31st August to 4th September 1838

Cape Verde Islands
After a most excellent passage, we came to an anchor early in the morning at Porto Praya. We found lying there, as commonly is the case, some slaving vessels. The weather, during our short stay of four days was very fine, but as this was the beginning of the unhealthy season, I confined my walks to short distances.

I have nothing to say about the place; as some rain had fallen, a most faint tinge of green was just distinguishable. Our old friend the great Baobab tree was clothed with a thick green foilage, which much altered its appearance. As might be expected, I was not so much delighted with St Jago, as during our former visit; but even this time I found much in its Natural History very interesting. It would indeed be strange if the first view of desert volcanic plains, (a kind of country so utterly different from anything in England) and the first sensations on entering an ardent climate, did not excite the most vivid impressions in the mind of every one, who takes pleasure in beholding the face of nature.

21st August 1836

Mid Atlantic
We crossed the Equator.

Syms Covington Journal
Crossed the Equatorial Line, at a quarter after 10 o'clock, Sunday the 21st with a fine breeze from the Southward and Eastward, which we have had since or from Pernambuco.

17th August 1836

Pernambuco, Brazil
I was delighted on the 17th to get on board the ship & in the afternoon to leave the shores of Brazil. We lie close hauled to the wind, & therefore there is a considerable pitching motion; I suffer very much from sea-sickness. — But it is on the road to England; in truth some such comfort is necessary to support the tedious misery of loss of time, health & comfort.

16th August 1836

Pernambuco, Brazil
With respect to the origin of the reef, I believe, a bar composed of sand & pebbles formerly existed beneath the water, when the low land on which the town now stands was occupied by a large bay; & that this bar was first consolidated, & then elevated. These two distinct processes are of so common occurrence in S. America, that I now feel none of that surprise, with which such facts would formerly have startled me. There is another & slightly different explanation, which possesses equal probability, namely that a long spit of sand like some that now exist on the neighbouring coast, had its central part consolidated, & then by a slight change in the set of currents the loose matter was removed, the hard nucleus alone remaining. Although the swell of the open ocean breaks heavily on the outer side of the narrow & insignificant line of reef, yet there is no record of its decay. This durability is the most curious circumstance connected with its existence: it appears to be owing to a layer of calcareous matter, formed by the successive growth of several kinds of organic bodies, chiefly serpulae, balani, corallinae, but no true corals. It is a process strictly analogous to the formation of peat, & like that substance, its effects are to preserve from degradations the matter on which it rests. — In true coral reefs, when the upper extremities of the living mass are killed by the rays of the sun, they become enveloped & protected by a nearly similar process. It is probable that if a Breakwater such as that of Plymouth, was built in these tropical seas, it would be imperishable, that is, as imperishable as any part of the solid land, which all, some day, must suffer decay & renovation.

Note: The reef, which can be traced more or less distinctly along the Brazilian seaboard for several hundred miles, rises at Pernambuco into a perfectly straight artificial-looking wall, 31 miles long, with even sides and a smooth and almost level top from 30 to 60 yards in width. It is of a hard pale-coloured sandstone, breaking with a very smooth fracture ; and a tough layer of calcareous matter, generally several inches thick, produced by the successive growth and death of the small shells of Serpuhe with some few barnacles and nullipores, proves so effectual a protection of the outer surface that though it is exposed to the full force of the waves of the open Atlantic the oldest pilots know of no tradition of change in its appearance. The belt of water within the reef is about a mile in width and forms a safe but rather shallow harbour ; vessels drawing 191 feet can enter, and there is abundant room for mooring along the shore.

[Image: A modern photo of the reef at low tide]

15th August 1836

Pernambuco, Brazil
The most curious thing which I saw in the neighbourhood of Pernambuco, is the reef that forms the harbor. It runs for a length of several miles in a perfectly straight line, parallel to & not far distant from the shore; it varies in width from thirty to sixty yards; it is quite dry at low water, has a level smooth surface, & is composed of obscurely stratified hard sandstone: hence at the first sight it is difficult to credit that it is the work of nature & not of art. Its utility is great; close within the inner water, there is a good depth of water, & ships lie moored to old guns, which are fixed in holes on the summit. — A light-house stands on one extremity, & around it the sea breaks heavily. In entering the harbor, a ship passes within thirty yards round this point, & amidst the foam of the breakers; close by, on the other hand, are other breakers, which thus form a narrow gateway: it is almost fearful to behold a ship running, as it appears, headlong into such dangers.

The modern name for the port (also used in Darwin's time) is Recife, literally, "the Reef" (Roger R.)

