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Charles Darwin 1836

Dr GRAEME SKINNER (University of Sydney)


To cite this :

Graeme Skinner (University of Sydney), "Charles Darwin 1836", Australharmony (an online resource toward the history of music and musicians in colonial and early Federation Australia):; accessed 3 April 2020

DARWIN, Charles

Visitor, correspondent, diarist

At Sydney, NSW, 12-30 January 1836
At Hobart, TAS, 6-15 February 1836
At King George's Sound, WA, 6-14 March 1836 (NLA persistent identifier)

An entry on Darwin is included here for his accounts of two Australian musical events, one at the home of Alfred Stephen in Hobart Town, VDL (TAS) and the second at a corroboree at King George's Sound, WA


Darwin's Beagle diary (1831-1836), MS, English Heritage 88202366, Down House, Kent, ed. Roomaaker 2009 (modern edition online)

[681] Jany 12th . . . At last we anchored within Sydney Cove; we found the little basin, containing many large ships & surrounded by Warehouses. - In the evening I walked through the town & returned full of admiration at the whole scene. - It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation: here, in a less promising country, scores of years have effected many times ass more than centuries in South America. - My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman: - Upon seeing more of the town on other days, perhaps it fell a little in my estimation; but yet it is a good town; the streets are regular, broad, clean & kept in excellent order; the houses are of a good size & the Shops excellent well furnished. - It may be faithfully compared with full [illeg] to the large suburbs which stretch out from London & a few other great towns: - But but not even near London or Birmingham is there an aspect of such rapid growth; the number of large houses just finished & others building is truly surprising; & with this nevertheless every one complains of the high rents & difficulty in procuring a house. - In the streets [682] gigs, phaetons & carriages with livery servants are driving about; of the latter vehicles many are as neat as those in London extremely well equipped. Coming from S. America, where in the towns every man of property is known, no one thing surprised me more, than not readily being able to ascertain to whom this or that carriage belonged. - Many of the older residents say that formerly they knew every face in the Colony, but now that in a morning's ride, it is a chance if they know one. - Sydney has a population twenty-three thousand, & is as I have said rapidly increasing; it must contain much wealth; it appears a man of business can hardly fail to make a large fortune; I saw on all sides large fine houses, one built by the profits from steam-vessels, another from building, & so on. An auctioneer who was a convict, it is said intends to return home & will take with him 100,000 £ pounds. - Another convict who is always driving about in his carriage, has an income so large that nobody scarcely anybody ventures to guess at it, the least assigned being fifteen thousand a year. - But the two crowning facts are, first that the public revenue has increased 60,000 £ during this last year, & secondly that less than an acre of land within the town of Sydney sold for 8000 £ pounds sterling. [683] I hired a man & two horses to take me to Bathurst, a village about 120 one hundred & twenty miles in the interior, & the centre of a great pastoral district; by this means I hoped to get a general idea of the appearance of the country. In the morning of the 16th I set out on my excursion; the first stage took us through Paramatta, a small country town, but second to Sydney in importance . . . [685] At Sunset by my good fortune a party of a score of the Aboriginal Blacks passed by, each carrying in their accustomed manner a bundle of spears & other [686] weapons. - By giving a leading young man a shilling they were easily detained & they threw their spears for my amusement. - They were all partly clothed & several could speak a little English; their countenances were good-humoured & pleasant & they appeared far from such utterly 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 delivered by the throwing stick, with the rapidity of an arrow from the bow of a practised Archer; in tracking animals & men they show most wonderful sagacity & I heard many of their remarks, which manifested considerable acuteness. - They will not however cultivate the ground, or even take the trouble of keeping flocks of sheep which have been offered them; or build houses & remain stationary. - Never the less, they appear to me to stand some few degrees higher in civilization, or more correctly a few lower in barbarism, than the Fuegians. - It is very curious thus to see in the midst of a civilized people, a set of harmless savages although certainly harmless wandering about without knowing where they will sleep, & gaining their livelihood by hunting in the woods. - Their numbers have rapidly decreased; during my whole ride with the exception of some boys brought up in the houses, I saw only one other party. - These were rather more numerous & not so well clothed. - I should have mentioned [687] that in addition to their state of independence of the Whites, the different tribes go to war. In an engagement which took place lately the parties, very singularly chose the centre of the village of Bathurst as the place of engagement; the conquered party took refuge in the Barracks. - The decrease in numbers must be owing to the drinking of Spirits, the Europaean diseases, even the milder ones of which such as the Measles are very destructive, & the gradual extinction of the wild animals. It is said that from the wandering life of these people, great numbers of their children die in very early infancy. When the difficulty in procuring food is checked increased, of course the population must be repressed in a manner almost instantaneous as compared to what can takes place in civilized life, where the father may add to his labor without destroying his offspring.

