Nine ships of the Royal Navy have had this name. The most famous Beagle was a Cherokee Class 10-gun brig-sloop. Fully loaded it displaced almost 300 tons, was about 150 feet long with two masts, and could hold about 90 crew members. It was launched in 1820, commissioned in 1825 and sold for scrap in 1870.

The ship is famous because during its second survey mission (1831-1836, captained by Robert FitzRoy) around South America and the Galapagos Islands, it carried a young naturalist named Charles Darwin. The voyage showed Darwin a range of habitats and corresponding wildlife - the impetus for Darwin coming up with his theory of evolution (see also The Voyage Of The Beagle).

Source: Thomson, K. S. (1995). HMS Beagle: the story of Darwin's ship. New York: W.W. Norton.

The first time I heard of the HMS Beagle was from Theo Ott, a fellow classmate in zoology. Pushing a fine pair of gold wire rims up his nose, he cleared his throat leaning over to whisper a rumor in my ear:

The extra credit question on Professor Wimmer’s semester final is, “Name the ship that Darwin sailed on.”

For this reason, that little bit if trivia has stuck in my head to this day, aside from the fact that Theo’s adorable smile surrounding tousled brown hair, set off by a ruddy complexion, all this, perched upon long graceful alabaster fingers was particularly irresistible.

He that troubleth his own house
Shall inherit the wind.
Proverbs 11:29

    During these two years I was led to think much about religion. Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, and I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality. I suppose it was the noveltry of the argument that amused them. But I was very unwilling to give up my belief; -- I feel sure of this for I can well remember often and often inventing day-dreams of old letters between distinguished Romans and manuscripts being discovered at Pompeii or elsewhere which confirmed in the most striking manner all that was written in the Gospels. But I found it more and more difficult, with free scope given to my imagination, to invent evidence, which would suffice to convince me. Thus disbelief crept over me at very slow rate, but was at last complete. The rates was so slow that I felt no distress, and have never since doubted even for a single second that my conclusion was correct. I can indeed hardly see how anyone ought to wish Christianity to be true; for if so the plain language of the text seems to show that the men who do not believe, and this would include my Father, Brother and almost all of my friends, will be everlasting punished.

    And this is a damnable doctrine.

    Charles Darwin, Religious Belief, Journal kept from October 1836 to January 1839 on the HMS Beagle

While Theo was a man after a date to the Friday night mixer, Darwin was indeed a man after my own heart as he struggled with his beliefs upon the Beagle trying to come to terms with his personal relationship with God. Not to mention how his work would go on to impact religious thought bringing about the infamous 1925 showdown between creationism and evolution with Tennessee vs. John Scopes or more commonly called the Scopes Monkey Trial and inspire such great novels as Inherit the Wind in 1955. Evolution as it is now in the modern times, as well as during Darwin’s day, was caught up in controversy with religious and philosophic ideas. Darwin seems to have avoided using the word for that reason. He certainly didn't set out to involve himself in these controversies. During the Beagle voyage, he saw all kinds of animals and animals that had yet to be recorded; fossils; aboriginal peoples; islands invaded and destroyed by economic greed, others still largely unchanged by human exploitation; deserts, jungles and mountains; cowboys, farmers, crazy sea captains and castaways; governing officials and the starving poor; slaves and slave-owners -- many of which things made no sense in terms of what he had learned. The problem of plant and animal species interested him most, and he puzzled over them for more than two decades before he felt confident enough to publish his answer.
    ”I have called this principle, by which each slight variation, if useful, is preserved, by the term Natural Selection.”

    —Charles Darwin from "The Origin of Species"

From 1831 to 1836 Darwin served as naturalist aboard the H.M.S. Beagle on a British science expedition around the world. A voice of evolution, Darwin made thorough research of his notes and specimens. You can read the entirety of his personal account in The Voyage of the Beagle. Several closely associated theories emerged from his study: one, evolution did occur; two, evolutionary change was gradual, requiring thousands to millions of years; three, the primary mechanism for evolution was a process called natural selection; and four, the millions of species alive today arose from a single original life form through a branching process called "specialization."

