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The Voyage of the Beagle – Species and Change

When the Beagle expedition set sail in 1831, the great majority of English natural philosophers believed that each species of plant, animal, even microorganism was a unique and direct result of divine creation.  Given the unknowable purpose of the Creator, a human person could not predict what sorts of creatures would be found as the European explorers fanned out across the earth.  Certainly the outrageous variety of the planet’s creatures seemed consistent with such divine unpredictability.  For Charles Darwin, there was no counterpart of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology for the living world, to explain this living material in terms of material causes.  He had instead William Paley’s books, particularly Natural Theology (or Evidence of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity, collected from the appearances of nature), which were so widely accepted as conventional wisdom in English society as to be an essential element of Cambridge University education (I will review Natural Theology in a later post).  Charles took uncharacteristic interest in Paley’s books, no doubt because they spoke to his passion for natural history.  His Cambridge mentor, Professor John Stevens Henslow, and the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, wholeheartedly embraced Paley’s explanations in terms of direct divine creation of each species.  According to Alan Moorehead’s account in Darwin and the Beagle (page 37), FitzRoy urged a very willing Darwin to use the voyage as a grand opportunity to substantiate the Bible, particularly the book of Genesis – looking for evidence of the Flood and the first appearance of all created things upon the earth – performing a valuable service by interpreting their scientific discoveries in the light of the Bible.


Linnaeus and the Collecting Imperative


Divine creation gave supreme importance to species as distinct entities presumed to be unchanged since their creation, much as the physical world was assumed to be now as it always was.  The great project for naturalists was to discover, describe, and catalogue these species, as a testament to the work of God.  Carl Linnaeus, of Sweden, less than a century before, had gathered the existing catalogues of species into a rational system of classification that serves us still.  The Linnaean system groups species into larger categories of similar organisms – genus, family, order, class, phylum, and kingdom.  It is significant that this systematic grouping subtly contradicts the notion of divine unpredictability by its implicit acknowledgment of relatedness among species.  Relatedness implies kinship, which means descent from a common ancestor.  The Linnaean system is built from a platonic notion of the species as a divinely created archetype, which is manifested in the real world as living creatures with some imperfect variation from the perfect archetype.  The archetypes bear no necessary relationship to one another, other than all being created by the same Creator.  However, the relatedness embedded in this classification system invites us to associate the species idea with individual humans related by descent from a common ancestor or with breeds of domestic plants and animals that can be traced back to common ancestors in the wild.  It is only a small step from Linnaeus to a notion of new species developing from existing species rather than directly from God. 


The Linnaean system of classification energized those with a natural bent for collecting, because his system gave a unique name to each existing species and established rules for naming and describing newly discovered species (and for giving recognition in perpetuity to the first person to do so for each new species!).  Linnaeus established the rules of a game many people were eager to play, including Charles Darwin and also Captain FitzRoy and a few other members of the Beagle crew.  They were schooled in the techniques for preserving specimens of species for description and naming and storage for posterity by expert curators of the British Museum or university museums or private collections.  A scientific voyage like the Beagle’s was expected to bring back to England a rich trove of specimens of species from across the full range of life on earth.


Charles’ shooting skill and physical fitness served this collecting imperative very well.  He also had lots of help from his servant, Sims Covington, and others of the crew or local people hired to guide his travels inland.  The collectors’ determination is exemplified in a passage of Charles’ Journal of Researches about his foray into the Brazilian rainforest near Rio de Janeiro.  One of his party shot a howler monkey dead as its prehensile tail was wrapped tight around a limb high in one of the taller forest trees.  The poor monkey’s body hung by its tail, frozen in a death grip on the tree limb.  Not to be so easily thwarted, they felled the enormous tree with their machetes, just to secure the prize specimen.  After a couple of years of avid pursuit of such specimens, ranging from the minute to the enormous, Charles found his geological hammer more in keeping with his focus on geology than his guns, which he handed over to Covington for the work of shooting birds, mammals, and other fast-moving creatures.


The Argentine Fossils — Species Replacing Other Species Over Time


On the low bluffs of the seashore and river banks of Argentina, Charles made discoveries that straddled his interests in geology and biology.  In the deeper layers of ancient sediment, Charles found the fossil remains of giant mammals vanished from the earth thousands of years before – they were not unlike the present-day sloths, armadillos, and guanaco, but much more massive.  Other fossilized remains resembled elephants and hippopotamus, which no longer live in the Americas.  He even found a fossil horse, showing that horses once roamed these plains and then became extinct long before horses were reintroduced to the New World by the Spanish. 


Extinction poses a problem for understanding divine creation of species.  Why would a species created by God be so imperfect as to go extinct?  Captain FitzRoy and others had answers in keeping with the Biblical story – for example, some species just did not make it onto Noah’s Ark in time, the larger species being the harder to accommodate.  If their answers seem forced, it is because they had to acknowledge somehow the fossil evidence of extinction; a rich assortment of fossils of now extinct animals and plants had been known for decades in Europe.  These fossil giants of Argentina added some spectacular new evidence, but they were significant mainly as direct personal confirmation for Charles that the species we see here and now are not all the same as the ones we would have seen thousands of years before in this same location.  Fauna and flora, like the geology, change over time.


