On the Origin of On The Origin of Species by Chris Green
The port of Falmouth boasts a rich maritime history. It has all the right features for seafaring. The River Fal has a wide estuary and Falmouth has the deepest natural harbour in Europe. It was turned from a sleepy village where Cornish fishermen brought home their catch into the information hub of the British Empire when in 1688 the Royal Mail made Falmouth its appointed packet station. Latterly, Falmouth is notable for being a frequent host to the Tall Ships Race and being the start or finish point of various round-the-world record-breaking voyages. The comings and goings of famous vessels have, over the years, put Falmouth well and truly on the maritime map. Perhaps the most celebrated visitor to Falmouth, however, was HMS Beagle on which Darwin sailed to conduct the research that would result in On The Origin Of Species.
Starting with Sir Garfield Trescothick in the mid-nineteenth century, the Trescothick family made their money by exploiting Falmouth’s Darwin connection. Although this particular commerce has less importance today, earlier generations of Trescothicks missed no opportunity to tell the world about Darwin, drawing the public’s attention to the great man’s relationship to Falmouth. Most of what you read about Charles Darwin today is the legacy of the Trescothick family’s persistence. Had it not been for the myth started by Sir Garfield Trescothick, Darwin might have been just another research botanist spending long hours bent over a microscope trying to put bread on the table for a growing family.
The mystery that is about to shake the very foundations of the scientific world begins one Saturday during a power cut in the middle of an unseasonal snowstorm. Falmouth enjoys a temperate micro-climate and does not get a lot of this type of weather. The storm cuts through power lines. The lights in Amberleigh, the plush suburban villa where Kimberley Trescothick lives and works as a psychologist, go out. Her live-in partner, private detective Ben Archer, is out on a case. Kimberley, finding no candles in the obvious places, goes down to the cellar where she thinks she might find some. She has not been down here often. Attractive, well-groomed, well-to-do young ladies like Kimberley do not find themselves poking about in cellars.
In her search, she comes across a dusty old cardboard box full of her great-great-great-great-grandfather’s tattered journals. At first, she doesn’t realise what she has found, but Sir Garfield’s gilded monogram stares up at her from one of the covers. Her interest piqued, she takes them upstairs and dusts them off. There are half a dozen of them, each Morocco-bound with peeling gold leaf around the edges of the pages. Later that evening, with the electricity back on, she pulls one out and begins reading.
The journal covers the year 1837. HMS Beagle has set off from Falmouth on what we think of today as The Third Voyage. Reports about the voyage jotted in Sir Garfield’s cursive handwriting begin with excitement and optimism, but as she turns the pages, the entries become graver and graver. By July, he acknowledges that the Beagle must have sunk. He does not specify the origin of his information, but there are several mentions of Sidney Morse, the inventor of the telegraph.
It appears Sir Garfield is a close friend and confidant of Darwin. He is heavily invested in his friend’s mission. He reveals in the journal that Darwin has left most of the notebooks from his experiences during The Second Voyage in his possession. Pages and pages of Sir Garfield’s journal are taken up explaining the discoveries. Sir Garfield has spoken to others in the field and feels that Darwin might be on the verge of a scientific breakthrough. It is worth noting that in 1837 Darwin has not himself formulated the theory of natural selection. At this stage, it is not on his radar that organisms which adapt to their environment tend to survive longer and produce more offspring and this, in turn, becomes the driver of evolution. He is just recording information. He admits that some of the data is unexpected and confusing, but this is as far as he takes it. Although he himself does not completely understand what he is doing, Sir Garfield Trescothick somehow manages to join up all the dots and comes up with the idea of natural selection that will turn our understanding of life, the universe and everything upside down.
Kimberley is dumbfounded. She doesn’t know what to think. If the journal is to be believed, her family’s fortune and perhaps worse, its reputation, are built on shameful lies. When Ben arrives home, she shares her concern with him. She asks him to do some digging to find out what he can from historical records. She feels his detection skills will be invaluable in this situation. What is actually on the public record for the time? What stories were in the newspapers in 1837 that might either substantiate or discredit Sir Garfield’s account?
The following day, with mixed feelings, Kimberley carries on reading. In the second volume, Sir Garfield ponders what to do about the discoveries. He has not yet shared them with anyone. It appears, too that no one else has found out about the Beagle. Days pass and there is no word. There is no explanation for this. It is one of those remarkable episodes in history that lack rhyme or reason. It leaves him in possession of a dangerous secret. He is afraid. With great knowledge comes great responsibility. As he sees it, he has two choices. He can come clean and reveal that the Beagle has gone under and that Darwin is dead. He could then publish what he has from Darwin’s notebooks. Or he can embellish the account and make a lot of money. After some soul-searching, he chooses the latter, writing it up as The Voyage of the Beagle. This is a teaser. It only hints at what is to come.