The theory of evolutionary selection that Darwin held is, “that variation within species occurs randomly and that the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism's ability to adapt to its environment.” He wrote a great number of essays about his theories in his book called, "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life" (1859) or "The Origin of Species" for short.

Charles Darwin was twenty when he set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831. He had little purpose in life; if anything, he seemed destined for a career in the Anglican ministry. Captained by Robert Fitzroy Darwin’s job aboard the Beagle gave him the chance to study from a naturalist’s point of view the various geological formations found on different continents and islands along the way. Not to mention the plethora of fossils and living organisms. The Beagle crossed the Atlantic Ocean, sailed the coast of South America before heading across the Pacific Ocean. The purpose of this voyage was to map the harbors and coastline of South America, and to carry a naturalist for "collecting, observing and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history."

But Darwin almost missed the boat. His father had to be persuaded to let him go, two others had turned down the position before and the captain did not care for the shape of Charles’ nose. Soon the books, instruments and a passage fee of 30 pounds were paid and Darwin managed to obtain testimonials proving that he was a gentleman fit to sit at the captain's dinner table. Both Darwin and Captain RoyFitz enjoyed a great success of their missions, yet it would be at great expense to their personal lives.

The Beagle was finally under way with a passenger and crew manifest of 74.

Teneriffe, Canary Islands

    "On the 6th of January, we reached Teneriffe, but were prevented landing, for fears of our bringing the cholera..."
Darwin did speculate about the mysterious deaths of aboriginal populations wherever Europeans had been on during the voyage to Australia, it would take until 1849 through for the medical community to make the connection as to how the terrible disease of cholera was spread.

St. Jago, Cape de Verde Islands

    "I was much interested by watching the habits of an Octopus, or cuttle-fish. By means of their long arms and suckers, they could drag their bodies into very narrow crevices; and, when thus fixed, it required great force to remove them. These animals escape detection by a very extraordinary, chamelion-like power of changing their colour. They appear to vary their tints according to the nature of the ground over which they pass. These changes were affected in such a manner that clouds, varying in tint were continually passing over the body. Any part, being subjected to a slight shock, became almost black. These clunds or blushes are said to be produced by the alternate expansion and contraction of minute vesicles containing variously coloured fluids."
On January 16, 1831 Darwin comments on the pigment containing chromatophores of an octopus. Isn’t science AMAZING? While he was there he collected several packets of dust from a recent volcanic eruption forwarding them onto Christian Ehrenberg, a leading microscopist, wanting to know the simliarites between two specimens. One that was collected on the islands and one collected from a ship at sea several hundred miles away. His following inference is that some forms of life migrated from Africa to the Atlantic Islands by being carried on the wind.
    "In the five little packets I sent him, he has ascertained no less than sixty-seven different organic forms of plants and tiny insuforia! The insuforia, with the exception of two marine species, are all inhabitants of fresh water ...we may feel sure that it all comes from Africa. It has often fallen on ships when several hundred, and even more than a thousand miles from the coast."
Lagoa Marica, Brazil

It would take almost 60 more years for slavery to be abolished in Brazil.

    "This spot is notorious from having been, for a long time, the residence of some runaway slaves... At length they were discovered, and a party of soldiers being sent, the whole were seized with the exception of one old woman, who, sooner than again be led into slavery, dashed herself to pieces from the summit of the mountain. In a Roman matron this would have been called the noble love of freedom: in a poor negress, mere brutal obstinacy."
To Darwin racial differences were results of environment. His sense of shame and self-disgust about European-American enslavement of black people is a common theme in his writings:
    "I was crossing a ferry with a negro, who was uncommonly stupid. In endeavouring to make him understand, I talked loud, and made signs, in doing which I passed my hand near his face. He, I suppose, thought I was in a passion, and was going to strike him; for instantly, with a frightened look and half-shut eyes, he dropped his hands. I shall never forget my feelings of surprise, disgust, and shame, at seeing a great powerful man afraid even to ward off a blow, directed, as he thought, at his face. The man had been trained to a degradation lower than the slavery of the most helpless animal."

