The Voyage of the Beagle – Antecedents

 

In 1831, Charles Darwin was earning a lack-luster degree from Cambridge University and setting his sights on becoming a clergyman of the Church of England.  He was not enthused by the prospect, but he stood a good chance of getting a rural parish.  This would allow him to indulge his passion for natural history on the side, as had many rural clergymen for whom a career with the Church was more means than end.  Not that Charles was in the least insincere.  His father, Dr. Robert Darwin, having concluded that medicine was not for Charles, allowed him to leave Edinburgh University without a degree (as had his older brother, Erasmus) and enroll at Cambridge University to study the classics in preparation for a profession in the Church.  This had long been a fall back position for gentlemen in need of a respectable profession.  Before accepting his father’s offer, Charles considered carefully his ability to pledge himself to uphold the finer points of Church doctrine.  After much reading and thinking on the question, Charles decided that he could do it:  “… as I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible, I soon persuaded myself that our Creed must be fully accepted.” (from his Recollections).  And so he went up to Cambridge. 

 

Charles at Cambridge

 

His brother had preceded Charles to Cambridge and had told him about Professor John Stevens Henslow as a man who knew every branch of science.  His cousin and close friend, William Darwin Fox, a fellow beetle enthusiast, also went to Cambridge and soon got Charles an invitation to the regular Friday evening gatherings of students and faculty at Professor Henslow’s home to explore common interests in the natural world.  Something about Charles made him stand out enough for Henslow to take him under his academic and personal wing.  More than mentor and student, Henslow and Charles became field trip companions and soon very good friends.  In early 1831, after Charles had effectively completed his course work but still had to reside on campus for another two terms to fulfill degree requirements, Henslow encouraged Charles to take up geology under the tutelage of the revered Professor Adam Sedgwick.  Again the relationship became close.  Sedgwick invited Charles to accompany him during the summer on a geological transect of North Wales.  He taught Charles the intimate details of how geologizing was then done.  Charles loved the vigorous hiking across the landscape, observing and collecting samples with his new geological hammer, and putting the pieces of evidence together in a coherent map and understanding of the geology of the area.  Still, he was anxious to get back home in time for the start of the fall partridge hunting.  The start of his career with the Church could wait another few months.

 

FitzRoy Plans the Beagle’s Return to South America

 

Also in 1831, Robert FitzRoy was planning a second voyage in command of HMS Beagle to map the coasts of the “southern cone” of South America.  FitzRoy was in his early twenties but already an accomplished naval officer when he joined the earlier expedition at its midpoint.  The Beagle had sailed with HMS Adventure under the overall command of Phillip Parker King.  The expedition returned to England in 1830 with much work left to be done.  A second expedition was needed, but King decided to retire and live in Australia, so command of the second voyage fell to young FitzRoy with only the Beagle sailing this time. 

 

Their coastal mapping mission was motivated by the opening in the 1820s of the newly independent South American colonies for commercial relations with countries other than Spain and Portugal.  To facilitate trade by commercial shipping, and its ability to protect this trade, the Royal Navy needed more consistently accurate and detailed charts of the South American coasts and adjacent waters.  The expedition also was of vital strategic importance to learn more about these countries in general, especially their people and natural resources as producers of commodities to feed the growing demand of Britain’s industrial revolution.  Scientific exploration served national interests, and military careers in the poorly known regions of the early nineteenth century world not only permitted but even encouraged interest in natural history, from which knowledge of natural resources was likely to come.

 

In Need of “Some Well-Educated and Scientific Person” 

 

FitzRoy was given command of the Beagle quite suddenly on location in South American waters when her captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide.  The incident and his own experience of command heightened FitzRoy’s concern about the pressures and loneliness of command at sea, especially given his particular vulnerability to bouts of despair. This time he wanted a gentleman companion to share his cabin and meals, to dispel the loneliness and distract him from the relentless pace of work he was inclined to set for himself.  He asked a friend, who declined.  FitzRoy therefore asked Captain Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer to the British Admiralty (and inventor of the Beaufort Scale for describing wind force) to help him find a suitable gentleman.  It was appropriate that he ask Beaufort, as he was the technical supervisor of the expedition and was engaged in writing FitzRoy’s “terms of reference” (as we today would call his memorandum describing in detail the mapping and other assignments for the second voyage).  In FitzRoy’s own words, he “proposed to the Hydrographer 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 opportunity of visiting distant countries yet little known.”

