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The Journal of Syms Covington

Chapter 8


[Photograph of 'The Retreat']
Syms Covington's Forest Oak Inn, now known as 'The Retreat' at Pambula

We have very little information from this point on. We know that Syms Covington continued to work for Darwin after their return to England. As Covington did not leave the Beagle until November, he probably helped Darwin unload the last of their collection at Greenwich the month before [Darwin 1887: 273].

Darwin had a tremendous amount of work ahead of him. He planned to work at Cambridge, where Henslow had obligingly gathered the pile of things sent on to him over five years. But he spent only a few months there, sorting the mostly unnamed and unmounted collection into a semblance of order, before shifting to London where he would refine his Journal and, at the same time, have better access to the experts who would publish scientific descriptions of the collection [Darwin 1887: 273]. He settled at 36 Great Marlborough Street , in early March 1837, and stayed there for almost two years. Covington assisted him here. It is apparent from later correspondence that Covington was also familiar with goings on at Shrewsbury [De Beer 1959: 17], Darwin's family home, though we have no record of him ever visiting. When Darwin was married, in January 1839, to his cousin Emma Wedgwood (of the well-known pottery family), Covington helped them move to a dingy brick house at 12 Gower Street. A few months later Covington had decided to emigrate; Darwin's personal reference letter is dated 29 May 1839.

Covington's final sea voyage put him in Sydney the next year (as reckoned by dates on his death certificate) [Ferguson 1971: 7]. Marriage records confirm that Covington took a wife the next year, she was Eliza Twyford from the small town of Stroud in northern New South Wales [Ferguson 1971: 7]. By 1843, or perhaps earlier, Covington worked as a clerk at the Australian Agricultural Company's coal depot in Sydney [Ferguson 1971: 9].

Covington's association with the Beagle undoubtedly helped him find work in Australia. The Australian Agricultural Company was a government monopoly, using convict labour in farming, grazing and mining projects. In reality, it was largely an enterprise of the MacArthur family. The Kings, relations by marriage, were also major stockholders. Philip Parker King, commander of the first voyage of the Beagle, and now a member of Sydney's legislative assembly, was appointed to the board of the Company in February, 1839. His son Philip Gidley (Covington's shipmate) joined in 1842 after learning stock handling in Gippsland and on the Limestone Plain (now Australia's Capital, Canberra); his first charge was a cattle and horse stud at Stroud.(248) In 1840, the senior King began importing non-convict workers for the Company's coal mining monopoly, offering them patronage and work (providing it could be assured they were men of good character). Covington's arrival coincides with King's recruitment drive, though we do not know if Covington was approached. Whether or not he was invited, Covington's associations with this powerful family undoubtedly helped him prosper once he was in Australia.

About 1844, Covington, his wife and their two sons (the start of a family of eight), moved to Pambula on the South Coast, at the far edge of the colony of New South Wales. This was at the invitation of Captain Lloyd, who was given a bottom land property called the Grange in lieu of pension from the Royal Navy [Ferguson 1971: 9-10]. Again, it seems, Covington was reliant on naval connections.

Covington remained in contact with Darwin: letters from Darwin were preserved by the family and later published [De Beer 1959: 14]. In early 1849, Darwin asked Covington if he could gather together a representative sample of local barnacles for a book he planned. Covington took his oldest son on a morning's ride to to Twofold Bay [Linnaean Soc. N.S.W. 1902: 345], near the rowdy whaling town of Eden, and shaved an assortment of sedentary crustaceans from a flank of red cliffs resting close beside the beach.

Darwin was elated by Covington's carefully prepared package. "I have received a vast number of collections from different places," Darwin replies, "but never one so rich from one locality" [De Beer 1959: 19; specimens attributable to Covington are in the British Museum; pers. comm., G.A. Boxshall]. Among the collection was a surf-barnacle, Catomerus polymerus, which is unique in having an extra set of plates, giving it a characteristic acorn shape -- Darwin knew of only one other specimen like it. Darwin got the Royal Medal [Darwin 1887: 388-90] for his monograph on the world-wide distribution of these cirripedia. It was in fact for this work on barnacles, with a little help from Covington, not f or evolution, that Darwin finally came into his own as a biologist.

In 1854, Covington became Postmaster of Pambula, and at the same time managed an inn, the Retreat, built beside a grey sandstone chapel on a sharp bend of the main Coast road. The house was built above the floodplain to avoid being washed away by the floods that claimed the first Pambula township. Covington died of 'paralysis,' in 1861, a relatively young man. He was only 47. The Retreat, until recently a doctor's surgery, is now a restaurant; its red tin roof and double chimneys, still poke above the trees at the bend of the Princes Highway.