[699] 27th [January] Accompanied by Capt. King rode to Paramatta. Close to the town, his brother in law Mr Mac Arthur lives & we went there to lunch. The house would be considered a very superior one, even in England. - There was a large party, I think about 18 in the Dining room. - It sounded strange in my ears to hear very nice looking young ladies exclaim, "Oh we are Australian, & know nothing about England". - In the afternoon I left this most English-like house & rode by myself into Sydney . . .

[700] Jany 29th. On the whole, from what I heard more than from what I saw, I am was disappointed in the state of Society. - The whole community is rancorously divided into parties on almost every subject. Amongst those who from their station of life ought to be amongst the best rank with the best, many live in such open profligacy, that respectable people cannot associate with them. There is much jealousy between the children of the rich emancipist or their children & the free settlers; the former being pleased to consider honest men as interlopers. The whole population poor & rich are bent on acquiring wealth; the subject of wool & sheep grazing amongst the higher orders is of preponderant interest. The very low ebb of literature is strongly marked by the emptiness of the booksellers shops; these are inferior to the shops of the smaller country towns of England. - There are some very serious drawbacks to the comforts of families, the chief of which these is perhaps being surrounded by convict servants. How disgusting to be waited on by a man, who the day before was perhaps by your representation flogged for some trifling misdemeanour? The female servants are of course much worse; hence children acquire the use of such the vilest expressions, & fortunately if not equally vile ideas. On the other hand, the capital of a person will without trouble produce him treble interest as compared to England: & with care he is sure [701] to grow rich. The luxuries of life are in abundance, & very little dearer, as most articles of food are cheaper, than in England. The climate is splendid & most healthy, but to my mind its charms are lost by the uninviting aspect of the country. Settlers possess one great advantage is that it is the custom to send in making use of their sons, when very young men from sixteen to twenty years of age, to in taking charge of remote farming stations; this however must happen at the expence of their boys associating entirely with convict servants. - I am not aware that the tone of Society has yet assumed any peculiar character; but with such habits & without intellectual pursuits, it can hardly fail to deteriorate [deletes: & became like that of the people of the United States]. The balance of my opinion is such, that nothing but rather severe necessity should compel me to emigrate. - The rapid prosperity of this colony is to me, not understanding such subjects, very puzzling. - The two main exports are Wool & Whale Oil, - to both of these which productions there is a limit. The country is totally unfit for Canals; therefore there is a not very distant line beyond which the land carriage of wool repay the expence of shearing & tending sheep: The pasture everywhere is so thin that already settlers have pushed far into the interior; moreover very far [702] inland the country appears to become extremely poor. - I have before said agriculture can never succeed on a very extended scale. So that, as far as I can see, Australia must ultimately depend upon being the centre of commerce for the Southern Hemisphere; & perhaps on her future Manufactories: from the habitable country extending along the coast, & from her English extraction she is sure to be a maritime nation: possessing coal, she always has the moving power at hand. - I formerly imagined that Australia would rise into as grand & powerful a country as N. America, now it appears to me, as far as I can understand such subjects, that such future power amp; grandeur is very problematical. - With respect to the state of the convicts, I had still fewer opportunities of judging than on the other points. The first question is whether their state is at all one of punishment; no one will maintain that it is a very severe one. But this, I suppose, is of little consequence as long as it continues to be an object of dread to Criminals at home. The corporeal wants of the convicts are tolerably well supplied; their prospect of future liberty & comfort is not distant & on good conduct certain. A "ticket of leave", which makes a man, as long as he keeps clear of crime & suspicion as well as crime, free within a certain district, is given upon good conduct after years proportional to the length of the sentence: - for life, eight years is the time of probation; for seven years, four, &c. - Yet, with all this, & overlooking the previous imprisonment & wretched passage out, I believe the years of assignment are passed with discontent & unhappiness: as an intelligent man remarked to me, they [703] know no pleasure beyond sensuality, and in this they are not gratified. The enormous bribe which government possesses in offering free pardons, & the deep horror of the secluded penal settlements, destroy confidence between the convicts & so prevents crime. - As to a sense of shame, such a feeling does not appear to be known; of this I witnessed some singular proofs. - It is a curious fact, but I was universally told that the character of the convict population is that of arrant cowardice, - although not unfrequently some become desperate & quite indifferent of their lives, yet that a plan requiring cool or continued courage was seldom put into execution. - The worse feature in the whole case is, that although there exists what may be called a legal reform, or that very little which the law can touch is committed, yet that any moral reform should take place appears to be quite out of the question. - I was assured by well informed people that a man who should try to improve could not, while living with the other assigned servants; - his life would be one of intolerable misery & persecution. - Nor must the contamination of the Convict ships & prisons both here & in England be forgotten. - On the whole, as a place of punishment, its object is scarcely gained; as a real system of reform, it has failed as perhaps would every other plan.

