Australia: The Land Where Time Began

A biography of the Australian continent 

Darwin's Visit to Australia

On 12th January, 1836, the Beagle, carrying Charles Darwin, entered Port Jackson, dropping anchor at Sydney Cove. For the next two weeks, he enjoyed visiting a city of 23 000 which was overtaking London and Birmingham in speed of growth. It had seemed to Darwin, that much more had been achieved in this little place, in a “score of years”, than had been in South America over the same number of centuries.

On 26th January, Darwin visited a friend – a fellow voyager – the midshipman Philip Gidley King. Philip was from a wealthy and influential family, who lived near Penrith, in Dunheved (30 miles West of Sydney). Whilst here, Darwin was treated to a tour of Captain Philip Parker King’s estate, as well as discussing naturalism and the ins and outs of the colony. The following day, he lunched with the Hannibal Macarthurs (the Kings’ realtives by marriage) at their extravagant property overlooking the Parramatta River. Both of these families held strong anti-emancipist views about the ex-convicts. It was these influences that contributed to Darwin losing his initial starry eyed romantic outlook on Australia, and becoming much more conservative in his attitudes alongside those beliefs and opinions of Sydney’s elite free-settlers. At a later point in life Darwin admitted that in contrast to his final views of Australia, his initial impressions were utopian – he had even entertained thoughts of migrating there in search of gold.

Darwin’s primary goal in Sydney had been to document the impacts of a unique convict-based British society. His aristocratic sensibilities were bombarded at every turn – these ex-convicts had somehow managed to climb the social ladder. They enjoyed the luxuries of life, the gilded carriages and the beautiful big houses. Money was the driving factor behind all of their motives – they were obsessed with it. Darwin felt that, bookshops, fine music and other factors that made one civilized, were dispensed with. He felt that in future generations, this lack of moral fibre would continue to rub off.

Some soldiers at a nearby garrison endowed Darwin with some definitions of society.

  • a ‘squatter’ was a freed convict who’d turned farmer, built a bark hut, and become rich in stolen goods and illegal spirits.

  • A “crawler” was an assigned convict who’d run away to live by petty theft

  • A “bushranger’ was an open villain who subsists by highway robbery


The next stop on the trip was Hobart. Fortunately for Darwin there were more traditional English aristocrats here, and less of the new convict-turned aristocrat. A highlight of this stop, was dining with the naturalist George Frankland. Overall, Darwin thought that Australia was handicapped by such a harsh climate and a less than ideal social foundation, and that this would probably prevent it from developing into a second America.

Whilst Darwin was less than taken with the convict proportion of Australia’s population, he was pleasantly surprised by his interactions with Aboriginals. On 16th January Darwin embarked on a trip to the Blue Mountains. On his way, the entourage ran across the path of a group of young Aboriginal men. He felt that with their “good humoured and pleasant countenances”, they “appeared far from such utterly degraded beings as usually represented”. However, Darwin did hold concerns for their future success and survival, due to the fact that intertribal warfare was rife, they endured an itinerant way of life, and disease and mortality rates were high (not helped by exposure to Europeans strains of viruses and bacteria, as well as the European introduction of alcohol). In addition, the Aboriginals’ way of life was further endangered by European hunters with their guns driving many species of animal to extinction ( a traditional food source), as well as dogs and land policies contributing to the problem.

Darwin was saddened to find the situation in Van Diemen’s land worse. Whilst the indigenous population here was steadily declining, it was made much worse by the forced isolation of Aboriginals on a promontory of land. Darwin later wrote that in these conditions they “lived in reality as prisoners”. He also wrote that if this “cruel step” was due to conflict with the whites, “Without doubt, the misconduct of the Whites, first led to the Necessity”. At this point, Darwin had not yet carried over these thoughts and concepts of population control through striggle to the rest of the biological world, but the seeds of the idea had been sown.

King George Sound – 6th March

The Beagle sailed in to King George sound and remained for 8 days from the 6th March. It was here that Darwin sensed that Aboriginal were possibly bucking the trend towards extinction. King George Sound was a much more vulnerable settlement, without the work force of convict labour. Instead, this settlement was almost completely at the mercy of the goodwill and labour of the local Aboriginals. Darwin wrote that they were good natured, hard working and physically robust.

