Events leading up to Darwin's Beagle Voyage:

The Napoleonic Wars
South American trade relations
Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty
Early H.M.S. Beagle history
About the second Beagle Survey
The search for a Naturalist
Charles Darwin receives a letter
Preparing for the adventure of a lifetime


How did Charles Darwin end up setting out on a voyage of discovery around the world aboard H.M.S. Beagle? Most descriptions of this turn of events start out with Capt. Robert FitzRoy seeking a naturalist to accompany him on the voyage in the early summer of 1831, but the story actually begins much earlier than this - to a time before Charles Darwin was even born. The emergence of Britain as the uncontested ruler of the seas after the Napoleonic Wars is where our story begins.

With this in mind, we turn back to the year 1805, four years before Charles Darwin was born. Ever since the French Revolution of 1789, the nations of Europe had been maneuvering to reestablish the balance of power throughout the continent. German and Austrian forces were invading France on and off since 1795 and Great Britain had maintained economic pressure on France by establishing a trade blockade. France made inroads into northern Italy and Egypt near the turn of the century, but their gains were soon lost.

This series of events lead us to October of 1805. The naval fleets of France and Spain tried to gain control of the English Channel in order to facilitate Napoleon's invasion of Britain. The British Navy responded to this threat by sending a fleet of warships under the command of Admiral Horatio Nelson to confront the French and Spanish fleets off the coast of Spain. On 20 October the French fleet tried to maneuver to the south, but Nelson caught them off Cape Trafalgar the next day. One of the largest battles in naval history ensued, with Admiral Nelson's fleet of 27 ships going against a fleet of 33 ships (18 French and 15 Spanish). In the end, the French and Spanish fleets were crushed. About 1,500 British seamen were killed or wounded, but not a single British warship was lost. The defeat at the Battle of Trafalgar ended Napoleon's plans to invade England, and the Napoleonic Wars came to a close ten years later at the Battle of Waterloo where the French Army was routed by Anglo-German forces. France surrendered soon after, and Napoleon was exiled to the island of St. Helena where he died in 1821.

At the close of the Napoleonic Wars Britain found itself as the only nation with a navy large enough to police the seas, and the focus of the British Navy turned from making war, to making trade safe for their growing empire. This was accomplished in three ways: suppressing piracy, discouraging the slave trade, and charting the oceans. The most important of these was the production of accurate charts and maps of the coastlines and harbors of countries around the world. Capt. Thomas Hurd (Hydrographer of the Navy, 1808-23) outlined those regions of the world that required the most attention, and South America was near the top of his list. The Spanish colonies in South America, having just won their independence from Spain and Portugal, were eager to establish economic relations with Britain. The feeling was mutual, as the British Empire was eager to locate new resources to fuel their industrial revolution, and had a keen interest in the immense mineral wealth South America had to offer. Diplomatic relations were soon established with Argentina, Brazil, and Chile, and in short order the British government was flooding South America with cash.

At this time much of the coastline of South America remained uncharted, and as new trade relations were quickly being established with South America, creating accurate charts and maps of the region was a top priority. There was, however, a big problem. The current charting techniques used by the British Navy were inadequate for the task at hand. Back in 1795 the increased need for reliable charts during the French Revolution led to the development of the Hydrographic Office of the Admiralty. Up until then the commanders of British ships had to find their own maps and charts, often from the chart sellers of central London (many of which were of dubious accuracy). With the establishment of the Hydrographic Office the British Navy had its own map department, engravers, and printing facilities. Still, the maps that were produced were of modest quality, and errors were quite common. Capt. Thomas Hurd realized that most of the naval officers currently engaged in survey work were not suited to chart making. An elite corps of dedicated officers was needed, and Hurd slowly put together a group of scientific and mathematical officers to carry out Britain's chart making endeavors. It was slow going at first, as Hurd found it difficult to recruit Masters and Midshipmen who were qualified for such technical work. In time Hurd assembled a large enough group of qualified men to take on the task and on 7 January 1817 he established the "Corps of Surveying Officers." Along with this new breed of naval officer came a new fleet of survey ships, and on 16 February 1817 six Cherokee class brig sloops were ordered to be built for the survey service.