    "On the 19th of August (1836) we finally left the shores of Brazil. I thank God, I shall never again visit a slave-country."

Maldonado, on the Rio de la Plata
    "The Tucutuco (Ctenomys Brasiliensis) is a curious small animal, which may be briefly described as a Gnawer, with the habits of a mole. The man who caught them asserted that many are invariably found blind. Considering the strictly subterranean habits of the tucutuco, the blindness, though so common, cannot be a very serious evil; yet it appears strange that any animal should possess an organ frequently subject to be injured."
The tucutuco is born with apparently normal eyes, are usually damaged during their burrowing activities; the eyes become infected and are destroyed.

Port St. Julian

    (January 9, 1834) "At Port St. Julian ... I found half the fossilized skeleton of the Macrauchenia Patachonica, a remarkable (llama-like) quadruped, full as large as a camel. From recent sea-shells (deposited below the skeleton) is certain that this curious quadruped lived long after the sea was inhabited by its present shells."

    "It is impossible to reflect on the changed state of the American continent without the deepest astonishment. Formerly it must have swarmed with great monsters: now we find mere pigmies.... Buffon ...might have said that the creative force in America had lost its power. The mind at first is irresistibly hurried into the belief of some great catastrophe; but examination of the geology of La Plata and Patagonia, leads to the belief that all the features of the land result from slow and gradual changes."

    "Did man, after his first inroad into South America, destroy ...the unweildy Megatherium and the other Edentata? What shall we say of the extinction of the horse? Did those plains fail of pasture, which have since been overrun by the thousands and hundreds of thousands of the decendants of the stock introduced by the Spaniards? Certainly, no fact in the long history of the world is so startling as the wide and repeated exterminations of its inhabitants."

    "Nevertheless, (from) another point of view, it will appear less perplexing. We do not ...always remember that some check is constantly preventing the too rapid increase of every organized being left in a state of nature. The supply of food, on an average, remains constant; yet the tendency in every animal to increase by propagation is geometrical. We are, nevertheless, seldom able with certainty to tell in any given species,(when) the check falls; or, again, what is the precise nature of the check. We are therefore driven to the conclusion that causes generally quite unappreciated by us, determine whether a given species shall be abundant or scanty in numbers. Hence (we feel very little surprise that occasional species are rare)...."

    "To admit that species generally become rare before they become extinct - to feel no surprise at the comparative rarity of one species with another, and yet to call in some extraordinary agent and to marvel greatly when a species ceases to exist, appears to me much the same as to admit that sickness in the individual is the prelude to death - to feel no surprise at sickness - but when the sick man dies, to wonder, and to believe that he died through violence."

It was his geological observations that impressed Darwin the most. In particular the effect that natural forces had upon shaping the earths surface. At the time a majority of geologists believed the so-called catastrophist theory that the earth had been created by a succession of large catastrophes leading to the successive creations of animal and plant life, and that each creation had been destroyed by a sudden catastrophe. According to the theory the most recent upheaval, Noah’s flood had wiped out all life with the exception of those that were on the ark. The rest were only visible in the form of fossils. The catastrophists view point was challenged by Sir Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-1833). Lyell maintained that the earths surface is undergoing constant change, the consequence of ‘natural forces operating uniformly over long periods.’

Aboard the Beagle Darwin discovered himself fitting most of his findings into Lyell’s general uniformitarian view. Beyond that Darwin began to realize that some of his own observations of fossils and living plants cast doubts on the Lyell-supported theory that species were specially created. Noting for example those particular fossils of purportedly extinct species closely resembled living species in the same geographical area.

Straits of Magellan

    (June 10th, 1834 ) "In the morning we made the best of our way into the open Pacific." … "Never has the Beagle has such ill luck!"
The Beagle did suffer a short exchange of arrows and musket fire between the ship and the native Fuegan’s while steering through the, until then, uncharted straits only to encounter a series of northern gales.