13th August 1836

Pernambuco, Brazil
The flat swampy land is surrounded at the distance of a few miles by a semicircle of low hills, or rather by the edge of a country elevated perhaps two hundred feet above the sea. The old city of Olinda stands on one extremity of this range. One day I took a canoe & proceeded up one of the channels to visit it; I found the old town from its situation both sweeter & cleaner than that of Pernambuco. — I must commemorate, as being the first time during the four & a half years we have been wandering about, that I met with a want of politeness amongst any class of people; I was refused in a sullen manner at two different houses, & obtained with difficulty from a third permission to pass through their gardens to an uncultivated hill for the purpose of taking a view of the country. I feel quite glad this happened in the land of the "Brava Gente"; for I bear them no good will. — A Spaniard would have been ashamed at the very thought of refusing such a request, or of behaving to any one with rudeness. — The channel by which we came to & returned from Olinda is bordered on each side by Mangroves which spring like a miniature forest out of the greasy mud banks. the bright green color of these bushes always reminds me of the rank grass in a Church-yard: both are nourished by putrid exhalations; the one speaks of death past, the other too often of death to come.

Syms Covington Journal
On 13th pm unmoored ship and went in THE Roads again. As the neap tides were coming, and THERE WAS barely water sufficient at this time. AS WE WERE on the sand bank at high water thirteen feet, AND our ship drawing nearly 13 feet, WE had a pilot to take the ship in and also out. The reef, which is coral, appears inside like a wall; with guns placed all along as posts, for shipping to make fast their hawsers. The lighthouse (revolving light) stands AT THE extremity of THE reef and close to it a small fort! The other extremity of THE reef reaches to the mainland, inside of which runs a large river. This reef forms a complete breakwater, and of course the water inside very smooth. The reef runs North and South, WITH the lighthouse on THE North side. In the Roads, there is a great deal of motion.

12th August, 1836

Bahia to Pernambuco, Brazil
The weather having been unfavourable, we altered course & ran for Pernambuco. We anchored outside; but in a short time a pilot came on board & took us into the inner harbor, where we lay close to the town. Pernambuco is built on some narrow, low, sand banks, which are separated from each other by shoal channels of salt water. The three parts of the town are connected together by two long bridges, built on wooden piles. The town is in all parts disgusting, the streets narrow, ill-paved, filthy, the houses very tall & gloomy. The number of white people, which during the morning may be met with in the streets, appears to be about in the proportion of foreigners in any other nation; all the rest are black or of a dusky colour. The latter as well as the Brazilians are far from prepossessing in their appearance: the poor negroes, wherever they may be, are cheerful, talkative & boisterous. There was nothing in the sight, smell or sounds within this large town, which conveyed to me any pleasing impressions. The season of heavy rains scarcely had come to an end & hence the surrounding country, which is scarcely elevated about the level of the sea, was flooded with water. I failed in all my attempts to take any long walks. — I was however enabled to observe that many of the country houses in the outskirts were like those of Bahia, of a gay appearance which harmonized well with the luxuriant character of the tropical vegetation.

Syms Covington Journal
Anchored in the Roads of Pernambuco August 12th pm The same afternoon, went inside reef, or place where shipping lie, in fourteen feet of water.

6th August 1836

Bahia, Brazil
In the afternoon weighed anchor & stood out to sea.

5th August 1836

Bahia, Brazil
In the last walk I took, I stopped again and again to gaze on such beauties, & tried to fix for ever in my mind, an impression which at the time I knew must sooner or later fade away. The forms of the Orange tree, the Cocoa nut, the Palms, the Mango, the Banana, will remain clear & separate, but the thousand beauties which unite them all into one perfect scene, must perish: yet they will leave, like a tale heard in childhood, a picture full of indistinct, but most beautiful figures.

4th August 1836

Bahia, Brazil
Then the dense splendid foliage of the Mango hides the ground with its darkest shade, whilst its upper branches are rendered the more brilliant by the profusion of light. In the temperate zones, as it appears to me, the case is different, the colours there are not so dark, or rich, & hence the declining sun, which casts forth red, purple or yellow rays, is best adapted to add beauties to the scenery of those climes.

When quietly walking along the shady pathways & admiring each successive view, one wishes to find language to express ones ideas: epithet after epithet is found too weak to convey to those who have not had an opportunity of experiencing these sensations, a true picture of the mind.  I have said the plants in a hot-house fail to communicate a just idea of the vegetation, Yet I must recur to it: the land is one great wild, untidy, luxuriant hot house, which nature made for her menagerie, but man has taken possession of it, & has studded it with gay houses & formal gardens. How great would be the desire in every admirer of nature to behold, if such was possible, another planet; yet at the distance of a few degrees from his native country, it may be truly said, the glories of another world are open to him.

Bahia, Brazil, August 4 [1836].

My dear Susan,

I will just write a few lines to explain the cause of this letter being dated on the coast of South America. Some singular disagreements in the longitudes made Captain Fitz-Roy anxious to complete the circle in the southern hemisphere, and then retrace our steps by our first line to England. This zigzag manner of proceeding is very grievous; it has put the finishing stroke to my feelings. I loathe, I abhor the sea and all ships which sail on it. But I yet believe we shall reach England in the latter half of October. At Ascension I received Catherine's letter of October, and yours of November; the letter at the Cape was of a later date, but letters of all sorts are inestimable treasures, and I thank you both for them. The desert, volcanic rocks, and wild sea of Ascension, as soon as I knew there was news from home, suddenly wore a pleasing aspect, and I set to work with a good-will at my old work of Geology. You would be surprised to know how entirely the pleasure in arriving at a new place depends on letters. We only stayed four days at Ascension, and then made a very good passage to Bahia.