One of these survey ships was to be named H.M.S. Beagle.


The Beagle was engaged in three survey missions from the years 1826 to 1843. Charles Darwin was naturalist on the second survey. The chronology of events, from the creation of the Beagle to her return from the first survey, went as follows:

16 July 1817
Working drawings were sent to the Woolwich Dockyards for the ships H.M.S. Beagle and H.M.S. Barracouta (the Beagle's sister ship).

11 May 1820
H.M.S. Beagle was launched from the Woolwich Dockyards on the River Thames. Her cost was £7,803. She was kept in ordinary (in reserve) for five years.

27 September 1825
The Beagle was refitted with new timber planking and copper hull.

22 May 1826
H.M.S. Beagle, under the command of Pringle Stokes and accompanied by the Adventure, a storage ship commanded by Captain Phillip Parker King, set sail on its first survey mission to South America. A young man of 23 years of age named Robert FitzRoy was a Lieutenant on this voyage.

1 August 1828
While the Beagle was surveying Tierra del Fuego, Capt. Pringle Stokes cracked under the stress and shot himself. He died on the morning of the 12th. Robert FitzRoy was put in command of the Beagle.

May 1829
John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, selected Capt. Francis Beaufort to head the Hydrographic Office (he replaced Capt. William Parry). Through him the Hydrographic Office developed a far more scientific character than it had under Thomas Hurd. Among his most notable accomplishments was the development of the "Beaufort Scale", a means by which one could judge the speed of the wind visually. Capt. Robert FitzRoy made wide use of it during the Beagle's second survey.

14 October 1830
H.M.S. Beagle and Adventure return to England at Plymouth.

November 1830
After the Beagle was paid off she was laid in ordinary at Devonport Dockyard.

Late 1830
H.M.S. Chanticleer (one of the six survey ships built in 1817) was scheduled for the second South America survey, but because she was in such poor condition the Beagle was selected instead. The Chanticleer was eventually sold to the Customs Office in 1833.

On 25 June 1831 Robert FitzRoy was re-appointed as commander of H.M.S. Beagle. The ship was taken to the Plymouth Dockyards for a major refit and Capt. FitzRoy oversaw the work, using much of his own money to guarantee that no expense was spared.

The orders for the next survey were to continue the charting work in South America, as well as run a chain of chronometric readings around the globe. What is not widely known is that Capt. FitzRoy had a personal mission of his own. During the first Beagle survey he had brought back four native Fuegians from Tierra del Fuego and had them educated in England. It was his hope that these Fuegians would one day return to their homeland and, with the aid of a British missionary, develop an outpost in that remote part of the world. A letter sent to the Revd. Richard Matthews (the missionary selected to go) summarizes the situation nicely:

"The undertaking in which you are about to be engaged springs from the benevolent interest taken by Captain Fitz-Roy in the natives of the island of Tierra del Fuego, with whom he became acquainted during his survey of that part of the coast of South America, in which he was employed by His Majesty's Government. Some of them were brought hither by Capt. F. on his return home, about twelve months ago. These individuals, through Capt. F.'s kind exertions, were, during their stay in England, placed under circumstances to receive instruction in the English language, in the principles of Christianity, and in some of the most simple arts of civilized life."
-- D. Coates [2]

Capt. FitzRoy continues the outline of the plan:

"By supplying these natives with some animals, seeds, tools, &c., and placing them, with some of their own tribe, on the fertile country lying at the east side of Tierra del Fuego, I thought that, in a few years, ships might have been enabled to obtain fresh provisions, as well as wood and water, during their passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean, on a part of the coast which can always be appreciated with ease and safety."
-- Capt. Robert FitzRoy [3]

The Fuegians that were brought to England were:

Fuegia Basket - female, aged 9 years. Of the Woolya tribe.
Jemmy Button - male, aged 14 years. Of the Woolya tribe.
York Minster - male, aged 26 years. Of the Tekeenica tribe.
Boat Memory - male, aged 20 years. Unknown tribe. Died in the Naval Hospital in Plymouth after a smallpox vaccination.