The ship arrived in Valpariso during the summer of 1864. Darwin became seriously ill and the British Admiralty notified Captain Roy that they would not cover his huge expenditures. RoyFitz went into a deep depression over this news and talked about abandoning the voyage. Darwin had recovered his health just before Christmas and the Captain was persuaded to continue the mission. RoyFitz would later committe suicide during an episode of depression states where he bitterly regretted having played any part in the development of Darwin's "Anti-Christian" theories.

Lujan, Argentina

    (March 25, 1835) "We slept in the village of Luxan Lujan; it is five leagues south of the provincial capital Mendoza. At night I experienced an attack (for it deserves no less a name) of the Benchuca, a species of Reduvius, the great black bug of the Pampas Triatoma infestans. It is most disgusting to feel soft wingless insects, about an inch long, crawling over ones body. Before sucking they are quite thin, but afterwards they become round and bloated with blood, and in this state are easily crushed."
It was a common belief that Darwin suffered some kind of neurosis or personality disorder. In 1959, Dr. Saul Adler, a tropical disease specialist at Hebrew University, presented strong evidence that Darwin suffered from Chagas disease, a parasite related to African sleeping sickness. Principally carried by the insect Triatoma infestans. and widespread in the province of Mendoza it was subsequent to Darwin’s visit there that he suffered periodic attacks of an unknown and untreatable illness. Purchasing a country home in 1844 from which he rarely traveled he reflected bitterly, "many of my friends, I believe, think me a hypochondriac."

The Galapagos, Archepellago

One cannot mention the HMS Beagle without discussing the four islands of the Galapagos that Darwin visited off the shore of Ecuador. It was his ponderings upon how such a divergent group of plant and animal life came to this island group. Seeing how each island supported its own from of tortoise, mockingbird and finch; the various forms were closely related but different in structure and eating habits from island to island. Both observations raised the question, for Darwin, of possible links between distinct but similar species. He attributed this to a great variety of reasons. One was by the ocean currents, which went though periods of change allowing such creatures as sea lions, fur seals, penguins and the long lived Galapagos Tortoises. One reason the ship dropped anchor at the Galapagos Isles was to gather these large animals for meals aboard ship.

    "Most of the plants and animals are aboriginal creations, found nowhere else; yet all show a marked relationship with those of America, though separated from that continent by an open space of ocean. The archipelago is a little world within itself, or rather a satellite attached to America, whence it has derived a few stray colonists."

    "The most remarkable feature in the natural history of this archipelago, is that the different islands to a considerable extent are inhabited by a different set of beings. My attention was first called to this fact by the Vice-Governor, Mr. Lawson, declaring that the tortoises differed from the different islands, and that he could with certainty tell from which island any one was brought. Captain Porter of the U. S. Ship Essex has described those from Charles Island and from the nearest island to it, Hood Island, as having their shells in front thick and turned up like a Spanish saddle, while the tortoises from James Island are rounder, blacker, and have a better taste when cooked."

Tasty indeed, all of the species from the larger islands have since been exterminated, however, species in the smaller islands still exist, and the Galapagos, today called Equador's Archipeliego de Colon, is a protected biological reserve.

He also speculated that rafts of vegetation broke off floating out to sea during the rainy season reasoning that most of the reptiles, the only terrestrial mammals--the rice rat, and insects must have arrived by this route. Seabirds could have easily flown there while plant spores arrived on the wind along with vascular plants with lighter seeds. Spiders, small insects, and tiny land snails would have been transported by wind as well. Weaker air born critters like land birds and bats fliers too may have been blown to the islands from storms. Birds played a large role in spreading seeds to the islands by ingesting fruits and expelling them in their dropping, seeds embedded in mud or with hooks would cling to their feet and feathers.

    "Several of the islands possess their own species of the tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy ... it strikes me with wonder."

