Williamson and Darwin

Any reader of Patrick O’Brien’s Jack Aubrey novels will understand the elegant coincidence that Charles Darwin (a naturalist born in 1809) and James Williamson (a surgeon born in 1805) might have met, combining in one the person of Stephen Maturin. Neither was, at that time, famous.

They came so close. A reading of the two men’s diaries shows that they were both in the River Plate area in 1832 (when they were both in their 20s) and it seems likely that people from the Beagle and the Duke of York met each other. It is just that Charles Darwin’s adventurous spirit took him out of town at the critical moment.

  • 26 July – Beagle arrives at Monte Video
  • 22 Oct – 1 Nov – CD is in Buenos Ayres which he describes as being dangerous ‘The real danger lay with the lawless soldiers within; they robbed many people in the day, and at night. The very sentinels stopped people, to demand money from them.’
  • 23 Oct – The Duke of York leaves Rio with HM Packet Melville
  • 26 Oct – CD, while off Monte Video writes ‘My letters from Shrewsbury are dated May 12th & June 28th. Receiving letters unfits one for any occupation; so that I have done nothing but read …’
  • 3 NovDuke of York ‘came to anchor at Monte Video’ and, snatching a favourable wind, set sail for Buenos Ayres on the same day
  • 3 Nov – 4 Nov – CD writes ‘Having been delayed for nearly a fortnight in the city (Buenos Ayres), I was glad to escape on board a packet bound for Monte Video. A town in a state of blockade must always be a disagreeable place of residence … Our passage was a very long and tedious one. … On arriving at Monte Video I found the Beagle would not sail for some time, so I prepared an excursion in this part of Banda Oriental.’
  • 4 NovDuke of York arrives at Buenos Ayres.
  • At some point, around this time, the Beagle arrives in Buenos Ayres for JW writes ‘While we were laying before Buenos Ayres we were in company with HM Barque Beagle Captain Fitzroy.’
  • 14 Nov – CD leaves Monte Video in the afternoon on a trip inland
  • 20 Nov – Duke of York leaves Buenos Ayres
  • 20 Nov – CD writes ‘In the morning went out riding to Punta Grande; in the road tried to find a jaguar.’
  • 24 Nov – Duke of York arrives at Monte Video
  • 25 Nov – Duke of York ‘sets sail in company with the Beagle
  • 26 Nov – CD writes ‘I set out on my return in a direct line for Monte Video.’
  • 27 Nov – Duke of York passes Maldonado and heads for the open sea. If Darwin had replied to the letters he received on 28 October then it might well have been carrying his replies.
  • 28 Nov – CD writes ‘… in the middle of the next day we arrived at Monte Video.’
  • 5 Dec – CD writes ‘Took a farewell of the shore and went on board the Beagle got under weigh (sic) at 4 o’clock in the morning (6th) and ran up river to take in fresh water. We are now becalmed within sight of the Mount. The Adventure (one of the schooners) is at anchor close to us. May kind fortune for once favour us with fine weather and prosperous breezes.’

So, the nearest the two men came to meeting seems to have been the 3-4 November when one was taking advantage of a favourable wind to sail from Monte Video to Buenos Ayres in the Beagle, and the other was battling a head wind on a ‘very long and tedious’ voyage from Buenos Ayres to Monte Video in  a packet. The two cities are about the same distance apart as London and Falmouth.

Who knows what they might have talked about had they met.


  • Voyage of HMS Beagle by Charles Darwin
  • James Williamson’s diaries of his Voyage to the River Plate (Voyage 11)