The Voyage of the Beagle

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HMS Beagle, from an 1841 watercolour by Owen Stanley
HMS Beagle, from an 1841 watercolour by Owen Stanley

The Voyage of the Beagle is a title commonly given to the book written by Charles Darwin published in 1839 as his Journal and Remarks, which brought him considerable fame and respect. The title refers to the second survey expedition of the ship HMS Beagle which set out on 27 December 1831 under the command of captain Robert FitzRoy.

While the expedition was originally planned to last 2 years, it stretched to almost 5 years with the Beagle returning on 2 October, 1836. Darwin spent most of the voyage exploring on land, 3 years 3 months on land as against 18 months at sea. His book, also known as his Journal of Researches is a vivid and exciting travel memoir as well as a detailed scientific field journal covering biology, geology and anthropology that demonstrates Darwin's keen powers of observation, written at a time when Westerners were still discovering much of the rest of the world. While Darwin made repeat visits to some areas during the survey, for clarity the book's chapters are set out to relate to places rather than running chronologically. With hindsight, hints can be found of ideas that Darwin would later develop into the theory of evolution.


Aims of the expedition

The main purpose of the expedition was a hydrographic survey of the coasts of the southern part of South America as a continuation of the work of previous surveys, producing charts for naval war or commerce and drawings of the hills as seen from the sea, with height measurements. In particular, the longitude of Rio de Janeiro which formed a setting out point for these surveys was in doubt due to discrepancies in measurements and an exact longitude was to be found, using calibrated chronometers and checking these through repeated astronomical observations. Continuing records of tides and meteorological conditions were also required.

A lesser priority was given to surveying approaches to harbours on the Falkland Islands and, season permitting, the Galápagos Islands. Then the Beagle was to proceed to Tahiti and on to Port Jackson, Australia which were known points to verify the chronometers. An additional requirement was for a geological survey of a circular coral atoll in the Pacific ocean including investigation of its profile and of tidal flows.

Context and preparations

The previous survey expedition to South America involved HMS Adventure and HMS Beagle under the overall command of the Australian Commander Philip Parker King. During the survey Beagle's captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide and his command was taken by the young aristocrat Robert FitzRoy. After their return on October 14 1830 captain King retired, and on June 25 1831 the 26 year old FitzRoy was appointed commander of a second expedition captaining the Beagle. He promptly spared no expense in having the Beagle extensively refitted, with the deck raised and the latest and best equipment added. He engaged a mathematical instrument maker to maintain the 22 chronometers kept in his cabin, as well as the artist/draughtsman Augustus Earle. During the previous voyage three Fuegians had been brought to England and they were to be returned to Tierra del Fuego together with the missionary Richard Matthews.

FitzRoy was conscious of the stress and loneliness of command at this period, when his rank would bar him from dining with his subordinates, and only too aware of the suicides of captain Stokes and of his own uncle Viscount Castlereagh. It was not unusual for naturalists to be invited on such expeditions as passengers paying their own expenses, and FitzRoy suggested to his superior, Captain Francis Beaufort, that such a well-educated and scientific gentleman be sought. Beaufort's enquiries via his friend George Peacock at the University of Cambridge were turned down by the Revd. Leonard Jenyns, vicar of Swaffham Bulbeck, and professor Henslow who had other commitments. Both recommended the 22 year old Charles Darwin who had just completed his theology course and was then on a geology field trip. On returning home, Darwin received letters from Henslow saying "I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of" for the position "more as a companion than a mere collector", and from Peacock who said the post was at his "absolute disposal". At first Darwin's father rejected the proposal, but was persuaded by his brother in law Josiah Wedgwood II to relent and fund his son's expedition. Then FitzRoy wrote apologising that he had already promised the place to a friend, but when Darwin arrived for interview FitzRoy told him that the friend had just refused the offer, not five minutes before. The Tory FizRoy was cautious at the prospect of companionship with this unknown young gentleman of Whig background and they spent a week together getting to know each other. Using Physiognomy, FitzRoy nearly rejected Darwin as the shape of Darwin's nose indicated a lack of determination, but they found each other agreeable. Beaufort advised that Darwin's share of costs would be up to £500, he would be free to withdraw at any suitable stage and would have control over which "public body" his own collections went to.