 

When FitzRoy requested a “gentleman,” he was not asking for just any well-mannered sort of fellow but a person of particular social status and outlook compatible with his own – a man of his own class with whom he could deign to associate as an equal.  Actually, FitzRoy was an aristocrat descended from Charles II, but he would find a “gentleman” of some wealth, education, and refinement quite acceptable.  Beaufort contacted Professor Peacock of Cambridge University, and the old school network was activated.  Peacock contacted his friend, Professor Henslow, who was sorely tempted to take the position himself, except for the forlorn expressions of his wife and young children.  Henslow extended the invitation to Charles Darwin, as a very capable, if “unfinished” naturalist. After some famous hesitation, Charles accepted to go to London immediately to meet FitzRoy, to see if both could stand the idea of spending years together in the intimate quarters of a ship at sea.  After some equally famous hesitation by FitzRoy regarding the shape of Charles’s nose (phrenology, or study of the shape of face and head, was seriously considered by many educated people of that time), the two decided they liked each other and sealed the bargain, with the understanding that Charles (rather, his father) would pay all his own costs and would be designated the Captain’s personal guest, with liberty to leave the voyage at any port of call, to return by another ship to England.  FitzRoy was concerned from the start about the staying power of any companion he invited along.

 

Bonds of Friendship, Adventure and Ambition

 

During preparation of the Beagle in the autumn of 1831, these two young men, Robert FitzRoy, 26, and Charles Darwin, 22, quickly became friends, united by the excitement of high adventure to come.   Just imagine the anticipation of Charles as FitzRoy and his crew figuratively and literally showed him the ropes, helping him buy the right equipment and stow his gear in the tight spaces of the tiny cabin, even demonstrating how to hang his sleeping hammock and get into it without being thrown to the deck!  Charles was not the only landlubber guest of FitzRoy who must have amused the Beagle crew.  In addition to the complement of 65 crew, FitzRoy brought along nine “supernumaries,” counting Charles.  The others included a “draughtsman,” Augustus Earle, to record the voyage in paintings as well as, I presume, to make good-looking maps from the charts created by FitzRoy and his officers.  And an “instrument maker,” George Stebbing, to tend the 22 finest chronometers ever carried around the world, for FitzRoy to measure “meridian distances” that would greatly improve accuracy of locating major geographic features of the earth by longitude, still a relatively new method (this task was the primary motive for circumnavigating the globe once the work of surveying the South American coasts was completed).  And Richard Matthews, a missionary, and three Fuegians FitzRoy had brought back to England from the first expedition and educated at his own expense; Matthews and the Fuegians were to establish a mission at the bottom of the world, the vanguard of Christianity in Tierra del Fuego.  Plus FitzRoy had his own steward, and Charles had his own servant, especially to assist in his collecting and preserving of specimens. 

 

Excepting Charles and his servant, all these supernumaries and more were at FitzRoy’s personal expense.  To our modern ears, it seems quite remarkable that a military expedition would include the personal projects of its leader and mix public and personal funding of the diverse endeavors.  But this was typical for the time.  Such expeditions were usually led by wealthy, upper-class men who often had ambitious agendas of their own, compatibly mixed with service to the Crown. 

 

Adding to the bond forged between adventure travelers, FitzRoy and Charles shared a common ambition to use the opportunity of the voyage to establish themselves as experts in their respective professional fields and thereby launch their careers and secure their positions in English society.  An expedition to unknown lands, discovery of new knowledge, and the subsequent reports of the findings had established the reputations and positions of many young Englishmen prior to the second expedition of the Beagle.  Therefore, both FitzRoy and Charles could clearly see the future rewards of literally staying the course, of persisting through the long years of privation, hardship, danger, homesickness, hard work, and boring weeks at sea.  The burden was relieved, no doubt, by their sharing the resolve to see it through.  FitzRoy had the added incentive of being under Admiralty orders.  For Charles, completing the voyage was optional; on the other hand, he was motivated by intense desire to prove himself in some important way – especially to his family, it seems.  Plus, he was passionately committed to the work, and he knew how FitzRoy and Henslow and Sedgwick and many others in scientific English society thought it so exciting and important.  He had a respectable profession, at last.

 

.  .  .

 

I have based the foregoing on three books.  Charles’s Recollections, introduced in my previous posting, devotes only eight pages to the period of the voyage, mainly adding some personal information about his relationship with FitzRoy and events leading up to the sailing of the Beagle on December 27, 1831.  Charles’s public account of the voyage, drawn from his daily journal, was first published with FitzRoy’s account in 1839, and later in the same year as a stand-alone book entitled Journal of Researches into the Geology and Natural History of the Various Countries Visited by H.M.S. Beagle, under the Command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N. from 1832 to 1836.  This book of travels was a surprising publication success; several editions were published with variations of the title and translations into several languages.  It continues to be widely read today.  Charles admitted in his Recollections that “The success of this my first literary child always tickles my vanity more than that of any of my other books.”

