Thursday, June 22, 2017

Grandfather’s Rattlesnake diary

Today marks the birth 130 years ago of the eminent British evolutionary biologist Sir Julian Sorell Huxley. Although there is no evidence of him having been a diarist, he did discover a diary written by his grandfather, a biologist who earned the nickname Darwin’s Bulldog, and then edit them for publication just a year or two, in fact, after Darwin’s diary had first been published.

Julian was born in London on 22 June 1887 into the distinguished Huxley family, and grew up at the family home in Surrey where his interest in nature was enlivened by lessons with his grandfather, Thomas Huxley. Julian’s father Leonard was a biographer (Thomas Huxley, Darwin) and editor. Julian was schooled at Eton and entered Balliol Collage, Oxford, in 1905 on a zoology scholarship. His produced important scientific work in various fields: hormones, developmental processes, ornithology, and ethology. When still in his mid-20s, he pioneered a biology department at the newly formed Rice University in Houston, Texas. But, from 1916 to the end of WWI, he served in British Army Intelligence.

In 1919, Huxley married Juliette Baillot who, later wrote an autobiography that revealed Huxley had suffered severe depression on occasions. In 1925, he was appointed professor of zoology at King’s College, London University, though he gave up the chair in 1927 to help H. G. Wells with his three volume Science of Life. Subsequently, he did much travelling, especially in East Africa, taking part in a wide range of scientific and conservation activities. From 1935, and for seven years, he was secretary to the Zoological Society of London, where he focused on reinvigorating London Zoo and Whipsnade Park alongside his writing and research. He became a member of the Royal Society, was the first director general of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), and was knighted in 1958. In 1961 he cofounded the World Wildlife Fund for Nature. He died in 1975. Further information can be found at Wikipedia,, National Center for Biotechnology Information or New World Encyclopedia.

Among the 50 or so works produced by Huxley that are listed with his Wikipedia entry is T. H. Huxley’s Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Rattlesnake, published by Chatto & Windus in 1935. Julian Huxley’s grandfather, Thomas Huxley (1825-1895), had been an eminent biologist in the mid-19th century, and a strong supporter of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution. Aged only 20, and too young to apply to the Royal College of Surgeons, he joined the Royal Navy and was assigned to H.M.S. Rattlesnake as assistant surgeon. The survey ship soon departed for the Far East, and over a period of four years, Huxley was able to undertake many studies of marine invertebrates, always sending his findings back to England where they were published. On returning to London in 1850, the value of his work was recognised and he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. In 1854, he was appointed professor at the School of Mines in London. His most famous work, published in 1863 (only five years after Origin of Species), was Evidence on Man’s Place in Nature, which is considered to be the first attempt to apply evolution explicitly to the human race. His promotion of Darwin’s ideas earned him the nickname ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’. Further biographical information on Thomas Huxley can be found at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica or the New World Encyclopedia.

During Thomas Huxley’s time on H.M.S Rattlesnake he kept a diary. He used it occasionally through his own life, 
and as late as 1888, for autobiographical notes, but thereafter it got lost among his many papers. Leonard Huxley, who inherited all his father’s paper from his mother (when she died in 1915), appears never to have found the diary. It was only after Leonard’s death, in 1933, that the papers were finally sorted, to ‘sift the wheat from the very large amount of chaff’ (according to Julian Huxley) that Thomas Huxley’s Rattlesnake diary was found ‘among a group of old household account books’. Julian Huxley took it on himself to edit the text, and to put it into a wider context. He says, in his preface: ‘It is interesting that the publication of this Journal should follow so soon after that of Darwin’s [Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, edited by Nora Barlow, Cambridge, 1933]. The two greatest British biologists of the nineteenth century each began his career as naturalist on a long voyage of scientific exploration. To both, the experience was of inestimable value, and indeed in Darwin’s case, had it not been for his journey on the Beagle, it is on the cards that The Origin of Species would never have been written.’

