On display at a Cambridge University museum is a fish caught 174 years ago in the Bay of Islands. The red gurnard, slightly the worse for wear, was taken to England by Charles Darwin.

The gurnard, mounted on a wooden plaque, is one of few tangible signs that Darwin was here. He spent Christmas of 1835 in the Bay of Islands, inspecting Paihia and Russell and venturing into the centre of "the land of cannibalism, murder and all atrocious crimes!" He walked to the Anglican mission station at Te Waimate (Waimate North) and admired its English fields, enjoyed a pleasant row upriver to Kawakawa and walked to the Waiomio limestone caves - unfazed by observing a pre-Christian tangi along the way.

He collected other trophies: a freshwater eel and some freshwater fish, probably from the Waitangi River. He described an olive rock fish, most likely plucked from a rockpool as he scoured the Paihia foreshore.

He took home rocks, insects, a gecko and plant specimens. He was intrigued by "greenstone" rocks and limestone formations he saw on his inland walks.

Darwin would go on to become the father of evolutionary biology. His theory of evolution, published 150 years ago in On the Origin of Species, would turn thinking about life on Earth on its head.

But on Boxing Day in 1835, the 26-year-old was dodging waves on Paihia beach, plucking unfortunate specimens from rock pools, before rowing to Kawakawa on James Busby's boat.

Darwin spent nine days in the Bay of Islands during the round-the-world scientific mission of the Beagle, skippered by Robert Fitzroy. It was early days for his theories of natural selection and survival of the fittest but what he'd seen in the Galapagos Islands - the variations between species on neighbouring islands - had got him thinking.

How important was New Zealand in shaping his ideas? Not very, if we are to go by the notes in his Journal of Researches - his diary later published as The Voyage of the Beagle - in letters to his sister, Caroline, in England and in other correspondence.

As summer rain fell on the evening of December 27, he wrote from his cramped cabin to Caroline: "I am disappointed in New Zealand, both in the country & in its inhabitants. After the Tahitians, the natives appear savages."

After walking to Te Waimate he recorded in his journal that the countryside was "uniformly clothed in fern".

"The whole scene, in spite of its green colour, had a rather desolate aspect. The sight of so much fern impresses the mind with an idea of sterility ..."

Of Kororareka (Russell) - the capital of New Zealand and a busy port where sailors, whalers, traders and local Maori interacted - he wrote: "This little village is the stronghold of vice."

Its English residents, including runaway convicts, were "of the most worthless character".

When the Beagle set sail on December 30, he wrote:

"I believe we were all glad to leave New Zealand. It is not a pleasant place. Amongst the natives there is absent that charming simplicity which is found at Tahiti; and the greater part of the English are the very refuse of society. Neither is the country itself attractive. I looked back to one bright spot, and that is Waimate, with its Christian inhabitants."

Yet after Darwin returned to England and began pondering the samples and notes taken on the voyage, his opinion of New Zealand slowly evolved. Although he had a working theory of evolution - of natural selection and variation between species - within a few years of the voyage, it would be 24 years before he published Origin. In that time he corresponded with scientists who visited and stayed here, requesting more information about New Zealand plants and geology.

While it can't be said that New Zealand either sparked or proved any of Darwin's theories, its isolation and the absence of many species became relevant as he pondered the mysteries of geographic distribution and variation within species.

His opinion of the place certainly changed. He wrote to Christchurch-based geologist Julius von Haast in 1863: "I thank you for your information about the New Zealand Vertebrata: I really think there is hardly a point in the world so interesting with respect to geographical distribution as New Zealand."

Darwin may also have warmed to New Zealand because our scientists, including Haast, in the 1860s were among the first to embrace his theories of evolution and adaptation, which so starkly confronted belief that species were the fixed products of a single creator.

He corresponded often with Haast, writing in November 1879: "The extent to which science is cultivated in New Zealand always excites my admiration."

But Darwin's damning first impressions left a scientific legacy: when a Dutch expedition set out in September to mark the 150th anniversary of Origin by retracing the Beagle's journey, it opted to bypass New Zealand and head straight from Tahiti to Sydney. The voyage is for a 35-part TV series and on board the replica clipper Stad Amsterdam are scientists, historians, artists and Darwin's great-great-granddaughter, biologist Sarah Darwin. Asked why they were snubbing the Bay of Islands, organisers blamed "thematic, financial and time-related limitations".

