An investigation into the real reasons behind the celebrated voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836) and the momentous decision by Captain Robert FitzRoy to choose Charles Darwin to accompany him.
Charles Darwin and the Beagle
Thank you very much indeed.�My presentation this afternoon is going to show you, well, through a wide variety of images, paintings, drawings, prints, photographs -�if you excuse the alliteration – a series, I believe, of sensational seafaring stories. It’s a multi-layered series of stories in a way and many of them actually we haven’t heard in terms of the wonderful television and also the radio broadcasts too. And, as already alluded to, my background, I used to work in the National Maritime Museum. And also along the way one or two pointers, because like all of us here I’m sure, I’m indebted to the incredible collections of the Public Record Office, The National Archives here and a number of wonderful wills of course, the information relating to the actual ship, the service records of the naval officers and men and also many of the coastal profiles from the Hydrographic Office, which in fact have been transferred here, I examined in detail.
She was, according to Charles Darwin, a very ordinary ship. She was in fact quite a bit less than Captain Cook’s first ship, the Endeavour that set sail from Plymouth in 1768. [Shows an image]. Here she is in the centre of this small scale watercolour drawn from the National Maritime Museum collections painted in fact by somebody called Owen Stanley who was on the first voyage of the Beagle. He later became a captain of one of the Beagle’s sister ships.
And what I would like to do also this afternoon is show you how they connect together, the first and the second voyage of Beagle. In fact she went on three remarkable voyages.
Well, 90 feet in terms of length, 74 souls sailed in terms of her second voyage which ranged over the lions’ share of a five year period from 1831 to 1836, and I suppose, of course, because this is the bi-centenary year of Charles Darwin the focus has been on the supernumerary, this naturalist and gentleman companion.
[Darwin was] personally selected by Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the ship. What I’m also trying to do is to create a sense of balance and perspective, because without Robert FitzRoy’s selection, although Darwin was not in fact the first choice, of course we wouldn’t be commemorating Charles Darwin today.
She [the Beagle] was in fact launched in the summer of 1820 in the Royal Dockyard of Woolwich as a general, ordinary ship of war although she didn’t actually sit in the line of battle, she carried carronades initially. So moving through to our next image which is the iconic image that we’re all sort of familiar in terms with Darwin. He was in terms of life, health and vigour on the Beagle voyage full of energy, full of vitality taking active part in the surveying work.
Perhaps he contracts something, some sort of medical condition, we’re not entirely sure what but after he marries his first cousin Emma Wedgewood and they move to Down House from 1842, about 16 miles from the centre of London he becomes essentially a sort of valetudinarian, a semi-invalid, using the house as a research station, a kind of rest home, working by correspondence.
Now, don’t do it now, but turn over the back of your English ten pound note and you will see that in fact it’s this wonderful Juliet Margaret Cameron photograph that is largely the inspiration for the image on the back of that note and you can also see in the middle a tiny little image of the Beagle and some of the imagined flora and fauna.
He didn’t travel a lot post the Beagle voyage but he went on a number of restorative holidays including the Isle of Wight where he met this pioneering female photographer, Juliet Margaret Cameron, and she created a series of images. This was turned into a carte de visite and Darwin believed it was the most insightful portrait of him.
He retreats, if you like, behind that beard. Now a number of years ago I wrote to The Bank of England design department because I wanted confirmation that this was the original source for that image on the back of the English ten pound note and I’m sure they’ll laugh with me today because it was like a scene reminiscent of ‘Yes Minster’. I think maybe they saw me initially as a threat. ‘Why does he want to know if this image relates to the banknote?’ And the letter that came back, or the email, was along the lines of, ‘We can neither confirm nor deny’. [Laughter].
I wrote back and I said: ‘Well I used to be a civil servant’, and the response seemed to be along the lines of ‘Oh, you’re no threat, well yes it was a major inspirational source’ in terms of that particular image.
FitzRoy was a follower of real true science and art as well, he was determined that he was going to create a pictorial record of Beagle’s second voyage. He’d writ that the accounts relating to Cook and he’d seen the amazing images by those Admiralty artists of the 18th century. And he knew that artistic images could say so much more than the official accounts and so from that point of view we’re going to look at a number of the Admiralty approved artists that underpin this series of stories.
