Darwin’s visit to Paarl in 1836


Charles Darwin, photograph taken in 1879 (Wikimedia Commons)

Charles Darwin, the world famous English naturalist and geologist, was born on 12 February 1809 and died 19 April 1882. He will be best remembered for his contributions to the theory of evolution, and his book “On the Origin of Species” published in 1859. What many people do not necessarily know is that he also visited the Cape as a young man.

Darwin was a 22 year old Cambridge graduate when he boarded The HMS Beagle – by invitation – not as a scientist, but to keep the ship’s captain, Robert Fritzroy, company while they surveyed the coast of South America. By the time The Beagle docked in Simonstown on 31 May 1836, Darwin had been travelling for almost five years.

On his first day at the Cape, Darwin travelled from Simonstown to Cape Town, and wrote that the journey was uneventful, except for the “excitement of seeing new vegetation”. He described Cape Town as a city with a slightly foreign air, and the streets arranged in an orderly grid of white-washed houses, squares, avenues of trees and gravel covered roads. On the streets he heard English, Dutch and French spoken. He was impressed by the number of ox wagons, and that many wagons were drawn by teams of up to 18 oxen. He also described roads filled with wagons and carts with four, six and eight horses in hand.

During his short stay he visited the world famous British astronomer, John Herschel. Herschel had a private observatory at his home in Claremont and was at the Cape to study and catalogue the southern hemisphere’s nebulae, binary stars and clusters. Herschel’s father Sir William had done a similar study of the northern hemisphere’s stars. Darwin also met Dr Thomas Maclear, the director of the Cape’s Royal Observatory.

On the fourth day of his stay at the Cape, Darwin travelled to Paarl and returned to Cape Town via the newly constructed Sir Lowry’s Pass. Paarl he described as a long village with houses that looked as if they had been “picked off a street and scattered in the open country side”. The streets, he wrote, were lined with avenues of small oaks and “the whole village possessed an air of quiet and respectable comfort”. He was also impressed by the number of vineyards that were of “a considerable size”. He booked himself into a boarding house, and then climbed Paarl Mountain to look at the granite rocks and of course to view the valley and surrounding country side.

From Paarl he travelled to Franschhoek – a journey that took three hours. Franschhoek he described as “one of the prettiest places I saw in the Colony”. He took more than a passing interest in the construction of the Franschhoek Pass, and was very impressed by the engineering works. That night he lodged at the “toll bar” at the foot of the pass before proceeding further south the following day.

Darwin leaves us with two rather amusing observations. He found the “Dutch” farmers very hospitable, but “unlike the Spanish peasant who never asked his guest a single question beyond the strictest rules of politeness, … (the Dutch farmer) demands where the traveller has been, where he is going, that is his business, and even how many brothers, sisters or even children he may have”. The other observation was that local traders had one price for the Dutch, and another, much higher price for the English.

The Beagle left the Cape on 18 June 1836 for the final leg of her journey back to England.

Source: Paarl Post, 12 February 2009

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