be found above a beach or at the far end of an estuary. All too often it had to be dug for. It was back breaking work, from which Covington was not excluded even after he became Darwin's personal servant. Finding water of the right quality was not easy: even small quantities of certain impurities, particularly salts, react with the walls of the tanks in the Beagle's hold, making the water undrinkable after only a few days. The watering team couldn't make a mistake, or it would mean a halt to the expedition, another search and another laborious excavation. This is why Covington frequently speaks of salt versus fresh water streams: he is differentiating useless as opposed to potable water.

I spoke earlier the bond of friendship between Covington and Darwin. It is all the more surprising in that case that Darwin mentions Covington by name only in his notes and letters, and never in his Journal. Both in the Journal, and in in his published account of the voyage, Darwin refers to Covington only as his "servant."

Covington is similarly circumspect, usually referring to Darwin only by his initials; these references are almost always written in Spanish, as were references to his recurring, but undescribed, illnesses. It is as though these were matters best kept in code. It is reasonable to interpret from this that Covington was not keen on the title of servant to "Don Carlos."

Just as likely, Darwin saw no stigma in Covington's position as a servant. After all, Darwin was brought up in a house full of servants. We have already seen the issue of social class raised on this voyage with reference to Robert McCormick; Darwin, like Fitz Roy, represented the propertied class and no matter how strong were his feelings for social justice,(7) his position, education and the conventions of the time may well have placed him just beyond the subtler sensitivities of shipmates like McCormick and Covington.

When Covington later emigrated, Darwin offered him a letter of reference, now in the Mitchell Library. The letter, sealed in red wax, says in part that Covington "accompanied me as servant in the voyage of the H.M.S. Beagle, around the world and made himself generally useful. He assisted me then as clerk" [Ferguson 1971: 5-7]. Covington, for his own reasons, preferred to ignore the first occupation. His tombstone in Pambula correctly announces him as the "Assistant to Charles Darwin"

Covington had one infirmity, a partial deafness which Darwin mentions in his letter of reference, "the misfortune of a slight deafness is sole drawback to his advancement in life" [Ferguson 1971: 6-7]. It it a strange deficiency for a musician and so it is probable that the condition emerged sometime during the voyage. Darwin was himself afflicted by a serious condition, including palpitations, weakness and sleeplessness, which would inhibit his work through the rest of his life. Though recent writers have attributed this to a variety of causes from Victorian hypochondria to the trypanosome responsible for Chagas disease [Parodiz 1981: 120], it is evident that Darwin was in serious jeopardy at one point. He became ill while exploring the mountains of Chile and spent over a month in bed while Fitz Roy kept the Beagle in port awaiting his recovery. This occurred in late September of 1834, three months after the death of the purser, George Rowlett, from a multiplicity of diseases. Rowlett's death and, more important to us, a lapse in Covington's Journal six months later are probably coincidental (as I discuss later). But it is a certainly true that the crew of the Beagle were exposed to frightful conditions over many months and this inevitably caused the death of some, and left others in chronic poor health.

Covington's deafness was a topic in several letters between the two men in later years. Darwin's concern was such that he sent Covington an ear trumpet along with a letter advising him to avoid quacks [De Beer 1959: 26-7]. Deafness is the only dysfunction Darwin attributed to Covington, and if it is a component of Covington's "oddity," then it is one which Darwin regarded with friendship and humanity.

When did Covington begin working for Darwin? We know from Darwin's letters that Covington was employed by June 1833, when the two were landed tgether at the Río Negro. However, Covington mentions leaving the ship with Darwin at Maldonado in April. This is about the time Darwin tells his sister of his new helper [Barlow 1946: 86].

Going back still further, Covington begins to show a considerable interest in the wildlife and geology of Bahía Blanca in his Journal entries dating from September, 1832. Specifically, he describes the excavation of fossil bones at Punta Alta and the collecting of rhea eggs (even specifying the number found). This could mean that Covington collected specimens, or merely that he observed and recorded the actions of others.(8) In either case, he seems to know something about the events. Better evidence comes from Fitz Roy [Fitz Roy 1839: (2)106-7], who specifically describes Darwin and his servant armed with pick axes, liberating fossil bones from the beach at Bahía Blanca in September of 1832. This evidence, combined with Covington's references, strongly suggests that Darwin at least casually employed Covington some nine months before approaching the Captain to make the arrangement permanent.