    "The remaining land-birds form a most singular group of finches, related to each other in the structure of their beaks, short tails, form of body, and plumage: there are thirteen species ...all preculiar to this archipelago. The most curious fact is the perfect gradation in the size of the beaks in the different species. Seeing this gradation and diversity of structure in one small, intimately related group of birds, one might really fancy that from an original paucity of birds... species had been taken and modified for different ends."

Natural selection is when the strongest survive and propagate and therefore increase the strength of the species. Darwin’s finches remain the most wonderful living model of the manner in which an original species can diversify to fill the available ecological niches. As decedents of ancestors from the mainland the various species immigrated to the islands, determined territories and eventually due to isolation and through chance. Along with different climates and natural forces, such as the kinds of food available, these beautiful finches dispersed to different islands, new populations formed, evolving into thirteen different species.

The Beagle set sail for home on October 20, 1835 covering the open ocean and 3000 miles in less than a month.

Tahiti & New Zealand

    "There is a mildness in the expression of their countenances which at once banishes the idea of a savage; and an intelligence which shows that they are advancing in civilization."

    "The common people, when working, keep the upper part of their bodies quite naked; and it is then that the Tahitians are seen to advantage. It has been remarked, that it requires little habit to make a dark skin more pleasing and natural to the eye of a European than his own colour. A white man ... was like a plant bleached by the gardiner's art compared with a fine dark one growing vigorously in the open fields. Most of the men are tatooed. I thought the body of a man thus ornamented was like the trunk of a noble tree embraced by a delicate creeper."

Tattooing was common in the Pacific Islands. Within a decade Tahiti would be under the control of the French and sixty years later Paul Gauguin would depict Tahiti as an unspoiled paradise in his stunning paintings. New Zealand was less than idyllic. Tattooed natives were intent upon warring with anyone at hand:
    I heard a characteristic anecdote of what took place some time ago in the south. A missionary found a chief and his tribe in preparation for war; -- their muskets clean and bright, and their ammunition ready. He reasoned long on the inutility of the war, and the little provocation, which had been given for it. The chief was much shaken in his resolution, and seemed in doubt: but at length it occurred to him that a barrel of his gunpowder was in a bad state, and that it would not keep much longer. This was brought forward as an unanswerable argument for the necessity of immediately declaring war: the idea of allowing so much good gunpowder to spoil was not to be thought of; and this settled the point."

Sydney, Australia

After spending his fourth Christmas on the Beagle in New Zealand they continued their voyage homeward. Here Darwin muses upon the consequences of European explorations.

    "The number of aborigines is rapidly decreasing. This decrease, no doubt, must be partly owing to the introduction of spirits (alcohol), to European diseases (even the milder ones of which, such as the measles, prove very destructive), and to the gradual extinction of the wild animals. Besides these several evident causes of destruction, there appears to be some more mysterious agency generally at work. Wherever the European has trod, death seems to pursue the aboriginal. We may look to the wide extent of the Americas, Polynesia, the Cape of Good Hope, and Australia, and we find the same result. Nor is it the white man alone that thus acts the destroyer; the Polynesian of Malay extraction has in parts of the East Indian archipelago, thus driven before him the dark-coloured native. The varieties of man seem to act on each other is the same way as different species of animals - the stronger always extirpating the weaker. It was melancholy at New Zealand to hear the fine energetic natives saying, that they knew the land was doomed to pass from their children."
The Spanish conquest of South America can hardly be attributed to the military skills of a handful of soldiers against thousands and thousands of Incas. If Montezuma's people thought that the Spaniards were "white gods," perhaps it was because the Spanish brought smallpox, against which there was no immunity in the the New World, and American natives were dying at a rate which exceeded the toll of the black death when it entered Europe in the fourteenth century (McNeill, 1976).

Passage to Mauritius, Indian Ocean

The part of the voyage would bring to bear Darwin’s conflicting ideas about geological changes and the many schools of thought. That changes were precipitated by volcanoes, by the sea, or directly by the hand of God.

