Excerpt of Darwin's Armada by Iain McCalman
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Darwin's Last Voyage
Oh build your ship of death, oh build it! for you will need it.
For the voyage of oblivion awaits you.
D. H. Lawrence, 'The Ship of Death'
Charles Darwin's funeral took place at Westminster Abbey on Wednesday 26 April 1882. Twenty years earlier, the English press had taunted him as 'The Devil's Disciple', the scientist whose theory of evolution had dethroned the divine creator and turned man into the cousin of the monkey. Now the Pall Mall Gazette spoke for all in comparing him to Copernicus and calling him 'the greatest Englishman since Newton'. The more than two thousand mourners at the Abbey made up a Who's Who of the Victorian establishment. So many had applied for admission cards that the undertakers were rattled.
The body had arrived at eight o'clock the evening before, after a horse-drawn journey from the village of Downe, in Kent, accompanied for the sixteen miles by three of Darwin's sons and an icy drizzle. The white oak coffin, bearing the simple inscription Charles Robert Darwin, Born February 12, 1809. Died April 19, 1882, was carried into the dim lamplight of the Abbey's Chapel of St Faith, where it perched like a small ship in dry dock.
Shortly before eleven o'clock the next day, the Darwin family, friends and a few servants made their way into the Jerusalem Chamber. Dignitaries took their positions in the Chapter House, and the choir assembled in the stalls. The pews on the south side of the nave registered the whispers of Frock coated scientists, philosophers, admirals, ambassadors, museum directors, politicians, philanthropists, civic worthies, university professors and clergymen. Now the non-ticketed seats in the north-western part of the nave and the back rows began to fill with ordinary folk, some plain curious, some keen to pay homage to the man who'd once shaken the foundations of the Church. They included a sprinkling of old radicalsChartists, republicans, and freethinkers like G. J. Holyoake for whom Darwin's ideas had been an inspiration.
A few pointed absences among the country's mighty were noted, though each claimed an excuse: Queen Victoria was busy preparing for her son Prince Leopold's wedding; Prime Minister Gladstone, a fervent evangelical with no love of Darwin's ideas, was caught up in the political mire of the Irish independence struggles; the Archbishop of Canterbury was 'indisposed'; and the Dean of Westminster Abbey was 'abroad'.
Other representatives of the Church of England made up for the timidity of their clerical seniors: canons, vergers and clerks were present in abundance. As the bell tolled noon, the Queen's Chaplain-in-Ordinary, George Prothero, opened the ceremony with the song 'I Am the Resurrection', glossing over Darwin's well-known scepticism about life after death. Everyone knew that he had rejected the idea of a divine creator who'd intelligently designed the world of man and nature: he believed only in nature's implacable laws of change, chance, struggle, survival and extinction.
The coffin, a black velvet coverlet draped over it, carried two wreaths lifebuoys for another world and a spray of white blossom at the prow. Ten pallbearers bobbed it slowly up the nave to its resting place at the northern end of the choir screen, close to the statue of Sir Isaac Newton. Three of the pallbearers two dukes and an earl represented the state and Cambridge University, where Darwin had once been a clerical student. Ambassador James Russell Lowell, another bearer, represented the United States of America. Sir William Spottiswoode, President of the Royal Society, was there for the scientific establishment. Darwin's neighbour and friend, Sir John Lubbock, a Liberal MP, London banker and distinguished amateur archaeologist, embodied Victorian government, finance and culture.
Reprinted from Darwin's Armada: Four Voyages and the Battle for the Theory of Evolution by Iain McCalum copyright (c) 2009 by Iain McCalum. with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.