Darwin was then involved in arranging his own equipment and means for preserving specimens, seeking advice from his old mentor Robert Edmund Grant amongst others. The geologist Charles Lyell asked FitzRoy to record observations on geological features such as erratic boulders, and before they left England FitzRoy gave Darwin a copy of the first volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology which explained features as the outcome of a gradual process over huge periods of time.

The voyage

The Beagle was not ready to sail until early November, then was repeatedly delayed by gales, eventually setting out on December 27 1831. It touched at Madeira for a confirmed position without stopping, then went on to Tenerife but there was quarantined because of cholera in England and denied landing. They continued on to make their first stop at the volcanic island of St. Jago in the Cape de Verd Islands, and it is here that Darwin's Journal starts. While readings were taken to accurately confirm the longitude, he went on shore being fascinated by his first sight of tropical vegetation and the geology with a high white band of seashells supporting Lyell's thesis of gradual rising and falling of the earth's crust.

After touching at more islands they arrived at Bahia ( Salvador), Brazil on February 29 where Darwin was enraptured by the tropical forest. He found the sight of slavery offensive and made the mistake of responding when FitzRoy remarked on it being justifiable, with the result that FitzRoy lost his temper and banned Darwin from his company. The officers had nicknamed their captain "hot coffee" for such outbursts, and within hours FitzRoy apologised and asked Darwin to remain.

The ship made its way down the coast to Rio de Janeiro. Customarily the ship's surgeon took the position of naturalist. Robert McCormick, the Beagle's surgeon, quite reasonably felt he was being supplanted, as the gentleman Darwin received all the invitations from dignitaries onshore, and was sufficiently disgruntled to leave the ship here. Darwin now assumed the quasi-official duties of naturalist, getting nicknamed Philos, though his collections were his own and were shipped back to Henslow in Cambridge to await his return. Several others on board including the new acting-surgeon and FitzRoy made sizeable collections for the Crown, which the Admiralty placed in the British Museum.

Surveying South America

As the Beagle carried out its survey work, going to and fro along the coast, Darwin spent much of the time away from the ship. At intervals the Beagle returned to ports where mail could be received and Darwin's notes, journals and collections were sent back to England. Darwin made long journeys inland, with travelling companions from the locality. In Patagonia he rode inland with gauchos and saw them use bolas to bring down "ostriches" (rheas), and ate roast armadillo. On the beach at Punta Alta in September 1832 he found fossilised bones of extinct giant mammals. One which he thought might be of a rhinoceros turned out to be a Megatherium, a giant ground sloth, and another was a giant Armadillo. At Montevideo in November the mail from home included a copy of the second volume of Lyell's Principles of Geology, which set out a variation of Creationism relating to the idea of gradual change, with species being formed at "centres of creation" then going extinct as the environment changed to their disadvantage.

Missing image
His encounter with the natives of the Tierra del Fuego on his Beagle voyage made Darwin believe that civilization had evolved over time from a more primitive state.

They reached Tierra del Fuego on 1 December 1832 and Darwin was taken aback at the crude savagery of the natives, in stark contrast to the civilised behaviour of the three Fuegians they were returning as missionaries (who had been given the names York Minster, Fuegia Basket and Jemmy Button). (Four decades later, in The Descent of Man he would use his impressions from this period as evidence that man had evolved civilization from a more primitive state.) At the island of "Buttons Land" on 14 January 1833 they set up a mission post, with huts, gardens, furniture and crockery, but when they returned nine days later the possessions had been looted and divided up equally by the natives. Matthews gave up, rejoining the ship and leaving the three Fuegians to continue the missionary work. The Beagle went on to the Falkland Islands where Darwin studied the relationships of species to habitats and found ancient fossils like those he'd found in Wales. Fitzroy bought a schooner to assist with the surveying, and they returned to Patagonia where this was fitted with a new copper bottom and renamed Adventure. Darwin was assisted by the young sailor Syms Covington in preserving specimens and his collecting was so successful that with FitzRoy's agreement he took on Covington as a full time servant for £30 a year.