The layer or stratum in which each fossilized animal is embedded tells a story of the environment of that animal in its own time, and Charles figured from the fossil-bearing strata that climate and vegetation then were similar to the present.  Therefore, the extinction could not be explained by catastrophic or even gradual geological or climate change.  Charles thought at first that species, like individuals, might have “a fixed and determined length of life” beyond which they would lose their vigor and go extinct.  Even if this were true (which it is not), Charles found it curious indeed that the giant mammals had been replaced over time by similar species, but almost all of much smaller stature.


Two Rheas — One Replaced the Other as Charles Traveled South


Charles devoted long passages of his Journal of Researches to description of the animals he encountered, often drawing from reports of local people and his own observations of their behavior and ecology.  One animal he was particularly taken with was the “ostrich” (now called the rhea) of South America.  Actually, there were two species, one of which was later named darwinii after Charles himself, from a specimen he pieced together from the remains of a bird his party had shot for food and mostly eaten by the time Charles realized this was the rarer species reported by his guacho companions.  Most interesting to Charles was that the common rhea of the pampas gave way to Darwin’s rhea in Patagonia, the dividing line being around the Rio Negro at 41º South – one rhea species rather abruptly replacing the other going south, yet the landscape and ecology changed only very gradually.  


Isolated Archipelagos — No Fear Where No Man Has Been 


First in the Falkland Islands and much later in the Galapagos, Charles was amazed by the tameness of the land birds of these islands – that is, the birds were unafraid of people, allowing themselves to be approached closely and even touched (or killed with a stick).  He noted that “of the few archipelagoes of any size, which when discovered were uninhabited by man, these two are among the most important.”  He also noted that “Few young birds in England have been injured by man, yet all are afraid of him: many individuals, on the other hand, both at the Galapagos and at the Falklands, have been injured, but yet have not learned that salutary dread.”  Charles concluded that fear of humans is a particular instinct directed at humans, not just part of a general caution arising from other sources of danger.  He also concluded that fear of humans “is not acquired by them in a short time, even when much persecuted; but that in the course of successive generations it becomes hereditary.  With domestic animals we are accustomed to see instincts becoming hereditary; but with those in a state of nature, it is more rare to discover instances of such acquired knowledge.”  It seems to me this remarkable passage gets insufficient notice in works on Darwin’s development of the theory of evolution.  Yet here already is a sound understanding of change within a wild species due to a new challenge in the environment of the species, much like the change brought about by selective breeding of domestic animals for various physical and behavioral traits.


Islands and Mainlands and the Species Problem



The Galapagos Islands are more associated in the public mind with Charles Darwin and the voyage of the Beagle than any other stopover of the five-year expedition, yet the Beagle spent barely more than a month exploring this archipelago and might have skipped the islands altogether in the crew’s eagerness to return home.  This distorted perception reflects the uniqueness of the Galapagos and its fauna and Darwin’s own recognition that this fauna and its distribution among the numerous islands triggered a line of thinking that led to his theory of evolution by natural selection.  However, the Galapagos stopover also came toward the end of the voyage, and after maturation of Charles’s conviction of the correctness of Charles Lyell’s worldview in which change is gradual and relentless over long periods of time, allowing highly improbable events to become commonplace, like the lifting up of the ocean floor to become the high Andes.  He had read about the Galapagos and was eager to see these volcanic islands where raw, new land was almost at its moment of birth and certainly in its early infancy.  Here he could see life just getting established.  What he saw was a fauna and flora composed of only a few species, unique to these islands but clearly related to the fauna and flora of South America, filtered by ability to cross 600 miles of ocean. 


In short, the creation of species seemed to be derivative from what was already available nearby, rather than de novo.  Though he did not mention it in his Journal of Researches, Charles must have noticed that the land animals of the Galapagos were quite different from those of the Cape Verde Islands, which are very similar in being volcanic, arising from beneath the sea, about 600 miles from the nearest continent (Africa), and quite arid though tropical.  The fauna of each archipelago is closely related to that of the nearby continent and very different from the other archipelago, a third of the way around the world.  One would think direct divine creation would be free to generate on both archipelagos the same, or very similar, species well adapted to tropical, arid, oceanic island environments. 


Charles admitted in his Journal of Researches that he was slow to realize how much variation existed between closely related species on different islands of the Galapagos archipelago – “it never occurred to me, that the productions of islands only a few miles apart, and placed under the same physical conditions, would be dissimilar.”  He was alerted by a claim by the vice-governor of the islands that he could ascertain the island of origin of each of the famous tortoises just by the shape of the shell.  Charles himself could distinguish three species of mockingbird.  He found mockingbirds on some islands but not on other similar islands, and each of the islands with mockingbirds had only one species.  This was a pattern of distribution consistent with a mockingbird species arriving by chance from South America and landing on one island, from which subsequent generations managed to reach a few other islands and then changed over time in isolation on those other islands.  Charles did not state this conclusion explicitly in his Journal, because he was barely aware of the pattern when he was in the Galapagos.  He missed the pattern entirely among the thirteen species of finches, because he “did not attempt to make a series of specimens from the separate islands.”  He was not even aware that the variation among the finches was enough to constitute separate species until he returned to England and had his collection analyzed by John Gould.


