Benjamin Bynoe was born in Christ Church Parish, Barbados in 1803. He came from a long established Barbadian family. Like so many Barbadians before and since, he sought fame and fortune off the island.
In Bynoe’s case, he studied medicine and subsequently joined the Royal Navy. In October 1825, he was appointed Assistant Surgeon on board H.M.S. Beagle. Dr. Bynoe spent eighteen years of his life on board this vessel, taking part in extended voyages of exploration and collecting in South America and Australia.
Bynoe’s first voyage took him to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego where the Beagle was engaged in surveying the coastline for cartographic purposes. Using the small sloop of the Beagle, Bynoe explored the many bays and islands in the area known as the Gulf of Sorrows. He had the distinction of having a cape and an island named after him, the first of many such honours.
It was on the expedition that Bynoe confronted the first of many medical crises he faced in his career. The Beagle’s captain, Pringle Stokes, shot himself in the head during a severe depression. For twelve days, Bynoe attempted to save his captain’s life, but his injuries were too severe and he died.
Bynoe and Charles Darwin met on the second voyage of the Beagle. Between 1831 to1836, the two were in close contact on what was a small ship manned by seventy six individuals.
Bynoe became Darwin’s close friend on the second voyage.” Darwin certainly owed Bynoe a debt of gratitude, as on the voyage, he fell seriously ill when they were at Valparaiso Chile and had to spend a month in bed, recuperating. As Darwin notes, “I must likewise take the opportunity of returning my sincere thanks to Mr. Bynoe for his very kind attention to me while I was ill at Valparaiso.”
In October 1835, the Beagle cruised the Galapagos Islands where Darwin and Bynoe collected various specimens from the many islands that make up the Galapagos. Later in England, when Darwin was going through his notes in preparation for what became the seminal work, Origin of Species, he realized that his notes were insufficiently accurate, especially in so far as they did not correctly identify the various islands from which the specimens of finches were taken.
The reader should remember that one area of difference or evolutionary change which attracted Darwin’s attention, was the differently shaped beaks of birds. Bynoe’s notes provided him with the answers he needed to concretize his hypothesis that species variation from island to island was as a result of natural selection which improved that species chances of survival. Thus was born the principle of evolution. As Charles Darwin himself noted, “the voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event of my life, and has determined my whole career.”
Bynoe continued to serve on the Beagle. The third expedition lasted from 1837 to 1843 and focused on Australia. He continued to collect specimens for scientific examination and wrote a number of academic papers, including one on marsupial gestation and on geological formations in Queensland.
He experienced adventure after adventure, encountering giant salt water crocodiles or facing parties of aborigines who were protecting their territory from these intruders. His captain J.L. Stokes was speared by an aborigine warrior and Dr. Bynoe had to utilize all his skills to save him.
Bynoe’s work was used extensively by others but he never seemed to get the credit due to him. One of his biographers, Keevil notes, “Bynoe had already formed a considerable collection of specimens… birds and fish, coleopteran and Lepidoptera, a part of which collection found its way to the British museum. For this work, Bynoe has received little credit, only one species being later named after him; the limited application of this usual courtesy is strange.” Strange indeed… was Bynoe seen as a colonial… a man from Barbados with no real social ranking in the British scheme of things?
The one species named after him was an acacia… Acacia bynoeana. One of the most popular caged birds today is the very colourful Gouldian finch. While on one of his expeditions in the Australian interior, Bynoe saw and collected a stunningly beautiful, multi coloured bird. The bird caught his attention because its “brilliant colours of verdigris green, lilac purple and bright yellow were admirably blended.” This he sent to the British ornithological expert John Gould who promptly named it Amadina gouldiae after himself. One would have thought that he would have given the scientific honours to Bynoe.
“Darwin’s triumphs will cause the reader to think on this Barbadian man who braved towering icy seas in Antarctic waters, who set foot where no Westerner had gone before, who, during the crucial Beagle years was the constant and true companion of Charles Darwin, the man acclaimed as one of the greatest scientists of all time and author of what is arguably one of the most important texts of Western civilization. Seen in this context, Benjamin Bynoe is an immortal,” (Watson 2009).
Links to Bajan Dr. Benjamin Bynoe:
- Profile of Dr. Benajmin Bynoe from Council of Heads of Australasian Herbaria.
- Bynoe’s wattle (Acacia Bynoeana). The specific name, Bynoeana, is in honour of Bajan naturalist Dr. Benjamin Bynoe, who was a Royal Naval surgeon aboard HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin.
- Bynoe’s Gecko (Heteronotia Binoei). The specific name, Binoei, is in honour of Bajan naturalist Dr. Benjamin Bynoe, who was a Royal Naval surgeon aboard HMS Beagle with Charles Darwin.