Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle

| By on Reading the Book of Nature

This famous image of HMS Beagle being greeted by natives at Tierra del Fuego was painted by Conrad Martens, who served briefly the ship’s “Draughtsman” in 1834.

Having surveyed Darwin’s university days last time, today we present an account of his experience on a life-changing voyage around the world.  Although he wasn’t an evolutionist during the voyage, what he saw and learned would soon lead him to adopt an evolutionary view of natural history.  

The Education of a Naturalist

A few months after Darwin completed his studies at Cambridge, in August 1831, he received an eventful letter from John Henslow, the botany professor who had so graciously taken Darwin under his wing and into his home.  Indeed as Peter Bowler says, “it was Henslow who encouraged Darwin to become a full-time naturalist” (cited below, p. 43).  Henslow told Darwin that he was positioned “to recommend [to the British Admiralty] a naturalist as companion to Capt Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S[outhern]. extremity of America.”  He was frank: “I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation— I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History.”  Robert FitzRoy, the young captain of HMS Beagle, “wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman.”

Lithograph of Robert Fitzroy from 1835, one year before the Beagle returned to England.  Wellcome Library, London.  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0.

If you’ve  seen the film, Master and Commander, or read the novel by Patrick O’Brian—whose books are admired by naval historians for their highly accurate pictures of seafaring life in the age of Napoleon—then you’ve already had a glimpse of what FitzRoy wanted.  Did you notice that the British captain (played in the film by Russell Crowe) forms a close friendship with the ship’s surgeon (played by Paul Bettany)?  That’s realistic to the period, a time when most sailors were uneducated, even illiterate young men, some of them just adolescent boys.  Like O’Brian’s captain Aubrey, Captain FitzRoy needed to bond with “a gentleman,” that is, a man of education and refinement, with whom he could share personal thoughts and adventures on shore.  Furthermore, the captain of a ship was under great psychological stress.  Not only was he held responsible for keeping his ship clear of shoals and storms, as far as possible, but the very lives and health of his crew were ultimately in his hands.  On top of that, he had to ensure that every single man on board—and they were all male in those days—was prepared to obey any lawful order without hesitation, even an order that put him directly in harm’s way.  Disobedient sailors must literally be whipped into obedience.  The strict discipline that a successful captain had to administer necessarily kept him emotionally distant from his crew: in short, it could be a very lonely job, and madness was a known occupational hazard.  FitzRoy sought to share his table with an educated civilian—someone not under his authority in the same way, someone who might add his expertise to the scientific purpose of the voyage while providing interesting conversation and offering a release valve for the pressure-cooker that was the lot of the sea captain.  

FitzRoy had never met Darwin before Henslow all but offered Darwin the job, but he knew he didn’t want to go it alone on this expedition.  The Beagle had already made a voyage to South America, and FitzRoy had served as an officer on the flagship of the flotilla.  It ended badly.  The captain of the Beagle, Pringle Stokes, worn down by violent gales, mountainous seas, and a long list of chronically ill seamen, became so depressed at Tierra del Fuego that he shot himself in the head, lingering for twelve days before gangrene ended his life.  

Replica (dated 15 February 1984) of the cross marking the grave of Captain Pringle Stokes in the “English Cemetery” near Port Famine, on the Straight of Magellan.  The (presumed) original marker is now in the Museo Regional Salesiano Maggiorino Borgatello in Punta Arenas.  Photograph taken by John Woram in February 2004 (image source), used with permission.  Mr. Woram is also the source of the information about the marker.

The twenty-three-year-old FitzRoy, a type-A personality from a family of distinguished public servants, rather unexpectedly was appointed to Stokes’ role for the duration of the voyage and occupied the same cabin—a development that he must have viewed with great anxiety.  Six years earlier his mother’s brother, leader of the House of Commons, had slit his own throat with a razor—an event that left a powerful impression on the young FitzRoy, who would do exactly the same thing himself many years later.  

For the time being, however, he wanted civilian companionship to keep the demons at bay.  A very capable surveyor and meteorologist, he was also a very conservative Christian, strongly committed to mission work but he did not share the staunch opposition to slavery that was so deeply rooted in Darwin’s family history.  Darwin himself would detest slavery when he saw it up close in Brazil.  As Janet Browne points out, although the aristocratic FitzRoy “did not by any means endorse slavery, he saw nothing wrong with paternalism and its associated systems of tied and virtually unwaged labour.”  It was difficult for someone of his patrician background “to equate wage slavery,” in which his family was immersed, “with chattel slavery” (cited below, p. 198).  Darwin and FitzRoy would have some bitter arguments, including a major one about slavery, but also some great adventures together on shore.  

First, however, Darwin had to convince his father to consent—and to pay for his food and scientific supplies.  The job didn’t come with a paycheck.  Today we’d call it an unpaid internship, but it lasted almost five years (three years longer than planned).  However, after his uncle Josiah Wedgewood enthusiastically endorsed the idea, his father caved in and provided the necessary financial support.

