The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. PART 001.

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The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. PART 001.

Postby ROLCAM » Sun Nov 04, 2007 2:36 am

The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

From The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin

Edited by his Son

Francis Darwin

[My father's autobiographical recollections, given in the present
chapter, were written for his children,--and written without any
thought that they would ever be published. To many this may seem
an impossibility; but those who knew my father will understand
how it was not only possible, but natural. The autobiography
bears the heading, 'Recollections of the Development of my Mind
and Character,' and end with the following note:--"Aug. 3, 1876.
This sketch of my life was begun about May 28th at Hopedene (Mr.
Hensleigh Wedgwood's house in Surrey.), and since then I have
written for nearly an hour on most afternoons." It will easily
be understood that, in a narrative of a personal and intimate
kind written for his wife and children, passages should occur
which must here be omitted; and I have not thought it necessary
to indicate where such omissions are made. It has been found
necessary to make a few corrections of obvious verbal slips, but
the number of such alterations has been kept down to the

A German Editor having written to me for an account of the
development of my mind and character with some sketch of my
autobiography, I have thought that the attempt would amuse me,
and might possibly interest my children or their children. I
know that it would have interested me greatly to have read even
so short and dull a sketch of the mind of my grandfather, written
by himself, and what he thought and did, and how he worked. I
have attempted to write the following account of myself, as if I
were a dead man in another world looking back at my own life.
Nor have I found this difficult, for life is nearly over with me.
I have taken no pains about my style of writing.

I was born at Shrewsbury on February 12th, 1809, and my earliest
recollection goes back only to when I was a few months over four
years old, when we went to near Abergele for sea-bathing, and I
recollect some events and places there with some little

My mother died in July 1817, when I was a little over eight years
old, and it is odd that I can remember hardly anything about her
except her death-bed, her black velvet gown, and her curiously
constructed work-table. In the spring of this same year I was
sent to a day-school in Shrewsbury, where I stayed a year. I
have been told that I was much slower in learning than my younger
sister Catherine, and I believe that I was in many ways a naughty

By the time I went to this day-school (Kept by Rev. G. Case,
minister of the Unitarian Chapel in the High Street. Mrs. Darwin
was a Unitarian and attended Mr. Case's chapel, and my father as
a little boy went there with his elder sisters. But both he and
his brother were christened and intended to belong to the Church
of England; and after his early boyhood he seems usually to have
gone to church and not to Mr. Case's. It appears ("St. James'
Gazette", Dec. 15, 1883) that a mural tablet has been erected to
his memory in the chapel, which is now known as the 'Free
Christian Church.') my taste for natural history, and more
especially for collecting, was well developed. I tried to make
out the names of plants (Rev. W.A. Leighton, who was a
schoolfellow of my father's at Mr. Case's school, remembers his
bringing a flower to school and saying that his mother had taught
him how by looking at the inside of the blossom the name of the
plant could be discovered. Mr. Leighton goes on, "This greatly
roused my attention and curiosity, and I enquired of him
repeatedly how this could be done?"--but his lesson was naturally
enough not transmissible.--F.D.), and collected all sorts of
things, shells, seals, franks, coins, and minerals. The passion
for collecting which leads a man to be a systematic naturalist, a
virtuoso, or a miser, was very strong in me, and was clearly
innate, as none of my sisters or brother ever had this taste.

One little event during this year has fixed itself very firmly in
my mind, and I hope that it has done so from my conscience having
been afterwards sorely troubled by it; it is curious as showing
that apparently I was interested at this early age in the
variability of plants! I told another little boy (I believe it
was Leighton, who afterwards became a well-known lichenologist
and botanist), that I could produce variously coloured
polyanthuses and primroses by watering them with certain coloured
fluids, which was of course a monstrous fable, and had never been
tried by me. I may here also confess that as a little boy I was
much given to inventing deliberate falsehoods, and this was
always done for the sake of causing excitement. For instance, I
once gathered much valuable fruit from my father's trees and hid
it in the shrubbery, and then ran in breathless haste to spread
the news that I had discovered a hoard of stolen fruit.