Interestingly enough though FitzRoy was also a follower of the pseudo-science of phrenology, whereby when he first met initially he was of course a believer of the facial features, that he could tell a persons’ character. And he thought that Darwin’s nose meant that he lacked energy and vigour. And there’s some wonderful correspondence on record, many of the letters of course you can access on line, whereby he says with a certain amount of relief to family members ‘It does appear as if my nose spoke falsely’ because initially FitzRoy was thinking Darwin’s shape of the nose meant that he lacked energy and vigour.
Well here is the interior view [shows image], the literary heart of the house of Down House. Using his own words he describes as ‘old and ugly although stout throughout’ and from 1842 to the end of his days it was a relatively happy family home where a lot of his research work experiments were undertaken.
I see it in many ways as his ship ashore and there was a sand walk that he had actually had laid out alongside the property and also of that of another that in a way you can see an equivalent to him pacing the deck of the Beagle where he’s talking about meditating and getting his ideas on board, that shipboard expedition.
If that sand walk is in part a loose kind of equivalent to part of the deck of the Beagle, then the poop cabin on board the Beagle, there are elements of the incredible arranged spaces here, echoes of that ten by 11 foot space. Actually in National Heritage, who� manage the house now, they’ve replicated that space on the first floor. You can also see artworks here, the Banks microscope, specimens, geological hammers, compasses, clinometers for measuring angles too. And he writes to his father saying and complaining about the lack of space onboard the Beagle. ‘The woeful lack of space’ are the words that he actually uses.
Then he writes again, he says, ‘Well you know what? Actually the physical space onboard the Beagle means that I have to be ordered, disciplined, methodical, everything is close at hand therefore ultimately I am the gainer’. So the physical presence and the nature of the ship helps him to adopt a sort of working approach. And also the captain of the ship, Robert FitzRoy, kept, of course, according to Admiralty instructions a journal, an account, a logbook if you like. This logbook and Darwin’s own writings and journals, sometimes he refers to those as his logbook. So the influence of The Navy in many different ways rubs off on the very young Charles Darwin who was 22 when he joined the voyage and FitzRoy who’s 26, and we’ll look at both their careers together.
It’s here, of course, that more than 15 works were written including the groundbreaking work on the Origin of the Species by Means of Natural Selection. But on the 24th of November 1859 the first edition came out into print, although John Murray of course took advice and although it wasn’t overtly stated, the suggestions that we all link up to apes and monkeys was controversial hot stuff.
So there is correspondence that indicates Murray writing back saying ‘Let’s put this manuscript to one side Mr Darwin. I hear that the subject of pigeons is very popular, why don’t you write a book about pigeons instead?’ Well he does but later and of course this [Origin of Species] comes out into print, with no eye catching illustrations, priced rather expensively for the Victorian book market at 14 shillings.
Today a first edition, if you could be lucky to find one in a boot fair, a fine copy would be up to a £100,000, so a slightly better investment than my wife’s Equitable Life pension fund is one way that you could actually put it. But, of course, the tree of life, his theory on one level is very simple taking us back to a common source but contrary to what many people might assume.
If you read Charles Darwin’s own autobiography, he declares, he talks about himself being an agnostic not an atheist. The door is not firmly closed. He like so many of us doesn’t know what the ultimate mystery of all mysteries is all about.
And the debate in Oxford in the early summer of 1860 that fuses us together with the captain of the ship, Robert FitzRoy, is fascinating and celebrated and the main adversary against Charles Darwin, who wasn’t there, he was poorly, he had others of course defending his corner such as the likes of the scientists Hooker and Huxley. But the main adversary in The National History Museum of Oxford was Samuel Wilberforce, known as Soapy Sam because of his slippery debating style and the habit of rubbing his hands.
And this is an original caricature [shows image] which was published in Vanity Fair by a caricaturist called Carlo Pellegrini who helped to popularise in the British press and in Vanity Fair the idea of mocking prominent people, something that we’re particularly good at in this country and ordinarily he used the pseudonym ‘Ape’ that is rather sort of relevant and pertinent in this particular case.
Because he picks on Huxley and he says something along the lines of, ‘On what side of your family? Is it your grandfather’s side or your grandmother’s side that you are related to a monkey or an ape?’ Now the words seem to differ but one of the responses in terms of this particular scientist defending Darwin’s corner seems to be saying, ‘I’d rather be related to an ape than to be ignorant of the scientific truth’.
But just to round off this very short section I think the best response to this whole evolutionary debate and theory comes from the wife of the Bishop of Worcester who I sort of see as a kind of Victorian Hyacinth Bouquet character when she says ‘Descended from the apes, my dear let us hope that it is not so but if it is let us pray it will not become generally known’ [laughter].