Prior to the voyage, Darwin later said, “the sagacious Henslow … advised me to get and study the first volume of the ‘Principles,’ which had then just been published, but on no account to accept the views therein advocated” (Autobiography).  Darwin was referring to Charles Lyell’s great work, Principles of Geology  (1830-33), which advocated a non-progressive interpretation of earth history that Henslow did not accept.  FitzRoy kindly gave Darwin a copy; the second and third volumes arrived by mail, at ports in South America, during the voyage.

He quickly became “a zealous disciple of Mr Lyell’s views,” he told his cousin, W. Darwin Fox, in August 1835.  Observations of the after-effects of an earthquake in Chile, especially at Concepción, where the cathedral was destroyed, reinforced Lyell’s view that the land rose and fell, relative to the sea.  FitzRoy recorded that the nearby island of Santa Maria was lifted several feet.  Darwin later used the same idea as the basis for his own theory of coral reefs—his first really important piece of science.

A newly discovered watercolor cartoon by Augustus Earle, Quarter Deck of a Man of War on Diskivery [sic] or interesting Scenes on an Interesting Voyage, depicts Charles Darwin in top hat and tails as specimens are being loaded onto the Beagle.  Painted off the Patagonian coast on 24 September 1832, the original was sold last December by Sotheby’s for £52,500.  Photograph by Sotheby’s (image source).

The Galapagos Islands: What Really Happened?

According to the traditional story—which we now know is wrong—Darwin had an epiphany at the Galapagos Islands, where the Beagle landed in Sept 1835.  Supposedly, it was there that Darwin noticed how the birds and tortoises differed markedly from one island to the next—especially the finches.  Right then and there, the story goes, Darwin started to become an evolutionist; he started to question the traditional view of the separate creation of fixed and permanent species.

In fact, Darwin did not realize how important this was while he was there.  The specimens of birds he had taken from the various islands were scrambled together, and he did not fully sort out which ones had come from which islands until he got back to London and got help from ornithologist John Gould.  Indeed, Darwin himself contributed to the misunderstanding: when he revised his popular book about the voyage, Journal of Researches, for a second edition, conclusions he reached only later on were used to shape the interpretation of his experiences and observations at the time.  To be fair, he did say that for some time he had failed to realize how important this was.  

The truth of the matter, as psychologist and historian Frank Sulloway has shown, is that Darwin’s major interest during the voyage was geology, not biology.  Indeed, his first publications after he returned were geological, such as his work on the elevation of the Andes Mountains and the formation of coral atolls in the Pacific.  According to Sulloway, the chief benefit of the voyage for his later work was the confidence it gave him in his own scientific abilities—which enabled him to tackle evolution.

Looking Ahead:

Join us again in two weeks to see how Darwin tackled evolution.




Davis, Ted. "Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle " N.p., 22 Sep. 2016. Web. 16 February 2019.


Davis, T. (2016, September 22). Charles Darwin and the Voyage of the Beagle
Retrieved February 16, 2019, from /blogs/ted-davis-reading-the-book-of-nature/charles-darwin-and-the-voyage-of-the-beagle

References & Credits

References and Suggestions for Further Reading

Of the many authoritative biographies of Charles Darwin, one of the most accessible is Peter J. Bowler, Charles Darwin: The Man and his Influence (1996), which I highly recommend.  Readers who want more details than Bowler provides should consult Janet Browne, Charles Darwin. Voyaging (1995), the first part of her two-volume biography, and Adrian Desmond & James Moore, Darwin (1991). Peter Nichols, Evolution’s Captain (2003), is a readable account of the life and adventures of Robert FitzRoy, but not entirely reliable.  Among other problems, the author seems wholly unaware of the fact that historians no longer believe in the grand narrative of “warfare” between science and religion that dominates parts of the book.  Leading Christian scientists and clergy had already come to terms with the vastness of geological time before Darwin even entered the picture, but you’d never know it from reading Nichols.  Frank Sulloway has written extensively about what really happened in the Galapagos.  A popular version of his work is “The Evolution of Charles Darwin,” Smithsonian (December 2005): 58-69.  For more details, see “Darwin and His Finches: The Evolution of a Legend,” Journal of the History of Biology 15 (1982): 1-53, and “Tantalizing Tortoises and the Darwin-Galápagos Legend,” Journal of the History of Biology 42 (2009): 3-31.

Main image source

About the Author

Ted Davis

Ted Davis is Professor of the History of Science at Messiah College. A former high school science teacher, Ted studied history and philosophy of science at Indiana University, where his mentor was the late Richard S. Westfall, author of the definitive biography of Isaac Newton. With the English historian Michael Hunter, Ted edited The Works of Robert Boyle, 14 vols. (London: Pickering & Chatto, 1999-2000), but his interests include the whole 2000-year interaction of Christianity and science. Author of dozens of scholarly articles and essays, Ted is one of few historians who have written extensively about both the Scientific Revolution and modern America. He and his wife Kathy enjoy theater, music, and traveling to new places.

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