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Darwin’s Continental Bulldog on Tenerife 

A series about the magnetic draw of climbing to the top of Teide

Ernst Haeckel was a man of many parts – physician, botanist, zoologist, and artist who discovered and named thousands of new species. He also introduced words to the language which have come into prominence today such as ecology and stem cells.

He was born in Potsdam (then part of Prussia) and first studied medicine before moving into zoology and had become well known in Europe by the time that Charles Darwin introduced his book “On the Origin of Species by Natural Selection” in 1859. He fully supported this theory and promoted it throughout Europe adding a few ideas of his own with which Darwin was not in agreement.

From late 1866 to the end of 1867 he organised, with three of his students, a tour of the Canary Islands and West Africa. Before joining up with the rest of the group in Lisbon, Haeckel visited England arriving in London on 17th October 1866 where he called on Sir Charles Lyell, a renowned geologist and close friend of Darwin. The next visit was to Thomas Huxley, Darwin’s Bulldog, and finally he called on the great man himself and was received graciously by Darwin and his family.

Haeckel would have mentioned his wish to follow in the steps of Humboldt, his other hero, who had climbed to the top of Mount Teide in Tenerife in 1799. Darwin, who was also an admirer of Humboldt, would have told Haeckel of his own misfortune which occurred on his famous journey on the Beagle in 1832. Darwin had written in his log: –

Oh misery, misery — we were just preparing to drop our anchor within 1/2 a mile of Santa Cruz when a boat came alongside bringing with it our death-warrant. The consul declared we must perform a rigorous quarantine of twelve days. Those who have never experienced it can scarcely conceive what a gloom it cast on every one: Matters were soon decided by the Captain ordering all sail to be set & make a course for the Cape Verde Islands.

We have left perhaps one of the most interesting places in the world, just at the moment when we were near enough for every object to create, without satisfying, our utmost curiosity.

Darwin never set foot on Tenerife

On November 2nd 1866 Haeckel left England for Lisbon where no one was allowed to disembark due to quarantine because of an outbreak of cholera in London. The ship was laid up for two weeks and he must have feared experiencing the same fate as Darwin. Eventually, Haekel and his friends boarded a small paddle-wheeler, comically named the Lusitania, and sailed to Madeira.

On landing at Madeira they found that there was a quarantine enforced throughout the Canary Islands not only because of the cholera scare but also due to yellow fever which had spread along the West Coast of Africa.

Fortunately Haeckel received a stroke of synchronicity which rarely happens more than once in a life-time. By chance the Prussian warship, Niobe, was in port and the ship’s doctor had come ashore. On meeting the four despondent scientists he invited them to come aboard. The captain of the warship declared himself to be the grandson of a famous Prussian botanist and the excitement increased as the ship was also heading for Tenerife. Say no more. They were offered a lift.

When the Niobe reached Santa Cruz and entered the bay, the captain greeted the island with a twenty-one-canon volley. The quarantine restrictions were lifted and, on November 22nd, the four stepped ashore.

After finding their land-legs, Haeckel and his team spent a couple of days relaxing before they organised the trip to climb the 12,000ft volcanic Mount Teide which Humboldt had scaled over half a century before.

Here is an extract about the climb from the book – The Tragic Sense of Life: Ernst Haeckel and the Struggle over Evolutionary Thought by Robert J.Richards from the University of Chicago. It is available on Amazon. The three students, who were to become famous in their own right, were named Fol,Greeff and Miklukho.

After securing two German speaking guides and a mule train, Haeckel and his companions, at 12.30 on the moonlit morning of 26th November, began their approach to the mountain. By 8.30am they had reached the base of the central cone-which an earlier traveller Leopoldo von Buch, had called “the mountain on a mountain” – still some 4,000 feet from the top. Here the mules had to be left as well as Fol, who had walked too closely behind one of the animals and got kicked on the knee.

The further climb, with perilous handholds and fields of ice-covered lava blocks, proved too much for Greeff and Miklukho who stopped about 1,500 feet from the summit. The company’s principal guide Don Emanuel Reis – who had made over 50 climbs of the peak – balked at the last 800 feet because of the thick ice. He refused to proceed further.

Haeckel, the amazingly fit athlete, and the remaining guide, Hermann Wildpret – a Swiss German, who was the curator of the local botanical garden (in Puerto de la Cruz) – moved slowly on, hacking out each step with ice axes. Both suffered increasingly from altitude sickness. Three hundred feet from the top, a copious flow of blood gushed from Haeckel’s nose and he passed out. Wildpret revived him and then he, himself, fainted requiring Haeckel to perform a like service for his guide. At noon, on shaky feet, they surveyed the beauties of the island from the very peak of the mountain.

Some days later, the little group moved over to the island of Lanzarote where they spent four months collecting, identifying and naming scores of specimens. During the remainder of 1867 they explored the West African Coast.

By Ken Fischer