I must have been a very simple little fellow when I first went to
the school. A boy of the name of Garnett took me into a cake
shop one day, and bought some cakes for which he did not pay, as
the shopman trusted him. When we came out I asked him why he did
not pay for them, and he instantly answered, "Why, do you not
know that my uncle left a great sum of money to the town on
condition that every tradesman should give whatever was wanted
without payment to any one who wore his old hat and moved [it] in
a particular manner?" and he then showed me how it was moved. He
then went into another shop where he was trusted, and asked for
some small article, moving his hat in the proper manner, and of
course obtained it without payment. When we came out he said,
"Now if you like to go by yourself into that cake-shop (how well
I remember its exact position) I will lend you my hat, and you
can get whatever you like if you move the hat on your head
properly." I gladly accepted the generous offer, and went in and
asked for some cakes, moved the old hat and was walking out of
the shop, when the shopman made a rush at me, so I dropped the
cakes and ran for dear life, and was astonished by being greeted
with shouts of laughter by my false friend Garnett.

I can say in my own favour that I was as a boy humane, but I owed
this entirely to the instruction and example of my sisters. I
doubt indeed whether humanity is a natural or innate quality. I
was very fond of collecting eggs, but I never took more than a
single egg out of a bird's nest, except on one single occasion,
when I took all, not for their value, but from a sort of bravado.

I had a strong taste for angling, and would sit for any number of
hours on the bank of a river or pond watching the float; when at
Maer (The house of his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood.) I was told that I
could kill the worms with salt and water, and from that day I
never spitted a living worm, though at the expense probably of
some loss of success.

Once as a very little boy whilst at the day school, or before
that time, I acted cruelly, for I beat a puppy, I believe, simply
from enjoying the sense of power; but the beating could not have
been severe, for the puppy did not howl, of which I feel sure, as
the spot was near the house. This act lay heavily on my
conscience, as is shown by my remembering the exact spot where
the crime was committed. It probably lay all the heavier from my
love of dogs being then, and for a long time afterwards, a
passion. Dogs seemed to know this, for I was an adept in robbing
their love from their masters.

I remember clearly only one other incident during this year
whilst at Mr. Case's daily school,--namely, the burial of a
dragoon soldier; and it is surprising how clearly I can still see
the horse with the man's empty boots and carbine suspended to the
saddle, and the firing over the grave. This scene deeply stirred
whatever poetic fancy there was in me.

In the summer of 1818 I went to Dr. Butler's great school in
Shrewsbury, and remained there for seven years still Midsummer
1825, when I was sixteen years old. I boarded at this school, so
that I had the great advantage of living the life of a true
schoolboy; but as the distance was hardly more than a mile to my
home, I very often ran there in the longer intervals between the
callings over and before locking up at night. This, I think, was
in many ways advantageous to me by keeping up home affections and
interests. I remember in the early part of my school life that I
often had to run very quickly to be in time, and from being a
fleet runner was generally successful; but when in doubt I prayed
earnestly to God to help me, and I well remember that I
attributed my success to the prayers and not to my quick running,
and marvelled how generally I was aided.

I have heard my father and elder sister say that I had, as a very
young boy, a strong taste for long solitary walks; but what I
thought about I know not. I often became quite absorbed, and
once, whilst returning to school on the summit of the old
fortifications round Shrewsbury, which had been converted into a
public foot-path with no parapet on one side, I walked off and
fell to the ground, but the height was only seven or eight feet.
Nevertheless the number of thoughts which passed through my mind
during this very short, but sudden and wholly unexpected fall,
was astonishing, and seem hardly compatible with what
physiologists have, I believe, proved about each thought
requiring quite an appreciable amount of time.

Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than
Dr. Butler's school, as it was strictly classical, nothing else
being taught, except a little ancient geography and history. The
school as a means of education to me was simply a blank. During
my whole life I have been singularly incapable of mastering any
language. Especial attention was paid to verse-making, and this
I could never do well. I had many friends, and got together a
good collection of old verses, which by patching together,
sometimes aided by other boys, I could work into any subject.
Much attention was paid to learning by heart the lessons of the
previous day; this I could effect with great facility, learning
forty or fifty lines of Virgil or Homer, whilst I was in morning
chapel; but this exercise was utterly useless, for every verse
was forgotten in forty-eight hours. I was not idle, and with the
exception of versification, generally worked conscientiously at
my classics, not using cribs. The sole pleasure I ever received
from such studies, was from some of the odes of Horace, which I
admired greatly.