Today, of course, the Bay of Islands draws tourists and yachts from around the world for its scenic beauty and wildlife - from bushclad islands and hills to dolphins and whales and big game fishing.

Just why Darwin disliked the place is not such a puzzle, historians say. After four years at sea, sharing a 9sq m cabin with two others, he was not just homesick but suffering from cabin fever, chronic seasickness and an illness picked up in Chile. He would go on to express similar disappointment in Australia and South Africa on the way home.

The Beagle had come from Tahiti, where Darwin found "the kind, simple manners of the half-civilised natives are in harmony with the wild, & beautiful scenery." He told Caroline: "We were delighted with Tahiti, & add ourselves as one more to the list of the admirers of the Queens of the Islands."

But New Zealand in 1835 was less welcoming. Approaching the coast, the Beagle was buffeted by gales then becalmed off the entrance of the Bay of Islands.

When they entered, only one Maori canoe came to greet them - in contrast to the welcoming flotilla which surrounded the ship in Tahiti. New Zealand was, of course, in its pre-Treaty of Waitangi ferment. Kororareka was a party town for traders and whalers from Britain, Spain, Germany, America and Russia. Maori had not yet acceded to British rule and resentment was building over land and trading deals.

Maori had given land to the Anglican Church to establish mission stations at Paihia and Kerikeri and, inland at Waimate, an awful lot of land.

James Busby had set up home at Waitangi as British Resident at the request of local Maori. He had persuaded northern chiefs to sign the Declaration of Independence, which Maori saw as a British offer to protect them from other colonisers, in return for Maori "friendship" towards British settlers. But Busby was known to Maori as "the man-o-war without guns" - he had no troops to back his authority.

"Darwin came here at a really crucial time in the north," says Russell historian Kate Martin. "New Zealand's identity as a nation was being forged." She believes Darwin couldn't help comparing what he saw with an English ideal. "He's a white, middle-class Pom, he's homesick and he is very disparaging of Russell as a European town."

Darwin and Fitzroy first went ashore at the much more sedate Paihia mission station in the afternoon of December 21. Missionaries Henry and Marianne Williams established the mission in 1823 and they were joined soon after by Henry's brother, William, who was posted to Waimate. By 1835 there was a smattering of houses.

"All the cottages, many of which are white-washed and look very neat, are the property of the English ... It was quite pleasing to behold the English flowers in the gardens before the houses; there were roses of several kinds, honeysuckle, jasmine, stocks and whole hedges of sweetbrier."

In contrast, the "hovels" of the Maori were "diminutive and paltry".

The next morning, Darwin went walking but found the country difficult - "all the hills are thickly covered in tall fern, together with a low bush which grows like a cypress. ... I then tried the sea-beach; but proceeding towards either hand, my walk was soon stopped by salt-water creeks and deep brooks."

He noticed that almost every hill was, or had been, fortified with pa. "The summits were cut into steps or successive terraces, and frequently they had been protected by deep trenches." Inland hills showed a similar "artificial outline".

That evening, the 22nd, he went with Fitzroy and missionary Charles Baker to Kororareka, where they talked to many locals. Darwin thought the New Zealanders (Maori) compared poorly with the Tahitian. "... one is a savage, the other a civilised man. ... No doubt the extraordinary manner in which tattooing is here practised, gives a disagreeable expression to their countenances. ... there is a twinkling in the eye, which cannot indicate anything but cunning and ferocity ... their persons and houses are filthily dirty and offensive."

He would further condemn the capital in other correspondence: "There are many spirit shops and the whole population is addicted to drunkenness and all kinds of vice."

One sight at Kororareka did impress Darwin and Fitzroy - the near-completed church. They thought it "a bold experiment" in such a place and, with the Beagle crew, contributed 15, a princely sum at the time. Their donation is recorded in the church subscription book held by the Museum. Renovated over the years, it is now the country's oldest surviving church.

On December 23, Darwin took up Rev William Williams' invitation to visit Waimate. There, the missionaries had obtained about 1000 acres (405ha) on fertile volcanic land and planted crops in English-style fields, intending to supply food to the missions at Kerikeri and Paihia. Kerikeri's famous Stone Store was built to store the grain. There were three large houses - of which one remains, maintained by the Historic Places Trust.

