Darwin Week, Part 2 – The HMS Beagle

By Sarah Boessenecker (@tetrameryx)

Darwin spent a week in Wales with other students mapping the geology of the area, and upon his arrival home he received a letter from former professor John Stevens Henslow suggesting he accompany captain Robert FitzRoy as a naturalist on the ship HMS Beagle.

The HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan.

The HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The HMS Beagle was scheduled to begin its voyage in 4 weeks with the intent of mapping the coastline of South America, and would take 2 years to complete. Darwin’s father didn’t look favorably upon this voyage for his son and deemed it a waste of time, but his brother-in-law convinced him to fund his son’s participation in the voyage. Darwin was not the official naturalist of the trip, as that was a title generally given to the ship’s surgeon. However, he was allowed to accompany the crew as a guest, and as he was self-funded he was under no obligation to remain with the crew for the entire duration of the trip.

The 5 year journey of the HMS Beagle. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The 5 year journey of the HMS Beagle. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The HMS Beagle finally left port on December 27, 1831 after a series of delays, and set sail for the Canary Islands. On January 6, they reached the port city of Tenerife, where they were quarantined due to the cholera outbreak in England. As weather conditions continued to improve they again set sail, and Darwin was able to put to use a plankton net he had contrived – only the second recorded incidence of such a net being used. After a day he pulled the net in and collected the organisms from it and was astonished at the sheer abundance of life he found so far away from land. He wrote in his journal, “Many of these creatures so low in the scale of nature are most exquisite in their forms & rich colours. It creates a feeling of wonder that so much beauty should be apparently created for such little purpose.”

As they sailed on they reached the port city of Porto Praya on the island of St. Jago. Here Darwin collected many animals and recorded his thoughts and findings in what would later become his first published work, The Voyage of the Beagle. He also studied in great detail the geology and stratigraphy of St. Jago, referring often to his copy of Lyell’s Principles of Geology and noting that there were layers of white crushed shells between the layers of volcanic rocks throughout the island, including a layer 12 meters above sea level. As far as he could tell, these shells were “the same as those of present day.” He theorized that lava flows had recently (in geologic time) covered the shell beds and were later uplifted, writing in a letter to professor Henslow, “The geology was preeminently interesting & I believe quite new: there are some facts on a large scale of upraised coast … that would interest Mr. Lyell.” He was inspired by this island to write a book on geology saying, “seeing a thing never seen by Lyell, one yet saw it partially through his eyes.”

During this time the ship’s surgeon, Robert McCormick, the designated naturalist, grew resentful of the camaraderie between the captain and Darwin; he felt special favors were being given to the young man, such as help in collecting specimens. Darwin felt that McCormick’s methods were old-fashioned. By the time the HMS Beagle reached South America, McCormick had left the ship.

Along the coast of South America Darwin spent much of his time inland, documenting and recording his finds, and mailing letters and his notes back to England. By August of 1862, the Beagle had reached Patagonia, and traveled inland with local gauchos, where he witnessed the hunting of rhea and ate roasted armadillos. Near the city of Puna Alta Darwin discovered conglomerate rocks in the cliffs, and in these rocks he found fossilized shells as well as the teeth and bones of large extinct mammals. Darwin inferred that these fossils were deposited in gentle tidal environments, rather than being deposited by a great catastrophe. He carried many of these fossils back onto the ship, much to the amusement of his fellow crew, who called them “the cargoes of apparent rubbish which he frequently brought on board.” While there Darwin also collected many fossils of giant ground sloths, small rodents, and the armored glyptodonts.

A caricature of the happenings on board the HMS Beagle as Darwin brought more fossils with him. Image from WikimediaCommons.

A caricature of the happenings on board the HMS Beagle as Darwin brought more fossils with him. Image from WikimediaCommons.

They continued onward and reached Tierra del Fuego in December of 1862. Darwin was taken aback by the natives of the Yaghan tribe, believing them to be crude and savage. He described them in his journal as “without exception the most curious and interesting spectacle I ever beheld: I could not have believed how wide was the difference between savage and civilised man: it is greater than between a wild and domesticated animal, inasmuch as in man there is a greater power of improvement.” Darwin would later recall these thoughts as he wrote The Descent of Man, arguing that not only had humans themselves risen from a lesser form, but civilized society as well.

One of the natives Darwin encountered. Image from WikimediaCommons.

One of the natives Darwin encountered. Image from WikimediaCommons.

The Beagle continued its journey south around the tip of South America, and up the west coast of the continent. Darwin fell sick on his return from visiting the mountains in Chile and was bedridden for a month. The Beagle and her crew waited for Darwin, and when he was well enough to travel again they sailed up toward toward the port city of Valdivia in Chile, and while onshore Darwin experienced a large (estimated magnitude of 8.2) earthquake. They sailed north up the coast to the town of Concepción and noted the city was in ruins, including the great cathedral, from both the shaking of the quake itself and the resulting tsunami. Darwin and captain FitzRoy noted that the mussel beds were now far above high tide line, and that the ground had risen nearly 3 meters. Darwin had been preset for the very process of continental crust rising from the ocean, just as Lyell had described. Darwin noted this, and on a later trek into the Andes he found fossilized seashells in the strata and described it as “like watching a thunderstorm, or hearing in the full Orchestra a Chorus of the Messiah.”