Darwin decided to run his own experiment in black-white interaction –

When a group of Cockatoo men visited the area, he offered rice and sugar in return for a corroboree. That evening 2 groups of dancers treated Darwin to an indigenous ceremony, witnessed by few others at this point in time. In front of a flickering fire, they danced, their bodies naked other than white paint in shapes of spots and lines all over their bodies.

Fitzroy was repulsed by the sight and found it “fiendish”.

Darwin, on the other hand, loved it, and was absolutely enthralled. He loved the dancers’ zest and the way the dance cleverly imitated the emu. Whilst he had witnessed similar ceremonies in Tierra del Fuego, but “never where the Natives were in such high spirits and so perfectly at their ease”.


Darwin was overall, slightly disappointed with the geological formations in Australia. The Blue Mountains deceived him, and he incorrectly arrived at the conclusion that they their vast ravines and valleys were due to an ancient inland sea carving them out. He thought that effects from rainfall would be negligible as it would have taken too long to create these spectacular effects. Darwin’s most dangerous flaw with respect to his hypotheses concerning Australia, was that he was still badly underestimating the age of the continent.


The thing that caused Darwin most intellectual unrest, was the absurdity of Australia’s wildlife. On the 19th January, Darwin first speculated on a dangerous new subject - the Origin of Species. As McCalman states in his book, “ it would be one of the great understatements to call this a portentous moment. At no other time on the Beagle voyage did Darwin raise the issue, and afterwards, he buried it for a further 20 years.”

The day of that world-changing moment started with a hunt. The superintendent of a farm at Warawalang (West of Blue Mountains) had taken Darwin out to experience the hunt – Australian style. On this expedition they shot a platypus (one of Australia’s weirdest creatures). Initially, when watching it swim, Darwin had thought it had many similarities with the English water rat. Richard Owen, the English anatomist had made the creature famous in London Zoological circles, and Darwin had seen stuffed specimens. Darwin pondered why this Australian version of the water rat was so inherently different from the water rat (whose niche it had apparently filled in Australia).

Prior to the superintendant arriving, Darwin had been waiting fro him. relaxing on a sunny bank pondering “the strange character of the animals of this country as compared to the rest of the world”. The original stimulus for this line of thought had been the parrot (a species so unlike any birds in England). Yet he had spotted crows and magpies in this country that looked close to identical to their British counterparts. What was going on??

His dairy entry for that day:

An unbeliever in everything beyond his own reason might exclaim “Surely two distinct creators must have been at work; their object however has been the same and certainly the end in each case is complete.” While thus thinking, I observed the conical pitfall of a Lion-Ant: - A fly fell and immediately disappeared; then came a large but unwary Ant; its struggles to escape being very violent, the little jets of sand described by Kerby (Vol I. p. 425) were promptly directed against him. – his fate however was better than that of the poor fly’s: - Without a doubt this predatious Larva belongs to the same genus but to a different species from the European one. – Now what would the Disbeliever say to this?

Would any two workmen ever hit on so beautiful, so simple & yet so artificial a contrivance? It cannot be thought so. – The one hand has surely worked throughout the universe. A Geologist perhaps would suggest that the periods of Creation have been distinct & remote the one from the other; that the Creator rested in his labour.

This passage is fraught with ambiguities, one can imagine like the encoded versions of inventions that Leonard Da Vinci implemented. Darwin was obviously concerned that his friends and family might one day stumble across this page. McCalman writes “While Darwin nowhere advances a purely secular interpretation, his use of the phrase “unbeliever in anything except his own reason” certainly implies it. Darwin was definitely beginning to question those positions held by the creationist-naturalists, none of which offered any insight into why Australian species were the way they were. He was beginning to chip away at the creationist logic.

The Warawalang entries, were also important, as they show us that Darwin was thinking about the function and behaviour of species within the earth’s overall ecology. “Ecological puzzles were edging Darwin towards an evolutionary hypothesis, though he did not then realize it. Neither did he realize that the next and final leg of the Beagle’s voyage, where he shifted his attention from people, parrots and platypuses to tiny coral polypi, would take him further and faster down that dangerous track”. (McCalman, 2009).


Iain McCalman. Darwin’s Armada. How four voyagers to Australasia won the battle for evolution and changed the world. 2009. Published by “Penguin Group” (Australia).

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Author: M. H. Monroe
Last updated 11/04/2019



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