11 July 2009

Stokes's Journal

What remains of Pringle Stokes's HMS Beagle journal went under the hammer last month. The Brisbane Times had the story.

Pringle Stokes was the ill-fated first captain of the Beagle, who took his own life off the coast of Patagonia in 1828. Unfortunately for poor Stokes, his pistol-aim was far from true, and he took 12 days to die a painful death.

This all happened during the first Beagle voyage. It was Stokes's suicide, combined with a fear of a hereditary suicidal trait, which convinced Robert FitzRoy that he should take a gentleman companion with him when he captained Beagle on her second voyage. As we all know, Charles Darwin was selected for the role.

So, putting it rather simplistically, no Stokes suicide; no On the Origin of Species.

As a Brit, I have to say it irks me somewhat that Stokes's journal - an important artefact of British maritime history - has ended up in Australia (where, admittedly, it was rediscovered in 1977, having been taken there by Stokes's shipmate, Philip Parker King). Having said that, as a Brit, I probably shouldn't complain too much about important historical artefacts' being housed in other countries.


Mike Haubrich said...

Richard, most Americans think that Australia is actually still part of Britain, so we don't understand your patriotic indignance.

An important find.

Karen James said...

Of course, Wallace would have published natural selection, but would it have had the same impact as On the Origin of Species? Darwin had such a special gift for communication, and, unlike Wallace, was unencumbered by the need to earn his living, so had time to muster all the evidence and present it as 'one long argument'. (See Dawkins' excellent talk Darwin's Five Bridges).

It might have taken longer, for example, for the full suite of implications of the theory to be synthesized, and how would this have overlapped with what we now know as the 'modern synthesis'?

Stories like this also tempt some to speculate that Stokes' suicide was 'for a purpose' because it seems so in hindsight ...which is why it's so delightful in this case that it's exactly that kind of egocentric view of which Darwin taught us to disabuse ourselves.

p.s. Was that last line for me? If so, thanks!