The back of the hallway at this heated debate, the captain of the ship, Robert FitzRoy, was holding up a bible saying ‘Believe in God, do not believe in man’. This has recently been discovered in fact by Simon Keynes, it’s in one of the naval colleges at Shrivenham, where until recently it was believed to have been by a favourite pupil of Sir Thomas Lawrence, a man called Samuel Lane.
Well he rose to become a Vice Admiral, Robert FitzRoy, and he was a colourful, complex character, troubled by his ‘blue devils’ and there are a number of letters in the archives here, others in The Cambridge University Library too, that give us insights into his extraordinary personality. There is no evidence whatsoever though that he was a fundamentalist Christian during the Beagle voyage. We’ve got evidence to suggest the reverse, that he was questioning, like so many others, the age of the world and the fact that actually creatures weren’t fixed, that they were kind of changing.
Now here we’ve got this extraordinary sort of portrait but we do know that what is certainly true, the evidence supports it, is that as soon as he [FitzRoy] returns he gets married, perhaps he was secretly engaged throughout the course of the Beagle voyage, something he kept secret from Darwin, his mess mate and companion. And in fact he chose Darwin to keep him on an even mental keel in many ways. He was conscious of a family history of depression and suicide, his maternal uncle Lord Castlereagh had slit his throat with a razor.
But when he does return, he does convert and he becomes literally a believer in all of the actual words of the bible and he can’t really stomach the fact that he gives Darwin the opportunity to collect the evidence to support on The Origin of Species.
Well let’s return now to the early years of our emerging naturalist hero. Born in Shrewsbury of course, this is the big year and I think this is a very evocative, wonderful pastoral portrait [shows image] that you can see in the living room of Down House. Ellen Sharples is the pastorist who gives us the boy Charley Darwin here, holding one of the botanical specimens, a collection formed largely in fact by one of his famous grandfathers, Erasmus Darwin of course, who’d written earlier about evolutionary thinking, a scientist and inventor.
On the other side of the family, of course, were the Wedgewoods, so the sorts of qualities and characteristics we’re looking at really now in terms of what he brings on board the actual Beagle. He loved experimenting, in the sort of garden shed, sort of laboratory that he set up with his brother Erasmus. He had all the sisters, the brother Erasmus of course and there’s the youngest sister Catty.
Well, in fact, his father Robert Darwin the sympathetic, intuitive doctor who’d made a lot of money in fact by packaging financial loans into mortgages I think is the word, which when I first said that four months ago there was hissing from the back of the room [laughter]. But that’s where a lot of the money came from in terms of the Darwin family. So lots from the Wedgewoods and also lots from the Darwins too. I mean theoretically he didn’t actually have to work so it’s to Darwin’s credit that really he used his skills and his experience to incredible effect and for public benefit.
His father thought that he was going to be a disgrace to himself and his family. He thought that the things that he was interested and passionate about like shooting, he was a crack shot, rat catching, hunting, shooting, fishing. Well, of course, all of those things that his father thought were a complete waste of time came together for brilliant effect on the Beagle voyage itself.�
Shrewsbury school was nearby which he went to and which he hated and then he was packed off to Edinburgh University at the age of 16 to become a doctor and good things were learnt there including taxidermy, he joined his brother up there. But he couldn’t stomach the anatomy lessons. He couldn’t actually stomach the blood either.
So a compromise career path of a countryside clergyman was in fact arranged through his father and he went up ultimately to Christ College, Cambridge. Now there, although he was doing a Bachelor of Arts degree it was the public lectures that were of particular interest to him. John Stevens Henslow, the Professor of Botany, Geology of course, those were the subjects that really turned him on, less to do with the general Arts degree.
And, in fact, he was selected via The Hydrographic Office. FitzRoy was looking for this unique position for Beagle’s second voyage, looking for somebody who could be a scientist it’s true but also a gentleman companion. Initially Henslow himself, the Professor of Botany, was perhaps one of the first in the frame, maybe he could go but he decided not to go for family reasons.
But this is about as close as we can get to what he looked like when he was on the Beagle voyage [shows image]. Although to be truthful it’s painted a few years after he returned by George Richmond who’s the artist, it’s in the living room of Down House, to mark his marriage and you can see there’s none of that sort of birds nest beard. Some good side whiskers are in evidence here.