Getting to Waimate took some doing - crossing swamps and circumventing hostile Maori. The party went by waka as far as Haruru Falls, from where a track followed the Waitangi River inland. (These days, Taiamai Tours takes tourists by waka as far as the falls.)

Busby arranged a Maori escort for their protection; Darwin's journal records that the escort talked non-stop, in Maori.

"Although the scenery is nowhere beautiful, and only occasionally pretty, I enjoyed my walk. I should have enjoyed it more, if my companion, the chief, had not possessed extraordinary conversational powers. I knew only three words: `good', `bad', and `yes': and with these I answered all his remarks, without of course having understood one word he said."

At Waimate, Darwin was overwhelmed by the sight of an English-style farm, with its "well-dressed fields, placed there as if by an enchanter's wand".

"... It was not merely that England was brought vividly before my mind ... the domestic sounds, the fields of corn, the distant undulating country with its trees might well have been mistaken for our fatherland ...

"... fine crops of barley and wheat were standing in full ear; and in another part, fields of potatoes and clover.

"... I may instance asparagus, kidney beans, cucumbers, rhubarb, apples, pears, figs, peaches, apricots, grapes, olives, gooseberries, currants, hops, gorse for fences, and English oaks; also many kinds of flowers."

Waimate was equipped with stables, a thrashing barn, winnowing machine, blacksmith's forge, ploughs and a water mill.

"... All this is very surprising, when it is considered that five years ago nothing but the fern flourished here."

The "respectable appearance" of young Maori farm workers dressed in English trousers, shirts and jackets impressed Darwin. He watched them play cricket in the evening. He approved of the young Maori women employed as servants. "Their clean, tidy, and healthy appearance, like that of the dairy-maids in England, formed a wonderful contrast with the women of the filthy hovels in Kororadika [sic]."

Darwin's enthusiasm for the attempt to impose English agricultural methods on the Maori was misplaced. It was the Maori's success in rotational cropping - including kumara, potatoes and corn - that prompted the Anglicans to set up at Waimate. But within a few years, the crops had failed; English cultivation had exhausted the soil.

The next morning, Christmas Eve, Williams took Darwin to a nearby forest to inspect "the famous kauri pine". "I measured one of the noble trees, and found it thirty-one feet in circumference above the roots ... and I heard of one no less than forty feet. ... The forest was here almost composed of the kauri; and the largest trees ... stood up like gigantic columns of wood."

Darwin was struck by the denseness of the bush. He saw few birds. He noted also the "remarkable" absence of indigenous animals.

"It is said that the common Norway rat, in the short space of two years, annihilated in this northern end of the island, the New Zealand species. In many places I noticed several sorts of weeds, which, like the rats, I was forced to own as countrymen. The common dock is also widely disseminated, and will, I fear, for ever remain a proof of the rascality of an Englishman, who sold the seeds for those of the tobacco plant."

After lunch he returned to Paihia on a borrowed horse.

Christmas Day began with divine service in the chapel at Paihia, read partly in English and partly in Maori. He spent much of the day talking with the mission printer, William Colenso, an amateur naturalist. The encounter inspired Colenso to study botany and he later sent specimens and notes to Darwin and other British scientists.

Only some foundations remain of the Paihia mission today but the heritage site is secured and attempts to build a replica mission house are led by Elizabeth Ludbrook, a great-great-granddaughter of Henry Williams.

On Boxing Day Busby took Darwin by boat to Kawakawa, then a Maori village. They walked with Maori guides about 6km to see "some curious rocks [limestone caves]" at Waiomio, passing a village where the daughter of a chief had died five days before.

"The hovel in which she had expired had been burnt to the ground: her body being enclosed between two small canoes, was placed upright on the ground, and protected by an enclosure bearing wooden images of their gods, and the whole was painted bright red, so as to be conspicuous from afar. The relatives of the family had torn the flesh of their arms, bodies, and faces, so that they were covered with clotted blood; and the old women looked most filthy, disgusting objects."

Darwin wanted to examine the caves and rocks "resembling ruined castles" at Waiomio but they were tapu as burial places. These days the limestone rock formations at Waiomio are known as the Kawiti Glow Worm Caves and open to the public.

Darwin's journal carries no entries for the next three days. What's known is that he spent a wet evening on the 27th , after "a very comfortable dinner of fresh pork and potatoes", writing to Caroline, complaining of his ennui.