    (April 12, 1836) "The earlier voyagers fancied that the coral-building animals instinctively build up their great circles to afford themselves protection, but the kinds of animals to whose growth the very existence of the reef depends cannot live within the lagoon."

    "Moreover, on this view, many species of distinct genera and families are supposed to combine for one end, and of such a combination, not a single instance can be found in the whole of nature. "

Interactions between biology and geology were new ideas in the nineteenth century. Darwin would eventually write a book on his theory of coral reefs, showing that the reef is built as volcanic islands sink to become undersea mountains: what is seen now as continuous with a past that has, literally, disappeared from sight.

Falmouth, England

    "On the 2nd of October (1836) we made the shores of England; and at Falmouth I left the Beagle, having lived aboard the good little vessel nearly five years."

    "If a person asked my advice, before undertaking a long voyage, my answer would depend upon his possessing a decided taste for some branch of knowledge, which could by this means be advanced. No doubt it is a high satisfaction to behold various countries and the many races of mankind, but the pleasures gained at the time do not counterbalance the evils... (listed as absence of friends, privations, sea-sickness, boredom, dangers of the sea). It is necessary to look forward to a harvest, however distant that may be, when some fruit will be reaped, some good effect."

The "harvest" for Charles Darwin would come to his The Origin of Species, published twenty some years later in 1859. It would become a quantum leap in the way mankind sees itself, placing him among the intellectual giants of science. His "evils" would become a lifetime of Chagras disease.

As with many giants, mythos sprang from the Voyage of the Beagle that Darwin had a sudden insight as to the importance of his finches, and left the ship with his full-blown theory of Natural Selection. It’s a great story, one along the lines of Newton and the apple or that of Galileo and the swinging lamp. After publication of Origin of Species, Darwin continued to write on botany, geology, and zoology until his death in 1882.

It’s interesting to note that Darwin may have struggled with his religious convictions even until his death where one witness, a Lady Hope subscribes that she visited Darwin at his deathbed where she witnessed his renunciation of evolution and converted to Christianity. Her story was printed in a Boston newspaper and subsequently spread. Darwin's daughter Henrietta refuted the story and stated, "I was present at his deathbed ... He never recanted any of his scientific views, either then or earlier."He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

What Happened to the HMS Beagle?

Only ninety feet long and about 235 tons, the diminutive 10-gun brig and survey ship was launched from the Woolwich Dockyard in 1820. Built as a war ship shortly after the Napoleonic wars for coastal defense,anti-piracy duties, intelligence gathering and communications the Beagle never saw active service. Her career as a survey ship began in 1826 with a voyage to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego under the command of Captain Parker King. She returned to Plymouth in 1830. At the end of 1831 she again sailed for South America under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy.

The HMS Beagle with her hull reinforced was readied to set sail for surveying service. A mizzenmast was added so that the ship could be more easily steered along the coral reefs of the Pacific Islands, thus transforming her into a Barque. Her historical voyage around with world with Charles Darwin was from 1831-1836. Nine years later the Beagle was hulked on the Thames and used for storage by the Coastguard. In 1859 she became Watch Vessel 7 and 1870 she was sold, most likely for scrap, to the firm of Murray & Trainer. In an unassuming and quiet way the Beagle is one of the greats of maritime history.

From the HMS Beagles' role as transport for Darwin to intrepid survey ship under Captain Robert FitzRoy, who charted some of the most far flung and dangerous coastlines, this little ship has had as significant impact on history. In 2003 a space lander called the Beagle 2 in honor of the HMS Beagle will leave its mother ship, the Mars Express and hurtle towards the planet. Its mission? To settle the question of whether life exists, or has ever existed, on the red planet.

Whatever happened to Theo Ott?

Gentle Reader, never kiss and tell.


Beagle 2 - the lander:

Charles Darwin and the Galapgoes:

Charles Darwin British Naturalist :

Charles Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle: Selections and commentary:

What happened to HMS Beagle?:

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