When the Beagle departed the Galapagos Islands, Charles had in hand and in mind the important pieces of the “species problem” that challenged the notion of direct divine creation of species that remain unchanged thereafter.  Certainly he and FitzRoy debated this problem as they puzzled over the evidence in the tiny captain’s cabin, making Charles very aware of how controversial it would be to follow his line of thinking about “mutability” of species to its logical conclusions.  However much his thinking had been set in motion, Charles did not admit in his Journal of Researches to evolutionary conclusions during the voyage itself.


The Thin Skin of Civilization — the Fuegian Experiment


This account of Charles’s observations about species and change during the voyage of the Beagle would be incomplete without mention of his observations about the people he encountered.  Most important were the three Fuegians, a mature man and two adolescents, a boy and a girl, whom FitzRoy had taken back to England from his first voyage to Tierra del Fuego.  He had them schooled to take on the manners of civilization, dressing, talking and acting like proper gentle folk, sufficient to present the threesome at the Court of St. James, in fact, to the Queen herself.  At his personal expense, FitzRoy implemented a grand but naive experiment to return the three Fuegians with an English missionary to establish a foothold for Christianity at the southern extreme of the inhabited world, among a people easily considered among the most primitive in existence.  The crew of the Beagle, Charles included, became quite fond of the two adolescents, charmingly named Jemmy Button and Fuegia Basket.  Certainly all had high hopes when the Beagle put the Fuegians and the missionary ashore to establish an outpost of English civilization among the primitives.  The Beagle then sailed away for a few weeks of coastal surveying and returned to find a disaster. 


The “civilized” Fuegians had been quickly co-opted by the local primitives and reabsorbed into the local culture, such as it was.  The missionary himself was besieged and felt at risk to his life.  The Beagle rescued the missionary and sailed away again.  After about a year, the Beagle returned and found only Jemmy Button, who lived like a typical Fuegian savage.  He and his new wife came out to the ship in a Fuegian canoe and spent time with the crew, clearly retaining his ability to interact like an Englishman, with wistful affection for his former comrades.  However, Jemmy freely chose to remain with his primitive wife and his savage life.  For Charles, this deeply troubling experience must have been a profound lesson on the “mutability” of the human person and species, making the boundary separating the gentleman from the savage seem shockingly thin and porous.  And given the animal-like existence of the Fuegians, even the separation of the human from other animals must have seemed distressingly slight.  The very notion of the human being as a special creation in the image of God was challenged.


Tahiti and New Zealand — Darwin and FitzRoy on the Missionaries


Don’t assume from this incident that Charles’s confidence in the superiority of Christian civilization was shaken.  Our modern mentality might jump to a conclusion of cultural relativism, in which all cultures are of comparable value in their appropriate contexts.  But this was not the mentality of early 19th century England, which was filled with unashamed confidence in the superiority of its own culture.  We “moderns” would deride this mentality as arrogant, paternalistic and imperialistic; however, before settling on this condemnation, we should read with an open mind Charles’s account of the expedition’s stopover in Tahiti.  He was very taken with beauty of the island and its people and of their way of life, including their rather sophisticated culture.  He was equally impressed by the impact of the English missionaries on the culture.  He makes a convincing case that introduction of Christianity by these missionaries actually changed the Tahitian mindset and way of life and thereby provided very real benefits for the average Tahitian, especially by eliminating truly savage practices which had been current only a few years before.


In contrast, Charles found the native culture of New Zealand repugnant, despite the same Polynesian roots as Tahiti.  Even worse, in his view, were the newly arrived English colonists.  Thus, Charles was not simply tilting toward his own kind; rather, he was holding all to a higher standard of behavior and civilization, a Christian standard.  This he made clear in his account of his visit to Waimate, a missionary-led agricultural community, where he found young Maoris quite transformed for the better by their adoption of the Christian standard.  Charles and FitzRoy were of one mind on this topic.  In fact, the two friends published a joint article (the first publication for both of them) on the success of the missionaries at Tahiti and at Waimate, New Zealand.  The editors of the Penguin Books edition of the Journal of Researches, Janet Browne and Michael Neve, make an important observation (page 25) that “it seems very probable that  Darwin’s views were shaped as much by his close relationship with FitzRoy as they were by his enthusiasm for Lyell or his own private love-affair with nature.” Charles’s correspondence from the Beagle “indicates a frank, cheerful trust in each other animated by a marked community of tastes and boyish camaraderie” which were fostered by “… long discussions, dangerous journeys, dust, dirt and shared enthusiasms …”


Australia — “one Hand has surely worked throughout the Universe” 


Finally, I’ll mention Charles’s impressions of Australia, founded as a British colony only 48 years before the Beagle’s visit in early 1836.  He was duly impressed by the uniqueness of the Australian fauna, especially the dominance of marsupial mammals.  But he argued from his observation of an ant-lion capturing insects in its unique conical pitfall trap, just as its sister species would in Europe, to reject the notion this mostly different fauna might be proof that two Creators were at work, one in Australia, the other elsewhere – “one Hand has surely worked throughout the Universe.” 


Charles noted the remarkable development of the economy and culture of British Australia.  Returning from his first walk around Sydney, Charles was “full of admiration at the whole scene.  It is a most magnificent testimony to the power of the British nation.  Here, in a less promising country, scores of years have effected many times more, than the same number of centuries have done in South America.  My first feeling was to congratulate myself that I was born an Englishman.” 