The assiduous notetaker presumably also spent his last days in New Zealand updating his scientific diaries. His geological diary contains notes about the composition of rocks near the anchorage, the "compact, pale-flesh coloured limestone" at Waiomio and Waimate's volcanic field. He was curious, too, about "immense quantities" of shells he saw inland, which he thought suggested tectonic uplifting. Cambridge University (where Darwin studied botany) holds two dozen rock samples he took from the area, as well as fauna - including eleotris gobioides, a freshwater fish about 10cm long, a shortfin eel and the very attractive gurnard. Darwin described the "bright red" gurnard, or trigla kumu, in his zoological diary.

He noted that it was slightly different to the trigla kumu described in Histoire naturelle des poissons by French zoologists Georges Cuvier and Achille Valenciennes, in having "one more spine in the first dorsal" and "no distinct trace of the large deep black spot said by Cuvier to occupy the seventh and eighth rays on the posterior face of the fin." More cause for thought about variation and adaptation.

On December 30, the Beagle "stood out of the Bay of Islands, on our course to Sydney". Australia was expected to be a highlight but Darwin would complain of the "monotony of the eucalypt foliage, dried-up river beds and "wearisome" sandstone plains. Sydney University historian Ian McCalman, in his book Darwin's Armada, records that Darwin left Australian shores "without sorrow or regret" and a few months later complained that Cape Town's lush hinterland was "the most uninteresting country he had seen".

Sources: Charles Darwin, The Voyage of the Beagle; Darwin Correspondence Project; Cambridge University; darwin-online.org.uk; Hone Mihaka; Kate Martin; Elizabeth Ludbrook; Russell Museum.
Darwinian thirst for NZ knowledge
Joseph Hooker

Darwin met English botanist Joseph Hooker, then a student, in 1839 as Hooker prepared to embark on an Antarctic expedition. They became close friends and collaborators. Their correspondence in the 1840s and 1850s sheds light on New Zealand's role in the development of Darwin's ideas.

Hooker visited several southern ocean islands, including New Zealand, finding they shared similar plants. Darwin kept a copy of Hooker's Flora Novae-Zelandiae, based on the voyage. He and Darwin spent many years debating how Van Diemen's Land (Tasmania), New Zealand and South America could share so many common plants when they were so distant. The pair exchanged ideas, information and specimens in an effort to solve the mystery.

Darwin described Hooker as "the one living soul from whom I have constantly received sympathy".

News from Hooker in 1847 that alpine plants common to New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego had been found in Tasmania greatly excited Darwin. He replied: "It is a truly wonderful case & to me more odious than any one other case that I can call to mind."

Darwin maintained that New Zealand had always been an island (suggested by the virtual absence of land mammals). To explain the similarities in geographic distribution, he argued the seeds of many plants could have been carried by migration: by tide, wind, seabirds, icebergs and driftwood. He examined bird droppings and mud attached to birds' feet for evidence.

Hooker argued migration alone could not explain the botanical relationship between alpine plants in such separated countries - his theory was that the three countries were once connected by a former Antarctic continental extension, or land-bridge.

As evidence, Hooker produced the kowhai (Edwardsia grandiflora), asking Darwin in 1847: "How does it happen that Edwardsia grandiflora inhabits both New Zealand and South America?"

Darwin asked him to send some kowhai seeds so he could test whether they could survive in salt water. When none arrived, he complained: "I believe you are afraid to send me a ripe Edwardsia pod, for fear I should float it from New Zealand to Chile."

Darwin made many requests of Hooker - suggesting by letter on Christmas Day, 1844, for instance, that "to understand the relations of the Floras of these islands, I shd like to see the group divided into a northern & southern half" and which of the species were confined to alpine areas.

On June 16, 1847 Hooker wrote to Darwin: "splendid collections from VDL [Van Diemen's Land/Tasmania]" containing several New Zealand and Tierra del Fuego plants not previously found in Tasmania.

"Also a box from New Zealand with still more identities & analogues - the more I see the less I am inclined to take migration as a sufficient agent in effecting the strange similarity between the Alpine Floras of V.D.L. N.Z. & that of Fuegia [Tierra del Fuego].

Hooker was sourcing New Zealand plants from William Colenso, the mission printer at Paihia whose interest in botany was encouraged by meeting Darwin in 1835.

Correspondence continued as Darwin prepared to publish Origin, encompassing, among other things, the enormous variability of some island plants species, the sexes of New Zealand trees and the possibility that the three countries were once linked by a great southern continent.

