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The Seven-Year Search for
Nicholas Oliver Lawson

Marcel E. Nordlohne, M. D.

E-mail address:

In The Voyage of the Beagle's “Galapagos Archipelago” chapter, Charles Darwin wrote that on Charles Island {the modern Isla Floreana}, Nicholas Lawson informed him that “ … the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought.” At the time, Darwin all but ignored Lawson's remark, and until this time, history has all but ignored Lawson.

Dr. Nordlohne's unpublished manuscript describes his ongoing research to discover information about the man, and this page contains excerpts from his work.

It was only by coincidence that Darwin and Lawson had met. The latter had come down from the highlands to greet an arriving whaling ship,§ and on paying a visit to the Beagle, he invited Captain Robert FitzRoy and Darwin to dinner at the settlement on Friday, September 25, 1835. It was here that Lawson told Darwin about the tortoises, and Darwin later confessed that “I did not for some time pay sufficient attention to this statement.”

§ Darwin's Diary, September 23 & 24: “By chance he [Lawson] came down to visit a Whaling Vessel [name not given] & in the morning accompanied us to the Settlement.” Neither FitzRoy nor Darwin mention the whaling ship in their respective Narrative volumes (II & III).

Dr. Nordlohne notes that Darwin referred to Lawson as an Englishman, and assuming Darwin did not specifically ask him where he came from, he probably came to this conclusion after hearing Lawson speak “ … a kind of English that Darwin could recognize as being spoken somewhere in the British isles.” However, Dr. Nordlohne eventually discovered the following book:

Gabriel Guarda, O.S.B.: La Sociedad en Chile Austral antes de la Colonización Alemana 1645–1850. Santiago, Chile: Ediciones Universidad Católica de Chile, 1st edition 1979, 2nd edition 2006.

Guarda's book gives Lawson's birthplace as Norway, and Nordlohne's subsequent inquiry to the National Archives of Norway revealed that he was born Nicolai Olaus Lossius on November 23, 1790, on the farm Vestad on Sekken Island in Moldefjord, Norway. But how then to explain the English connection? The collected manuscripts of the genealogist Wilhelm Lassen mention Lawson, or rather Lossius, and provide the answer: “Nicolai left Norway at the age of 16 and subsequently became an English naval officer.” But first he spent many years in Valparaiso, Chile, from where he corresponded with relatives, writing in English because after so many years abroad, his command of Norwegian was a bit rusty.

In these letters, Nordlohne discovered much information about Lawson's adventures in Chile, where the Chilean Navy appointed him Sailing Master of the frigate Lautaro just before the naval battle of Talcahuano in 1818, in which he “ … suffered a deep wound in my shoulder. This was the greatest naval battle ever seen in the Pacific, and for this I was promoted to the official rank of lieutenant on this ship on November 1, 1819.” And later, “I was decorated with a distinguishing badge, worn on the left arm.”

Lawson's battle scars were to continue: “Two months later, I was wounded once more, when I overpowered a Spanish schooner under the coast of Peru; I was then a lieutenant under Lord Cochrane.” And then, “… in Valdivia Captain Asenjo of the Royal Spanish Army was taken prisoner by me. He was badly wounded and before he died he said to me: ‘Though we are enemies, I beg you to take care of my family, and he recommended his daughter to me.’ Daughter Rosario was then 13 years old. We were married in 1824 and she has always made my life happy.” And this leaves us with an unanswered question: Was Señora Asenjo Lawson with him in Galápagos when he met Darwin?

But back to Chile: With Lord Cochrane in command, “… we clobbered the Spanish frigate Esmeralda near Callao [and] I came away, thank God, with only a slight sabre cut to my head from a damned fellow, who paid for this with his life.”

And now, Nordlohne finds how a Chilean officer wound up in Ecuador. According to Lawson's letters home, “I received the command over a 16-cannon brig but I had to withdraw in 1823 because of my wounds and because there was nothing left to fight for anymore at sea. I applied to be dismissed from service with the Navy.” Permission granted, he went on to other adventures in India, then back to South America, and eventually into Ecuadorian service.

A few years before Darwin met Lawson, the latter apparently was visited by Francis Warriner of the frigate Potomac. On arriving at Charles Island in August, 1833, he describes some of the houses at the colony:

The governor's [Villamil's] house commands a fine view of the ocean, … We slept that night at the house of an Englishman, who has taken up his residence here. His was the best building on the island.

The Englishman is not mentioned by name, but in context it would seem that he must have been Lawson. As for his subsequent meeting with Darwin, Lawson unfortunately never mentions him in any letter that has been preserved, but he does offer some explanation of his official position at the time of their meeting: “I have been ill only once in my life, and that was in 1835 when I commanded the colony of Floriana for the government of Ecuador.”

At some time after meeting Darwin, Lawson apparently returned to Chile, where his wife presented him with their daughter Anna-Rita, born in September, 1839. A few years later, he “… went to sail again for Alvarez & Sons in Valparaiso on a big ship, the Chilean barque Almendralina. And then in late 1844 the Chilean government “called me up again to serve as a naval architect in the rank of corvette captain for 1400 dollars per year.” He later became supervisor of the marine docks and then first assistant to the harbour master.

Finally, in an 1845 letter to his brother-in-law Peter Andreas Brandt, he wrote: “In my next letter I will tell you what my motive was for taking the name Lawson.” Unfortunately, the letter has not survived, so we have no idea of his motive.

Two years later, the Lawsons lost their daughter: “She departed this life on 16 June 1847 due to recurrent fever.” And Lawson himself passed away on May 1, 1851 in Valparaiso. Rosario received a widow's pension, lost it eight weeks later on marrying a Captain Bræken from Trondheim, then requested it be restored when he too died in 1871. Her reasoning was in view of Lawson's “long and excellent services to the Republic since the first campaign at sea in which Chile conquered the Pacific.” The status of her request is unknown.

Dr. Nordlohne concludes his manuscript with a few observations:

Lawson and Darwin were both excellent observers but Lawson could boast one special experience in life that Darwin lacked. It was not by accident but through his own will power that Lawson had left his parents, his family and his native country, for good, at the age of sixteen: he changed his environment and expressed as much by adopting a new name and new languages (English and Spanish). He assumed a new personality but his individuality remained the same. What Nicolai unconsciously shared with the giant tortoises was adaptation to one’s environment, and it was on the basis of this that he could help Darwin take the first step.

For 177 years Lawson has been known in Darwinism but not as a Norwegian; Lossius was known in Norway, as Lawson even, but not because of his role in Darwinism. Between them was a gap. The intention of this article has been to bridge that gap.

NOTE: The above page is but a summary of Dr. Nordlohne's research, which includes additional details not given here. Eventual publication details will be given here if the manuscript is subsequently published in book, journal or other format.