I little thought to have put my foot on South American coast again. It has been almost painful to find how much good enthusiasm has been evaporated during the last four years. I can now walk soberly through a Brazilian forest; not but what it is exquisitely beautiful, but now, instead of seeking for splendid contrasts, I compare the stately mango trees with the horse-chestnuts of England. Although this zigzag has lost us at least a fortnight, in some respects I am glad of it. I think I shall be able to carry away one vivid picture of inter-tropical scenery. We go from hence to the Cape de Verds; that is, if the winds or the Equatorial calms will allow us. I have some faint hopes that a steady foul wind might induce the Captain to proceed direct to the Azores. For which most untoward event I heartily pray.

Both your letters were full of good news; especially the expressions which you tell me Professor Sedgwick used about my collections. I confess they are deeply gratifying--I trust one part at least will turn out true, and that I shall act as I now think--as a man who dares to waste one hour of time has not discovered the value of life. Professor Sedgwick mentioning my name at all gives me hopes that he will assist me with his advice, of which, in my geological questions, I stand much in need. It is useless to tell you from the shameful state of this scribble that I am writing against time, having been out all morning, and now there are some strangers on board to whom I must go down and talk civility. Moreover, as this letter goes by a foreign ship, it is doubtful whether it will ever arrive. Farewell, my very dear Susan and all of you. Good-bye.


3rd August 1836

Bahia, Brazil
Learned naturalists describe these scenes of the Tropics by naming a multitude of objects & mentioning some characteristic feature of each. To a learned traveller, this possibly may communicate some definite ideas; but who else from seeing a plant in an herbarium can imagine its appearance when growing in its native soil? Who, from seeing choice plants in a hot house, can multiply some into the dimensions of forest trees, or crowd others into an entangled mass? Who, when examining in a cabinet the gay butterflies, or singular Cicadas, will associate with these objects the ceaseless harsh music of the latter, or the lazy flight of the former — the sure accompaniments of the still glowing noon day of the Tropics — It is at these times, when the sun has attained its greatest height, that such views should be beheld.

2nd August 1836

Bahia, Brazil
I was glad to find my enjoyment of tropical scenery, from the loss of novelty, had not decreased even in the slightest degree. The elements of the scenery are so simple, that they are worth mentioning as a proof on what trifling circumstances exquisite natural beauty depends. The country may be described as a quite level plain of about three hundred feet elevation which has been in every part worn into flat-bottomed valleys. This structure is remarkable in a granitic land, but it is nearly universal in all those softer formations, of which plains usually are composed. The whole surface is covered by various kinds of stately trees, interspersed with patches of cultivated ground, amidst which stand houses, convents & Chapels. — It must be remembered that within the tropics, the wild luxuriance of nature is not lost, even in the vicinity of large cities; the natural vegetation of the hedges & hill sides overpowers in picturesque effect, the artificial labor of man. Hence in but few parts, the bright red soil affords a strong contrast to the universal clothing of green. From the edges of the plain there are distant glimpses either of the ocean or of the great bay, bordered by low wooded shores, & on the surface of which numerous boats & canoes show their white sails. Excepting from these points, the range of vision is very limited; following the level pathways, on each hand alternate peeps into the wooded valleys below can alone be obtained. Lastly I must add, that the houses & especially the sacred edifices are built in a peculiar & rather fantastic style of architecture. They are all white-washed, so that when eliminated by the brilliant sun of midday & as seen against the pale blue sky of the horizon, they stand out more like shadows than substantial buildings. Such are the elements, but to paint their effects is an hopeless endeavour.

Syms Covington Journal
Between the island of Ascension (Africa) and Bahía (Brazil) we find a wide difference, viz. the former which is solely lava, the latter of a rich and most luxurient herbage, with hill and dale, and birds of a most beautiful plumage. I went into the country four days during our stay here.

1st August, 1836

Bahia, Brazil
Anchored in Bahia de los Santos. The first aspect of the city & its outskirts, with the beauties of which we were formerly so much delighted, had lost part of its charms. The novelty & surprise were gone, & perhaps our memories had, in the long interval, exaggerated the colours of the scenery. There existed, however, as we afterwards discovered, a more true reason, in the loss of some of the finest Mango trees, which during the late disturbances of the negroes had been cut down. We staid here four days, in which time I took several long walks.

Syms Covington Journal
Sailed from Ascension July 23rd and after a good passage (a distance of 1400 miles), anchored in Bahía, Brazil, August 1st am, the third time of our coming here. Bahía is nearly due West from Ascension. On our arrival here the first news was that the natives had taken a 1000 miles of coast towards the North from the Portuguese some time since, which they still retained.