During the summer of 1831 Capt. FitzRoy foresaw that the next Beagle voyage would present an ideal opportunity for collecting specimens of natural history. In his narrative of the Beagle voyage FitzRoy wrote:

"Anxious that no opprotunity of collecting useful information, during the voyage, should be lost; I proposed to the Hydrographer [Captain Francis Beaufort] that some well-educated and scientific person should be sought for who would willingly share such accommodations as I had to offer, in order to profit by the opprotunity of visiting distant countries yet little known. Captain Beaufort approved of the suggestion, and wrote to Professor Peacock, of Cambridge, who consulted with a friend, Professor Henslow, and he named Mr. Charles Darwin, grandson of Dr. Darwin the poet, as a young man of promising ability, extremely fond of geology, and indeed all branches of natural history. In consequence an offer was made to Mr. Darwin to be my guest on board, which he accepted conditionally; permission was obtained for his embarkation, and an order was given by the Admirality that he should be borne on the ship's books for provisions. The conditions asked by Mr. Darwin were, that he should be at liberty to leave the Beagle and retire from the Expedition when he thought proper, and that he should pay a fair share of the expenses of my table."
-- Capt. Robert FitzRoy [4]

It is likely that Capt. FitzRoy proposed the idea of a naturalist to Captain Francis Beaufort in July of 1831. Apparently Beaufort was at a loss as to who to suggest, so he sought the advice of his old Cambridge friend, George Peacock. In a letter dated 6 (13th?) August 1831, Peacock wrote to John Stevens Henslow, Professor of botany at Cambridge, seeking his advice on the matter (CCD, 1:104).

In the letter he informed Henslow about Capt. FitzRoy's plans to survey the South American coastline, and that the Captain was seeking a well educated naturalist as a companion during the voyage. Peacock suggested that Revd. Leonard Jenyns may be a good choice and would bring back many good specimens for the museums. However, if he could not go, he wished to know if Henslow could recommend someone else. It turned out that Revd. Jenyns was quite busy with his parish duties and declined the offer, but Henslow and he recommended a young and promising naturalist named Charles Darwin.

Darwin recently graduated from the University of Cambridge in April with Bachelor of Arts degree, and had been spending much of his free time reading books on natural history. Perhaps more than any other book, Alexander von Humboldt's 7-vol. "Personal Narrative" of his South America adventures, sparked Darwin's desire to explore the wonders of the tropics. Professor Henslow, who had taken the young Darwin under his wing while at Cambridge, suggested he set out on his own adventure, perhaps to the Canary Islands. After getting permission from his father, Darwin made plans to explore Tenerife Island in the Canaries, and even convinced his friend, Marmaduke Ramsey, a tutor at Jesus College, to go with him. Seeing that he would benefit from knowing a little something about geology, Henslow introduced Darwin to Adam Sedgwick, Professor of Geology at Cambridge. Darwin was invited to attend his geology lectures and read voraciously on the subject all spring term. He returned home to Shrewsbury for summer vacation with visions of tropical foliage dancing in his head. On 4 August Professor Sedgwick popped by the house loaded down with hiking gear and geology tools. The next day he and Darwin set off to Northern Wales where Sedgwick gave him a crash course in field geology. Within a week Darwin was addicted to the subject and was ready to go off geologizing on his own. Tragedy struck, however, when Darwin learned that his friend, Ramsay, had died suddenly. Darwin was crushed, and his dream of seeing the tropics vanished like a puff of smoke.

Little did Darwin know that while he was hiking around Wales, plans were being made to send him on a voyage around the world. When he returned to Shrewsbury from his geology trek on the evening of 29 August, Darwin found letters waiting for him from Revd. John Henslow and George Peacock. (CCD, 1:105-106)

He had been invited to be a naturalist aboard H.M.S. Beagle on its two year survey of South America (later extended to five years) and was set to sail on 25 September. Darwin immediately accepted the offer, but his father and sisters were totally against him going. They saw it as a continuation of Darwin's long line of idle pursuits. Worst of all, such a journey would get in the way of him going into the clergy. However, his father's refusal was not absolute, assuring Darwin that if he could find a man with common sense who thought it was a good idea then he would allow him to go.