Ben comes up with accounts in The Times and The Manchester Guardian of the sailing of HMS Beagle in 1837, and there are occasional snippets about its progress, although these are short on detail. There is not much news after the sailing. The newspaper strike of 1838, which goes on for months, means that there are no reports for this period in Britain, although the St Ives Examiner which somehow escapes the strike action carries one or two letters about Darwin and The Beagle, but none which has any concrete information. The closest Ben comes to a result is a report in Sydney Morning Herald which has the headline ‘WHAT HAS HAPPENED TO THE BEAGLE?’ In the report, there are suggestions that it has gone aground on the east coast of Australia, although these are not substantiated and, for some reason, not followed up. Needless to say, Ben can find no trace of Darwin’s notebooks from either before or after the sailing. These, where they existed, have gone missing.
‘Nothing to go on really is there,’ says Kimberley.
‘There is something that’s not quite right, though,’ says Ben. ‘I wonder if there really was a newspaper strike in 1838.’
‘Twelve months does seem a long period, especially before trade unions,’ says Kimberley.
‘Those letters in the St Ives Examiner are by someone called Eloy DeJesus. He is not a fan by all accounts. He is also mentioned in the Sydney Morning Herald report. If the Beagle was in fact sunk, I wonder if Mr DeJesus had something to do with it.’
‘Who is this Eloy DeJesus?’ asks Kimberley.
‘Creationist zealot. Fire and brimstone stuff,’ Ben says. ‘This fellow really does not like what he believes Charles Darwin and others of his ilk are trying to do.’
‘Two thousand years of routine supernatural belief to protect,’ says Kimberley. ‘He was probably not alone.’
In the third volume of the journal, Sir Garfield moves the story on. He sees another opportunity. He begins to write reports of Darwin’s discoveries from the new trip. He expresses some reservations about his deceit, but he justifies this as a measure for the greater good. Too long people have been fooled into believing that they were created by a divine being and put on this earth to carry out his will. Sir Garfield briefly toys with the idea that he could perhaps pass the new and completely fabricated discoveries off as his own, but he has never been on a boat, far less sailed in all winds and weathers to the far reaches of the globe. He dismisses the idea. This leaves him with just as large a problem. How long can he fool the scientific community into thinking that HMS Beagle is still on its mission and Charles Darwin is still alive? Somehow, through a series of letters to publications of the day, the ones presumably that Eloy does not have an interest in, he keeps the Darwin myth alive. Arguably, this is a bigger achievement than the publication of The Voyage of the Beagle. It buys him time to write On The Origin of Species, which is by his own admission in the journal a complete work of fiction. There were no barnacles, there were no finches and there were no pigeons. His rival, Alfred Russel Wallace, at least, has his beetles and tree frogs to evidence his own findings on natural selection.
‘Someone else would have come up with the idea, wouldn’t they?’ says Kimberley. ‘Sooner or later.’ She is perhaps trying to justify Sir Garfield’s actions. She wonders how much Sir Vivian Trescothick, Sir George Trescothick, Terence Trescothick, Terence Trescothick Junior or even her father Robin Trescothick might have known about the great deception. She suspects that while the earlier generations of Trescothicks must have known, the latter-day Trescothicks might have had an inkling but turned a blind eye. The irony that both her parents died of a rare blood disease three years ago while on The Galapagos visiting The Darwin Institute is not lost on her. She was just twenty-six when they died.
‘From what I’ve been able to discover, there were huge barriers in the way that stopped your great-great-great-great-grandfather from publishing,’ says Ben. ‘One of these was Eloy DeJesus. It seems he was a very powerful man at the time.’
‘What’s puzzling me is that the world believes that Darwin lived to be an old man,’ says Kimberley. ‘I’ve seen photos of him with his long white beard,’
‘That’s puzzling me too,’ says Ben. ‘Perhaps Sir Garfield was a master of disguise.’
The fourth and fifth journals concern themselves with Sir Garfield’s prolonged battle with Eloy DeJesus to get On Origin of Species published. It seems Eloy owns nearly all the existing publishing houses and is a major shareholder in the newspaper chains of the day. Sir Garfield paints him as a formidable adversary. His jottings release bursts of invective unimaginable in a Victorian gentleman’s journal, as he rallies against this fervent creationist defender. God created everything and nothing that was created can be changed, is Eloy’s view. Every organism is in its fixed place as determined by God. Flexing his political muscle, he seems to have held back the publication of On the Origin of Species for over ten years.