But I think it’s a very revealing portrait on a number of different levels because Henslow is conscious that of course he had a lot of fine tutoring in various natural history subjects but he puts him forward to Beaufort, the head of The Hydrographic Office, not as finished naturalist but somebody that had received good tutoring, but somebody that was brilliant, an enquiring mind at asking questions.
And that in a sense was the sort of genius of the choice, of this particular person who really wasn’t at this stage a specialist in any particular area. Geology, it comes out, is a preferred area once he embarks on the Beagle voyage.
Let’s characterise it further, he’s somebody it turns out that could actually make the connections across thousands of miles between the people and places, between the flora and fauna. Let’s break it down even further, he’s somebody that’s able actually to see and separate the wood and also the trees too.
Well moving to an image, of course, [this is] the key person running alongside the Darwin story as already started in my introduction. Without FitzRoy there is no Charles Darwin. He’d taken temporary command of Beagle during her first voyage, we’ll get to the first voyage and how it interconnects with the second in just a moment.
I think this a very revealing portrait by Philip Gidley King [shows image] who was a midshipman onboard the second voyage who shared, it’s believed, the space in the poop cabin to the stern of the ship that we’ll see in a diagram later. And here [FitzRoy ] is somebody who has an aristocratic air, certainly he was of aristocratic stock, he was the son of The Duke of Grafton. But there is also something sort of emotionally wound up about this particular man and it is certainly true that Darwin and other officers helped to keep him on an even keel.
He threatened to resign his command because he spiralled into a depression on the second voyage. Though his father was a military man, at the age of 12 he was packed off to the Royal Navy College at Portsmouth. And there he excelled as a cadet. One or two letters survived that you can see in the Cambridge University Library. He passed, in fact, the exams very swiftly with full numbers and there, of course, he was taught everything to do with seafaring but he was particularly interested in the drawing as well because these particular naval cadets, these officers in waiting were in fact given special instruction into how to draw and to use watercolour by a Professor of Drawing there, at The Royal Naval College that survived in Portsmouth until 1837.
The Professor of Drawing was a man called John Christian Schetky. Now we don’t have a portrait of him but we know he was born in Edinburgh and we also know that he was a mainstream maritime artist who knew all about technical detail and he exhibited at The Royal Academy of Arts. And Turner, in J.M.W Turners’ popular painting, well known of course, of The Battle of Trafalgar that we can see here [shows image] drawn from The National Maritime Museum collections. When Turner wanted accurate images of The Victory that you can see in the centre, who did he turn to? He wrote in fact to Schetky at Portsmouth.
And the ship had returned after the battle, and it wasn’t necessarily Turner’s fault entirely or Schetky’s, but the drawings that he sent to Turner were of The Victory after she had returned and she was unladen. So they’d taken off cannon and stores. So she is too high out of the water. So when this painting was unveiled at Saint James’ Palace in 1824 in front of The King and also Hardy of course who knew all about the ship, Hardy allegedly moved towards the painting screaming at the top of his voice ‘My God’ he said ‘she looks more like a row of houses than a ship of the line’ such was the different approach of nautical accuracy versus the artistic interpretation of these particular events.
But FitzRoy used his skills, of course they weren’t taught by that professor to create pretty pictures or marine subjects necessarily, but to make images of coastal profiles of which many are here [The National Archives] transferred from The Hydrographic Office into the collections that you can see by special appointment.
So the purposes of seafaring and navigation, landfalls, enemy fortifications, things like that, but many of those officers went on to supplement their money or half pay by making images of ships and landscapes and many exhibited at The Royal Academy of Arts as well.
The first voyage of the Beagle, well it links up of course to that Battle of Trafalgar picture. What were we doing? What was Britain doing? By the end of The Napoleonic Wars the likes of Nelson and Wellington of course, what happens? Well Britain with a few interruptions essentially rules the seas.
So we go off, we’re running down the numbers of The Navy but we go off exploring and surveying. Essentially in terms of the priority of continents and countries South America is fairly close to top of the list. There’s all sorts of countries there that could be of benefit to Britain.
But, of course, there was no point in creating relationships and trying to trade in the absence of accurate sea charts. So that’s why The Hydrographic Office was sending Beagle on her first voyage from 1826 to 1830 to go down to South America and in particular Tierra Del Fuego, to make accurate sea charts so we could sail to and from.
