Sunday, 19 November 2006

Darwin's Tortoise, Robin Stewart, 2006

DARWIN’S TORTOISE Robin Stewart, Black, Australia, [NZ agents: Macmillan] 2006, 150 pages, paperback, NZ$24.95. ISBN 1-86395-373-6

On his two-year scientific voyage in H.M.S. Beagle, Charles Darwin collected thousands of specimens but Tom, Dick and Harry, three giant tortoises taken from the Galapagos Islands in 1835, were the only creatures to be brought back to Britain alive. According to tradition, all three were later carried to Brisbane by the new Governor of Queensland, John Wickham (former lieutenant of Beagle). Certainly Queensland had three Galapagos tortoises for many years and one still survives, although scientific research, assisted by the car-jack from a Holden, has confirmed that long-lived Harry is really Harriet.

For younger readers, Robin Stewart has filled in the gaps by melding history and imagination to create a dramatic and appealing account of Harriet’s life, her personality, and the interesting people who have cared for this oddly attractive creature. There is also a good range of factual and historic material on the Galapagos giant tortoises, Darwin and evolution, with excellent illustrations.

It seems churlish to point out that a tortoise expert, Paul Chambers, recently proved that Harriet is not one of Darwin’s animals. [New Scientist, 11 September, 2004, pp 38-41]. Nevertheless the DNA which proves that she is from the ‘wrong’ island, Santa Cruz, also proves that she left there in the mid-1830s (perhaps taken on a whaling ship to Australia). Thus Harriet is indeed the world’s oldest living creature and as one of her keepers says, “She’s one of the gentlest, most loving animals at Australia Zoo.
An enchanting book for anyone aged between 10 and 110.

Trevor Agnew

First published in The Press, Christchurch, New Zealand on March 11th 2006.

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