And Huxley goes on: ‘But there is a remarkable contrast between the two Diaries. That of Darwin, though revealing the most interesting glimpses of the writer’s character and personality, has as its chief and absorbing interest the growth and development of his ideas on the mutability of species: in it we are assisting at the birth of the Evolution Theory. Huxley, on the other hand, records singularly little about his scientific views in his Journal. [. . .]

But if Huxley’s journal is meagre where Darwin’s is generous, the converse also holds. There can be few other such abundant source-books for studying the growth of a great scientist’s personality. In these pages are revealed the many sides of Huxley’s complex temperament; his struggles with himself, with his fellow-men, with nature; the steps in the organization of his powerful character. Add to this that it was during this voyage that he met and became engaged to his future wife, and that the Diary contains a record of the beginnings of that deep love which endured undimmed throughout his life, and it will be seen that we have here a document of the highest personal interest.

Huxley’s character was indeed as remarkable as his scientific achievements and his literary talent; and I venture to believe that many to whom Huxley the scientist makes no special appeal will find in this Diary a deeply interesting picture of the growth of a great and rare personality.’

Finally, here are a couple of extracts from Thomas Huxley’s journal. (Most of Huxley’s diary entries are long, covering a period of time since his last entry. I have omitted several long paragraphs from the published 22 June entry, as indicated by square brackets with trailing dots. Sometimes the entries are accompanied by the author’s own drawings - such as the one below of Asmodeus.)

22 June 1847
‘Since my last entry we have had quite another sort of thing to the “quiet river”. It has been cold miserable weather with occasional hard close-reefed topsail breezes, and to add to our discomfort the fuel was all of a sudden found to have fallen short some ten days ago. By way of meeting this alarming deficiency the galley fire was put out at twelve every day, and lately there has been no galley fire at all, all cooking being done in the coppers, and the fire in these even put out at 4 p.m. It is astonishing what a difference this makes in one’s small stock of ship’s comforts. No hot grog, tea at half-past three, and other abominations. If the present state of things continues however we shall soon have an end of these things. We are within 200 miles of Van Diemens Land with a glorious 8½ knot breeze and expect to see land to-morrow evening at farthest.

I had one of my melancholy fits this evening and as usual had recourse to my remedy-a good “think” to get rid of it. It took me an hour and a half walking on the poop however to accomplish the cure. Among other thoughts that I thought I sketched out the plan of my next paper, “On the Diphydae and their relations with the Physophoridae”. I have the material all ready and will send it from Sydney. [. . .]

Suppose I finish my account of our trip in Mauritius. I left off where we started, provided with eatables and drinkables and altogether three “proper men”. Away we trudged, full of life and spirits, and I confess that the whole scene, the bright sunlight, the brilliant foliage, the firm earth, so refreshing in its very resistance to the foot of one who has been for weeks reeling at sea, intoxicated me, and I would have readily undertaken to walk to Jericho if required. As it was we put a good ten miles between us and the town before calling a halt. By this time the sun was getting hot, and never was anything so sweet as the water of the little Belle Isle river on whose banks we rested.

But there are seven miles to go and we must not rest here. So on we go, asking our way from the innocent blacknesses who cross our path in the best French we can command, as it turned out to little purpose, for after crossing the Rivière du Tamarin and being quite elated at the prospect of leaving our carriage friends in the lurch, we took the turn to the Black River instead of that to the Cascades. We walk on some way and then inquire of a Frenchman who keeps a sort of wayside auberge for further directions. We get capital vin ordinaire at sixpence a bottle and our good friend, seeing us I suppose look somewhat vexed at having come out of the road, assured us that the Cascade du Tamarin is nothing so very grand - he himself has seen that, but that if we want to see the real beauty of the island we should go on to Chamarelle which is only twelve miles off. We must sleep somewhere, and there is nowhere else to sleep at but the Military Post at Black River from whence it is an easy stage to Chamarelle. Our friend assures us that we need be under no apprehension about a reception as M. le docteur at the Porte is a “tres joli petit docteur”. Could we do else? No, so we agree to go on. [. . .]