Perhaps one of the most important things one can say about Covington's Journal is that it was not unique. On the contrary, many naval officers and a few of their men kept a log, if not for themselves then to satisfy some bureaucratic rule. Not a few of these books expired of damp and mould in the cluttered basement of the Public Records Office [Keevil 1949: 251]. What few words are left are just a snapshot of another time. Real people stepped into the picture for a moment, then went on.

Covington and Darwin are only two men of many who had something to do with the Beagle, and whose lives were ultimately changed by this association. Some for the better, other less so. An association with the Beagle voyages was undoubtedly useful for advancement in the Royal Navy. We know that a disproportionate number of the Beagle's officers became Admirals: Fitz Roy, Sulivan, Stokes and Mellersh.(249) But even these men would spend much of their careers on half pay in hard times, waiting for a ship. Even social acceptance can hide a chequered career, or an unhappy end.

Robert Fitz Roy, for instance, was awarded the Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, then briefly entered the scrappy world of politics as the Conservative Member for Durham. He had a still shorter, troubled Governorship of New Zealand [Mellersh 1968: 197], and was recalled for siding with the Maori against white immigrants' land claims.(250) Before leaving active service in 1850, Fitz Roy took out a new screw-powered frigate, Arrogant, on sea trials. But this was not the end of his contribution to naval science. He then became Head of the Weather Service, founder of the modern science of weather forcasting, but ended life a poor man because of his generosity. Detractors and his own violent moods finally proved the better of him. One morning in 1865, he rose from his bed unable to sleep, went into the dressing room, took a razor and slit his throat [Mellersh 1968: 281-4].

Nor did 1837 bring an end to the Beagle. Within months she sailed out again under the now Captain John Wickham to chart the shores of Australia. Darwin saw her for the last time a week before she left. "It appears marvellously odd to see the little vessel," he writes, adding "if it was not for the seasickness, I should have no objection to start again" [Barlow 1967: 131]. In August of 1837, some men from the Beagle stopped at the grave of Charles Musters, the Volunteer who died of fever and was buried in Bahía. There was no grave stone in the church courtyard, "only the long grass waves over his humble grave [Stokes 1846: 41], a long way from the hills of Annesley [Byron's Fragment (1805)].

Manned by many familiar hands, the Beagle gave the Australian coast names from her crew (and famous passengers). Poor health led to Wickham's early retirement in favour of John Lort Stokes. Wickham would marry a daughter of Hannibal MacArthur(251) and become police magistrate, and later official resident at Moreton Bay.(252) In a dispute over stipends, he stomped off to live and be buried in France.

Among others, the Surgeon Benjamin Bynoe, who showed a taste for Natural History with Darwin on the Galápagos, described Australian biota on the third voyage. He then quit exploration for a dismal career transporting prisoners. For a time he thought to emigrate to Sydney, but his much-estranged wife preferred their little cottage in England. He died in 1865, two years retirement [Keevil 1949: 251]. Alexander Usborne was accidentally gutshot while the Beagle was in Western Australia; he remained on the ship for a while but eventually invalided home.

Still another officer, Bartholomew Sulivan, left the Beagle to return to the waters off Río de la Plata in command of the brig Philomel. This time he brought his family with him, settling them in the Falklands. General Rosas, now Dictator of Argentina, was at war to annex Uruguay. Sulivan had to break through Rosas' Plate River blockade at night in boats with muffled oars. He then charted 800 miles of the Paraná river and opened trade to landlocked Paraguay [Ritchie 1967: 273-86]. Sulivan later served in the cold North Atlantic, while General Rosas, whose gaucho dictatorship fell apart, was obliged to escape (of all places) to England. Darwin's friend Robert Gore (at whose estancia Covington might have worked) helped Rosas out of the country -- and was himself hounded out soon after.

Surgeon McCormick, not to be undone by the whim of the Admiralty, continued invaliding himself until he jostled himself into a position on Ross's Arctic expedition. Under him was Darwin's friend, J.D. Hooker, later a recognized botanist; there was no antipathy between the two. McCormick, for his part, was a conscientious physician and zoological technician, if scant on theory. A wiry, almost feminine figure, McCormick developed remarkable stamina during the following years of tough exploration. When Franklin's Northwest Passage expedition vanished, McCormick led a search party. That he never found the Franklin was of little importance (it was five years since their disappearance and they were surely all dead). Instead, McCormick used this opportunity to mastermind the charting of Wellington Channel from his small boat, appropriately named the Forlorn Hope. McCormick never received the public adulation he desired, but he got something he needed more: to command a ship in a great adventure [Keevil 1943: 36-62].

