"The most important event in my life " - Charles Darwin and HMS "Beagle's" Second Voyage

27 December 1831, HMS “Beagle” left Plymouth and set out on her famous “Second Voyage”, a surveying expedition that took her around the world and would be momentous for the foundation of evolutionary biology.
“The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career“ (Charles Darwin)

HMS Beagle during survey work off Tierra del Fuego, with native Fuegians hailing her, by Conrad Martens,  around 1832

Brig sloops of “Beagle’s” “Cherokee”-class were first commissioned in 1808 and quickly required a bit of a bad reputation as “coffin ships”. Not entirely without reason. Of the 104 ships of the class, almost one fourth was lost at sea during the three decades they saw active service. It wasn’t that there design was faulty as such, but the 90’ long 237 ton vessels were probably a bit too small for their global missions as packet ships between the continents and on their survey missions across the world. HMS “Beagle” herself saw service since 1820 and was the first warship that sailed under old London Bridge during the naval review to mark the coronation festivities of King George IV during the same year, a couple of years before Rennie’s “New” London Bridge was opened. By then, HMS “Beagle” already had her first voyage to South America completed and was again captained by 26 years old Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy who assumed command after his commanding officer Pringle Stokes committed suicide during the obviously extremely boring first mission off Tierra del Fuego. Against this background and mindful of his uncle, the former British foreign secretary Viscount Castlereagh, who ended his own life in 1822, FitzRoy, who struggled with depressions for all his life himself, insisted on a suitable gentleman companion to come along on the “Beagle’s” long second voyage. Finally, a young theologian with a keen interest in geology was found – Charles Darwin.

A drawing of HMS "Beagle" at anchor, probably off Australia (1841)

“Beagle’s” mission was, again, to survey the South American coastlines and to produce nautical charts, nothing fancy, just showing navigational and sea depth information for the navy as well as commerce. And after three disappointing weeks aboard ship with poor Darwin suffering from seasickness and a landfall in Madeira being cancelled due to an outbreak of Cholera, the twenty-three-year-old aspiring scientist had the first opportunity to observe, collect and study, first on the Cap Verde Islands and then, finally, in South America, where Darwin discovered his first fossils, a complete skeleton and a further skull of a giant ground sloth. And while the “Beagle” surveyed off Patagonia and Chile, Darwin had ample time to explore on his own on land, write his meticulous records and discuss his findings with FitzRoy. The two men shared a cabin for the five years of the “Beagle’s” second voyage that finally took them from Chile to the famed four-weeks’ stay on the Galápagos Islands, via Tahiti to Australia, where Darwin noted that an unbeliever might exclaim another Creator had been at work there, and finally, through the Indian Ocean and along the Cape of Good Hope back home to England, arriving at Falmouth in Cornwall on October 2nd 1836.

Shipboard artist Augustus Earle probably drew this caricature instead of coastlines for once, showing Darwin (the one with the top hat) employing "Beagle's) crew during his work as naturalist in August 1832. 

With the help of the "fiddler & boy to Poop-cabin" Syms Covington, Darwin had assembled 12 catalogues of his collection, 1,529 specimens preserved in ethanol as well as 3,907 hides, furs, bones and plants. His notes on geology were still four times as long as the 368 pages he wrote about zoology. Darwin settled down in London and the busiest time of his life began. He started to establish his reputation in scientific circles and published “The Zoology of the Voyage of H.M.S. Beagle” between 1838 and 1843, the third volume “The narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle“ from 1839 - being still the most read book that Darwin has written. The groundwork for his famous later theory formulated in “The Origin of Species“, released twenty years later in 1859, had been laid. Captain FitzRoy continued his career in the Royal Navy, made his mark in science with a quite advanced theory of weather forecasting, and, obviously undergoing religious conversion during his later life, almost fell into hysterics after Darwin’s publication in 1859 and ended his own life in at the age of 60, like his uncle, by cutting his throat with a razor. H.M. ship “Beagle” left England again after only six months in port for a third voyage, this time for seven years surveying the coasts of Australia, and finished her career being moored mid-river in the River Roach to detain smugglers and finally was broken up in 1870.

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