The two ships sailed to the Rio Negro where Darwin left the Beagle for another journey inland with the gauchos. On 13 August 1833 he met General Juan Manuel de Rosas who was then engaged in a war of extermination against native "Indians", and obtained a passport from him. As they crossed the pampas the gauchos told Darwin of a rare smaller species of Rhea. At Bahia Blanca, waiting for the Beagle, he revisited Punta Alta and found bones of another megatherium, this time undisturbed in situ in a context of layers of sediments including modern shells that indicated that the climate had not changed much since their extinction, with no signs of a sudden catastrophic flood. More expeditions inland almost ended disastrously when Darwin fell ill then became entangled in a revolution as rebels allied to Rosas blockaded Buenos Ayres, but the passport helped and with Covington he managed to escape in a boatload of refugees.

At the Beagle, the artist Augustus Earle left due to health problems and was replaced by Conrad Martens. They sailed south, putting in at Port Desire on 23 December. Here Martens shot a rhea which they enjoyed eating before Darwin realised that this was the smaller species, and preserved the remains. In January 1834 they reached the Straits of Magellan. At St. Gregory's Bay they met half-civilised Patagonian "giants" over 6 ft (1.8 m) tall, described by Darwin as "excellent practical naturalists" who explained to him that the smaller rheas were the only species this far south, while the larger rheas kept to the north, the species meeting around the Rio Negro.

After further surveying in Tierra del Fuego they returned on 5 March 1834 to visit the missionaries, but found the huts deserted. Then canoes approached and they found that one of the savage natives was Jemmy, who had lost his possessions and had settled into the native ways, taking a wife. Darwin had never seen "so complete & grievous a change". Jemmy came on board and dined using his cutlery properly, speaking English as well as ever, then assured them that he "had not the least wish to return to England" and was "happy and contented", leaving them gifts of otter skins and arrowheads before returning to the canoe to join his squaw. Of the first visit Darwin had written that "Viewing such men, one can hardly make oneself believe that they are fellow-creatures, and inhabitants of the same world. It is a common subject of conjecture what pleasure in life some of the less gifted animals can enjoy: how much more reasonably the same question may be asked of these barbarians.", yet one of these savages had readily adapted to civilisation and then chosen to return to his primitive ways. This did not sit comfortably with the Cambridge don's view of mankind as the highest creation, immeasurably superior to the animals.

They returned to the Falkland Islands on 16 March just after an uprising of gauchos and Indians had butchered British nationals, and helped to put the revolt down. Darwin received word from Henslow that his specimens had reached Cambridge, with the South American fossils being fabulously prized and displayed before the cream of British science, making Darwin's reputation. The Beagle now sailed to southern Patagonia, and on 19 April an expedition including FitzRoy and Darwin set off to take boats as far as possible up the Santa Cruz Province, Argentina Puerto Santa Cruz river, with all involved taking turn in teams dragging the boats upstream. The river cut through a series of rises then plateaux forming wide plains covered with shells and shingle, and Darwin discussed with FitzRoy his interpretation that these terraces had been shores that had gradually raised in accordance with Lyell's theories. They approached the Andes but had to turn back.

West coast of South America

The Beagle and Adventure now surveyed the Straits of Magellan before sailing north round up the west coast, reaching the island of Chiloé in the wet and heavily wooded Chonos Archipelago on 28 June 1834. They then spent the next six months surveying the coast and islands southwards. At Valparaiso on 23 July 1834. Darwin bought horses and set off up the volcanic Andes, but on his way back down fell ill and spent a month in bed. It is possible that he contracted Chagas' disease here, leading to his later illnesses, but this diagnosis of his symptoms is disputed.

