Early years

Early life

Francis Galton was born in Birmingham on 16 February 1822, the youngest of seven children of Violetta and Samuel Galton, whose own father had amassed a fortune through arms manufacturing. Francis was a cousin of the eminent Victorian naturalist Charles Darwin, father of evolutionary theory, with whom he shared a grandfather, Erasmus Darwin.

Galton was an accomplished child, and his exceptional abilities were soon recognised and encouraged by his four doting sisters, the youngest of whom was eleven years older than Francis.

After attending a number of schools, mostly unhappily, Galton’s parents decided he should become a doctor and in 1838 he was enrolled at Birmingham General Hospital to study medicine. He was initially deeply shocked by the suffering he witnessed, but gradually took on a more detached and analytical – yet not unsympathetic – approach to his work. After a year of frantic work, he transferred to King’s College Medical School in London in 1839 for a further year.

Following a summer of adventures in Europe that showed him to be a young man of enterprise and spirit, in 1840 Francis took a break from his medical studies – supported by his cousin Charles Darwin – to enrol at Trinity College, Cambridge to read mathematics. At Cambridge, for the first time in his life, Galton realised he was not quite the genius he had first imagined; he was overwhelmed by the workload and he became ill under the strain. But he continued his studies and, consequently, in 1842 appears to have had a breakdown, resigning himself to the understanding that he would have to make do with an ordinary degree, which he gained in 1844.

Later the same year his father Samuel Tertius died, releasing Francis from the need to earn a living; so he abandoned any thoughts of returning to his medical studies and, in 1845, indulging his yearning for travel and game hunting, headed off to Egypt, later moving on to the Holy Land.


Image 02_Objects from Exploration

Objects from Galton’s expeditions ©UCL Galton Collection

On returning home, Galton lived the life of an idle country gentleman for a few years before he decided to seek some purpose, first getting excited by the ‘science’ of phrenology, which was based on the notion that an individual’s abilities could be divined by the contours of the head. Galton’s own head was large; a confirmation, he thought, that he was a man of considerable intelligence. Further to this he was ‘diagnosed’ by a phrenologist as having the right temperament for travel and discovery; in short, Galton was a natural colonialist.

Buoyed by the belief that he was fulfilling his natural calling, by the late 1840s Galton determined to join the doughty band of British explorers scattering over the globe to explore, chart and claim those parts hitherto unseen by European eyes. His cousin provided him with an introduction to the Royal Geographical Society, which helped Galton formulate his plans and an itinerary to explore a little known region of Southern Africa. With his companion, Anglo-Swedish adventurer Charles J Andersson, Galton set off from Plymouth in April 1850. The trip took over eighty days and was an excellent opportunity for Galton to instruct himself in the skills of map-making and navigation with sextants and compasses that he would need to chart the lands he would explore.

The original intention had been to travel north through Damaraland (part of Namibia today) to Lake Ngami.  However, on arrival in Cape Town, Galton discovered that the way was barred by Boer unrest, and so he revised his plans to mapping a previously unknown interior region of northern South-West Africa (known as Ovampoland, now in northern Namibia and southern Angola).

In August, his party of nine (Galton, Andersson and seven servants) set off, starting with an 800 mile trip north by sailing ship along the west coast of southern Africa to Walfisch Bay. On landing the party was met by local Nama tribesmen, with whom there were some uneasy moments before a trading exchange broke the ice. Galton and his team – ‘a most fortunate selection of men’ – overcame an inhospitable landscape, raging heat and hungry lions during the journey. But it was the territorial wars between the Damara, Nama and Orlam tribespeople that really threatened the expedition, barring his access to Damaraland. Galton witnessed the appalling cruelty of these wars when he came across two Damara women whose legs had been amputated by Orlam tribesmen just in order to steal the anklets they wore on their legs; the women had staunched the flow of blood by digging the stumps into the sand, then dragged themselves twenty miles for help.

Galton exercised his diplomatic skills to attempt to secure safe passage, whilst further occupying his time learning a little of the Damara people and language. He also enthusiastically mapped the area in which he was stranded, using the range of techniques he had taught himself. These activities revealed a true aptitude for the accuracy and attention to detail that the tasks demanded. He further applied his skill with instruments not only to the local lakes and mountains, but also to the careful, distant and discreet measurement of the curves of the body of a young woman – ‘a Venus among Hottentots’ – whom Galton especially admired!

