Between these covers is a story of adventure: setting sail amid gales and plunging barometers, men lost overboard and the lonely captain who shoots himself in a fit of depression when he’s appointed the task of mapping Argentina’s bleak Tierre del Fuego. At other times, the story reads like a 19th-century melodrama, with a cast of incorrigible schemers and their dubious engagements to impressionable young women.
Darwin’s Armada traces and interprets the far flung scientific explorations of four men – naturalist Charles Darwin, botanist Joseph Hooker, biologist (and ‘Darwin’s bulldog’) Thomas Henry Huxley and the wild man of Borneo, Alfred Russel Wallace.
McCalman argues that it was their joint efforts that culminated in the publication On the Origin of Species, and that it was the wanderings and study of these four in the Australian region, which was crucial in developing the theory of natural selection.
Reading this book is a joy. McCalman has a wordsmith’s knack of finding specific moments that were important to the process of historical enquiry and then furnishing them with marvellous powers of description. He also has ample dry wit.