The first commander of the Beagle, a man called Pringle Stokes, baptised in Chertsey we know, there are some records of her here and also his will is in The Public Record Office. Now the poor chap, he’d had a sort of middlingly successful kind of career before he was promoted to Commander and on the 12th August 1828, you can see he was buried on the western part of Tierra del Fuego in The Magellan Straits.
He’d got ground down by the arduous nature of the surveying work, the atrocious weather conditions. Scurvy had broken out on the ship, he lacked the kind of inspirational command of Robert FitzRoy. He locked himself in his cabin for two weeks, placed a pistol to his head and pulled the trigger. But he made a bit of hash of it so in fact his will was drawn up on board the Beagle and that’s what in the collections here and there’s a certain irony when he starts off by saying ‘I’m in sound mind and body’ because clearly he wasn’t, there was a state of delirium which he was kicking in and out of, a very frustrating time.
But this ‘death vacancy’ in The Navy as it’s called gave Robert FitzRoy the opportunity, who was down there serving on a ship. The last ship that he was on, in fact before he joins the Beagle, was the flagship of a South American station, a ship called the Ganges, commanded by Robert Otway. Otway decided that he [FitzRoy] would be an appropriate person to take the command of the Beagle.
Now in this image here you can just see that this land of fire, Tierra del Fuego, a name given to this area, this is the southern tip of South America, by Ferdinand Magellan, this earlier Portuguese born explorer who in 1520 had discovered this important strait here linking up, of course, the Atlantic to the Pacific.
And The Beagle Channel was discovered during Beagle’s first voyage too. Woollya becomes an important point in terms of our story. It’s what happens during this first voyage that if you like if the death of Pringle Stokes is the starting gun. Then essentially it’s the natives of this area, the Fuegayans that are the catalysts for the Beagle returning again with FitzRoy on board and the selection of Charles Darwin.
So, to move through to our next image. Although this is in fact an image by Conrad Martens who was FitzRoys’ replacement artist on the second voyage it does the job here of invoking what happens during this crucial moment. FitzRoy’s doing brilliant surveying work making accurate sea charts, maps of the sea. When one day a group of Fuegayans steal one of his ships boats that are so important for this surveying work he’s furious, he breaks with Admiralty instructions and he decides in course of events to take four of them as hostages on board the ship, initially to get his boat back.
But that fails and he comes up with an even more radical scheme to take them back to England. It turns out they’re actually educated in an infants school in Walthamstow.
After nine months which was a bit earlier than he had originally planned, he was hoping for two to three years to keep them in Britain, something might have happened, I’m not too sure what, he decides, they’re introduced in fact to the King and Queen, that he’s going to return them. Initially he had a promise from the Admiralty to give him a ship that they would be returned, the three that survived, and they will create a missionary settlement down in Tierra del Fuego that would be of use to visiting British seafarers.
That is the real reason why Beagle sailed again but, of course, the Admiralty couldn’t just justify a trip to re-drop off natives to their homeland. So it had to be a continuation of surveying work and it also had to as it turned out fix various longitudinal measurements in continents and countries around the world.
This is one of the engravings from the official narrative of 1839 [shows image]. FitzRoy, in fact, drew the original drawings, watercolours, for many of the images. Now his original drawings are missing as far as we know, we are yet to locate them.
But three [Fuegayans] survive, the one who died was given the appropriate name, actually it wasn’t that appropriate, was given the name Boat Memory because of apparently the memory of where the boat had gone, it turned out to be a rather bad memory.
There was another one called York Minster, imagine that, a real colonial name isn’t it? This is basically a chap who was named after an island with a rock on it down in Tierra del Fuego that Captain Cook earlier thought resembled that ecclesiastical building. And he was sort of villain of the peace if you like.
Now this chap [shows image] was the favourite one, Jemmy Button, who was good natured (Darwin actually enjoyed his company), loved wearing his European clothes and his shiny shoes and he was lured on board the Beagle by a shiny mother of pearl button.
And there was a young girl as well around eight or nine years of age called Fuega Basket and her name, the surname, alludes to the makeshift coracle or basket shaped craft that the men who’d lost their boat construct to get back to the Beagle itself.
Now the narrative of 1839 is four volumes and you can see them here [The National Archives] and in various other collections. Now FitzRoy compiles the first and the second, the third is Charles Darwin’s, that’s later renamed ‘The Voyage of the Beagle’ and the fourth is essentially a lengthy appendix.