He learnt that the Admiralty had reprimanded FitzRoy for buying the Adventure. FitzRoy had taken it badly, selling the ship and announcing they would go back to recheck his survey, then had resigned his command doubting his sanity, but was persuaded by his officers to withdraw his resignation and proceed. The artist Conrad Martens left the ship and took passage to Australia.

After waiting for Darwin the Beagle sailed on 11 November to survey the Chonos Archipelago. From here they saw the eruption of the volcano Osorno in the Andes. They then sailed north arriving at the port of Valdivia on 20 February 1835. Darwin was on shore when he experienced an earthquake, and returned to find the port town badly damaged. Two hundred miles (320 km) north at Concepción, Chile, they found the city devastated by repeated shocks and a tidal wave, with even the cathedral in ruins. Turning away from the horrors of death and destruction, Darwin noticed that mussel beds now lay above high tide with the shellfish dead. There was clear evidence of the ground rising some 9 ft (2.7nbsp;m), and he had actually experienced the gradual process of the continent emerging from the ocean as Lyell had indicated.

Back in Valparaiso, Darwin set out on another trek up the Andes and on 21 March reached the continental divide at 13,000 ft (4,000 m): even here he found fossil seashells in the rocks. After going on to Mendoza they were returning by a different pass when they found a petrified forest of fossilised trees, crystallised in a sandstone escarpment showing him that they had been on an Atlantic beach when the land sank, burying them in sand which had been compressed into rock, then had gradually been raised with the continent to stand at 7,000 ft (2,100 m) in the mountains. On returning to Valparaiso with half a mule's load of specimens he wrote to his father that his findings, if accepted, would be crucial to the theory of the formation of the world. After another gruelling expedition in the Andes while the Beagle was refitted he rejoined it and sailed to Lima, but found an armed insurrection in progress and had to stay with the ship. Here he was writing up his notes when he realised that Lyell's idea that coral atolls were on the rims of rising extinct volcanoes made less sense than the volcanoes gradually sinking so that the coral reefs around the island kept building themselves close to sea level and became an atoll as the volcano disappeared below. This was a theory he would examine when they reached such islands.

Galapagos Islands

A week out of Lima, they reached the Galápagos Islands on 15 September 1835. On Chatham Island Darwin found broken black rocky volcanic lava scorching under the hot sun with volcanic craters which reminded him of the iron foundries of industrial Staffordshire. He noted widespread thin scrub thickets of only ten species, and very few insects. The impressive giant tortoises to his fancy appeared antediluvian, though apparently he thought at the time that these had been brought to the islands by buccaneers for food.

At the prison colony on Charles Island he was told that tortoises differed from island to island, but this was not obvious on the islands he visited and he did not bother with collecting their shells. The marine iguanas seemed hideously ugly, and due to mislabelling in the museum he thought these unique creatures were a South American species. The birds were remarkably unafraid of humans, and of unique kinds with some resemblance to South American species. He noticed that mockingbirds differed with islands and took care with labelling them, but did not bother to note where other species such as finches had been found. Fortunately others were being more methodical in labelling their collections. They left on 20 October.

Tahiti to Australia

They sailed on, dining on Galapagos tortoises, and on 9 November sighted the Low Islands which at first appeared uninteresting to Darwin, just white beaches and palm trees. On Tahiti he soon found interest in luxuriant vegetation and the pleasant intelligent natives who showed the benefits of Christianity, refuting allegations he had read about tyrannical missionaries overturning indigenous cultures.