As he came to know Australia better, however, Charles was disappointed in the state of society, its focus on acquiring wealth, its treatment of the aborigines and the convict servants, and its low interest in intellectual pursuits.  He decided he could never willingly follow the many other Englishmen emigrating to Australia.  His parting comment was “Farewell, Australia! you are a rising infant and doubtless someday will reign a great princess in the south: but you are too great and ambitious for affection, yet not great enough for respect.  I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.”  Rather harsh words!  Which Australia must have forgiven or forgotten as the new nation named the capital city and major port of its Northern Territory after Charles Darwin!


Charles on the Question of God — Answers from Nature, Society and Family Life


This post brings to conclusion my series of four posts reviewing Charles Darwin’s voyage of discovery with Captain Robert FitzRoy and the Beagle.  This was the most formative and influential event of Charles’s life.  Almost all that followed in his scientific and writing career built upon the relationships, events and observations I’ve tried to summarize for you.  What I will do from this point onward is review the post-voyage unfolding of Charles’s thinking and activities leading to his theory of evolution and his gradual abandonment of belief in the God of early 19th century English Christianity.  I will explore the possibility that the theory and the abandonment of belief were not necessarily cause and effect, as we all have come to assume.  My exploration will go as deeply as it can into Charles Darwin’s personality and family life and into the nature and origin of his society’s thinking about God.  My hypothesis is that these personal and social factors influenced Charles’s attitude toward God and religion at least as much as his observations of nature and Man and the theory he concocted to explain it all. 



Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (





The Voyage of the Beagle – Focus on Geology

I long associated Charles Darwin’s round-the-world voyage solely with biology and evolution of living creatures, but that focus came after his return to England.  Certainly, Charles spent a large portion of the five years observing, collecting, classifying, experimenting with, and speculating about the animals and plants he found.  This activity tapped his life-long passion for observing and collecting from the natural world.  As he matured into a would-be naturalist under the guidance of Professor Henslow and others, Charles turned passion into profession.  As a naturalist, however, Charles was also interested in the inanimate components of nature, especially the fascinating variety of rocks and landscapes and climates.  It was typical of naturalists of his time to be interested in everything, looking at the whole even as they collected and described its parts.  The more sophisticated naturalists were natural historians and philosophers, speculating continually on the who, what, when, where, how and why of the natural scenes their educated curiosity drove them to investigate.


Putting Lyell to the Test in South America


Just in the few months before the voyage of the Beagle, Charles was introduced to the emerging science of geology by Professor Adam Sedgwick of Cambridge University.   In the three centuries before the 1830s, natural philosophy had advanced toward what we think of as scientific method and evidence-based theory, first in astronomy and physics, then chemistry.  Charles did not feel capable of mastering the mathematics needed to fully participate in these scientific specialties, but he appreciated their power to explain the material world in material terms – focusing on proximate causes that a person can directly or vicariously appreciate with the body’s senses, rather than on ultimate causes beyond human comprehension.  Charles joined his older brother, Erasmus, in doing chemical experiments in a shed near his house, often generating obnoxious fumes that earned Charles the nickname “Gas” among his schoolmates.  He learned what it means to experiment and to predict the outcome from prior experience and to be open to the possibility of surprises that force revision of future predictions.  Charles also saw how much sophisticated scientists and their useful knowledge were admired by well-educated men and women of social standing.  Esteem could be achieved by a career in such science, and geology was just then transforming into such science, and Sedgwick made the practice of this science accessible to Charles. 


Armed with the first volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Charles realized during the first landing of the voyage, in the Cape Verde Islands, his opportunity to become an esteemed contributor to the emergence of scientific geology.  The distinctly different layers of rock, lying one upon another, presumably in the same sequence in which each was deposited, told a geological history of the island of São Tiago. 


Mainstream thinking of the time, conforming to the Biblical story, maintained that the land was stable in the forms originally created and only the level of the sea had risen and fallen over time; the time periods allowed for inundation were relatively short and few.  Lyell (building on the work and words of others, of course) proposed that the land itself had been transformed over time by the same geological processes experienced in the present age – erosion and deposition, volcanic eruptions, and earthquakes.  Moreover, whole blocks of land the size of islands and countries and even continents could rise and fall relative to each other and the level of the oceans.  Lyell proposed cycles of erosion of rocks of varying chemical composition, deposition by water and wind of the eroded rock and organic material in lakes and shallow seas, transformation of these deposits into new types of rock under the weight of overlaying deposits and water, perhaps followed by volcanic activity that spread layers of lava from deep in the earth over the earlier deposited layers, then all uplifted in a series of small events accompanied by earthquakes, until all that had been submerged in the sea now stands inches or feet or even miles above the current sea level.  Acknowledging that all this complex process must require substantial intervals of time, Lyell proposed that the earth was millions, not thousands of years old. 


Lyell’s proposed principles were like a dictionary enabling Charles to read the story of the rocks and the layers of São Tiago.  The story fit the facts in front of him together so well that he was “convinced of the infinite superiority of Lyell’s views over those advocated in any other work known to me” (from his Recollections).  This particularly excited Charles, because neither Lyell nor other British geologists had visited South America, giving ambitious Charles the opportunity to be the first to apply the principles to the landscapes he would soon see first hand.  He could test the explanatory power of Lyell’s principles– perhaps even refine and add to this grand theory of the earth. 


