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Chapter 2



Precipitous hill of phonolite.


Trachytic rocks: their singular decomposition by steam of high temperature.


Passage from wacke into trap; singular volcanic rock with the vesicles half-filled with mesotype.


Proofs of its recent elevation.

Structure of its more ancient mountains; similarity with St. Jago.


Not of volcanic origin.

Their singular mineralogical composition.


During our short visit at this and the four following islands, I observed very little worthy of description. Fernando Noronha is situated in the Atlantic Ocean, in latitude 3 degrees 50 minutes S., and 230 miles distant from the coast of South America. It consists of several islets, together nine miles in length by three in breadth. The whole seems to be of volcanic origin; although there is no appearance of any crater, or of any one central eminence. The most remarkable feature is a hill 1,000 feet high, of which the upper 400 feet consist of a precipitous, singularly shaped pinnacle, formed of columnar phonolite, containing numerous crystals of glassy feldspar, and a few needles of hornblende. From the highest accessible point of this hill, I could distinguish in different parts of the group several other conical hills, apparently of the same nature. At St. Helena there are similar, great, conical, protuberant masses of phonolite, nearly one thousand feet in height, which have been formed by the injection of fluid feldspathic lava into yielding strata. If this hill has had, as is probable, a similar origin, denudation has been here effected on an enormous scale. Near the base of this hill, I observed beds of white tuff, intersected by numerous dikes, some of amygdaloidal basalt and others of trachyte; and beds of slaty phonolite with the planes of cleavage directed N.W. and S.E. Parts of this rock, where the crystals were scanty, closely resembled common clay-slate, altered by the contact of a trap-dike. The lamination of rocks, which undoubtedly have once been fluid, appears to me a subject well deserving attention. On the beach there were numerous fragments of compact basalt, of which rock a distant facade of columns seemed to be formed.


The central parts of this island consist of irregularly rounded mountains of no great elevation, composed of trachyte, which closely resembles in general character the trachyte of Ascension, presently to be described. This formation is in many parts overlaid, in the usual order of superposition, by streams of basaltic lava, which near the coast compose nearly the whole surface. The course which these streams have followed from their craters, can often be followed by the eye. The town of Angra is overlooked by a crateriform hill (Mount Brazil), entirely built of thin strata of fine-grained, harsh, brown-coloured tuff. The upper beds are seen to overlap the basaltic streams on which the town stands. This hill is almost identical in structure and composition with numerous crateriformed hills in the Galapagos Archipelago.


In the central part of the island there is a spot, where steam is constantly issuing in jets from the bottom of a small ravine-like hollow, which has no exit, and which abuts against a range of trachytic mountains. The steam is emitted from several irregular fissures: it is scentless, soon blackens iron, and is of much too high temperature to be endured by the hand. The manner in which the solid trachyte is changed on the borders of these orifices is curious: first, the base becomes earthy, with red freckles evidently due to the oxidation of particles of iron; then it becomes soft; and lastly, even the crystals of glassy feldspar yield to the dissolving agent. After the mass is converted into clay, the oxide of iron seems to be entirely removed from some parts, which are left perfectly white, whilst in other neighbouring parts, which are of the brightest red colour, it seems to be deposited in greater quantity; some other masses are marbled with two distinct colours. Portions of the white clay, now that they are dry, cannot be distinguished by the eye from the finest prepared chalk; and when placed between the teeth they feel equally soft-grained; the inhabitants use this substance for white-washing their houses. The cause of the iron being dissolved in one part, and close by being again deposited, is obscure; but the fact has been observed in several other places. (Spallanzani, Dolomieu, and Hoffman have described similar cases in the Italian volcanic islands. Dolomieu says the iron at the Panza Islands is redeposited in the form of veins (page 86 "Memoire sur les Isles Ponces"). These authors likewise believe that the steam deposits silica: it is now experimentally known that vapour of a high temperature is able to dissolve silica.) In some half-decayed specimens, I found small, globular aggregations of yellow hyalite, resembling gum-arabic, which no doubt had been deposited by the steam.

As there is no escape for the rain-water, which trickles down the sides of the ravine-like hollow, whence the steam issues, it must all percolate downwards through the fissures at its bottom. Some of the inhabitants informed me that it was on record that flames (some luminous appearance?) had originally proceeded from these cracks, and that the flames had been succeeded by the steam; but I was not able to ascertain how long this was ago, or anything certain on the subject. When viewing the spot, I imagined that the injection of a large mass of rock. like the cone of phonolite at Fernando Noronha, in a semi-fluid state, by arching the surface might have caused a wedge-shaped hollow with cracks at the bottom, and that the rain- water percolating to the neighbourhood of the heated mass, would during many succeeding years be driven back in the form of steam.


