H.M.S. Beagle, 1820–1870
“She belongs to that much-abused class, the ‘10-gun brigs’ ... notwithstanding which; she has proved herself, ... in all kinds of weather, an excellent sea boat.” —John Lort Stokes
Editors’ note: American Scientist occasionally revisits articles from the magazine’s archive to tie present research to its history. To complement this issue’s articles on evolution (“On the Trail of the First Placental Mammal,” page 190) and conservation (“War and Redemption in Gorongosa,” page 214), we are reprinting a classic investigation into the story of the H.M.S. Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin on his famous voyage to the Galapagos Islands.
This article is also the first written for American Scientist by Keith Stewart Thomson. He followed this endeavor with a nearly 30-year run as a regular contributor to American Scientist’s Marginalia column. Many of Keith’s columns, including several on Darwin, are available on American Scientist’s website by clicking on the author's name, above. Keith recently retired, and we take this opportunity to highlight his glowing career at the magazine.
Thomson recounts: “I had been delving into Beagle history ever since chancing upon the lost original plans for the ship at the National Maritime Museum in London. My essay touches upon all my favorite subjects: biology, evolution, Darwin, exploration, and the history of science. I hope we now know much more about the conditions under which Darwin and his shipmates labored and also have captured at least a little of the romance of discovery, whether in the field or the library.”
Since the article’s publication in 1975 several new pieces of scholarship regarding the Beagle have come to light. Keith published a full book about the ship in 1995. Studies in the early 2000s may have found the Beagle’s resting place after it was scrapped, along with some of her repurposed timbers incorporated into nearby onshore buildings. And beginning in 2012, the Nao Victoria Museum in Chile began construction of a full-size replica of the ship. That replica is now nearing completion.
“After having been twice driven back by heavy southwestern gales, Her Majesty’s ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain FitzRoy, R.N., sailed from Devonport on the 27th of December 1831.”
With these words, Charles Darwin began his account of one of the most important voyages made in the 19th century. More than 100 years later we know a great deal about the voyage and about Charles Darwin, and we have learned quite a lot about Robert FitzRoy. But about the Beagle herself—a tiny vessel only 90 feet long which made three enormously important surveying voyages between 1826 and 1843—very little is known.
I first began to read about the Beagle in the course of my work as an evolutionary biologist, and as I learned more and more, I was struck by the fact that so many statements about her, in works on Darwin and others connected with the second voyage, contradict each other. For example, in one book we read that the Beagle was sold to Japan and used as a training ship. In another we find that she ended her days at Southend—or was it Paglesham—in Essex. She was nominally a 10-gun brig but for most of her career was rigged as a three-masted bark. Why the conversion? Authorities cannot even agree when the change was made. No plans of the Beagle were known to exist, and there are few contemporary illustrations.
The aim of this article is to bring together for the first time some important information about the Beagle, together with an outline of her career and some notes on her sailing characteristics. I hope that these pages will provide students of Darwin and of 19th-century exploration with a clearer idea of the ship, of the conditions under which Darwin and others worked, and, thereby, a further measure of their immense achievements.