Historical Notes: Darwin at the bottom of the world

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CHARLES DARWIN was twice a visitor to the Patagonian coast during the 1830s. In March 1833, returning from a stay among the Ymana Indians of Tierra del Fuego, the Beagle made a detour to the Falkland Islands, which lay about 300 miles offshore. On arriving at Port Louis, East Falkland, Captain FitzRoy and his crew were the sole representatives of British rule amid this archipelago, which had been seized from Buenos Aires on 3 January.

The British had arrived in force. Captain Onslow of HMS Clio had delivered the Argentine flag, wrapped in a bundle, to Captain Pinedo, and told him and the 50 convicts from the penal colony to leave. However, although he had claimed the Falklands for the Crown, Onslow did not delay long amid these windswept and treeless surroundings. By March, the British flag was in the care of Dickson, an Irishman, who presided over a handful of settlers and local gauchos, and much discontent. All aboard the Beagle were concerned, and an atmosphere of unease pervaded their stay, compounded by an accident in which the ship's clerk drowned in Berkeley Sound.

On their return a year later, the Beagle company found their worst fears confirmed. There had been a rebellion, and Dickson had been murdered along with three others. The 13 settlers not involved in the uprising had fled to an islet in the Sound, where they hid from the eight men responsible for the mutiny. For such inhospitable and barren scraps of land, the islands were fast developing a reputation for bloodiness. Indeed, Darwin had written to his sister Caroline on leaving the archipelago the year before:

I suppose the occupation of this place has only just been noticed in the English papers; but we hear all the southern part of America is in ferment about it. By the awful language of Buenos Ayres, one would suppose this great republic meant to declare war against England.

And it was no coincidence that Galtieri's junta chose April 1982, only nine months before the 150th anniversary of the arrival of HMS Clio, to attempt to recapture the islands for Argentina.

In fact, when it came to the Falklands, Darwin's predictions were uncannily accurate. Talking of the only native quadruped, a large fox, he predicted its swift extinction, following widespread settlement of the land. The fox's problems were its innate amicability, and that it was unused to people. As late as 1770, visitors spoke of the animals swimming blithely out to greet arriving boats, whereupon they were easily bludgeoned to death. The fox found its inherent openness impossible to dispense with as quickly as nature required; the last of this species was killed in 1876.

This instance of extinction is only part of a creeping wave of melancholy which has swept Patagonia and the Falkland Islands since Darwin and the Beagle sailed away into the Pacific in 1834. In Patagonia, quantities of native species have plummeted, so that the huemules, rheas and guanacos have been reduced to a fraction of their former strength. The indigenous peoples have been all but eradicated. The sheep-farming for which the region is famous has destroyed 5,000 years of topsoil growth, and reduced Patagonia to a desert.

Darwin was not without an ear for the future tragedies which would unfold in this desolate extremity of the world. He is known for science; but, like other great thinkers, his prescience is often equally unsettling. As the Beagle passed through the Straits of Magellan, the young naturalist was entranced by the icy surroundings. Perhaps his thoughts had half a mind on the rapid extinction of creatures and races which the next 165 years would bring to the bottom of the world, when he wrote in his diary:

Looking due southward from Port Famine, the distant channels appeared from their gloominess to lead beyond the confines of this world.

Toby Green is the author of `Saddled With Darwin: a journey through South America' (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, pounds 20)