January 12, 1836 (a Tuesday)

Charles Darwin by G Richmond.

On this date, HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin sailed into the harbor of Sydney, Australia. The Beagle had come to Australia because, after completing the surveys of South America, Captain FitzRoy, master of the ship, was instructed to circumnavigate the globe in order to obtain an unbroken chain of longitudes, all determined by the one set of chronometers, at as many places as possible. In particular, FitzRoy was instructed to check his estimate of longitude against that of the observatory at Parramatta, 24 kilometers west of Sydney, which was then regarded as “being absolutely determined in longitude”. As FitzRoy’s instructions noted, if this were done, then “all those intervening islands will become standard points to which future casual voyagers will be able to refer their discoveries or correct their chronometers.” Depending on the time of year, FitzRoy was then to check the longitude at Hobart and at the settlement of King George Sound, on the south-western tip of Australia.

H.M.S. Beagle from a sketch by Darwin's shipmate John Clements Wickham.

In a letter to his sister Caroline, dated 27 Dec 1835, Darwin had written, “I am looking forward with more pleasure to seeing Sydney, than to any other part of the voyage.” His first sight of Australia reminded him of Patagonia, but inland the country improved and he was soon filled with admiration at the bustling city of Sydney. Famously, he had been so upset to find no letters from his mother awaiting him in Sydney that he almost burst into tears.

Here’s how Darwin described his initial feelings on arriving in Australia in his journal:

Early in the morning a light air carried us towards the entrance of Port Jackson. Instead of beholding a verdant country, interspersed with fine houses, a straight line of yellowish cliff brought to our minds the coast of Patagonia. A solitary lighthouse, built of white stone, alone told us that we were near a great and populous city. Having entered the harbour, it appears fine and spacious, with cliff-formed shores of horizontally stratified sandstone. The nearly level country is covered with thin scrubby trees, bespeaking the curse of sterility. Proceeding further inland, the country improves: beautiful villas and nice cottages are here and there scattered along the beach. In the distance stone houses, two and three stories high, and windmills standing on the edge of a bank, pointed out to us the neighbourhood of the capital of Australia.

At last we anchored within Sydney Cove. We found the little basin occupied by many large ships, and surrounded by warehouses. In the evening I walked through the town, and 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 done many more times more than an equal number of centuries have effected in South America. My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman. Upon seeing more of the town afterwards, perhaps my admiration fell a little; but yet it is a fine town. The streets are regular, broad, clean, and kept in excellent order; the houses are of a good size, and the shops well furnished. It may be faithfully compared to the large suburbs which stretch out from London and a few other great towns in England; but not even near London or Birmingham is there an appearance of such rapid growth. The number of large houses and other buildings just finished was truly surprising; nevertheless, every one complained of the high rents and difficulty in procuring a house. Coming from South America, where in the towns every man of property is known, no one thing surprised me more than not being able to ascertain at once to whom this or that carriage belonged.

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