From then on they worked closely together, Covington accompanying Darwin in most of his minor trips and in a few major expeditions. After Maldonado, they both visited the Río Negro in July 1833, while the Beagle stood away; in November Covington was smuggled through pickets to meet Darwin in Buenos Ayres. Early next year joined the pioneering trek up the Río Santa Cruz. In 1835, Covington went ashore with Darwin to see the devastation of a Chilean earthquake, and months later, he spent a week on an Island in the Galápagos. There were trips along steep valleys in Tahiti, up Mt. Wellington in Tasmania and Green Mountain at St. Jago, and to the hillside tomb of Napoleon at St. Helena. Darwin seems to have gone alone or with local guides on some of the longer journeys, while Covington stationed himself at a convenient hacienda organise and pack Darwin's precious specimens. Once Covington took and cart to fetch instead an exhausted and gravely ill Darwin to a sickbed in Valparaíso.

Though Covington was not a biologist, and needed minimal instruction [for an example, see De Beer 1959: 18], he clearly managed a great deal of work unaided, thus freeing Darwin for other things. As a scientist, Darwin was not what one might call a technical purist. He never carried a proper balance, for instance, but instead had a makeshift device, using his water flask (and whatever else was handy) as counterweights. So we read "Big rat weighs flask with water, without bottom, 2 bullets, 4 pellets" [Barlow 1946: 151] and so on. On the other hand, it mattered very much to Darwin that his specimens got to Cambridge in good condition. In one early shipment, the identification tags worked loose from some of his bird skins, one mouse came through decidedly mouldy and Henslow inquires, "For goodness sake what is No. 223 it looks like the remains of an electric explosion, a mere mass of soot" [Barlow 1967: 66-8].

Packing up specimens was right up Covington's alley. We know from correspondence between Darwin and Henslow that Covington boxed things in lots according to the size and nature of the material. He sent any large specimens, rocks fossil vertebrates and such, in wooden casks. Pillboxes containing insects, or tomes full of pressed plants were sent back in sealed tin containers . Wet specimens had to be sent in fragile glass jars and were thus all the more a worry. After all, the containers would be many months in the pitching belly of a ship before landing, then to be shunted up country by carriage. It was therefore important that things be packed securely, but not crammed together so tightly that they would rub and wear. From sad experience Covington and Darwin learned two curatorial mottos. As Darwin [Barlow 1967: 230-3] relates: First, to "trust nothing to memory." Every specimen was tagged, numbered where it was found and later catalogued. Second, "It is better to send home a few things well preserved, than a multitude in bad condition."

Nearly from the beginning of this association, Darwin returned to the writing of his notebooks; this, along with his fact-finding travels, would be his major preoccupation during the voyage. And he was prolific. It was important that Darwin scrupulously record what he was to see over these years by the only medium available to him.(9) His exuberant, yet thoughtfully detailed descriptions, written with as much of an eye to art as to science, make his Voyage of the Beagle a charming, even inspiring travelogue. This would not have been possible if he were tied to preparator's table. Covington was willing to do this, perhaps he even enjoyed it; it gave him something worthwhile to do, since he wasn't a sightseer like Darwin. The two men must have thought themselves at poles: Covington ruing Darwin's tendency to cavort around Creation, and Darwin bemused at Covington's "odd" uninquisitiveness (which obviously made him "adapted" to sitting in one place doing routine work). It is to the credit of both men that they used their personal differences to mutual advantage.

