When Charles Darwin arrived in New Zealand in December of 1835, he was near the end of his legendary round-the-world voyage aboard the HMS Beagle. The trip turned out to be monumentally important; not only for Darwin who described it as “by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career”, but also for the world as it provided him the perfect opportunity to gather observations and specimens that would later be used to construct his theory of evolution.
But when Darwin arrived in New Zealand – a land of flightless birds, living fossils and evolutionary oddities – he couldn’t wait to leave. The journey had run several years over schedule and he was desperately homesick for England.
“Only the other day I looked forward to this airy barrier as a definite point in our voyage homewards; but now I find it, and all such resting-places for the imagination, are like shadows, which a man moving onwards cannot catch.”
As the Beagle sailed through the Bay of Islands, Darwin’s first impressions of the landscape are far from compelling.
“…(it appears) as if clothed with coarse pasture, but this in truth is nothing but fern….”
This fern turned out to be the bane of Darwin’s visit, frequently complaining that it made walking impractical, was exceedingly dull and far too abundant. When only a single Māori canoe came to greet them, Darwin sourly pointed out that their reception in Tahiti had been much grander and dismissed the Māori as of a lower order than the Tahitians. He found no kinder words for the European inhabitants either, who he described as “the very refuse of society”.
Fortunately for Darwin, he received an invitation to stay with Reverend Williams at the missionary station in Waimate, a 21km journey inland from Paihia. A Māori chief was procured as a guide, and Darwin travelled upstream and across hilly country to get there.
“The path led through the same undulating country, uniformly clothed as before with fern…the whole scene, in spite of its green colour had a rather desolate aspect…”
Eventually, they arrived at Waimate, and for the first time since Darwin arrived, he became genuinely happy and elated. The missionary station was an English Oasis in the middle of the Antipodes – with English trees, flowers, fruits, vegetables and even cups of tea and a cricket match on the lawn.
“…after having passed over so many miles of an uninhabited useless country, the sudden appearance of an English farm-house, and its well-dressed fields, placed there as if by an enchanter’s wand, was exceedingly pleasant”
Darwin’s indifferent attitude to New Zealand wildlife seems rather odd given he was a passionate devotee of the natural world and New Zealand contains more than its fair share of curious evolutionary novelties and wonders. But perhaps he should not be judged too harshly by historical hindsight. In his defence, it is likely that extensive modification of the landscape had occurred prior to his visit. The fern that he references is most probably Bracken (Pteridium esculentum) which was a staple food source for Māori. It is one of the first plants to colonize an area after fire disturbance, and extensive tracts of forest were burned in order to promote its growth. Darwin also reported seeing very few birds, which may have been a result of extinctions and population decline from introduced mammals and habitat destruction.
His descriptions of Māori and Europeans in the bay of islands are also less than glowing, though not at odds with other descriptions from this time which label Russell as “the hell hole of the pacific”. There was no law operating at this time, and prostitution, drunkenness and debauchery were rampant.
After spending Christmas in Waimate, Darwin returned to the Beagle where a course had been set for Sydney. As they stood out from the Bay of islands he gave his final summation of the country:
“I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place…… Neither is the country itself attractive. I look back but to one bright spot, and that is Waimate, with it’s Christian inhabitants.”
However, this was not to mark the end of Darwin’s interaction with New Zealand and its flora. The impact it had on him and his work is discussed in Part 2.