Why Darwin?

Enquiry for enquiry's sake can often be fun . . .

It all started with Imanishi, but who he is really doesn't matter. The important thing is his nationality and his beliefs. Imanishi, you see, is a Japanese scientist who disagrees strongly with Darwin's version of evolution.

When I saw a letter about Imanishi, in a recent issue of the scientific journal Nature, I started musing about suitable captions for the letter. I often compose imaginary headlines: it's a harmless enough activity which helps pass the time while I ride to work on the bus. On this occasion, I had several ideas, all revolving around the theme 'Japanese bombs Darwin'.

This wouldn't have been a very useful thing to have done, except that I went on from that to wonder where Darwin the town got its name. Apart from the famous Charles Darwin, there were several other possibilities that I knew of in Charles Darwin's own family. And then it might have had nothing to do with those Darwins at all. Maybe the town celebrated the memory of some other and unrelated Darwin.

This was better than coining headlines: I could wade through a list of the likely candidates for commemoration, and see which was the most probable. But I knew that it wouldn't be easy.

Now I have to say that Charles Darwin's family seems to have been lacking in inspiration as they approached the baptismal font: Charles' great-grandfather, great-uncle and father were all called Robert. Even Charles had Robert for a second name.

Charles had a grandfather Erasmus, and his elder brother bore that name as well. The famous Charles had an uncle Charles, as well as a son called Charles. Christmas dinner at the Darwin's must have been buzz. Say "Pass the butter to Erasmus, Robert", and you'd be knee-deep in dairy products. So to avoid confusion, I shall refer to all of the Darwins in terms of their relationship to Charles the evolutionist.

At the outset, I thought it might have been Charles himself who was commemorated: he visited Australia in 1836, while sailing round the world on H.M.S. Beagle. I knew that there was a Beagle Channel near Tierra del Fuego. I also knew that there was a mountain range there, the Cordillera Darwin. It seemed quite likely that Charles Darwin and FitzRoy, the captain of HMS Beagle should also have made a Darwinian mark on the map of Australia.

But then I thought more carefully about it, and I remembered that Darwin didn't go anywhere near that part of the world. Beagle sailed around the southern coast of Australia to King George Sound, and then back to England.

So I more or less decided that it must have been grandfather Erasmus, who had a well-developed Australian connection. For a start, Erasmus wrote some poetry about Sydney in the very early days of the settlement here.

Erasmus was moved to this after seeing a medallion that Josiah Wedgwood, Charles' other grandfather, had made. Governor Arthur Phillip had sent Wedgwood some clay from Sydney Cove to find out how good the clay would be for potting, and Wedgwood had put it to good use. Wedgwood's medallion shows Hope, apparently tired of springing eternal in the human breast, taking a break and giving juvenile Sydney the once-over.

In a burst of furious enthusiasm, Erasmus put words of prophecy into Hope's mouth concerning Sydney's great future. Arthur Phillip liked it all; he loved it in fact, and he quoted it at the front of his `Voyage to Botany Bay', saving the lines Erasmus had penned from a reasonably justified oblivion.


I'll show you what I mean with a small sample of Phillip's literary taste, but notice how Erasmus Darwin got both the Harbour Bridge, and the Manly ferries into his poem.

    There the proud arch, Colossus-like, bestride
    You glittering streams, and bound the chafing tide;
    Embellish'd 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!

Not bad prophecy for 1790 or so, but it didn't impress Charles, who made no mention at all of these lines when he visited Sydney in 1836, although Robert FitzRoy, was aware of the poem, and made mention of it during the visit.

But would Erasmus would have been well-known in Australia at that time? It hardly matters: as a Fellow of the Royal Society, he would have been well-known to Sir Joseph Banks, the President of the Royal Society. And being well-known to Banks was even better than being well-known in Australia.

But it still could have been great-uncle Robert, who wrote the introduction to Linnaeus' great botanical work, the Principia Botanica. I thought I might get closer to an answer by finding out who named Port Darwin, but I was confident I knew the answer already: it just had to be Flinders.

Most Australian children seem to think that Matthew Flinders' first name was Bassand. Certainly Bass and Flinders did some useful work together, but they were a duo who also did useful work apart from each other.

George Bass had sailed down to Western Port in an open boat before he made his trip around Tasmania with Flinders in the sloop Norfolk in 1798 and 1799. Bass corresponded from time to time with Banks, and did some useful work on local biology. Maybe Flinders heard of Erasmus Darwin from Bass, I thought.

More likely, though, Flinders had heard of Erasmus Darwin, or even met him, when he returned to London in 1801. Flinders certainly had many dealings with Banks, and it was Banks who sponsored Flinders' return to Australia.

In 1802 and 1803, then, Flinders explored the coast up to and including the Gulf of Carpentaria in HMS Investigator. This work seems to be less well-known than his trip with Bass. Probably because of that famous howler about Bass and Flinders circumcising Australia with a twelve-foot cutter. What they actually did was to circumnavigate Tasmania in a sloop. Much less fun, don't you think?

Flinders' crew included Robert Brown, a Scottish botanist who was also much favoured by Banks. Flinders was a likely candidate to have placed a scientist's name on the map, I thought. Especially if that scientist was at all chummy with an important patron.

The name of the exploration game was spotting features, describing and mapping them, and naming them for somebody who would appreciate the gesture. Admirals and Lords of the Admiralty feature prominently around the coast. This is only to be expected, since the explorers were mostly career naval men.