Remains of the Cathedral of Concepción. Image from WikimediaCommons.

Remains of the Cathedral of Concepción. Image from WikimediaCommons.

In September of 1835 the HMS Beagle reached the Galápagos Islands, where Darwin eagerly explored the geology, flora, and fauna of the volcanic archipelago. He learned from locals that the tortoises of the different islands, while closely related, all differed in shell shape from island to island. His own observations were that the mockingbirds, while similar, also differed from island to island. He tirelessly collected birds, reptiles, insects, and plants from the islands. Darwin took many detailed notes on the flora and fauna, which he would reflect back on during his voyage home and while in England. Little did he know at the time, but he had already made his greatest discovery, and he only needed to put the pieces together.

The tortoise shells varied from island to island. Image source.

The tortoise shells varied from island to island. Image source.

The HMS Beagle left the Galápagos and sailed on toward Australia and New Zealand, investigating coral atolls along the way to understand how coral reefs formed, specifically whether they rose from the bottom of the ocean or instead from the tops of undersea, extinct volcanoes. They eventually arrived in Cape Town, and Darwin was able to meet with John Herschel, who praised Lyell’s Principles of Geology, writing that it was “a complete revolution in [its] subject, by altering entirely the point of view in which it must thenceforward be contemplated,” and boldly speculated “that mystery of mysteries, the replacement of extinct species by others.” This meeting with Herschel also greatly influenced Darwin, and aided in his thoughts he was already gathering from his years studying while aboard the Beagle. Darwin recollected about the mockingbirds he saw while in the Galapagos and wrote in his journal,

“These birds are closely allied in appearance to the Thenca of Chile or Callandra of la Plata. … In each Isld. each kind is exclusively found: habits of all are indistinguishable. When I recollect, the fact that the form of the body, shape of scales & general size, the Spaniards can at once pronounce, from which Island any Tortoise may have been brought. When I see these Islands in sight of each other, & [but del.] possessed of but a scanty stock of animals, tenanted by these birds, but slightly differing in structure & filling the same place in Nature, I must suspect they are only varieties. The only fact of a similar kind of which I am aware, is the constant asserted difference — between the wolf-like Fox of East & West Falkland Islds. If there is the slightest foundation for these remarks the zoology of Archipelagoes — will be well worth examining; for such facts [would inserted] undermine the stability of Species.”

Darwin had inserted the word ‘would’ into this journal entry, showing he had some hesitation and doubts about species changing through time. This would appear as a common theme for much of his life, and subsequently it would take decades before Darwin would go on to publish On the Origin of Species.

The Beagle left Cape Town and slowly made its way back to England, giving Darwin plenty of time to ponder his notes and collect his thoughts. After over 5 years away, he finally returned home to a new found celebrity status, having become well-known for his notes he’d sent home over the years. While it would be some time before Darwin published his greatest idea, the seeds of the theory were already planted in his mind.

Check our next post to read about his inception of evolutionary theory!

Further Reading:

Browne, Janet; Neve, Michael (1989), “Introduction”, in Darwin, Charles, Voyage of the Beagle: Charles Darwin’s Journal of researches, London: Penguin Books, ISBN 0-14-043268-X

Keynes, Richard (2001), Charles Darwin’s Beagle Diary, Cambridge University Press, retrieved 2009-01-27

Darwin Correspondence Project – Letter 106 — Peacock, George to Darwin, C. R., (26? Aug 1831)”. Retrieved 2009-01-28.

Herbert, Sandra (1991), “Charles Darwin as a prospective geological author”, British Journal for the History of Science (24), pp. 159–192, retrieved 2009-01-29

Desmond, Adrian; Moore, James (1991), Darwin, London: Michael Joseph, Penguin Group, ISBN 0-7181-3430-3

Grant, K. Thalia and Estes, Gregory B. “Darwin in Galapagos: Footsteps to a New World.” 2009. Princeton University Press.

Gould, John (1839), Darwin, C. R., ed., Birds Part 3 No. 4, The zoology of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle, London: Smith Elder and Co., retrieved 2009-04-18

Keynes, Richard (2000), Charles Darwin’s zoology notes & specimen lists from H.M.S. Beagle., Cambridge University Press, retrieved 2009-01-27

van Wyhe, John (27 March 2007), “Mind the gap: Did Darwin avoid publishing his theory for many years?”, Notes and Records of the Royal Society 61: 177–205, doi:10.1098/rsnr.2006.0171, retrieved 2009-02-02

Darwin, Charles (1845), Journal of Researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world, under the Command of Capt. Fitz Roy, R.N. 2d edition, London: John Murray

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