On 19 December they reached New Zealand where Darwin thought the tattooed Maori to be savages with character of a much lower order than the Tahitians, and noted that they and their homes were "filthily dirty and offensive". He saw missionaries bringing improvement in character as well as new farming practices with an exemplary "English farm" employing natives. Richard Matthews was left here with his elder brother Joseph Matthews who was a missionary at Kaitai. Darwin and FitzRoy were agreed that missionaries had been unfairly misrepresented in tracts, particularly one written by the artist Augustus Earle which he had left on the ship. Darwin also noted many English residents of the most worthless character, including runaway convicts from New South Wales. By 30 December he was glad to leave New Zealand.

The first sight of Australia on 12 January 1836 reminded him of Patagonia, but inland the country improved and he was soon filled with admiration at the bustling new city of Sydney. On a journey into the interior he came across a group of cheery aborigines who gave him a display of spear throwing for a shilling, contradicting their usual depiction as "degraded creatures", and he reflected sadly on how their numbers were rapidly decreasing. At a large sheep farm he joined a hunting party and caught his first marsupial, a "potoroo" (rat-kangaroo), making him think that an unbeliever might exclaim "Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work". He was then shown the even stranger platypus and was surprised to find that its bill was soft, unlike in preserved specimens, and heard that many colonists believed them to lay eggs like a reptile, a point then the subject of scientific controversy in Britain. After a pleasant visit to Hobart, Tasmania the Beagle sailed to King George's Sound in south west Australia, a dismal settlement then being replaced by the Swan River Colony, where Darwin attended an aboriginal dance, a "most rude barbarous scene" "all moving in hideous harmony" though he liked these "good humoured" aborigines "in such high spirits". The Beagle's departure in a storm was delayed when she ran aground, was refloated and got on her way.

Keeling Island homewards

On their arrival at Keeling Island in the Indian Ocean on 1 April Darwin found a coconut economy, serving both the inhabitants and the wildlife. They investigated the coral lagoons, and FitzRoy's survey soundings revealed a profile consistent with the theory of atolls that Darwin had developed in Lima. Once again Darwin was a martyr to seasickness on the voyage to Mauritius, where he was impressed by the civilisation of the French colony and toured the island, partly on an elephant.

The Beagle reached the Cape of Good Hope on 31 May. In Cape Town Darwin received correspondence from his sister telling him that ten of his letters on South American geology had been edited by Henslow and printed for private distribution, establishing his reputation. After a week there Darwin and FitzRoy visited the noted astronomer Sir John Herschel who was making observations as well as taking a keen interest in geology, corresponding with Lyell on the formation of continents and on the mystery of how new species of life-forms arrived, subjects he may have discussed with them over dinner. In Cape Town, FitzRoy was requested to contribute a piece to the South African Christian Recorder and after they had set to sea on 18 June he wrote an open letter on the Moral State of Tahiti incorporating extracts from Darwin's diary and defending the reputation of missionaries. This was given to a passing ship which took it to Cape Town to become FitzRoy's (and Darwin's) first published work.

They stopped at St. Helena for a few days, and here Darwin noted the prevalence of imported English plants. He examined a band of fossil shells at 2,000 ft (600 m) which had been taken as proof that St. Helena had recently risen from the waves, but was able to identify them as ancient land shells of an extinct species. Then they sailed on to Ascension Island where he saw the red volcanic cones of this "cinder" in the ocean. On 23 July they set out with most hoping to soon reach home, but FitzRoy wanted to ensure the accuracy of his longitude measurements and took the ship across the Atlantic back to Bahia in Brazil to take check readings. For five days Darwin took the opportunity to revisit the jungle, but weather forced them to shelter further up the coast for a further eleven days, departing on 17 August for a stormy passage to stop for supplies at the Azores and then on to finally reach Falmouth, Cornwall, England on 2 October 1836.


Darwin was quick to take the coach home, arriving at the family home of The Mount House in Shrewsbury, Shropshire late at night on 4 October and going straight to bed, then greeting his family at breakfast. After ten days of catching up with family news he went on to Cambridge and sought Henslow's advice on the task of organising the description and cataloguing of his collections.