Galton’s efforts to break the diplomatic stalemate culminated in a brave but reckless face-to-face meeting with the leader of the Orlam, Jonker Afrikaner. This resulted in an agreed code of conduct that allowed Galton’s team to make progress into Damaraland towards the great lake of Omanbondè.

The journey further into the interior brought additional daily worries about how to keep the crew going; part of each day would be occupied with the search for water and the slaughter of one of the beasts in the caravan. Galton was ruthless in administering discipline; following judgement handed down in a summary court, punishment came in the form of a public beating by one of his assistants.

Sketch by Galton from Damaraland expedition ©UCL Library Services, Special Collections.

They arrived at the lake to find it completely dried up following an exceptional drought, so moved on quickly towards Ovampoland, a land of fertile pastures. On arrival, after a rather awkward meeting with King Nangoro, Galton offered him a number of ‘presents’ clearly deemed to be of inferior quality by the King. Later, Francis arrived back at his tent to discover a beautiful young woman – presented by the King as a token of reconciliation – smeared in butter and red ochre, but otherwise dressed in jewellery alone, clearly intent on a night of passion with him. But Galton was more concerned about the state of his only remaining respectable white linen suit than he was in this maiden, and since she was ‘as capable of leaving a mark on anything she touched as a well-inked printer’s roller’, he swiftly ‘had her ejected with scant ceremony’. This action was the death knell of the expedition as the rejection was considered a gross insult by the King who withdrew his cooperation. Galton had hoped to reach the Cunene River – only a few days away – but reluctantly concluded he should abandon his plans and turned back, filling time before the next ship bound for Europe by an extended game-hunting expedition.

In December 1851, Galton arrived back at Walfisch Bay, to finally board the ship that would take him home to England, where he arrived in January 1852. His twenty page report, detailing his journey and encounters, earned him one of the Royal Geographical Society’s Gold Medals for ‘the encouragement and promotion of geographical science and discovery’.

Return to England


Louisa Galton Wikimedia commons PD-1996

About one year after returning to England, Francis met the woman who was to become his wife. Louisa Butler was born into a distinguished academic family, a fact which may have been her chief attraction for Galton. They appeared to have had similar outlooks on society and politics, but otherwise had few interests in common. They married in August 1853.

Later the same year Galton published a popular version of his travels, Tropical South Africa. In addition to the account of his various adventures recounted in laborious detail, the volume displayed some of the endemic racism that has come to be thought of as characteristic of Galton’s thinking. Repugnant to the modern reader, his views reflected the consensus of those times. In the nineteenth century social, economic and ethnic divisions were seen as indicators of the innate qualities of individuals: those who lived in extreme poverty were seen to be incapable of taking advantage of the progress that was on offer. And, therefore, social hierarchies were seen as a measure of the natural order. Furthermore, any civilisation that had not reached the ‘sophisticated’ standards of European society was perceived to be inherently second-rate. These views were not exceptional; they were commonly held by political conservatives and social reformers alike. Galton’s book was warmly received, including by his half-cousin Charles Darwin. As a result of publication, in 1854 Galton was elected to the Royal Geographical Society Council, and was admitted as a member to the Athenaeum Club, a sanctum for the privileged elite. His Hints to Travellers and The Art of Travel followed and were more practical volumes for the aspiring adventurer and became the basis of lecture courses he delivered to British soldiers preparing to fight in the Crimea and elsewhere. Unfortunately, his dreary lecturing style meant that his talks were poorly attended.

During this period, Galton showed the more humane side of his character when the news arrived in London that King Nangoro of the Ovampo had been shot dead by European missionaries. He made a passionate attack on the ‘arrogant strength of the white man’ in a speech to the Royal Geographical Society.

Through the many contacts his new status bestowed, Galton met some of the great names in science, diplomacy, politics and exploration, many of whom would have influenced Galton’s thinking. For example, when visiting the house of the archaeologist John Lubbock, Galton met Herbert Spencer – who devised the expression ‘survival of the fittest’ – whose view was that cultural and biological evolution were two sides of the same coin.