27 January 2012

Charles Darwin and the... Shrewsbury sermons?

American polymath Benjamin Franklin, 10th and youngest son of a working-class family, had to leave school at age 10. Sir Ernest Shackleton was invalided out during his first Antarctic trek; he was later marked for heroism in saving the crew of Endurance. Marie Curie (a.k.a. Maria Sklodowska) was refused entry by Krakow University because she was female, and went on to win Nobel Prizes in two disciplines.

The history of discovery is littered with hard-fought battles just to get on the bus, so to speak. Charles Darwin's story was no exception - his father was dead set against him him traipsing around the world, listing eight objections which included: "Disreputable to [his] character as a Clergyman hereafter... a wild scheme... a useless undertaking."

Those points and influential uncle Josiah Wedgwood's counter-arguments are documented in Cyril Aydon's biography and other easily available sources, and make for engaging reading.

Project advisor Anna Faherty gets up close
This month, however, we got a more intimate look at Darwin's travails, thanks to the Kew Archive, which offered a behind-the-scenes peek at its plant-hunters collection. Darwin's letters ranged from pleading his case and fighting his hammock to cultural observations and storms at sea.

The content is engaging, and the archivists' work is a story in itself. They've collected materials such as correspondence seals - two of which appear to show HMS Beagle - original letters, plant specimens and even an invitation to be a pall-bearer at his Westminster Abbey funeral.

Conservators have also struggled to preserve the artefacts, bathing documents in chemicals to stop the ferrous inks eating through the the paper, and creating folios such as this, with hand-marbled end-papers.
An 1833 letter written aboard HMS Beagle to mentor Rev John Henslow. Note the maximum use of paper. 
The archivists who led Kew's tour were great hosts, and it's clear that classic British plant-hunters have a special place in their hearts - these men (and the odd woman) roamed the planet for the better part of three centuries, and included the likes of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker, physician, botanist, Antarctic explorer and Kew's second director.

Many of the collectors illustrated their travels beautifully with drawings and photos, and all of them - like Darwin - multi-tasked to secure their places, working as naval surgeons, surveyors, and even spies. Though Darwin's 'day-job' as Captain Robert FitzRoy's companion could be tense and complicated, he would have had more time than many of his peers for naturalist pursuits.

Another common trait was plant-hunters' influence on matters far beyond botany: Darwin's writings on natural selection, ethics and slavery sparked debate that continues today; William Colenso championed Maori rights in New Zealand; and Hooker helped upset international trade by shifting rubber-tree cultivation from Brazil to Southeast Asia.

Not all the plant-hunters - pioneering botanist Carl Linnaeus among them - struggled to be taken seriously, and it must have been tempting for the 22-year-old Darwin to give up - especially when his father said rather unkindly that many others had surely been asked first but refused because of some problem with the ship or journey.

Good thing he persisted. Being a clergyman would have been an honourable enough choice, but we'd definitely be the poorer for it.

The archives at the Royal Botanic Garden, Kew are open to the public, and you can ask to see (or hear) nearly anything in their collection. It's well worth a visit.

The HMS Beagle Project will also be working on a plant-hunters's series of exhibits and talks later this year with new science outreach partner the Garden Museum (this will involve some excellent cakes from their in-house baker ;>). For information, register for updates on our home page.

Sir Joseph Hooker's invitation to Darwin's funeral

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