You would expect Eloy DeJesus to be remembered, perhaps not as a great Victorian, but for the vigour and determination of his creationist stance. His name, however, seems to have almost disappeared from the records. There are copious references to him in Sir Garfield’s journal, but apart from these, Kimberley and Ben are able to find few references to the man elsewhere. The journals portray him as a man of influence, second only to Sir Robert Peel or The Duke of Wellington. Why, they wonder, is Eloy DeJesus not a household name in the way that they are? How, has history so comprehensibly failed to recall such a powerful man? Could the impetus of Sir Garfield’s theory of natural selection have been so powerful that no one, not even the church, cared to remember the ultimate failure of Eloy’s campaign? Perhaps it became no longer sexy in the age of invention and discovery to think of a wrathful bearded figure letting there be light.
Kimberley and Ben read the final volume of the journal together. It is in a more delicate state than the other volumes and some of the pages are falling apart. On the Origin of Species has just been published, and the world is crying out for Darwin to appear to promote the work. Important people are heralding the sea change. Sir Garfield, at this stage, sees himself as a hero for shedding two thousand years of dogma for humankind. Once again he has two choices. He can come clean and say that he has made it all up, or he can, albeit in a limited way, pass himself off as Charles Darwin. The pages of the journal have become almost impossible to read now. They have been too badly damaged by water. It is only possible to make out the odd word.
‘He mentions Daguerre a lot, says Ben. ‘Pioneer of photography. He must have been a friend of Sir Garfield’s. The word photography was first coined by Sir John Herschel in 1839, so that would be about right.’
‘I think this word here is impersonate,’ says Kimberley.
‘I think you’re right,’ says Ben. Does that say beard? In all the photos we have seen of Darwin, he has this long grey beard.’
‘The photos are all very similar,’ says Kimberley. She has Google Images open on her tablet and is scrolling through them. ‘And now you come to mention it, they do bear a startling resemblance to the portrait of Sir Garfield that used to hang on the wall in the library. I haven’t actually seen a photo of him.’
‘Which is strange if he was a friend of Daguerre,’ remarks Ben.
Kimberley is on the Wikipedia entry for Charles Darwin now.
‘It’s a little difficult to explain Darwin’s nine surviving children, all born after Sir Garfield suggests that Charles disappeared,’ she says.
‘Quite,’ says Ben. ‘But perhaps you’ve hit the nail on the head. Emma must have been in on the collusion. These were hard times. Emma was probably struggling to keep a roof over her head and Sir Garfield may have supported her.’
‘But how far might he have supported her? Are you saying that these nine children would have been step-great-great-great-great-aunts and uncles,’ says Kimberley. She extrapolates the information in her head. Sir Vivian Trescothick, apart from his sisters Constance and Maud, would have had nine stepbrothers and sisters, and George Trescothick would have had an unthinkable number of once-removed relatives. She herself would probably have distant relatives in every town.
For the next few days, Ben tries to find records of Darwin’s public appearances. He visits the British Library, The National Archives, The Westminster Reference Library and the Bodleian Library, but finds he is wasting his time. Darwin apparently didn’t like speaking in public. Little is on the record of any engagements. He is famously reclusive. There seem to be just two photos of him in later life, one of him with his bald head and long grey mutton-chop sideburns and another with a long grey beard. These are used over and over again. Both of them are grainy. In the latter years, there are no reports of him at all. This is at the same time that On the Origin of Species is being translated into dozens of different languages.
Ben visits Kent, but even in Downe, Darwin’s hometown, it appears he didn’t get out much. Everyone Ben speaks to in the village is very guarded. It feels as if there is a guilty secret that the whole village has agreed not to talk about. Darwin’s house has heavy security around it. It is closed to all comers. He reports back to Kimberley. Her Google research echoes his findings. The Darwin narrative is shrouded in mystery. No one has ever discovered how or where HMS Beagle may have gone down. But she discovers this is not in itself unusual. Thousands of ships have disappeared without a trace, if many of them not so famous as the Beagle.
Kimberley Trescothick is waiting in the BBC studio. She is about to be interviewed by historian, Geoffrey Frobisher. She is going to set the record straight. She is about to rock the foundations of accepted historical understanding. She is nervous about how her bombshell will be received. Victorian history, with Britain in her ascendency, is a stronghold of certainty. Great men from every county are making their mark in all fields. In the results of the Great Britons poll to be broadcast next month, Darwin has been voted Number Two, behind Churchill, but ahead of Brunel and Shakespeare. People may not be ready to accept his new status as a run-of-the-mill botanist who gets lost at sea. To add to this, there is her family’s upstanding reputation to be considered. Why is she doing it, she wonders as she sits under the studio lights? She is taking a big risk. There is a lot at stake. The outcome depends on what spin the media put on the revelation. Just in case things go badly, she and Ben have booked a passage to Tuvalu. They have a year’s lease on a modest villa in Funafuti. Trelawney and Bilk have instructions for the sale of Amberleigh, should she decide to sell.
Copyright © Chris Green, 2022: All rights reserved