Letter, Charles Darwin (Sydney, 28 January 1836), to Susan Darwin (from Barlow 1945, 131-33) 

SYDNEY. January 28th, 1836. My dear Susan, The day after tomorrow we shall sail from this place . . . Here we arrived on the 12th of this month. - On entering the harbour we were astounded with all the appearances of the outskirts of a great city: numerous Windmills - Forts - large stone white houses; superb Villas etc. etc. - On coming to an anchor I was full of eager expectation; but a damp was soon thrown over the whole scene by the news there was not a single letter for the Beagle . . .

Two days after arriving here I started on a ride to Bathurst, a place about 130 [miles] in the interior. - My object was partly Geology, but chiefly to get an idea of the state of the colony, and see the country. Large towns all over the world are nearly similar, and it is only by such excursions that the characteristic features can be perceived. This is really a wonderful Colony; ancient Rome, in her Imperial grandeur, would not have been ashamed of such an offspring. When my Grandfather wrote the lines of "Hope's visit to Sydney Cove" on Mr. Wedgwood's medallion he prophecyed most truly. Can a better proof of the extraordinary prosperity of this country be conceived, than the fact that 7/8ths of an acre of land in the town sold by auction for £12,000 sterling? There are men now living, who came out as convicts (and one of whom has since been flogged at the Cart's tail round the town) who are said to possess without doubt an income from 12 to 15000 pounds per annum. - Yet with all this, I do not think this Colony ever can be like N. America: it never can be an agricultural country. The climate is so dry & the soil light, that the aspect even of the better parts is very miserable. The scenery is singular from its uniformity. - Everywhere open Forest land; the trees have all the same character of growth & their foliage is of one tint. - It is an admirable country to grow rich in; turn Sheep-herd & I believe with common care, you must grow wealthy. Formerly I had entertained Utopian ideas concerning it; but the state of society of the lower classes, from their convict origin, is so disgusting, that this and the sterile monotonous character of the scenery, have driven Utopia & Australia into opposite sides of the World. - In my return from my ride, I staid a night with Capt. King, who lives about 30 miles from Sydney. - With him, I called on some of his relations, a family of MacArthurs, who live in a beautiful very large country house. When we called I suppose there were twenty people sitting down to luncheon; there was such a bevy of pretty lady like Australian girls, and so deliciously English-like the whole party looked, that one might have fancied oneself actually in England. From Sydney we go to Hobart Town, from thence to King George Sound and then adios to Australia. From Hobart town being superadded to the list of places I think we shall not reach England before September . . .

[Barlow, footnote] The "Beagle's" visit to Sydney took place only forty-eight years after Admiral Arthur Phillips had founded the colony; on that occasion some clay had been brought back to England of an unusually fine quality, from which Josiah Wedgwood the Potter and grandfather of Charles Darwin, had caused a medallion to be modelled, representing Hope, encouraging Art and Labour under the influence of Peace ["Hope's visit to Sydney Cove"], presiding over the infant settlement. Erasmus Darwin, Charles's paternal grandfather, wrote the prophecy referred to, which is quoted in FitzRoy's "Voyage of the Adventure and Beagle," 1839, Vol. II, p. 621.