I visited only a part of the north-western side of this island, and this part is entirely composed of volcanic rocks. Near the coast there are several varieties of basalt, some abounding with large crystals of augite and tarnished olivine, others compact and earthy,--some slightly vesicular, and others occasionally amygdaloidal. These rocks are generally much decomposed, and to my surprise, I found in several sections that it was impossible to distinguish, even approximately, the line of separation between the decayed lava and the alternating beds of tuff. Since the specimens have become dry, it is rather more easy to distinguish the decomposed igneous rocks from the sedimentary tuffs. This gradation in character between rocks having such widely different origins, may I think be explained by the yielding under pressure of the softened sides of the vesicular cavities, which in many volcanic rocks occupy a large proportion of their bulk. As the vesicles generally increase in size and number in the upper parts of a stream of lava, so would the effects of their compression increase; the yielding, moreover, of each lower vesicle must tend to disturb all the softened matter above it. Hence we might expect to trace a perfect gradation from an unaltered crystalline rock to one in which all the particles (although originally forming part of the same solid mass) had undergone mechanical displacement; and such particles could hardly be distinguished from others of similar composition, which had been deposited as sediment. As lavas are sometimes laminated in their upper parts even horizontal lines, appearing like those of aqueous deposition, could not in all cases be relied on as a criterion of sedimentary origin. From these considerations it is not surprising that formerly many geologists believed in real transitions from aqueous deposits, through wacke, into igneous traps.

In the valley of Tia-auru, the commonest rocks are basalts with much olivine, and in some cases almost composed of large crystals of augite. I picked up some specimens, with much glassy feldspar, approaching in character to trachyte. There were also many large blocks of vesicular basalt, with the cavities beautifully lined with chabasie (?), and radiating bundles of mesotype. Some of these specimens presented a curious appearance, owing to a number of the vesicles being half filled up with a white, soft, earthy mesotypic mineral, which intumesced under the blowpipe in a remarkable manner. As the upper surfaces in all the half-filled cells are exactly parallel, it is evident that this substance has sunk to the bottom of each cell from its weight. Sometimes, however, it entirely fills the cells. Other cells are either quite filled, or lined, with small crystals, apparently of chabasie; these crystals, also, frequently line the upper half of the cells partly filled with the earthy mineral, as well as the upper surface of this substance itself, in which case the two minerals appear to blend into each other. I have never seen any other amygdaloid with the cells half filled in the manner here described; and it is difficult to imagine the causes which determined the earthy mineral to sink from its gravity to the bottom of the cells, and the crystalline mineral to adhere in a coating of equal thickness round the sides of the cells. (MacCulloch, however, has described and given a plate of ("Geolog. Trans." 1st series volume 4 page 225) a trap rock, with cavities filled up horizontally with quartz and chalcedony. The upper halves of these cavities are often filled by layers, which follow each irregularity of the surface, and by little depending stalactites of the same siliceous substances.)

The basic strata on the sides of the valley are gently inclined seaward, and I nowhere observed any sign of disturbance; the strata are separated from each other by thick, compact beds of conglomerate, in which the fragments are large, some being rounded, but most angular. From the character of these beds, from the compact and crystalline condition of most of the lavas, and from the nature of the infiltrated minerals, I was led to conjecture that they had originally flowed beneath the sea. This conclusion agrees with the fact that the Rev. W. Ellis found marine remains at a considerable height, which he believes were interstratified with volcanic matter; as is likewise described to be the case by Messrs. Tyerman and Bennett at Huaheine, an island in this same archipelago. Mr. Stutchbury also discovered near the summit of one of the loftiest mountains of Tahiti, at the height of several thousand feet, a stratum of semi-fossil coral. None of these remains have been specifically examined. On the coast, where masses of coral-rock would have afforded the clearest evidence, I looked in vain for any signs of recent elevation. For references to the above authorities, and for more detailed reasons for not believing that Tahiti has been recently elevated, I must refer to the "Structure and Distribution of Coral-Reefs."