The Riviere du Cap rises among the high land towards the centre of the island, thence winds its way as a quiet rivulet, till it reaches Chamarelle, when it precipitates itself over the edge of a huge chasm, sheer down for 350 feet; at the bottom it breaks into rainbows of foam against the rocks and then becomes a dark still pool of many acres in extent, ultimately finding its way to the sea by a fissure in one side of the rocky basin. An old tree overhangs one edge of the precipice and hanging on by this you can look down and see the birds wheeling and soaring below you. A little Asmodeus of a boy, Sewan by name, accompanied us and I made him hang on to the tree for a foreground while I sketched. The sides of the pit are all covered with large trees and the whole aspect of the place conveys to the mind at once the strongest ideas of wildness and of richness. We bathed in the rivulet just above the falls and had a sort of small washing day so as to get rid of any rate the superficial layer of dust with wh. we were enveloped. In the afternoon King and I made another visit to the falls and saw them under a different point of view. At dinner we met the ladies of our host’s family, and I fear that we did not represent the navy creditably in consequence of our imperfect knowledge of French. Chess-playing and conversation whiled away the evening, and we started early on the morrow on our way back to Port Louis, taking a somewhat different course to the way we came.

At noon we were going to bivouac at the bottom of a long avenue wh. led up to a gentleman’s house, but he spying us out came down, and carried us up to lunch with him. M. Butte was not contented with entertaining us in first rate style, but seeing that Brady walked rather lame, he insisted upon his riding on a donkey for some miles, sending a black servant to bring the said donkey back. We reached Port Louis that night at ten, having walked thirty odd miles. Brady was disabled for some days, but the rest of us were ready for anything the next morning. And so ended one of the most pleasant trips I ever had.

Van Diemen’s Land.
The sight of the bold land about S.W. Cape was I may venture to say the most pleasant thing that happened to us in our last cruise, always excepting, by the bye, the jolly face and English tongue of the old pilot who came off to us in Storm Bay. The pilot was a man well to do in the world. He lived on Bruny [?] island and we sent a boat to his farm to get such supplies of firewood, fresh meat, potatoes and other luxuries as he had at hand. Those who went brought back reports about a very nice well-furnished cottage, with piano and the like, and ladylike wife with three or four rosy children. And this in a place where fifty years ago you would have seen nothing but naked savages or kangaroos.

Light winds and calms detained us so that we did not get to anchor in Sullivan’s Cove before the second day after leaving Storm Bay. I got ashore in the jolly-boat before the ship came up to her anchorage, and having done what business I had to do, got before a huge fire in the Ship Inn with McGillivray and there stuck, imbibing considerable quantities of toddy, until ten or eleven o’clock. We were all invited to a ball that evening but it had no charms for me compare with that splendid wood fire.’

15 June 1849
‘Boats out sounding to find us a new anchorage nearer the land. We saw seven or eight canoes with 8-10 men in each, but none of them would come near us. Several however went to the Bramble. I suppose they thought she was smaller and less able to do them harm.

They had some of them the large bushy heads of hair of the Papuans but others were without this distinctive mark and they varied considerably in colour. For the most part they were coppery. The canoes have a single outrigger and a good deal resemble those we saw at Cape York. The sail consists of three sheets of some fibrous substance, and shortening sail is performed by taking down each sheet separately and laying it along the gunnel. The upper end of each sheet has a great many little pennants streaming from it.

The paddles are something like the ace of spades with a long handle. They sail up near to the place they wish to reach, then strike sails, masts and all, and paddle up. The only articles of barter they brought to the Bramble were yams, cocoa-nuts and tortoiseshell. They were very greedy for iron and stole one of the crutches wh. happened to be lying loose on the thwart of a boat astern. Like any dexterous London thieves they passed it from hand to hand and concealed it at the far end of their canoe, and when charged with the theft looked as innocent and impassive as M. de Talleyrand himself could have looked under similar circumstances.

But when from the threatening attitude the Brambles put on they saw it was “no go” they passed the crutch over again and paddled off as hard as they could paddle - more ashamed of the failure than the theft, I fancy.’

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