The Coasts of the Southern Cone — a Continent on the Move Upward


After four months on the coast of Brazil, based at Bahia and Rio de Janeiro, the Beagle expedition spent nearly two years (July 1832 to May 1834) working up and down the coast of Argentina, from Uruguay to Tierra del Fuego, with a couple of visits to the Falkland Islands.  Charles left the Beagle several times to make long-distance excursions inland.  All along the shore of the essentially unbroken Argentine and Patagonian plains, he found thick deposits of alluvium (shingle, gravel and mud) that looked very much like they had been carried by rivers and laid to rest in smooth layers underwater in the estuaries where these rivers met the South Atlantic.  Yet these smooth layers of alluvium now stood a few feet to several hundred feet above sea level.  Were they gradually uplifted from the sea, as Lyell would suggest, or had the sea suddenly risen at some point to flood these plains and then withdrawn?  The smoothness of the plains and the sea mollusk shells embedded fairly evenly and deeply in the alluvium gave evidence of gradual uplift from under the sea.  Charles also found that the marine species represented in these layers were quite similar to the species found living in the present estuaries, which indicated the uplift had been fairly recent.  Was it possible that the whole of this long coast was rising up from the sea?  This question made Charles eager to see the mountainous Chilean side of the “southern cone” of South America, hoping for further evidence that the whole of southern South America was rising.


From June 1834 to September 1835, the Beagle expedition worked up and down the coast of Chile and Peru.  The southern coast of Chile, from Chiloe Island to Tierra del Fuego, is an archipelago of mountainous islands.  The line of mountains continues northward and inland from the coast north of Chiloe Island, becoming the highest Andes.  When Charles hiked into the coastal hills of central Chile near Valparaiso, he looked out across low mountains and valleys intervening between the coast and the Andes.  The valleys were filled by fog, and the mountains protruded from the sea of fog like the mountain islands of the southern archipelago.  This image gave visual substance to Charles’s hypothesis that the flat valleys had been the bottoms of ancient inlets and deep bays like those farther to the south, later drained as they were uplifted above sea level.  What about the high cordillera of the Andes in the hazy distance? 


Evidence in the Andes


Charles twice ventured into the Andes from Valparaiso, the second time doing a complete traverse by one alpine pass to the Argentine side, then back to Chile by another pass north of the first.  At 13-14,000 feet elevation, he found fossil shells of marine mollusks! Around 7,000 feet, Charles made an even more remarkable discovery – a standing grove of tree trunks petrified in white silica and calcareous spar, emerging from volcanic sandstone that had once entombed the trunks and then eroded away to reveal them transformed to stone.  Though he had little trouble interpreting this scene, Charles was still astonished by his conclusion.  From his Journal of Researches, “I saw the spot where a cluster of fine trees had once waved their branches on the shores of the Atlantic, when that ocean (now driven back 700 miles) approached the base of the Andes.”  The evidence showed that the land with its upright trees had been “let down to the depths of the ocean,” covered by sediment, and this again by enormous streams of submarine lava, then more sediment followed by more lava, repeated five times.  All this was uplifted so that he “now beheld the bed of that sea forming a chain of mountains more than 7,000 feet in altitude.” “Vast, and scarcely comprehensible as such changes must ever appear, yet they have all occurred within a period recent when compared with the history of the Cordillera; and that Cordillera itself is modern as compared with some other of the fossiliferous strata of South America.”


Eruptions and the Earthquake


The Andes testify to both the violence and the speed of geological processes, though belied by long periods (in human terms) of apparent calm.  But Charles and the Beagle crew actually experienced the episodic violence that drives mountain building.  Between his two journeys into the Andes, Charles sailed south with the Beagle to survey Chiloe Island and the Chronos Archipelago during the Southern Hemisphere summer (still the weather was rough and tempestuous for weeks).  On the night of January 18, 1835, the volcano Osorno, a hundred miles inland, lit up the sky with a spectacular eruption.  They learned later that the volcanoes Aconcagua, 480 miles to the north, and Coseguina, another 2,700 miles farther north, had erupted on the same night.  Just four weeks later, while Charles and his servant, Sims Covington, were ashore near Valdivia, the area was struck by a massive earthquake.  “It came on suddenly, and lasted two minutes; but the time appeared much longer.  The rocking of the ground was most sensible…There was no difficulty in standing upright, but the motion made me giddy…Captain FitzRoy and the officers were at the town during the shock, and there the scene was more awful; for although the houses, being made from wood, did not fall, yet they were so violently shaken that the boards creaked and rattled.  The people rushed out of doors in the greatest alarm.”  Charles concluded that “the world, the very emblem of all that is solid, has moved beneath our feet like a crust over a fluid; one second of time has conveyed to the mind a strange idea of insecurity, which hours of reflection would never have created.”