Phillip 1789, titlepage, iv, v 

Where Sydney Cove her lucid bosom swells,
Courts her young navies and the storm repels,
High on a rock, amid the troubled air,
Hope stood sublime, and wav'd her golden hair;
Calm'd with her rosy smile the tossing deep,
And with sweet accents charm'd the winds to sleep;
To each wild plain, she stretch'd her snowy hand,
High-waving wood, and sea-encircled strand.
"Hear me", she cried, "ye rising realms record
Time's opening scenes, and Truth's unerring word. -
There shall broad streets their stately walls extend,
The circus widen, and the crescent bend;
There ray'd from cities o'er the cultured land,
Shall bright canals, and solid roads expand. -
There the proud arch, Colossus-like, bestride
Yon glittering streams, and bound the chasing tide;
Embellished villas crown the landscape scene,
Farms wave with gold, and orchards blush between.-
There shall tall spires, and dome-capt towers ascend,
And piers and quays their massy structures blend;
While with each breeze approaching vessels glide,
And northern treasures dance on every tide!"
Here ceased the nymph - tumultuous echoes roar,
And Joy's loud voice was heard from shore to shore -
Her graceful steps descending pressed the plain;
And Peace, and Art, and Labour, join'd her train.

Sydney Cove medallion, Josiah Wedgwood, 1789

Sydney Cove medallions 1789, Josiah Wedgwood; SL-NSW 

Darwin's Beagle diary (1831-1836), MS, English Heritage 88202366, Down House, Kent, ed. Roomaaker 2009 (modern edition online)

[703] [January] 30th. The Beagle made sail for Hobart Town: Capt. King & some other people accompanied us a little way out of Harbour . . . [704] [February 6] . . . After a six days passage, of which the first part was fine & the latter very cold & squally, we entered the mouth of Storm Bay . . . Late in the evening we came to an anchor in the snug cove on the shores of which stands the capital of Tasmania, as Van Diemen's land is now called. - The number of Ships was not very considerable. - The first aspect of the place was very inferior to that of Sydney; the latter might be called a city, this only a town. - In the morning I walked on shore. - The streets are fine & broad; but the houses rather scattered: the shops appeared good: The town stands at the base of M. Wellington, a mountain 3100 ft high, but of very little picturesque beauty: from this source however it receives a good supply of water, a thing which is much wanted in Sydney. - Round the cove there are some fine warehouses; & on one side a small Fort. - Coming from the Spanish Settlements, where such magnificent [705] care has generally been paid to the fortifications, the means of defence in these colonies appeared very contemptible. - Comparing this town to Sydney, I was chiefly struck with the comparative fewness of the large houses, either built or building. - I should think this must indicate that fewer people are gaining large fortunes. The growth however of small houses has been most abundant; & the vast number of little red brick houses dwellings, scattered on the hill behind the town, sadly destroys its picturesque effect appearance. - In London I saw a Panorama of a Hobart town; the scenery was very magnificent, but unfortunately there is no resemblance to it in nature. - The inhabitants for this year are 13,826; in the whole of Tasmania 36,505. - The Aboriginal blacks are entirely all removed & kept (in reality as prisoners) in a Promontory, the neck of which is guarded. I believe it was not possible to avoid this cruel step; although without doubt the misconduct of the Whites first led to the Necessity . . . [707] 12th - 15th [February] . . . I had been introduced [to] Mr Frankland, the Surveyor General, & during these days I was much in his Society. - He took me two very pleasant rides & I passed at his house the most agreeable evening since leaving England. There appears to be a good deal of Society here: I heard of a Fancy Ball, at which 113 were present in costumes! I suspect also the Society is much pleasanter than that of Sydney. - They enjoy an advantage in there being no wealthy Convicts. - If I was obliged to emigrate I certainly should prefer this place: the climate & aspect of the country almost alone would determine me. - The Colony moreover is well governed; in this convict population, there certainly is not more, if not less, crimes, than in England.

Letter, Charles Darwin (Hobart, 14 February 1836), to Catherine Darwin (from Barlow 1945, 135-36) 

HOBART TOWN, VAN DIEMAN'S LAND. February 14th, . . . 1836 [Postmark 7 July, 1836] My dear Catherine,

I am determined to begin a letter to you, although puzzled, as you may see by the length of the date, to know what to write about. I presume you will have received, some few days before this, my letter from Sydney. We arrived here after a six days' passage, & have now been here 10. Tomorrow morning we sail for King Georges Sound, - 1800 miles of most Stormy Sea. -Heaven protect & fortify my poor Stomach. All on board like this place better than Sydney - the uncultivated parts here have the same aspect as there; but from the climate being damper, the Gardens, full of luxuriant vegetables, & fine corn fields, delightfully resemble England.