Of the artists, the ill Augustus Earle died in England in 1838; his last exhibition showed only one painting(253), taken from drawings he had made in Australia fifteen years before. Conrad Martens had a house in Crow's Nest with studios in Pitt Street, Sydney. Both are important Australian landscape painters.

As for the Fuegians, who Fitz Roy vainly hoped would assist travellers for years to come, they receded from view. Sulivan, passing that way in 1842, heard of a woman who spoke English, boarding sealing ships for the company of sailors [Darwin 1906: 218]. Jemmy Button greeted the team of missionaries fro m the Falklands in 1859. He made a nuisance of himself but finally gathered his people for a prayer meeting in a little chapel the Whites hurriedly erected. The Fuegians pre-empted the meeting, attacked the Whites, looted the nascent mission and made off with the boats. Only one missionary survived to scramble onto a passing ship. Some months later, Jemmy was of a different mind, industriously loading wood onto a ship, no doubt in fear of repercussions from this indiscretion. One of his sons eventually visited England [Bridges 1948: 44, 48]. Fuegia Basket lost York Minster; he was killed in retaliation for a murder. The missionary Thomas Bridges, who had better luck than Richard Matthews, saw her last in 1883, toothless, weak, close to death -- and still not remembering a line of catechism [Bridges 1948: 83-4].

Matthews found his congregation in the industrious Church communities of New Zealand. In his first three years, he visited settlements where mainly Maori catechists spread the Gospel. Always the optimist, Matthews found a good side to any ill fortune. Failing to prevent bloodshed between Christianised Maori at Whanganui, who had been attacked by a war party of pagans, he was comforted by the knowledge that "if it had not been for the little knowledge which they had acquired of the Gospel, they should have all joined the fight and even now be seeking revenge" [Fancourt 1936: 91-3]. Since the Christians, armed with muskets as well as the Word of the Lord, killed 100 heathens with only 8 of their own dead, it cannot be said that they were quick to turn a cheek. Matthews was back at the central Mission of Waimate in 1844, in charge of a spinning and weaving school [Williams 1939: 54]. He and his brother were still at Kaitaia in 1866, but by 1874, Bishop Williams found the survivor suffering from old age and sickness [Williams 1939: 292]. Where Darwin saw filthy savages, there was now an active, productive and largely integrated community.

The Beagle's last cruise ended in October 1843. Two years later, her masts cut down, she was put on the river Roach near Paggleson in Essex as a Coast Guard watch vessel. Even her name was removed in 1863. Finally, on 13 May 1870, she was sold to Murray and Trainer, scrapdealers [Thomson 1995: 269].

The little bark and its crew of seventy three individuals returned to England with a fistful of maps, some sketches, several barrels full of dead things -- and their reminiscences. If it had been left at that, the voyage of the Beagle would have disappeared from History as her wake dissipated in the strong rollers of the North Atlantic. What made this voyage different was the seed of change, germinating in Natural History since Darwin's grandfather wrote(254) of the "acquisition and accretion" of changes by living organisms.

Evolution became the great mystery explored by the Beagle. The afterthought, in the end, became the purpose. And Darwin who might have been a minister, became the most imposing scientific figure of his century -- through a succession of accidents. He retired to Down House in Kent to study and write, but never again to go to sea. Charles Darwin was buried in a nave of Westminster Abbey, a few feet from Isaac Newton, and next to John Herschel, an astronomer who, one day in Capetown in the Winter of 1836, took time from charting the endless, black sea of the Universe, to dine with this Navigator of Nature.

Syms Covington was a country boy with a farmer's appreciation of the goodness of the land and a marketer's understanding of crops and their use, and the hope that a future could be made in a New Land. His was the great purpose that Century; and it was true purpose of the voyage of the Beagle. The boy who despised travel, who loathed his confinement in a creaking box of a ship, and who expressed disdain of almost every place he visited, Syms Covington, oddly enough, became the Innkeeper at the end of the World.


248 The home of Covington's wife.

249 Who distinguished himself fighting Chinese pirates [De Beer 1959: 22; Darwin 1887: (3):221].

250 Fitz Roy's half brother, Charles, had fewer difficulties in succeeding Gipps as Governor of New South Wales.

251 He was another extension of the MacArthur/King clan.

252 Wickham's home, Newstead House, still stands by the river near the centre of Brisbane, a broad Moreton Bay fig shading the courtyard where carriages once queued for dignitaries.

253 Now in the Australian National Library, Canberra.

254 Erasmus Darwin in his Zoonomia: or the Laws of Organic Life

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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