His father gave him an allowance that enabled him to put aside ideas of other careers, and he went on to the London institutions as a sought-after scientific celebrity with his reputation already established by his fossils and by Henslow's printing of his letters on South American geology. Already, he was part of the scientific establishment, seeking expert naturalists to describe his specimens and working on ideas he had been developing during the voyage. Charles Lyell gave enthusiastic backing. In December Darwin presented a talk to the Cambridge Philosophical Society. He wrote a paper proving that Chile, and the South American land-mass, was slowly rising, which he read to the Geological Society of London on 4 January 1837.

Syms Covington stayed with Darwin as his servant until shortly after Darwin's marriage in January 1837, when he parted on good terms and emigrated to Australia.

Publication of Darwin's book

Darwin was invited by FitzRoy to contribute the natural history section to the captain's account of the Beagle's voyage, and using his field notes and the journal which he had been sending home for his family to read, completed this section by September 1837. As well as writing his own account of the voyage and the previous expedition of two ships, FitzRoy had to edit the notes of the previous captain of the Beagle. The account was completed and published in May 1839 as the Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle in four volumes. Volume one covers the first voyage under Commander Philip Parker King, volume two is FitzRoy's account of the second voyage. Darwin's Journal and Remarks, 1832—1836 forms the third volume, the fourth volume being a lengthy appendix. Darwin's contribution proved remarkably popular and the publisher, Henry Colburn of London, took it upon himself to reissue the same text in August with a new title page as Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle apparently without seeking Darwin's permission or paying him a fee.

Later editions: changing ideas on evolution

The book went through many editions, and was subsequently published with several different titles. The best known was the second edition of 1845 which incorporated extensive revisions in the light of interpretation of the collections and developing ideas on evolution. This edition was commissioned by the publisher John Murray, who actually paid Darwin a fee.

In the first edition regarding the similarity of Galápagos wildlife to that on the South American continent, Darwin remarks "The circumstance would be explained, according to the views of some authors, by saying that the creative power had acted according to the same law over a wide area" in a reference to Charles Lyell's ideas of "centres of creation". He notes the gradations in size of the beaks of species of finches, suspects that species "are confined to different islands", "But there is not space in this work, to enter into this curious subject."

Later editions hint at his new ideas on evolution:

"Considering the small size of these islands, we feel the more astonished at the number of their aboriginal beings, and at their confined range... within a period geologically recent the unbroken ocean was here spread out. Hence, both in space and time, we seem to be brought somewhat near to that great fact – that mystery of mysteries – the first appearance of new beings on this earth."

Speaking of the finches with their gradations in size of beaks, he writes "one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds in this archipelago, one species had been taken and modified for different ends."

Contents – where Darwin went

The book's list of contents outlines where Charles Darwin went (not in exact chronological sequence):

  • Preface
  1. St. JagoCape de Verd Islands
  2. Rio de Janeiro
  3. Maldonado
  4. Rio Negro to Bahia Blanca
  5. Bahia Blanca
  6. Bahia Blanca to Buenos Ayres
  7. Buenos Ayres and St. Fe
  8. Banda Oriental and Patagonia
  9. Santa Cruz, Patagonia, and The Falkland Islands
  10. Tierra del Fuego
  11. Strait of Magellan. – Climate of the Southern Coasts
  12. Central Chile
  13. Chiloe and Chonos Islands
  14. Chiloe and Concepcion: Great Earthquake
  15. Passage of the Cordillera
  16. Northern Chile and Peru
  17. Galapagos Archipelago
  18. Tahiti and New Zealand
  19. Australia
  20. Keeling Island: – Coral Formations
  21. Mauritius to England


  • Darwin, Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Michael Joseph, the Penguin Group, London 1991 ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
  • Voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin (including Robert FitzRoy's 'Remarks with reference to the Deluge'), Penguin Books, London 1989 ISBN 0-14-043268-X

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