The reasons why his father objected to him going on the voyage were as follows:

- Such a voyage would reflect badly on his future prospects as a member of the clergy.
- The entire plan seemed adventurous and wild.
- Why was a naturalist still being considered so close to the start of the voyage?
- Given the above, other people must have been considered. Why had they refused the offer?
- Going on the voyage would prevent Charles from settling down to a real life.
- The accommodations on the ship would be very poor.
- The voyage would offer Charles another excuse to change his focus in life.
- It would be a complete waste of his time.

The next day Darwin wrote to Revd. Henslow that his father would not allow him to go on the voyage (CCD, 1:107). At the same time Darwin's father wrote a letter to his brother-in-law, Josiah Wedgwood II (son of the Wedgwood Pottery Works founder), about the offer Darwin had been given, listing all the reasons why Darwin should not go on the voyage (CCD, 1:108). Later that afternoon Darwin rode out to Maer Hall (home of the Wedgwood's), his father's letter in hand, for the start of the bird shooting season on 1 September. Upon arriving at Maer Hall Darwin spoke to his uncle Josiah about the voyage, and presented his father's objections to it. After much discussion Josiah sent a letter off to Darwin's father, answering all of the objections in Darwin's favor (CCD, 1:110).

Darwin woke up early the next day and while out shooting pheasants on the Wedgwood estate he received word that his uncle Josiah wanted the two of them to return to Shrewsbury at once. Upon arriving at The Mount (Darwin's home), he found that his uncle's letter had done the trick and his father allowed him to go on the voyage, and would support him in any way necessary.

Early in the morning of 2 September Darwin rode out to Cambridge to speak with Revd. Henslow about his change of fortune. When he arrived Darwin learned that Capt. FitzRoy may have already selected another person as naturalist for the voyage.

After spending the weekend in Cambridge, Darwin rode to London and went to the Whitehall Admiralty building across from St. James Park to speak with FitzRoy in Captain Beaufort's office. FitzRoy told Darwin that the person he had offered the position to had just turned it down an hour ago (this may have been Harry Chester, a close friend of FitzRoy, and at the time a clerk in the Privy Council office across the street). He wanted to know if Darwin was still interested in the position. Was he ever! He enthusiastically accepted the offer and they spent the next few hours going over the details of the voyage. Darwin learned that the sail date had been postponed until 10 October, and that the voyage may extend longer than two years. Later that afternoon Darwin took up lodgings at 17 Spring Gardens, just around the corner from Whitehall.

Over the next few days Darwin was engaged in shopping around London for scientific instruments and discussing the details of the voyage with FitzRoy. It was agreed that Darwin would share the Captain's table for meals and pay his own way during the voyage, about £500. It was also agreed that he would be allowed to retire from the voyage whenever he liked.

"Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected [as the Beagle's naturalist], on account of the shape of my nose! He was an ardent desciple of Lavater, and was convinced that he could judge a man's character by the outline of his features; and he doubted wheather anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But I think he was afterwards well-satisfied that my nose had spoken falsely."
-- Charles Darwin [5]

About a week later (on 11 September) FitzRoy took Darwin out to see the Beagle at Plymouth. Concern about Darwin's sea-worthiness, FitzRoy decided they would go by ship rather than by coach, even though it would have been much faster. Apparently, Darwin handled the three day trip very well and FitzRoy was impressed that a land lover could take to the sea so quickly. When Darwin saw the Beagle his heart sank into his stomach. The ship was in tatters! She had no masts, half of the deck had been torn away, and the water-tightness of the hull appeared dubious. FitzRoy assured Darwin that she would be sea-worthy in short order -no expense would be spared in her refitting.

"When recommissioned in 1831 for her second voyage, she was found (as I learned from the late Admiral Sir James Sulivan) to be so rotten that she had practically to be rebuilt, and it was this that caused the long delay in refitting."
-- Francis Darwin [6]

Darwin left Plymouth on 16 September, feeling perhaps a little more optimistic, and returned to Cambridge via London to talk with Revd. Henslow about the plans for the voyage, and to arrange for Henslow to store any specimens he sent back to England.