 

The version I have read carefully is the Penguin Classics book, Voyage of the Beagle, published in 1989 – this is the first (1839) edition of Journal of Researches edited and abridged by Janet Browne and Michael Neve.  “Abridged” means that Browne and Neve reduced the length of the original first edition by removing whole sections they deemed of less interest, without touching the remaining sections, shortening the whole by about one third.  I admit to being grateful for the abridgment.  Charles wrote well, often with vivid imagery and lively spirit, but his was still an early 19th century literary style.  I love Jane Austen, but Charles was not that good, and often it is a slog to follow his prose.  Moreover, I find his rather long geological digressions on the landscapes he traveled through quite tedious, and I am just not interested in his minute invertebrates (there is one memorable passage (p. 191) about zoophytes in the seas around the Falkland Islands which left me totaled puzzled after several readings).  The scientific expedition narratives of the time served the dual purpose of entertaining the generalist readers as well as informing the experts looking for information new to their specialty, creating in an uneven reading experience. 

 

I preferred reading the first edition, rather than the 1845 second edition, for which Charles “took much pains in correcting” the first edition, possibly obscuring what he was thinking or not thinking during or shortly after the voyage.  For example, I understand (and plan to verify) that he made more of the Galapagos observations in the second edition than in the first, overlaying his later interpretations on the raw observations and initial reactions during his visit to the archipelago in Sept-Oct 1835.

 

Browne and Neve do the reader a very great favor in their 26 pages of introduction.  Seldom have I found an introduction more enlightening and useful.  I am indebted to them for most of what I have written above about the historical context of the Beagle expedition and the background on Robert FitzRoy.  I highly recommend this introduction as an important document in itself. 

 

Browne and Neve very usefully attach two appendices:  “Admiralty Instructions for the Beagle Voyage” which includes Beaufort’s memorandum of detailed assignments for FitzRoy, and “Remarks with Reference to the Deluge” written by Robert FitzRoy himself as a counter to Darwin’s geological interpretations of what the two men saw together in distant lands.  Both of these pieces first were published in the second volume of FitzRoy’s Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of HMS Adventure and Beagle (1839).  Charles’s Journal of Researches first appeared as the third volume of FitzRoy’s Narrative.  I drew insights from the “Admiralty Instructions” in writing this post and the next.  FitzRoy was given a daunting set of surveying and other tasks, and his faithfulness to the instructions accounts for the length of the voyage extending from the original (and unrealistic) projection of two years to almost five years.

 

The third book is the Darwin and the Beagle by Alan Moorehead, published by Harper & Row in 1969.  This is the first book I read about Darwin himself (rather than his theory and its impacts).  I was a young graduate ecology student at the time.  Moorehead’s book tells the story of Charles and the Beagle experience so well, and so beautifully illustrated with contemporary paintings and sketches of the places, people and creatures, that it awakened in me a longing to travel the world, seeing it as an ecologist, especially the tropics.  I was the same age as Charles when he boarded the Beagle, and I identified with his youthful desire to see what he had only read about in books and his ambition to contribute something new to science.  I hoped that I, too, would gain wonderful insights from experiencing new natural worlds.  I highly recommend Moorehead’s book even today as an easy and compelling way to travel vicariously with Charles on his famous voyage.

 

However, in re-reading this book recently, I was reminded of the ever-so-subtle way an author, whether Moorehead or any other (including me), can create impressions that distort historical facts, without conscious intention to deceive or obscure.  Moorehead highlights a bit too much the intellectual conflict between Darwin and FitzRoy, during the voyage itself, regarding interpretation of geological observations.  He creates an impression of confrontation between the enlightened scientist just looking at the facts and the fundamentalist Christian clinging doggedly to the literal truth of the Biblical account.  As in most books about Darwin and evolution, Moorehead approaches his task with unspoken celebration of the triumph of the modern mind, as science defeats religion, as reason overcomes ignorant tradition, as light dispels the darkness.  Browne and Neve, in their introduction, paint a more complex and interesting portrait of the relationship between Charles and FitzRoy during the voyage.  No doubt they engaged in running debate as they tried together to make sense of what they encountered along the way (reflected by FitzRoy’s “Remarks”), but it seems to have been a friendly exchange between mutually respectful and relatively open minds that only later fully settled on diametrically opposing interpretations of fact.  During the voyage, they had some famous arguments, such as about the benefits of slavery in Brazil, reflecting their different political upbringings.  But it is doubtful that either grew furious with the other over their interpretations of the history of South American landscapes, much less the origin of species. 

 

In this posting, I have dwelled mostly on antecedents to the voyage of the Beagle.  In my next posting, I will summarize what I have learned about the events of the voyage itself.

 

Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (www.darwinwatch.wordpress.com)

 

 

 

 

 

 

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This blog by Chris Dunford explores the meaning of Charles Darwin's life, work and words in relation to the Science-Religion Debate. It is committed to intellectual honesty and historical perspective. Please click on the "Why this Blog" tab under the banner photo to learn more. Started in July 2008, this has been a very slow work-in-progress. Be patient with me and check in occasionally, if only to enjoy the banner photo!

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