Two days later the Beagle sailed into the harbor of Concepcion and found the city utterly destroyed by the earthquake.  The epicenter had been just offshore, and a massive tidal wave had swept the shoreline of structures, livestock and people.  Charles devoted several pages of his Journal of Researches to description of the devastation.  While lamenting the loss of life and property, Charles was also deeply interested in what the patterns of destruction told him about the movements of the earth and the ocean during the quake and its after-shocks.  “The most remarkable effect (or perhaps speaking more correctly, cause) of this earthquake was the permanent elevation of the land.”  FitzRoy’s detailed survey work before and after the quake provided “a mass of evidence in proof of such elevation, far more conclusive than that on which geologists on most other occasions placed implicit faith.”  They calculated that, since the previous massive earthquake of 1751, the land had risen four fathoms – 24 feet!  With enough time allowed, Charles had no problem understanding how the Andes had been lifted up.  The earthquake had been accompanied by simultaneous eruptions of a train of volcanoes in the Andes of central Chile.  Charles concluded that the earthquake and volcanic activity formed parts of one great phenomenon underlying an area onshore and offshore that measures 700 by 400 miles.  In line with Lyell’s theory, all the evidence pointed Charles toward the conclusion “that a vast lake of melted matter, of an area nearly doubling in extent that of the Black Sea, is spread out beneath a mere crust of solid land.”


Volcanic Islands and Coral Atolls — Rising from the Ocean and Under the Waves Again 


Later in 1835, the Beagle expedition left the coast of South America at last and set sail for home – westward across the vast Pacific Ocean.  The Galapagos Islands were the first stop en route.  The expedition spent a bit over one month surveying the islands; Charles and Covington and some others of the crew were put ashore for a few days on several of the many islands.  Charles knew beforehand that the islands were of recent volcanic origin, evidenced by the activity of volcanoes and the vast expanses of recent lava flows.  He could see for himself that the volcanically very active western islands are younger than the eastern islands, which are lower, more eroded, more vegetated, and showing no present-day volcanic activity.  He correctly concluded that these islands had all originated as subterranean volcanoes that built upward until they broke the ocean surface.  In addition to uplift from beneath the ocean, Charles also had opportunity to see evidence of subsidence – volcanic craters partially submerged to form crescent bays, like what is now named Darwin Bay on Tower Island (Isla Genovesa).  These observations no doubt encouraged Charles in his budding hypothesis about the origin of coral atolls, though he had only read about them up to this point.  The Galapagos waters are too cold for corals (despite being right on the Equator), but Charles saw many of these thin circles of low-lying land as the Beagle moved on through the Tuamotu (or Dangerous) Archipelago to Tahiti.


After stops in New Zealand and Australia, the Beagle made a detour to survey the Keeling or Cocos Islands, in the Indian Ocean southwest of Java in Indonesia.   The main island is a lagoon atoll of coral formation similar to the Tuamotu atolls.  The deep soundings of the survey work on the ocean side of the lagoon island verified that live corals could not be found at depths in excess of 120 feet (coral polyps depend on sunlight penetrating the water), and at greater depths, they found only calcareous rock or sediment formed from dead coral, the same material of which the atoll’s islets were composed.


Charles’s theory was that all coral reefs start as fringes of the tropical shore of rocky land.  If the land rises, the exposed coral dies, but new living reef is formed along the new shore to the depth of 120 feet.  If the land subsides, it sinks into the water slowly enough to allow the tiny coral polyps to build their reef upward to remain just below the ocean surface.  As the gently sloping shore sinks into the water, however, the coral polyps, being most active on the side toward the open ocean waves, build vertically toward the sun on the calcareous base created by their sunken predecessors; thus, the rocky shore gradually withdraws from the reef in contact with the open ocean, leaving a shallow lagoon in between.  In the case of large islands, like New Caledonia, or even continents, like Australia, these became great barrier reefs.  In the case of isolated oceanic islands, which rise as submarine volcanoes from the seafloor and then subside back under the ocean surface, these become coral atolls.  The reef first forms a fringe around the rising volcano; the subsiding volcano then leaves a lagoon encircling the sinking volcanic peaks still above water (like spectacular Bora Bora).  Then even those remaining peaks sink below the lagoon surface, leaving only the outer reef and a thin circle of calcareous materials piled up by the ocean’s pulverizing waves into islets just behind the outer reef, barely high enough to be visible from a distance – an atoll in the middle of the open ocean.


His theory was a masterpiece of deductive reasoning.  From Charles’s Recollections, “No other work of mine was begun in so deductive a spirit as this, for the whole theory was thought out on the west coast of South America, before I had seen a true coral reef.”  This theory, which captured the admiring attention of Charles Lyell himself upon Charles Darwin’s return to England, overturned all others and still stands today.  Charles was rightly pleased with his theory – how he derived the ideas from his geological observations in South America and how they were verified by the evidence of coral reefs around the world.  In his Journal of Researches, Charles built on the theory of reef formation to show that the distribution of the three types of coral reef – fringing the shore, encircling islands with lagoons, and forming barrier reefs and atolls – indicates that large blocks or plates of the earth’s surface (including seafloor) are tilting, so that one end is rising while the other is subsiding.  Charles thereby extended his theory of reef formation, built on his personal verification of Lyell’s principles, to even more dramatically demonstrate “the never-ceasing mutability of the crust of this our World.”


The next and last post on the voyage of the Beagle reviews the major biological and anthropological observations of Charles Darwin during 1831 to 1836.


Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (













The Voyage of the Beagle – 1831-36


My previous post reviewed events and circumstances leading up to the sailing of HMS Beagle on December 27, 1831.  I drew heavily from the excellent introduction by Browne and Neve to their abridged version of the first (1839) edition of Darwin’s Journal of Researches.  They point out that for Charles Darwin the Beagle expedition was not so much a journey at sea as a voyage on land.  Of the nearly five years away from England, Charles himself spent only 533 days (18 months) at sea, the longest stretch being 47 consecutive days, and even that included many landings.  The usual sailing run was between eight and eighteen days.  This was fortunate for Charles, because he was always seasick!  Charles often could do nothing on board ship except lie down; nothing else would help.  In letters home, he made no secret of his growing hatred of the sea and all ships that sail on it.  It is hard to imagine how miserable he must have felt, not only physically but also from concern for what FitzRoy and the rest of the crew thought of his weakness.  FitzRoy worried in a report to the Admiralty that his guest would abandon ship at the first port of call.  It speaks volumes of Charles’s dogged persistence that he endured the agony of seasickness for all those 18 months at sea.


First Landfall in the Cape Verde Islands


The first sailing run from Plymouth to the Canary Islands must have been particularly awful for Charles – in winter seas, the shock of first reckoning with unexpected seasickness (Charles had had no problem on the three days sailing on a coastal ship from London to Plymouth to join the Beagle), and then the huge disappointment when the Beagle was denied landing rights at Tenerife in the Canaries because of local fears of English cholera.  Even before knowing of the Beagle and FitzRoy, Charles and friends had been inspired by Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative to plan a trip to the Canary Islands.


Then the weather and the mood improved as they moved on to tropical seas and the Cape Verde Islands, where they could finally go ashore.


The Cape Verde Islands are a former Portuguese colony a few hundred miles off the coast of Senegal in West Africa.  It is an arid, tropical archipelago of volcanic origin.  Here Charles discovered the beauty of a theory that explains reality.  Charles Lyell had published the first volume of his Principles of Geology in 1831, and FitzRoy had given Charles Darwin a copy as a gift, reflecting their common interest in new evidence and ideas in geology.  Henslow also urged Charles to study this book but warned him not to accept the views advocated by Lyell.  This was one of the few books Charles was able to take on the voyage; others that he mentioned in his Recollections were von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of his travels with Aimé Bonpland in tropical America, which shaped the content and style of his own Journal of Researches, and William Paley’s Natural Theology, which explained natural phenomena as evidence of God’s work in the world.  He also carried Milton’s Paradise Lost and other poems with him on the ship and always on his land journeys from the ship.  Of these four books, Lyell’s was the one that truly gave direction to Charles’s future thinking. 


Lyell’s “uniformitarian” theory of geological history immediately proved its utility to Charles as he puzzled over the origin of a layer of white rock that formed a horizontal stripe part way up and along the whole length of the low sea cliff that defines the eastern shore of the island of São Tiago.  In his Recollections, Charles described in detail only this observation during the voyage:  “… a stream of lava formerly flowed over the bed of the sea, formed of triturated recent shells and corals, which has baked into a hard white rock.  Since then the island has been upheaved.  But the line of white rock revealed to me a new and important fact, namely, that there had been afterward subsidence around the craters, which had since been in action, and had poured forth lava.”  Lyell proposed that the earth’s surface has been altered dramatically over time by gradual changes, each small in itself, which continue today as they have for millennia, if not millions of years – uniformity of process over time, in contrast to a constancy of the earth’s surface interrupted only by cataclysmic events caused by forces outside the earth’s normal system, such as the Deluge described in the Old Testament.  Lyell’s theory served better than the alternatives to help Charles come to his satisfying explanation of the history of São Tiago. 


Imagine the profound impact of discovering a theory with such satisfying power to explain the phenomena of the world around us.  Charles was one of the first young men to set out on a round-the-world natural history expedition with Lyell’s book under his arm, able to put its explanatory power to the test.  In effect, for Charles, the defining purpose of the voyage became his application of Lyell’s theory.  In the same paragraph as the observation above, he went on, “It then first dawned on me that I might perhaps write a book on the geology of the various countries I visited, and this made me thrill with delight.  That was a memorable hour to me, and how distinctly I can call to mind the low cliff of lava beneath which I rested, with the sun glaring hot, a few strange desert plants growing near, and with living corals in the tidal pools at my feet.”  He had encountered not only a new world but a new way of looking at the world.


Impact of the Wet Tropics


Charles must have found arid lands like the Cape Verde Islands quite inviting for geological theorizing, because the geology is uncloaked by vegetation or even soil in some places.  But Charles displayed a deeper, emotional response to the lush vegetation of the tropical forests of Brazil.  His first landing on the shore of South America was at Bahia, also known as San Salvador.  “Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has been wandering by himself in a Brazilian forest.  Among the multitude of striking objects, the general luxuriance of the vegetation bears away the victory.”  And later at Rio de Janeiro, “In England any person fond of natural history enjoys in his walks a great advantage, by always having something to attract his attention; but in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous, that he is scarcely able to walk at all.”  His journey then carried him for years into lands not nearly so appealing – the flat pampas of Uruguay and Argentina, the arid plains of Patagonia, the damp, cold forests and brooding peaks of Tierra del Fuego and the southern coast of Chile, the starkly arid coasts of northern Chile and Peru, and the equatorial, yet strangely dry, volcanic Galapagos Islands.  Only the spectacular Andes seemed to compete with the tropical forests for his enthusiastic affection.  