In Origin, Darwin admitted: "Various special difficulties also remain to be solved; for instance the occurrence, as shown by Dr Hooker, of the same plants at points so enormously remote as Kerguelen Land [an island off South America], New Zealand and Fuegia; but icebergs ... may have been concerned in their disposal."

In 1863, he wrote to Hooker: "About New Zealand, at last I am coming round & admit it must have been connected with some Terra firma; but I will die rather than admit Australia. How I wish mountains of New Caledonia were well worked."

Julius von Haast

Haast came to New Zealand from Germany in 1858 as a shipping agent. But he furthered his scientific training and became a world-renowned geologist with special interests in glaciation (Haast Pass is named after him) and the extinction of the giant moa.

Darwin was eager to learn whether the Ice Age had affected both hemispheres, and believed evidence of glaciation could explain the discontinuous distribution of species.

In the 6th edition of Origin, Darwin wrote: "We know from the excellent researches of Dr J. Haast and Dr [James] Hector [the Scottish geologist] that in New Zealand immense glaciers formerly descended to a low level."

Haast was an early disciple of the theory of evolution, supporting Darwin during savage debate in Christchurch in 1862.

"His theory is simply this: that all organisms are derived from very few primordial forms; and, next, that these forms only live through the `struggle for existence', which, under the operation of a law, termed that of natural selection, have best adapted themselves to the circumstances of climate, etc; by which they have been surrounded, and which have, in obedience to that law, gradually risen higher and higher in the scale of organic life.

"Darwin not only does not conceal the enormous difficulties against which he had to contend in supporting his theories, but actually points them out himself, and his endeavour to answer them affords the best proof of his sincerity."

The pair continued to correspond and, on November 1, 1879, Darwin wrote to Haast: "The extent to which science is cultivated in New Zealand always excites my admiration."

Haast named Mt Darwin, on the east of the Tasman Glacier, after Darwin and Darwin sponsored Haast as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1867.

Walter Mantell

Walter Mantell arrived in New Zealand aged 19 in 1840 to a civil service job designating native reserves and extinguishing other native titles for land purchases. But he was interested in natural history and sent many specimens to key English scientists. He corresponded with Darwin about glaciers and reptiles.

In 1856 Darwin wrote to Mantell asking whether "the less civilised natives (ie: those least influenced by being accustomed to European faces)" held the same ideal of female beauty as Europeans and whether they "would pick out the same kind of beauty".

Darwin was interested in comparing the criteria affecting selection of mates among different species. He later wrote in Descent of Man Vol 2: "Until recently, as I hear from Mr Mantell, almost every girl in New Zealand who was pretty or promised to be pretty was tapu to some chief."

William Colenso

Darwin spent much of Christmas Day - between religious services - at Paihia, talking with William Colenso, the missionary printer. Colenso had arrived in Paihia the previous year and brought a printing press with him. He would go on to print the Maori translations of the Bible and thousands of Christian pamphlets and was influential in persuading Maori to sign the Treaty of Waitangi.

An enthusiastic naturalist, Colenso was so inspired by meeting Darwin - five decades later, he recalled spending "a long and happy day with him" - that he studied botany (eventually becoming a fellow of the Royal Society). In 1841 he met the visiting British botanist Joseph Hooker - a close friend and correspondent of Darwin - and subsequently sent Hooker many specimens. In December 1844 Hooker forwarded Colenso's report on New Zealand caves and bones to Darwin.

After Darwin's death in 1882, Colenso delivered a eulogy on "that great and useful man" to the Hawkes Bay Philosophical Institute.

Thomas Cheeseman

Arriving in New Zealand as a child in 1852, Cheeseman was inspired to study local orchids after reading a Darwin paper on their fertilisation. Darwin later described the bizarre method of fertilisation of the Pterostylis orchids, stating that "all that I have here said is taken from the admirable description given by Dr Cheeseman".

Cheeseman went on to head the Auckland Institute and Museum for 40 years and the museum has several letters exchanged between the pair.

Sources: Dr Garry Tee, Dept of Mathematics, Auckland University; Darwin Correspondence Project, Cambridge University; Otago University Library: Charles Darwin and his legacy; Charles Fleming, 1958 Hudson lecture: Darwinism in New Zealand; Dictionary of NZ Biography; National Library of NZ; On the Origin of Species,Charles Darwin.