Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Harry: a 175 year old survivor of the Beagle?

Beachcombing has been interested in longevity recently and thought that today he would highlight the remarkable case of Harry, a particularly long-lived crew member of the Beagle, the boat on which Darwin travelled to the Galapagos and on which the English scientist hatched his explosive ideas.

Now some dates to give a sense of just how well Harry did. The Beagle, it will be remembered, sailed with Darwin from 1831-1836.

Jeremy Button a Fijian hostage on the Beagle survived to 1864 (aged about 50)

John Wickham Lieutenant on the Beagle died in 1864 (aged 66) – it was Wickham who gave the name ‘Darwin’ to a harbour in northern Australia.

The Beagle’s captain, that fine old Tory Robert ‘Hot Coffee’ Fitzroy died in 1865 (aged 60) – tragically by suicide.

Conrad Martens the Beagle’s artist passed away in 1878 (aged 77), a heart attack ending his life.

Darwin himself died at 73 in 1882 of coronary thrombosis: ‘I am not the least afraid of death…’

And Robert McCormick ship surgeon (for part of the voyage) made it to 90 (1890).

But Harry trumped them all by well over a century, finally giving out in 2006, after a heart failure.

In case Beachcombing has stretched credibility to breaking point let him immediately present a picture of Harry towards the end.

For, yes, Harry was a Galapagos tortoise. Brought back on the Beagle by John Wickham (see above).

Harry lived in the grounds of Brisbane’s oldest residence, Newstead House until 1859 or 1860 when Wickham left Australia to go and live in France. At that point Harry was given to Brisbane Botanic Gardens. It was there that he was given the name Harry.

Harry seems to have been happy living into the twenty-first century and reportedly spend most of the day dozing and eating hibiscus flowers – good advice, Beachcombing would say, for us all.

The only really exciting event in his post-Beagle life was when, in the 1960s, a visiting professor pointed out that Harry was actually a female. Beachcombing is a stickler for convention here and will refuse to employ ‘Harriet’, the name that Harry was known by for the rest of her life: ‘the names we are given are the names we should keep…’

Oh and yes there has been some muttering that Harry was not really brought to Australia by the Beagle. But Galapagos tortoises did not just drop from the Australian sky in the nineteenth century – or only rarely… – and Harry’s birth date has been carefully calculated at 1830 plus or minus two years, a date that matches the Beagle’s visit almost perfectly. Indeed, there is an excellent possibility that Darwin himself picked up the immature (perhaps four or five year old) Harry as he crawled along the hot sands of one of those jewelled Pacific islands.

Beachcombing dedicates this post to Chapman and Tracy his two own tortoises who he had just brought into his study for the winter. If last year is anything to go by then nothing but misery awaits them…

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