But after a while, you run out of names, even when you've littered the coast with half the Royal Navy, interspersed with a plethora of politicians. Or maybe the feature is too small to name after anybody that you need to impress. That is the time when friends and family get onto the map.

So it was that Bass and Flinders named the Chappell Islands after Ann Chappell, the girl Flinders was to marry a year or so later. You could even name the odd feature after yourself, at least indirectly. It was Flinders who named the Bass Strait, while no doubt it was Bass who reciprocated by naming Flinders Island.

Sometimes, though, you could be diddled. John Mackay was young man when he named the Mackay River for himself. But Mackay was out of luck: a passing Commodore of the Royal Navy complained to the authorities that he had just named another nearby river the Mackay, after a member of his crew.

The Commodore suggested that Mackay's river be renamed to avoid confusion. A suitable name, he thought, would be the name of his own ship, HMS Pioneer. The authorities thought this was a great idea, and the Pioneer River was marked on the maps.

I am glad to say that John Mackay had the last laugh: he lived to see the town of Mackay spring up on the Pioneer River, and to be the harbour-master of Port Mackay. Most Australians know the town, at least by name, but how many have heard of the river? And nobody has heard of the Commodore. But I digress from the question of who found and named Port Darwin, and who they hoped to impress or favour by doing so.

One look at the maps of Flinders' voyages ruled Flinders completely out: HMS Investigator came out of the Gulf of Carpentaria and headed northwest for Timor. Flinders never got to Port Darwin.

I started reading some original source materials, and it was about this time that I came across the King Connection. At first, it was a slight effect, but it became more and more marked as time went on. It began with a reference to Governor King writing to Sir Joseph Banks about Flinders but, like Flinders, that was a side-issue.

The Governor's son, Phillip Parker King, was born in these parts and later became an officer in the Royal Navy like his father. The son first won fame as a result of his explorations along the north coast of Australia in 1818-1819.

Phillip Parker King had, I knew, some connection with HMS Beagle in the 1830s, and I guessed that there might be a Banks-King connection, so I read through the young Lieutenant King's account of his exploration around Darwin. And I found a total blank. All King said was:

.. we found ourselves near the land to the south-west of Vernon's Islands which were also in sight. To the south was a deep opening, trending to the south-east of a river-like appearance; but, as it did not seem to be of sufficient importance to detain us, we passed on to the westward.

Territorians, eat your hearts out! That was Port Darwin that King was dismissing as not of sufficient importance!

When Charles Darwin called in at Sydney, his host was Captain P. P. King, Royal Navy (retired). I checked up, and of course found that King had explored the South American coast with FitzRoy a few years earlier. King had captained the sloop Adventure, while Lieutenant FitzRoy was in command of HMS Beagle.

Today we only hear about Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle, but in 1839, that was just the third of three volumes published together, one by each of King, FitzRoy and Darwin. No doubt, I imagined, they discussed this project when they met, and like authors anywhere, they probably drank stromg toasts to the eternal damnation of their publisher, but that line of speculation was getting me nowhere.

Still, King had not named Port Darwin, and my suspicious were now directed at T.H. Huxley, that stout defender of Darwinism after 1859. It was, however, a younger and unknown Huxley who sailed as surgeon and scientific investigator with Owen Stanley on HMS Rattlesnake between 1846 and 1850.

When Rattlesnake called at Sydney, Huxley had visited Stroud as the guest of, you guessed it, Phillip Parker King! Not all that surprising, really, since Owen Stanley had served under King around the South American coast.

I started to grow hopeful: there was no evidence of Owen Stanley knowing Charles Darwin, but he would certainly know of him, as would Huxley. King, I thought; might well have had a hand in things, too.

By now, I had found and studied a large-scale map of the area. I found that Port Darwin lies on the Beagle Gulf. It just had to be Charles Darwin, and it had to be after the 1830s, but why was it so named, and by whom? Owen Stanley and Huxley seemed the best bet, but I could find no sure indication of this.

My supply of original sources was exhausted. There was nothing else for it, and I decided to breach the researcher's code of ethics, to cheat, as it were. I went down to my local council library, and found a children's encyclopaedia in the reference section. And it was all there, laid out before me.

Port Darwin and the Beagle Gulf were named by Lieutenant John Lort Stokes, who had come back with Beagle to Australian waters after dropping Darwin and FitzRoy in Britain. The actual town of Darwin was, however, named Palmerston until 1911, when at least one tiresome politician was cleared from our map.

Here, too, the same names keep coming back. FitzRoy had taken command of HMS Beagle in 1828 after a Captain Stokes had committed suicide. John Lort Stokes was no relation, although he had been on board as a midshipman in Captain Stokes' time. FitzRoy, incidentally, also died by his own hand.

Well I travelled a long way away from Imanishi to Stokes, and I still don't understand Imanishi's ideas. I suppose I could have found the answer to my question `Which Darwin?' a lot more easily, just by going to the library in the first place. But I'm glad I didn't. Now I'm working on proving that Australia was Benjamin Franklin's fault.

This is one of a set of talks which were originally heard on ABC Radio National in Australia. All of the talks are copyright © Peter Macinnis, 2001, but permission will be readily granted on request for educational and most non-profit purposes. Contact Peter Macinnis specifying the talk(s) you want, and the purpose to which they will be put. For the rest of the talks, go to Six Months of Sundays.