He left Cambridge for Shrewsbury a few days later and spent some time at Woodhouse, the home of his former girlfriend, Fanny Owen. Darwin returned to Shrewsbury on 2 October to say his final farewells and then set out to London. When Darwin arrived he learned that the launch of the Beagle had been delayed again until 20 October. This was actually good news for Darwin, as it gave him more time to wander around the museums, seeking advice from the various experts in botany, taxidermy, geology and animal anatomy. Later in the month Darwin tried to get FitzRoy to allow his friend, Francis Owen (Fanny Owen's brother), to be part of the crew as a Midshipman. Unfortunately all the positions were by now full. There was more bad news; the sail date had been delayed yet again to 31 October.

On 16 October Darwin left London for Plymouth to prepare for the start of the voyage. He arrived on 24 October with a huge assortment of equipment. A few of the items he brought with him included:

12 shirts
1 carpet bag
1 pair slippers
1 pair of light walking shoes
1 microscope (a single lens model by Bancks & Son, London)
1 geological compass
1 plain compass
2 pistols (with spare parts)
1 rifle (with spare parts)
1 telescope
1 pencil case
1 geological hammer
5 simisometers
3 mountain barometers
1 clinometer
1 camera obscura
1 hygrometer (belonged to FitzRoy)
1 taxidermy book
2-3 Spanish language books
14 other books, including Humboldt's "Personal Narrative" and Lyell's "Principles of Geology Vol. 1"
1 coin purse (Fanny Owen's gift)
1 pin with a lock of Sarah Owen's hair (Fanny's sister)

He took up lodgings at 4 Clarence Baths in Devonport. Delays follow more delays, and the weather turned bad. It was during this time that Darwin started his Beagle Diary.

"These two months at Plymouth were the most miserable which I ever spent, though I exerted myself in various ways. I was out of spirits at the thought of leaving all my family and friends for so long a time, and the weather seemed to me inexpressibly gloomy."
-- Charles Darwin [7]

The Beagle tried to head out to sea on 15 November, but strong westerly gale winds force her back the next morning. The weather remained uncooperative for the next few weeks and there was absolutely nothing Darwin could do but return to Clarence Baths and wait. By 3 December the weather held promise and Darwin started sleeping onboard the Beagle again.

He was given quarters in the chart room, one deck above Capt. FitzRoy's quarters, at the stern of the ship. The chart room was 9 feet by 11 feet and had 5 feet of generous headroom. The walls were lined with bookshelves, cabinets, an oven, and a wash stand. The mizzenmast came up through the floor and a large 4 x 6 chart table sat in the middle of the room. In all, there was about 6 feet by 8 feet of room to work in. Darwin lived in this room, on and off, for nearly five years.


Darwin's "generous" accommodations aboard the Beagle.

"My father used to say that it was the absolute necessity of tidiness in the cramped space on the Beagle that helped 'to give him his methodical habits of working.' On the Beagle, too, he would say, that he learned what he considered the golden rule for saving time; i.e., taking care of the minutes."
-- Francis Darwin [8]

On 11 December the Beagle headed out to sea again, but as misfortune would have it, gale winds forced her back to port after a twenty-four hour struggle. A few more weeks passed and by now Darwin was wondering if this adventure was such a good idea. He started having chest pains and heart palpitations during this time. This was perhaps one of the earliest manifestations of his life-long illness.


Cross section of H.M.S. Beagle (based on drawings by K. H. Marquardt).


[1] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, page 80. Barlow, Nora. (editor) New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1993. (1958 reprint)

[2] Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, (appendix to Volume 2), page 94. FitzRoy, Capt. Robert.New York: AMS Press, 1966. (a reprint of the 1839 edition, by Henry Colburn Publishers, London)

[3] Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, (appendix to Volume 2), page 91.

[4] Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, Volume 2, page 18. FitzRoy, Capt. Robert.
New York: AMS Press, 1966. (a reprint of the 1839 edition, by Henry Colburn Publishers, London)

[5] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, page 72.

[6] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, page 132. Darwin, Francis. (editor) New York: Dover Publications, 1958. (a reprint of the 1892 edition by D. Appleton Publishers, New York)

[7] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, page 79.

[8] The Autobiography of Charles Darwin and Selected Letters, page 132.