Approaching this island on the northern or north-western side, a curved chain of bold mountains, surmounted by rugged pinnacles, is seen to rise from a smooth border of cultivated land, which gently slopes down to the coast. At the first glance, one is tempted to believe that the sea lately reached the base of these mountains, and upon examination, this view, at least with respect to the inferior parts of the border, is found to be perfectly correct. Several authors have described masses of upraised coral- rock round the greater part of the circumference of the island. (Captain Carmichael, in Hooker's "Bot. Misc." volume 2 page 301. Captain Lloyd has lately, in the "Proceedings of the Geological Society" (volume 3 page 317), described carefully some of these masses. In the "Voyage a l'Isle de France, par un Officier du Roi," many interesting facts are given on this subject. Consult also "Voyage aux Quatre Isles d'Afrique, par M. Bory St. Vincent.") Between Tamarin Bay and the Great Black River I observed, in company with Captain Lloyd, two hillocks of coral-rock, formed in their lower part of hard calcareous sandstone, and in their upper of great blocks, slightly aggregated, of Astraea and Madrepora, and of fragments of basalt; they were divided into beds dipping seaward, in one case at an angle of 8 degrees, and in the other at 18 degrees; they had a water-worn appearance, and they rose abruptly from a smooth surface, strewed with rolled debris of organic remains, to a height of about twenty feet. The Officier du Roi, in his most interesting tour in 1768 round the island, has described masses of upraised coral-rocks, still retaining that moat-like structure (see my "Coral Reefs") which is characteristic of the living reefs. On the coast northward of Port Louis, I found the lava concealed for a considerable space inland by a conglomerate of corals and shells, like those on the beach, but in parts consolidated by red ferruginous matter. M. Bory St. Vincent has described similar calcareous beds over nearly the whole of the plain of Pamplemousses. Near Port Louis, when turning over some large stones, which lay in the bed of a stream at the head of a protected creek, and at the height of some yards above the level of spring tides, I found several shells of serpula still adhering to their under sides.

The jagged mountains near Port Louis rise to a height of between two and three thousand feet; they consist of strata of basalt, obscurely separated from each other by firmly aggregated beds of fragmentary matter; and they are intersected by a few vertical dikes. The basalt in some parts abounds with large crystals of augite and olivine, and is generally compact. The interior of the island forms a plain, raised probably about a thousand feet above the level of the sea, and composed of streams of lava which have flowed round and between the rugged basaltic mountains. These more recent lavas are also basaltic, but less compact, and some of them abound with feldspar, so that they even fuse into a pale coloured glass. On the banks of the Great River, a section is exposed nearly five hundred feet deep, worn through numerous thin sheets of the lava of this series, which are separated from each other by beds of scoriae. They seem to have been of subaerial formation, and to have flowed from several points of eruption on the central platform, of which the Piton du Milieu is said to be the principal one. There are also several volcanic cones, apparently of this modern period, round the circumference of the island, especially at the northern end, where they form separate islets.

The mountains composed of the more compact and crystalline basalt, form the main skeleton of the island. M. Bailly ("Voyage aux Terres Australes" tome 1 page 54.) states that they all "se developpent autour d'elle comme une ceinture d'immenses remparts, toutes affectant une pente plus ou moins enclinee vers le rivage de la mer; tandis, au contraire, que vers le centre de l'ile elles presentent une coupe abrupte, et souvent taillee a pic. Toutes ces montagnes sont formees de couches paralleles inclinees du centre de l'ile vers la mer." These statements have been disputed, though not in detail, by M. Quoy, in the voyage of Freycinet. As far as my limited means of observation went, I found them perfectly correct. (M. Lesson, in his account of this island, in the "Voyage of the 'Coquille'," seems to follow M. Bailly's views.) The mountains on the N.W. side of the island, which I examined, namely, La Pouce, Peter Botts, Corps de Garde, Les Mamelles, and apparently another farther southward, have precisely the external shape and stratification described by M. Bailly. They form about a quarter of his girdle of ramparts. Although these mountains now stand quite detached, being separated from each other by breaches, even several miles in width, through which deluges of lava have flowed from the interior of the island; nevertheless, seeing their close general similarity, one must feel convinced that they originally formed parts of one continuous mass. Judging from the beautiful map of the Mauritius, published by the Admiralty from a French MS., there is a range of mountains (M. Bamboo) on the opposite side of the island, which correspond in height, relative position, and external form, with those just described. Whether the girdle was ever complete may well be doubted; but from M. Bailly's statements, and my own observations, it may be safely concluded that mountains with precipitous inland flanks, and composed of strata dipping outwards, once extended round a considerable portion of the circumference of the island. The ring appears to have been oval and of vast size; its shorter axis, measured across from the inner sides of the mountains near Port Louis and those near Grand Port, being no less than thirteen geographical miles in length. M. Bailly boldly supposes that this enormous gulf, which has since been filled up to a great extent by streams of modern lava, was formed by the sinking in of the whole upper part of one great volcano.