To a person not particularly attached to any particular kind, (such as literary, scientific &c.) of society, & bringing out his family, it is a most admirable place of emigration. With care & a very small capital, he is sure soon to gain a competence, & may if he likes, die Wealthy. - No doubt in New S. Wales, a man will sooner be possessed of an income of thousands per annum. But I do not think he would be a gainer in comfort. There is a better class of Society. Here there are no Convicts driving in their carriages, & revelling in Wealth. - Really the system of emigration is excellent for poor Gentlemen. You would be astonished to know what pleasant society there is here. I dined yesterday at the Attorneys General, where, amongst a small party of his most intimate friends, he got up an excellent concert of first rate Italian Music. The house large, beautifully furnished; dinner most elegant, with respectable! (although of course all Convicts) Servants. - A short time before, they gave a fancy Ball, at which 113 people were present. - At another very pleasant house, where I dined, they told me, at their last dancing party, 96 was the number. -

Is not this astonishing in so remote a part of the world? - It is necessary to leave England, & see distant Colonies of various nations, to know what wonderful people the English are. - It is rather an interesting feature in our Voyage, seeing so many of the distant English Colonies. - Falkland Island, (the lowest in the scale) 3 parts of Australia: Isd. of France, the Cape. - St. Helena, & Ascencion. - My reason tells me, I ought to enjoy all this; but I confess I never see a Merchant vessel start for England, without a most dangerous inclination to bolt. It is a most true & grievous fact, that the last four months appear to me long as the two previous years, at which rate I have yet to remain out four years longer. There never was a ship so full of home-sick heroes as the Beagle. - We ought all to be ashamed of ourselves. What is five years, compared to the Soldiers' & Civilians', whom I most heartily pity, life in India? If a person is obliged to leave friends & country, he had much better come out to these countries & turn farmer. He will not then return home on half pay, & with a pallid face. - Several of our Officers are seriously considering the all important subject, which sounds from one end of the Colony to the other, of Wool . . .

King George's Sound, 1836, drawn by Symes Covington of the Beagle

King George's Sound, from the Beagle, by Symes Covington, March 1836; SL-NSW 

Darwin's Beagle diary (1831-1836), MS, English Heritage 88202366, Down House, Kent, ed. Roomaaker 2009 (modern edition online)

K. George's Sound. 1836. March 6th - 10th . . . During the two first days after our arrival, there happened to be a large tribe called the White Coccatoo men, who come from a distance paying the town a visit. - Both these men & the K. George's Sound men were asked to hold a "Corrobery" or dancing party near one of the Residents houses. - They were tempted with the offer of some tubs of boiled [711] rice or sugar. As soon as it grew dark they lighted small fires & commenced their toilet, which consisted in painting themselves in spots & lines with a white colour. - As soon as all was ready, large fires were kept blazing, round which the women & children were collected as spectators. - The Cockatoo and King George's men formed two distinct parties & danced generally in answer to each other. The dancing consisted in the whole set running either sideways or in Indian file into an open space & stamping the ground as they marched all together & with great force. - Their heavy footsteps were accompanied each time with a by a kind of grunt, & by beating their clubs & weapons, & various other gesticulations, such as extending their arms or & wriggling their bodies. It was a most rude barbarous scene, & to our ideas without any sort of meaning; but we observed that the women & children watched the whole proceeding with the greatest pleasure. - Perhaps these dances originally represented some scenes such as wars & victories; there was one called the Emu dance in which each man extended one his arm in a bent manner, so as to imitate movement of the neck of one of those birds. In another dance, a one man took off all the motions of a Kangaroo grazing in the woods, whilst a second crawled up & pretended to spear it him. - When both tribes mingled in one dance, the ground trembled with the heaviness of their steps & the air resounded with their wild crys. - Every one appeared in high [712] spirits; & the group of nearly naked figures viewed by the light of the blazing fires, all moving in hideous harmony, formed a perfect representation of a festival amongst the lowest barbarians. - I imagine from what I have read that similar scenes may be seen amongst the same coloured people, who inhabit the Southern extremity of Africa. In T. del Fuego we have beheld many curious scenes in savage life, but I think never one where the natives were in such high spirits & so perfectly at their ease. - After the dancing was over, the whole party formed a great circle on the ground & the boiled rice & sugar was distributed to each in succession to the delight of all.

Kangaroo dance of King George's Sound (plate from Eyre 1845)

"Kangaroo dance of King George's Sound", after drawing by J. Neil, plate in Eyre 1845, 2; NGA

Bibliography and resources

Barlow 1945

Rookmaaker 2009 

© Graeme Skinner 2014 - 2020