Dr. Benjamin Bynoe (1803 – 1865)

A watercolour by HMS Beagle's draughtsman, Conrad Martens. Painted during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, it depicts native Fuegians hailing the Beagle.

A watercolour by HMS Beagle’s draughtsman, Conrad Martens. Painted during the survey of Tierra del Fuego, it depicts native Fuegians hailing the Beagle.

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.

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 form his hypothesis that species variation from island to island was 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 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?

Acacia bynoeana, known colloquially as Bynoe's wattle or tiny wattle, is a species of Acacia native to eastern Australia. Illustration by Marion H Simmons.

Acacia bynoeana, known colloquially as Bynoe’s wattle or tiny wattle, is a species of Acacia native to eastern Australia. Illustration by Marion H Simmons.

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.

    Acacia Bynoeana
    Acacia Bynoeana – Bynoe’s wattle
  • 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.

    Photo: (c) Michael Jefferies, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)
    Heteronotia Binoei – Bynoe’s Gecko. Photo: (c) Michael Jefferies, some rights reserved (CC BY-NC)

To date we have failed to source a photograph, portrait or sketch of Dr. Benjamin Bynoe. We’ve tried the: Royal Botanic Gardens Library at Kew, The Royal Society, Wellcome Library, National Portrait Gallery, The Natural History Museum, The Royal College of Surgeons and the British Library Asian & African Studies.

The illustration used with this post is a cartoon / caricature style image of Charles Darwin and the crew of the HMS Beagle.  It was sold at auction in December 2015 by Sotheby’s for £52,500.

This watercolour was painted while the Beagle was anchored off the Patagonian coast in 1832, shows fossils and botanical specimens being hauled aboard for examination by Charles Darwin, who commands the centre of the painting in top hat and tails.

A speech bubble records Charles Darwin pontificating about an insect to an officer (thought to be ship’s surgeon Dr. Benjamin Bynoe): “Observe its legs are long, and the palpi are strongly toothed on the inner side,” he says. “I think the whole insect appears of a dark chestnut brown colour with a yellowish cast on the abdomen. Its history is but little known but there can be no doubt of its being of a predacious nature. What do you think Mr –?

Darwin is flanked by 10 other crew members, all of whom also have their own speech bubbles, with words written in black ink: “Stand out of MY way!!! I’ve got specimens for the Captain!!! “, shouts a sailor, delivering said specimens to FitzRoy.

The watercolour carries the the tongue-in-cheek title Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery of interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage, and is believed to have been painted to amuse the crew, who dismissed many of Darwin’s finds as “apparent rubbish”.

Sotheby’s Catalogue Note:
THIS NEWLY IDENTIFIED WATERCOLOUR IS ONE OF THE EARLIEST DEPICTIONS OF DARWIN, THE ONLY IMAGE OF HIM ON THE BEAGLE, AND AN EXCEPTIONALLY RARE IMAGE OF HIM AT WORK AS A NATURALIST.

It is a lively and detailed scene that can be identified with an occasion of enormous importance in catalysing Darwin’s earliest insights into evolution. It shows a young Darwin in top hat – clearly recognizable although only half his face is visible – as the central figure, with fossils, brightly-coloured fish, and botanical specimens cluttering the quarterdeck at his feet. He is giving a long-winded pronouncement to an officer (probably the ship’s surgeon Benjamin Bynoe) on the characteristics of an insect and is so caught up with his investigations that he is oblivious to the chaos around him. The deck is bustling as crew members bring more specimens for Darwin’s inspection: shells, seabirds, even an entire cabbage palm. Another crewmember is heaving a massive block of stone, carefully labelled with geological terms, to Captain FitzRoy, who is himself opining excitedly on the nature of a mineral. Not all the crew are engaging in the spirit of discovery: one sailor grumbles as he slopes off with a theodolite (and a bottle of rum) whilst an officer complains about the mess on the deck and others are engaged in taking bearings.

The watercolour can be attributed to the Beagle’s first shipboard artist, Augustus Earle (1793-1838), on stylistic grounds. A number of genre scenes and studies of figures by Earle made on board ship and during his travels in Brazil and Australia survive in the collections of the National Library of Australia, the National Gallery of Australia and the State Library of New South Wales. There are many elements in these pieces that are strikingly similar to the present watercolour: the depiction of faces (especially those of the caricatured menials, but also for example, the thin sailor on the far left), structural composition and the careful placement of figures in a group (Earle often chooses to depict figures from the back or side), his clumsy depiction of human feet, the palette, his use of light washes. However only one watercolour produced by Earle on the Beagle has been identified; they presumably passed to FitzRoy, his employer, who had some engraved to illustrate his Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle (1839). One of these engravings after Earle, ‘Crossing the Line’, is again strikingly similar to the present watercolour and depicts another comic shipboard scene in caricature style. On the basis of style alone there can be little doubt that this watercolour is the work of Earle, which means this scene can only depict the Beagle; a connection that is confirmed by compelling circumstantial detail.

