Darwin as a geologist in Africa – dispelling the myths and unravelling a confused knot

  • Sharad Master Economic Geology Research Institute, School of Geosciences, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg
Keywords: Charles Darwin, Cape Town, Granite-schist contact, Basil Hall, Clarke Abel


Two myths persist concerning the role played by Charles Darwin as a geologist in Africa during his epic voyage around the world (1831–1836). The first myth is that Darwin was a completely self-taught geologist, with no formal training. The second myth is that it was Darwin who finally solved the problem of the granite–schist contact at the famous Sea Point coastal exposures in Cape Town, after deliberately setting out to prove his predecessors wrong. These myths are challenged by the now ample evidence that Darwin had excellent help in his geological education from the likes of Robert Jameson, John Henslow and Adam Sedgwick. The story of Darwin and his predecessors at the Sea Point granite contact has become confused, and even conflated, with previous descriptions by Basil Hall (1813) and Clark Abel (1818). Here, the historical record is unravelled and set straight, and it is shown from the evidence of his notebooks that Darwin was quite unaware of the outcrops in Cape Town. His erudite account of the contact was a result of the 8 years spent in writing and correspondence after his return to England and not because of his brilliant insights on the outcrop, as the myth would have it. While there has been little to indicate Darwin’s landfalls in Africa, a new plaque now explains the geology of the Sea Point Contact, and includes a drawing of Darwin’s ship, the Beagle, and quotes from his work.