He did not see the luxuriance of the wet tropics again until he arrived in Tahiti, and there the luxuriance combined with precipitous mountains:  “On each hand the walls [of the ravine] were nearly vertical; yet from the soft nature of the volcanic strata, trees and a rank vegetation sprung from every projecting ledge.  These precipices must have been some 1,000 feet high: and the whole formed a mountain gorge, far more magnificent than any thing which I had ever before beheld.”


The Collaboration with FitzRoy 


While Charles lived and traveled ashore for long periods, FitzRoy and the Beagle crew spent long days and weeks cruising the coastal waters, making innumerable precise measurements – position fixes by the sun and the stars, chronometer readings, depth soundings, distance and elevation calculations – compiling a mountain of coastal survey data, from which FitzRoy and his lieutenants created detailed navigation charts and notes for the benefit of future generations of sailors.  It was exhausting work, as much or more for FitzRoy, who drove himself harder even than he drove his crew.  No doubt, Charles considered himself fortunate to miss, whenever he could, the tedious tacking of the ship to get the multitude of measurements at each location, plus FitzRoy’s fierce concentration on the work. 


In his Recollections, Charles wrote: “FitzRoy’s temper was a most unfortunate one.  It was usually worst in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could generally detect something amiss about the ship, and was then unsparing in his blame.  He was very kind to me, but was a man very difficult to live with on the intimate terms which necessarily followed from our messing by ourselves in the same cabin.  We had several quarrels …” He described one early in the voyage, in Brazil, where Charles reacted to the abomination of slavery (his Whig family, particularly on the Wedgwood side, were early, well-known abolitionists), which FitzRoy (a Tory aristocrat) rather lamely defended.  Charles made a sneering remark which enraged FitzRoy sufficiently that he evicted Charles from the cabin.  Charles thought he would have to leave the ship altogether, but reflecting Charles’s popularity with the crew, “all the gun-room officers” invited Charles to mess with them.  However, within hours FitzRoy had vented his anger sufficiently to show “his usual magnanimity by sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would continue to live with him.”  Charles went on to write that FitzRoy’s “character was in several respects one of the most noble which I have ever known.”  “… devoted to his duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, and indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway.  He would undertake any sort of trouble to assist those whom he thought deserved assistance.”


Fitzroy certainly counted Charles among those who deserved his assistance.  He and his crew cheerfully accommodated Charles’s messy collections of animals, plants, sea life, rocks, and fossils, which he spread out on the ship’s well-scrubbed deck for sorting, describing, labeling, preserving, and storing away for later shipment from a suitable port of call back to Professor Henslow in England.  A few times, notably in Patagonia, FitzRoy and Charles with others of the crew made expeditions inland to explore the hinterland.  In the five years of the voyage, he improved upon the fitness and experience gained from outdoor adventures in England, distinguishing himself with his comrades by his endurance and courage in these overland treks.  More often Charles traveled independently with locally acquired guides, sometimes with his servant, Sims Covington.  FitzRoy coordinated with Charles so that while the Beagle worked its way along the coast, Charles traveled inland, toward a pre-designated pick-up point and date. 


Protected by Gauchos and the British Network 


His longest trip overland was across the pampas in the company of gauchos, whom he came to admire for their independent life under the open sky, their survival skills, and their primitive dignity, superior in Charles’s opinion to the people of Buenos Aires and provincial towns of Argentina.  It was a challenging, dangerous trip, in the midst of a savage war with the indigenous people of the pampas, benefiting from the protection of General Rosas, protagonist of war against the Indians, then rebellion against the government, and later dictatorship of the country.  As an English naturalist, Charles was an object of local curiosity but also gracious hospitality.  With his poor ear for languages, Charles must have spoken Spanish with a terrible accent, but he no doubt became fluent enough to do business with and even charm the locals.  He managed, sometimes barely, to slip through the turbulence of the time to each of his destinations. 


It is important to remember that Charles, FitzRoy and the Beagle crew were hardly explorers in the same league as Captain Cook or Lewis and Clark.  Surely they tread on some ground never before seen by people of European origin, especially toward the headwaters of the Santa Cruz River in Patagonia.  For the most part, however, they were exploring for more detailed knowledge of coasts and countries already known to Europeans, even the English – for centuries in some parts of South America.  They benefited from a resident network of British citizens doing diplomatic, military, and commercial business.  In the larger cities, they entered into society similar in refinement to what they knew in England.  Charles even stayed for a few months in Valparaiso at the home of an English friend from school days. 


Charles was also in communication with home, especially his sisters and Henslow.  It might take a year or more for one exchange of letters, but the British network knew enough of the whereabouts and plans of the Beagle to make sure the letters eventually reached the ship.  Charles was aware of events in the scientific community in England; most important perhaps, he received the second and third volumes of Lyell’s Principles of Geology while still in South America, which Charles and FitzRoy both eagerly read.  Moreover, Charles’s letters and collections sent to Henslow began to create awareness of Charles as an emerging man of science, thanks to Henslow’s promotional efforts in England well before his return home.


In my next post, I will identify the most significant observations made by Charles over the five years of travel.  I have already mentioned the impact of his visit to the Cape Verde Islands, which set the stage for much of what came later.


Copyright 2008 by Chris Dunford.  May be quoted in part or in full only with attribution to Chris Dunford (

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 (







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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!