When I left the school I was for my age neither high nor low in
it; and I believe that I was considered by all my masters and by
my father as a very ordinary boy, rather below the common
standard in intellect. To my deep mortification my father once
said to me, "You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-
catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your
family." But my father, who was the kindest man I ever knew and
whose memory I love with all my heart, must have been angry and
somewhat unjust when he used such words.

Looking back as well as I can at my character during my school
life, the only qualities which at this period promised well for
the future, were, that I had strong and diversified tastes, much
zeal for whatever interested me, and a keen pleasure in
understanding any complex subject or thing. I was taught Euclid
by a private tutor, and I distinctly remember the intense
satisfaction which the clear geometrical proofs gave me. I
remember, with equal distinctness, the delight which my uncle
gave me (the father of Francis Galton) by explaining the
principle of the vernier of a barometer. with respect to
diversified tastes, independently of science, I was fond of
reading various books, and I used to sit for hours reading the
historical plays of Shakespeare, generally in an old window in
the thick walls of the school. I read also other poetry, such as
Thomson's 'Seasons,' and the recently published poems of Byron
and Scott. I mention this because later in life I wholly lost,
to my great regret, all pleasure from poetry of any kind,
including Shakespeare. In connection with pleasure from poetry,
I may add that in 1822 a vivid delight in scenery was first
awakened in my mind, during a riding tour on the borders of
Wales, and this has lasted longer than any other aesthetic

Early in my school days a boy had a copy of the 'Wonders of the
World,' which I often read, and disputed with other boys about
the veracity of some of the statements; and I believe that this
book first gave me a wish to travel in remote countries, which
was ultimately fulfilled by the voyage of the "Beagle". In the
latter part of my school life I became passionately fond of
shooting; I do not believe that any one could have shown more
zeal for the most holy cause than I did for shooting birds. How
well I remember killing my first snipe, and my excitement was so
great that I had much difficulty in reloading my gun from the
trembling of my hands. This taste long continued, and I became a
very good shot. When at Cambridge I used to practise throwing up
my gun to my shoulder before a looking-glass to see that I threw
it up straight. Another and better plan was to get a friend to
wave about a lighted candle, and then to fire at it with a cap on
the nipple, and if the aim was accurate the little puff of air
would blow out the candle. The explosion of the cap caused a
sharp crack, and I was told that the tutor of the college
remarked, "What an extraordinary thing it is, Mr. Darwin seems to
spend hours in cracking a horse-whip in his room, for I often
hear the crack when I pass under his windows."

I had many friends amongst the schoolboys, whom I loved dearly,
and I think that my disposition was then very affectionate.

With respect to science, I continued collecting minerals with
much zeal, but quite unscientifically--all that I cared about was
a new-NAMED mineral, and I hardly attempted to classify them. I
must have observed insects with some little care, for when ten
years old (1819) I went for three weeks to Plas Edwards on the
sea-coast in Wales, I was very much interested and surprised at
seeing a large black and scarlet Hemipterous insect, many moths
(Zygaena), and a Cicindela which are not found in Shropshire. I
almost made up my mind to begin collecting all the insects which
I could find dead, for on consulting my sister I concluded that
it was not right to kill insects for the sake of making a
collection. From reading White's 'Selborne,' I took much
pleasure in watching the habits of birds, and even made notes on
the subject. In my simplicity I remember wondering why every
gentleman did not become an ornithologist.

Towards the close of my school life, my brother worked hard at
chemistry, and made a fair laboratory with proper apparatus in
the tool-house in the garden, and I was allowed to aid him as a
servant in most of his experiments. He made all the gases and
many compounds, and I read with great care several books on
chemistry, such as Henry and Parkes' 'Chemical Catechism.' The
subject interested me greatly, and we often used to go on working
till rather late at night. This was the best part of my
education at school, for it showed me practically the meaning of
experimental science. The fact that we worked at chemistry
somehow got known at school, and as it was an unprecedented fact,
I was nicknamed "Gas." I was also once publicly rebuked by the
head-master, Dr. Butler, for thus wasting my time on such useless
subjects; and he called me very unjustly a "poco curante," and as
I did not understand what he meant, it seemed to me a fearful
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