And here’s some images [shows images] from the John Murray archives that show you the ship, interior views of the ship are as rare as hen’s teeth. This shows us here the upper image which is the poop cabin because FitzRoy was determined that he was going to have for this return voyage the finest equipped ship. He dug deep in his own pockets, his family fortune he managed to get through all of that and some by the end of his relatively short life. He was paying for, in fact, various instruments on board. She carried 22 chronometers. He made sure the cannon were replaced from iron to brass so they wouldn’t actually interfere with the instruments and £200 a year he was paying for his first artist, as you’ll see there’s a replacement artist too.
Born in the year of Nelson’s death FitzRoy, he was conscious of that and he had the famous signal ‘England Expects’ drawn around the wheel that we can see here [shows image]. That’s where the ship was managed on the poop deck up here giving orders and instructions below. And this is the space here, that’s the doorway you can see here leading into the cabin that was dominated by the large charting table.
So it’s this area that’s replicated on the first floor of Down House and it was a woeful lack of space, it’s certainly true. Darwin was a good six footer in terms of height and he would have had to have crouched and the poor chap was seasick for most of the time.
Although let’s just sort of focus on that for a moment because two thirds of Darwin’s time was actually spent on land and in terms of the focus of the voyage to South America, that was two thirds of the time too. This is the area here, this section [shows image] where Darwin actually slung his hammock and more or less middle of the table there is where he would do his work and examine his specimens as well.
Now it’s a little bit difficult to read some of this writing but I’m sure that you can recognise the shapes of the continents and the countries but it turns into the lion’s share of five years.
Now Darwin, in fact, at Cambridge before he got this opportunity from FitzRoy to Francis Beaufort, who was head of The Hydrographic Office, was planning his own expedition. He was fired up by the writings of Alexander Von Humboldt and his dream destination was in fact Tenerife. Now sadly they don’t call at Tenerife because the officials there think the Beagle is carrying Cholera on board.
Well finally with all the delays that have happened she leaves on the 27th of December 1831. Maybe it was a bit ambitious to leave the day after Christmas and Darwin writes rather humorously about this. ‘We didn’t leave’ he says ‘on the 26th of December because most of the men on board are horribly drunk’. And if you want to see the accounts and also the various logbooks are here in The Public Records Office, most of the punishments which are written up here relate to the outward legs of the Beagle so there were floggings that in fact Darwin was horrified by, men were put in irons and also disrated as well.
But as you now know, of course the truth, ultimately they’re moving their way down too and they’re doing surveying work and measurements and Darwin is exploring as often as possible but ultimately they’re down here to establish this Christian missionary settlement and they [the Fugeyans] quickly revert to their native state, it is something of a disaster.
But it’s not Darwin that drives them towards the Galapagos. What’s interesting is that if you look at the Admiralty instructions it’s the Navy, The Navy needs more credit this year in terms of really making this happen with the Admiralty, of course, the executive board if you like, behind. It’s those instructions that say we want to fix chronometric positions around the world and that’s what basically drove them to the Galapagos here.
There’s actually no mention of New Zealand in the Admiralty instructions but ultimately from the Galapagos where they were only here for five weeks they move on to Tahiti, that is mentioned in the instructions. FitzRoy decides, because he has this flexibility and leeway, to stop in The Bay of Islands in New Zealand. He departs for Australia, the Indian Ocean, the Cocos Keeling Islands where he did Darwin some remarkable research work in terms of the origins of coral reefs, Mauritius, of course, Cape Town and then eventually the homeward legs.
But the man really who fired me up, my starting point for my work, was Sir Joseph Banks. My fascination initially was the voyages of Cook. But I was really surprised when I came across it and it wasn’t a discovery of mine really. We’re so fortunate in that basically when lots of other people are doing research work on different areas if you’re on the internet now and you can find out various letters to do with Joseph Banks.
And my starting point was well here is a man who was on Captain Cook’s first voyage, he’d put in £10,000 of his own money. He’s really the one who helps to sort of get off the ground in the formal way the idea of taking artists, illustrators, botanists and scientists on board ships.
Painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds, he was president of The Royal Society for more than 40 years. So he dies in 1820. Now the first artist that Robert FitzRoy selects had earlier written to Sir Joseph Banks, this is a man called Augustus Earle, who we’ll see in a second.
And it was a wonderful letter, that’s here [The National Archives], and the response. So it was really a link between the 18th Century and the early decades of the 19th. Augustus Earle was writing to Sir Joseph Banks because he was a powerful career gatekeeper and with his influence he could make sure that you got on board a ship and, of course, for an artist this could basically take you to new lands, see new subjects and you could make a fortune by selling these pictures when you got back.
