On January 12 1836, Charles Darwin stood about the deck of the tiny brig HMS Beagle as it made its way into Sydney Cove. The observations he was to make during his journey around the young Australian colony would contribute to his thinking about evolution – the theory through which he would come to change our thinking about the entire natural world.
In 1859, aged 50, Darwin would publish On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection to great controversy. 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of the naturalist’s birth and the 150th
anniversary of the publication of this seminal work. As part of the anniversary celebrations, numerous exhibitions and events are planned nationwide.
Cambridge University Press Australia is celebrating this occasion with the release of a full colour, large format version of its classic Charles Darwin in Australia in a special Anniversary Edition. The book’s husband and wife author team are Frank Nicholas, Emeritus Professor of Animal Genetics at the University of Sydney and Jan Nicholas, a retired librarian whose knowledge of the Martens collections in the State Library of NSW’s Mitchell Library was a major impetus for the work.
“Owing mainly to his own understated account of the visit in his published Journal, the general view has emerged that Darwin did and saw nothing of importance in Australia; that the visit was of no
consequence,” said the authors.
“However, examination of all the relevant material, much of it unpublished, reveals that he was actually
very active and observant during his visit. He collected numerous specimens of animals and rocks and that he made a number of observations that played a role in the development of his ideas on evolution.” Some of these specimens are illustrated in the book.
During his time at King George Sound in WA, Darwin himself actually discovered the previously unknown
Australian bush rat (Rattus fuscipes) amongst some bushes. Darwin also discovered there two new
species of fish.
During his two months in Australia, Darwin visited Sydney, Parramatta, Penrith, Hobart, Albany, the Blue Mountains and Bathurst and journeyed into their immediate environs.
The book reveals a man who was deeply impressed with the new land he encountered. He speaks of
Sydney as “a most magnificent testimony of the power of the British nation”, and of the indigenous
people he met, as appearing “far from the degraded beings as usually represented. In their own arts they are admirable; a cap being fixed at thirty yards distance, they transfixed it with the spear.”
Darwin writes evocatively of the Blue Mountains and its “most remarkable” valleys and compares
Tasmania favourably with the mainland as “a little more green and cheerful and the pasture between the trees rather more abundant”.
The authors tell the story of Darwin’s entire Australian adventure, reproducing and weaving a tight story around all Darwin’s writings on his time in Australia. The book includes complete biographical information on all the key figures in the tale, including Syms Covington – Darwin’s servant and hero of Roger McDonald’s novel, Mr. Darwin’s Shooter.
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