Covington had an enormous amount of work to get through, in addition, it seems, to continuing obligations -- such as collecting water and buying or shooting dinner -- for the ship. There was a lapse in Covington's Journal towards the end of the trip, as the Beagle swept alone with the Pacific Trade Winds, heading home. Still a year away from a snug harbour in Plymouth, Darwin was never the less anxious to get home, writing Professor Henslow from Sydney that since Lima "I have done disgracefully little work in Nat: History; or rather I should say since the Galápagos Islands, where I worked hard" [Barlow 1967: 113]. Tahiti, the Bay of Islands in New Zealand, Sydney and Hobart, the Cocos Islands were more for sightseeing than for science. The geologic structure of atolls interested Darwin, as did the Church missions in New Zealand and Australia. But it was also a fine time to bask in the tropical sun, watch the ocean pass and think of Home.

The Journal

Syms Covington's Journal(10) is a small, bound notebook measuring 9" by 6 3/8" (22.5 by 16 cm), and is similar to those used by Darwin. Its cover is dirty-brown, waterproofed cloth. Both inner and outer covers are defaced by short notes, obviously jotted on the run. The Journal is about fifty unruled pages long, only a few of them are empty. Covington wrote in pen, with a clean, readable hand across the greatest length of the page, though he later revised parts scratchily in pencil. The page numbers (which I have bracketed in bold print at the start of each of Covington's pages) are apocryphal; they were were added by the Library, and are not in precise in temporal order.

Covington dated his entries, though it is evident that Covington wrote at least some of them well after the event. We have many examples: Covington talks in a single paragraph of the release of the Fuegians at Woollya, a return of the Beagle first a week and and then three months later. Similarly, as Covington makes his first entrance into Valparaíso, he tells us of a clock and tower built "subsequent to our first arrival." And so on. Evidence like this also lends credence to the suggestion that the seven month lapse in Covington's Journal is just an oversight, not the cover-up of an illness or indiscretion.

It is a mystery why something over six months is missing from the Journal. Pages have not been torn out, but the record of this crucial period, when Covington accompanied Darwin to the stark Galápagos, is simply absent. Covington's text stops in Peru, and starts again in Tahiti, but this time Covington writes from the opposite cover of the notebook, towards the centre. (I have differentiated these with an apostrophe.)

I've taken pains to give an accurate presentation of what Covington actually wrote, without correcting his text, though in this edition I have made the spelling consistent with the conventions of his day. Occasionally, probably because he was in a rush, Covington left words out or constructed sentences in an ungrammatical way. In correcting Covington's grammar, it is possible that I could be guilty of misinterpreting what he meant. To give you the opportunity of second guessing me, I give all such editorial additions in SMALL CAPITAL LETTERS. Where I have added my own comments to Covington's journal, these have been italicised to differentiate them from Covington's writings.

The Mitchell Library also holds a number of sketches and water colours by Covington. The former are mostly landscapes, the latter, a study of the brilliant, showy dresses of Peruvian women. The landscapes were evidently mounted together on a single flat board, since separated into individual sketches. The pasting and subsequent removal of the frame unfortunately also removed captions. Even so, most of the pictures are readily identifiable, since Covington made a point of showing us what made each of the landscapes unique.


1 To maintain consistency, I will use Covington's spelling for the modern cities of Montevideo, Buenos Aires, and a few other locations noted later in the text.

2 The first native born Australian to gain prominence in the Royal Navy.

3 He studied under a renowned naturalist Robert Jameson, a man who Darwin found both dull and theoretically archaic [Gruber 1969: 273-5, 279].

4 Covington was not specifically mentioned in King's account of the first voyage, but this would not have been unusual for a boy.

5 On the other side of the coin, it was well known among South Americans that the English heretics possess a tail like the Devil.

6 A green West Indian pumpkin, also known as the calabanza.

7 Darwin, unlike Fitz Roy, was passionately against slavery.

8 In the second case, it was in fact a party of gauchos, practiced in the art of raiding rhea nests, who came up with the nest of eggs [Barlow 1933: 99].

9 Darwin admitted being a terrible artist; Fitz Roy, Covington and Lieutenant Wickham made drawings for Darwin on request. Readers may recall that Daguerre was yet to perfect the photographic process. Darwin's main scientific instrument was pen and ink.

10 Held in the Mitchell Library in Sydney.

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 23 August 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 17 March 1998

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