The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin – Day 70 of 188

Chapter 1.VI. The Voyage.

“There is a natural good-humoured energy in his letters just like himself.”–From a letter of Dr. R.W. Darwin’s to Prof. Henslow.

[The object of the Beagle voyage is briefly described in my father’s ‘Journal of Researches,’ page 1, as being “to complete the Survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, commenced under Captain King in 1826 to 1830; to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and some island in the Pacific; and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world.”

The Beagle is described as a well-built little vessel, of 235 tons, rigged as a barque, and carrying six guns. She belonged to the old class of ten-gun brigs, which were nicknamed “coffins,” from their liability to go down in severe weather. They were very “deep-waisted,” that is, their bulwarks were high in proportion to their size, so that a heavy sea breaking over them might be highly dangerous. Nevertheless, she lived through the five years’ work, in the most stormy regions in the world, under Commanders Stokes and Fitz-Roy, without a serious accident. When re-commissioned in 1831 for her second voyage, she was found (as I learn from Admiral Sir James Sulivan) to be so rotten that she had practically to be rebuilt, and it was this that caused the long delay in refitting. The upper deck was raised, making her much safer in heavy weather, and giving her far more comfortable accommodation below. By these alterations and by the strong sheathing added to her bottom she was brought up to 242 tons burthen. It is a proof of the splendid seamanship of Captain Fitz-Roy and his officers that she returned without having carried away a spar, and that in only one of the heavy storms that she encountered was she in great danger.

She was fitted out for the expedition with all possible care, being supplied with carefully chosen spars and ropes, six boats, and a “dinghy;” lightning conductors, “invented by Mr. Harris, were fixed in all the masts, the bowsprits, and even in the flying jib-boom.” To quote my father’s description, written from Devonport, November 17, 1831: “Everybody, who can judge, says it is one of the grandest voyages that has almost ever been sent out. Everything is on a grand scale. Twenty-four chronometers. The whole ship is fitted up with mahogany; she is the admiration of the whole place. In short, everything is as prosperous as human means can make it.”

Owing to the smallness of the vessel, every one on board was cramped for room, and my father’s accommodation seems to have been small enough: “I have just room to turn round,” he writes to Henslow, “and that is all.” Admiral Sir James Sulivan writes to me: “The narrow space at the end of the chart-table was his only accommodation for working, dressing, and sleeping; the hammock being left hanging over his head by day, when the sea was at all rough, that he might lie on it with a book in his hand when he could not any longer sit at the table. His only stowage for clothes being several small drawers in the corner, reaching from deck to deck; the top one being taken out when the hammock was hung up, without which there was not length for it, so then the foot-clews took the place of the top drawer. For specimens he had a very small cabin under the forecastle.”

Yet of this narrow room he wrote enthusiastically, September 17, 1831:– “When I wrote last I was in great alarm about my cabin. The cabins were not then marked out, but when I left they were, and mine is a capital one, certainly next best to the Captain’s and remarkably light. My companion most luckily, I think, will turn out to be the officer whom I shall like best. Captain Fitz-Roy says he will take care that one corner is so fitted up that I shall be comfortable in it and shall consider it my home, but that also I shall have the run of his. My cabin is the drawing one; and in the middle is a large table, on which we two sleep in hammocks. But for the first two months there will be no drawing to be done, so that it will be quite a luxurious room, and good deal larger than the Captain’s cabin.”

My father used to say that it was the absolute necessity of tidiness in the cramped space of the Beagle that helped ‘to give him his methodical habits of working.’ On the Beagle, too, he would say, that he learned what he considered the golden rule for saving time; i.e., taking care of the minutes.

Sir James Sulivan tells me that the chief fault in the outfit of the expedition was the want of a second smaller vessel to act as tender. This want was so much felt by Captain Fitz-Roy that he hired two decked boats to survey the coast of Patagonia, at a cost of 1100 pounds, a sum which he had to supply, although the boats saved several thousand pounds to the country. He afterwards bought a schooner to act as a tender, thus saving the country a further large amount. He was ultimately ordered to sell the schooner, and was compelled to bear the loss himself, and it was only after his death that some inadequate compensation was made for all the losses which he suffered through his zeal.

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