Tracing Darwin’s footsteps
A new map follows scientist Charles Darwin’s journey in the Western Cape in 1838, doing research and collecting specimens
LAST YEAR was the 200th anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin and the 150th anniversary of the publication of his famous book, On the Origin of Species.
In this book, published in 1859, he put forward his theory of evolution – that all creatures on earth are descended, over millions of years and many changes, from a single ancestor, and that we all developed through natural selection.
This means, very briefly, that the fittest species – those who can adapt best to their environment – are likely to be the ones that survive.
In 1834, a quarter century before he published Origin, Darwin spent 18 days in Cape Town and some of his research from that trip was used in his book.
Darwin was 27 when he visited our city aboard the HMS Beagle, which was on its way back to England from South America. The ship docked at 13 ports during its voyage and stayed the longest in Simon’s Bay (now Simon’s Town). The South African leg of the voyage was the last part of the journey which took five years.
Darwin was a graduate of Cambridge University in England, with a background in natural science and his dad reckoned that it would be a good experience for his son to see the world. so Darwin went on the ship as a companion to Robert Fitzroy, who was the captain.
Darwin observed everything around him, collected specimens and made notes. It wasn’t a free ride – Darwin’s dad had to pay for his ticket. It was like a super gap year – one that lasted five years.
In the Cape, Darwin visited Simon’s Bay, Wynberg, Claremont, Observatory, Cape Town, Sea Point, Paarl, Franschhoek, the Franschhoek Pass, Grabouw, Houw Hoek, Sir Lowry’s Pass and the Cape Flats.
The Darwin Trail – a map which traces his steps through the Western Cape, has been published by A&C Maps. The map was initiated by Dr Wilmot James, who is a DA MP and shadow minister for higher education and training, as part of the Africa Genome Education Institute Darwin 200 celebrations – a project to create greater awareness of Darwin’s legacy.
On the easy-to-follow map, there are references to things that Darwin saw, as well as information about attractions that were not there in his day. One can track his movements and visit the places he stopped at.
While here, Darwin discovered a Cape bug and it is named after him – Kaapiad Darwini.
Find out more at The Darwin Exhibition which is on at the Iziko SA Museum, until April. The exhibition includes some of the notes and observations that he made on the Beagle voy- age. It also shows his impressions of the people he encountered and the landscape he travelled through, as well as the specimens he collected.
After he got back to England, he stayed in contact with many people he met in the Cape.
His African journey made a big impression on Darwin
He reckoned that modern human beings originally came from our continent – that we all had a common ancestor. It has turned out that he was right – the evidence for the evolution of creatures on earth over millions of years is now clear.
The Darwin Trail Map is available free from Cape Town Tourism, tourism bureaus, Iziko museums, the MTN Sciencentre or from the Africa Genome Education Institute. Call 021 683 5814 or go to www.africagenome.com or www.capetown.travel for more information.
LONG AGO: Wynberg was still rural when Darwin visited.
VOYAGE: Darwin spent five years on HMS Beagle, which stopped in Cape Town.
NATURAL SELECTION: Enjoying the exhibition are
Chris Stringer (from London’s Natural history Museum) Colin Payne of