Earle was employed by Fitzroy in October 1831, before the Beagle left England, and soon befriended the other supernumerary on board, Charles Darwin. His health was not good, however, and he had to leave the ship and was replaced by Conrad Martens in August 1833. It is often stated that Earle left the ship in August 1832 but it has been shown that he remained on board until at least October (see J. Hackforth-Jones, Augustus Earle: Travel Artist (1980), p.12). Earle’s departure from the Beagle, together with the chronology established by surviving correspondence and the presence of fossils amongst the specimens on the quarterdeck, allow the watercolour to be dated with a fair degree of confidence to around 24 September 1832. The ship anchored in the harbour of Bahía Blanca, some 400 miles south of Buenos Aires in Patagonia, from 6 September to 19 October, and during this time Fitzroy and Darwin took a launch to Punta Alta, some 10 miles distant, to investigate the cliffs they had observed on arrival. Here they discovered an extraordinary diversity of fossils of extinct mammals which greatly excited Darwin, as FitzRoy recalled in his Narrative:

“My friend’s [Darwin’s] attention was soon attracted to some low cliffs … where he found some of those huge fossil bones, described in his work; and notwithstanding our smiles at the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board, he and his servant used their pick-axes in earnest, and brought away what have since proved to be most interesting and valuable remains of extinct animals…” (Narrative, Vol. 2, pp 106-7)

FitzRoy further describes how animals were hunted as specimens, and that “shoals of fish were caught by our men … and as they were chiefly unknown to naturalists, Mr. Earle made careful drawings of them, and Mr. Darwin preserved many in spirits” (Narrative, Vol. 2, p.108). These animals and fish are also found in the watercolour, but it is the much more unusual presence of fossils, which were brought on board on 24 September, that tie the image to Bahía Blanca. Their importance to Darwin’s thinking lay in the fact that they were the bones of creatures evidently similar to those then living in the region, and different from mammalian fossils found in Europe; they were therefore evidence of descent with modification going on independently on different continents. The watercolour includes captions that reveal Earle’s clear understanding of how these specimens played into ongoing discussions of geological time – an understanding that came, no doubt, from conversation with Darwin and FitzRoy. The date on the ‘Tusk’ is one year after the famous ‘date’ of the Creation of 4004 B.C. calculated by Archbishop Ussher (1581–1656), whilst ‘Anti-Diluvian’ is an intentional pun, as the fossils were not only antediluvian, before the Deluge, but also evidence against the Deluge.

Many details found in the watercolour echo known features of the Beagle voyage, and in turn the watercolour is an important new witness to one of the most renowned scientific voyages in history. For example, whilst FitzRoy’s geological interests are well attested – it was FitzRoy who presented Darwin with his copy of the first volume of Lyell’s Principles of Geology, which was to prove so influential to Darwin’s incipient evolutionary insights – the present watercolour reveals how deeply this interest pervaded activities on the Beagle. There are smaller details, too: the officer complaining that “there is no such thing as walking the deck for all these cursed specimens” can be identified confidently as First Lieutenant John Clements Wickham; Henrietta Darwin recalled her father describing how Wickham would mutter darkly that “If I had my way, all your d–d mess would be chucked overboard, & you after it old Flycatcher” (R. Keynes, Fossils, Finches, and Fuegians (2003), p.105). Further research would no doubt shed light on other details in the watercolour, whilst other features– the recurrent cabbage motif and the watercolour’s curious title, for example – are presumably ship-board in-jokes that are probably beyond recovery.

Sotheby’s would like to thank Elizabeth Ellis, emeritus curator of the State Library of New South Wales, for her assistance in cataloguing this lot.

2 thoughts on “Dr. Benjamin Bynoe (1803 – 1865)”

  1. I’m working on book about pardalotes’ taxonomic and natural history. They are four species, and some subspecies, of Australian birds.
    Some of them were named by John Gould. In a letter dated Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), May 10th, 1839, Gould wrote: “… The greater number of the birds from which the following characters are taken are from the collection made by the officers of Her Majesty’s ship the Beagle. To Captain Wickham and the other officers of that vessel I am indebted for much kindness and attention. By the exertions of Mr. Bynoe, surgeon of the Beagle, science has been enriched, not only by the discovery of these new species of birds, but of several others, and some quadrupeds of a most interesting description, the whole of which have been placed in my hands for the purpose of describing, figuring, & c. …”. Among the bird species cited in the letter there was also Pardalotus uropygialis.

    About this species, Gould wrote: “PARDALOTUS UROPYGIALIS Pard. vertice et lineâ oculari nigris; lineâ superciliari, pectore, et abdomine medio, albis; gulâ, genisque croceis; uropygio sulphureo; dorso cinerescenti-olivaceo; alis nigris, primariis plurimis ad basin albo notatis; alâ suprà ad apicem coccineâ; caudâ nigrâ, plumis externis tribus ad apicem albis; rostro nigro; tarsis plumbeis. Long. tot. 3 1/2 poll.; rostri, 1/2; alae, 2 1/4; caudae, 1 ; tarsi, 3/4.
    Hab. North-west coast of Australia. From Benjamin Bynoe, Esq.”
    So I was surprised noting that describing Amadina gouldiae, John Gould did not cite Bynoe, but Gilbert. This is not a criticism to your article of course.

    Maurizio Perini

  2. Interestying article! But, are you sure about Amadina gouldiae? In the “Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London”, Part XII, 1844, on page 5, there is the Gould’s description of this species. In the next page we can read “Remarks.—The young of this species killed by Mr. Gilbert had the gape on each side ornamented Tvith three excrescences about the size of the head of a moderate-sized…” It seems that this bird was killed by John Gilbert and not by Banjamin Bynoe. What are your reference about you wrote on Amadina gouldiae? I am very interested in… thank you !

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