It is singular in how many respects those portions of St. Jago and of Mauritius which I visited agree in their geological history. At both islands, mountains of similar external form, stratification, and (at least in their upper beds) composition, follow in a curved chain the coast-line. These mountains in each case appear originally to have formed parts of one continuous mass. The basaltic strata of which they are composed, from their compact and crystalline structure, seem, when contrasted with the neighbouring basaltic streams of subaerial formation, to have flowed beneath the pressure of the sea, and to have been subsequently elevated. We may suppose that the wide breaches between the mountains were in both cases worn by the waves, during their gradual elevation--of which process, within recent times, there is abundant evidence on the coast-land of both islands. At both, vast streams of more recent basaltic lavas have flowed from the interior of the island, round and between the ancient basaltic hills; at both, moreover, recent cones of eruption are scattered around the circumference of the island; but at neither have eruptions taken place within the period of history. As remarked in the last chapter, it is probable that these ancient basaltic mountains, which resemble (at least in many respects) the basal and disturbed remnants of two gigantic volcanoes, owe their present form, structure, and position, to the action of similar causes.


This small island is situated in the Atlantic Ocean, nearly one degree north of the equator, and 540 miles distant from South America, in 29 degrees 15 minutes west longitude. Its highest point is scarcely fifty feet above the level of the sea; its outline is irregular, and its entire circumference barely three-quarters of a mile. This little point of rock rises abruptly out of the ocean; and, except on its western side, soundings were not obtained, even at the short distance of a quarter of a mile from its shore. It is not of volcanic origin; and this circumstance, which is the most remarkable point in its history (as will hereafter be referred to), properly ought to exclude it from the present volume. It is composed of rocks, unlike any which I have met with, and which I cannot characterise by any name, and must therefore describe.

The simplest, and one of the most abundant kinds, is a very compact, heavy, greenish-black rock, having an angular, irregular fracture, with some points just hard enough to scratch glass, and infusible. This variety passes into others of paler green tints, less hard, but with a more crystalline fracture, and translucent on their edges; and these are fusible into a green enamel. Several other varieties are chiefly characterised by containing innumerable threads of dark-green serpentine, and by having calcareous matter in their interstices. These rocks have an obscure, concretionary structure, and are full of variously coloured angular pseudo fragments. These angular pseudo fragments consist of the first-described dark green rock, of a brown softer kind, of serpentine, and of a yellowish harsh stone, which, perhaps, is related to serpentine rock. There are other vesicular, calcareo-ferruginous, soft stones. There is no distinct stratification, but parts are imperfectly laminated; and the whole abounds with innumerable veins, and vein-like masses, both small and large. Of these vein-like masses, some calcareous ones, which contain minute fragments of shells, are clearly of subsequent origin to the others.


Extensive portions of these rocks are coated by a layer of a glossy polished substance, with a pearly lustre and of a greyish white colour; it follows all the inequalities of the surface, to which it is firmly attached. When examined with a lens, it is found to consist of numerous exceedingly thin layers, their aggregate thickness being about the tenth of an inch. It is considerably harder than calcareous spar, but can be scratched with a knife; under the blowpipe it scales off, decrepitates, slightly blackens, emits a fetid odour, and becomes strongly alkaline: it does not effervesce in acids. (In my "Journal" I have described this substance; I then believed that it was an impure phosphate of lime.) I presume this substance has been deposited by water draining from the birds' dung, with which the rocks are covered. At Ascension, near a cavity in the rocks which was filled with a laminated mass of infiltrated birds' dung, I found some irregularly formed, stalactitical masses of apparently the same nature. These masses, when broken, had an earthy texture; but on their outsides, and especially at their extremities, they were formed of a pearly substance, generally in little globules, like the enamel of teeth, but more translucent, and so hard as just to scratch plate-glass. This substance slightly blackens under the blowpipe, emits a bad smell, then becomes quite white, swelling a little, and fuses into a dull white enamel; it does not become alkaline; nor does it effervesce in acids. The whole mass had a collapsed appearance, as if in the formation of the hard glossy crust the whole had shrunk much. At the Abrolhos Islands on the coast of Brazil, where also there is much birds' dung, I found a great quantity of a brown, arborescent substance adhering to some trap-rock. In its arborescent form, this substance singularly resembles some of the branched species of Nullipora. Under the blowpipe, it behaves like the specimens from Ascension; but it is less hard and glossy, and the surface has not the shrunk appearance.

Charles Darwin

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