Charles Darwin's – The Voyage of the Beagle (part 1)

When Charles Darwin joined The Voyage of the Beagle, little did he know at the time that his observations would lead him to a permanent place among the world’s greatest scientists.

In 1831 Charles Darwin finished his studies at Cambridge where he had made his mark as a sportsman rather than a scholar. He later realised his time had been ‘wasted’ when he should have been studying. His father, Dr Robert Darwin, had earlier told him “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat catching and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family”.

However, no pursuit at Cambridge gave him as much pleasure as collecting beetles. He remembered in his autobiography-

One day, on tearing off some old bark, I saw two rare beetles and seized one in each hand; then I saw a third and new kind, which I could not bear to lose, so that I popped the one which I held in my right hand into my mouth. Alas, it ejected some intensely acrid fluid, which burnt my tongue so that I was forced the spit the beetle out, which was lost, as well as the third one
Young Charles Darwin

Sketch of Darwin c.1838

Darwin was destined to enter the Church as a clergyman, but he was offered a free place on board HMS Beagle by Captain Robert FitzRoy, which was setting sail around the world on a scientific survey. He refused in the first instance but was persuaded by his uncle to accept.

Darwin was nearly rejected on account of the shape of his nose – "FitzRoy was convinced that he could judge a man’s character by the outline of his features; and doubted whether 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".

 

This journey was to change his life and shake Victorian society when The Origin of Species was eventually published in 1859. Darwin recorded his journey in a diary which was published in 1839 – The Voyage of The Beagle.

The Beagle

Reproduction of R.T.Pritchett's frontispiece from the 1890 illustrated edition of The Voyage of the Beagle

On 24th October 1831 Darwin left Shrewsbury aged 22 for Plymouth, and remained there until the 27th December when the Beagle finally left the shores of England.

"Those two months at Plymouth were the most miserable which I ever spent, I was out of spirits at the thought of leaving all my family and friends for so long a time. I was also troubled with palpitations and pain about the heart, and like so many a young ignorant man, was convinced that I had heart disease. I did not consult a doctor, as I fully expected to hear the verdict that I was not fit for the voyage, and I was resolved to go at all hazards.."

Darwins cabin

The circle indicates Darwin’s cabin with bookshelves at the stern of the ship. HMS Beagle, by P.G. King for Murray's 1890 illustrated edition.

The Beagle had an impressive library of about 400 volumes. The library was housed in book cases in a cabin at the stern of the ship, which was also Darwin's cabin. Thus, Darwin lived and worked in the Beagle library for five years.

Throughout the voyage Darwin pursued many lines of though and expressed interest in almost everything. While the survey work was carried out, he travelled and researched geology, natural history and ethnology onshore- spending just 18months of the 5 years on board. He had no idea at the time that these observations would lead him to a permanent place among the world’s greatest scientists.

Adapted from The Voyage of Charles Darwin – his autobiographical writings selected and arranged by Christopher Ralling.

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