So in early January 1818 Augustus Earle writes to Sir Joseph Banks. At that point he is unsuccessful. However he is finally successful when he manages to curry favour through his half brother to FitzRoy.
Now Augustus Earle is FitzRoy’s first artist and I’m sure that the reason he was also selected was that the half brother was an already established naval officer and surveyor called William Henry Smyth. Now he’s known as Mediterranean Smyth because of his remarkable survey work and it would make sense for FitzRoy to select an artist who had an influential brother who is already successful in a field in which he, FitzRoy, wanted to excel.
And he’s a really quirky artist [shows image]. Here he is actually on one of his historic wanderings. He’d been to many of the continents and countries that Beagle was going to call in before he joined the Beagle voyage.
Here he is in the early 1820’s [shows image] stranded on the Southern Atlantic island of Tristan de Cunha, scanning the horizon in the search of hopefully finding a ship to take him off, with his dog by his side. This small scale watercolour is now in The National Library of Australia.
Of American parents, he was born in London and probably received some tuition from Benjamin West. But his quirky line, his portraits and figures which FitzRoy adored seemed to fit more squarely with the genre of caricature, something mildly amusing and quirky about his particular way that he arranges his compositions.
And at Greenwich, the museum where I used to work, we have two oil paintings that were exhibited at The Royal Academy in the penultimate year of his short life. In 1837 they were exhibited. He’s a chap in fact who only lived into his 40’s.
Now he also lived for a while in a cottage with Charles Darwin, just outside Rio de Janeiro and Darwin talks about this artist being of an openly licentious nature, or a bit of a goer I suppose you’d say in today’s parlance. So perhaps that helped to contribute to his early demise. He was also something of a heavy drinker as well.
For some time these images, these paintings , which in fact he’s mainly known through his watercolours, were thought to be the Beagle but in fact they’re a much larger vessel, almost certainly HMS Hyperion that was also in South American waters. This is a mid-shipman’s berth [shows image]. So [like] Nelson, of course, FitzRoy would have started as a mid-shipman. And they were given ongoing artistic training and there is a portfolio of coastal profiles that you can see on the deck just here.
And again there are many, many missing watercolours particularly in terms of Earle. Some are coming to light but those that relate to the narrative engravings� I have this dream again of going to a boot sale and finding a portfolio of washed drawings, I’m sure we all do. And if we did it would be millions of pounds I’m sure.
But he captures the excitement of this ceremony, crossing the equator, crossing the line on the 17th of February 1832. The ship crossed the line for the first time.
Darwin’s seafaring experience was very limited up to this point. He’d actually been to France and back on one of those Channel packets. Now there was a stop further up in Brazil in Bahia, which will give us a story in terms of slavery because it is certainly true that Robert FitzRoy had a hot temper.
Darwin in terms of his own observations swings backwards and forwards. Sometimes he describes his commander, his captain, as the beau ideal of a captain but others something of a tyrannical captain as well.
Although it’s certainly true that FitzRoy was firm but fair in fact he inspired loyalty. Many of the men had served with him before so certainly he wasn’t and out and out tyrannical captain, that’s certainly true.
But the influence of Earle, I think, is also evident in a number of works because [of] the way he organised himself, his field notebooks for example. Well living together with Earle, we do know that Earle and Darwin climbed up part of the Corcovado mountain range together. Now from an artistic point of view it’s obvious, isn’t it, that you want to go up to a great height. You’ve got your sketch books. You’re doing your sketches, your drawings, before the advent of the camera.
This is a small scale watercolour from The National Library of Australia by Augustus Earle and that’s a self portrait of him. There’s the Sugarloaf Mountain that now has a cable car attached to it and not far from this spot is where the famous statue of Christ the Redeemer is. So while he was doing his sketches and drawings of course, Darwin was making his word pictures if you like. These wonderful observations with the pen and his notebook.
Now Earle also gives us a wonderful evocation relating to carnival time, dancing, and� using some of his titles here he talks about Earle, negro slavery and punishments as well.
Well, one of the big fallings out was relating to slavery. The Wedgewoods and the Darwins were liberal Whigs who were very much against slavery. FitzRoy was an ardent Tory who believed it was a necessary evil. And at one particular point Darwin’s bags were packed but eventually the apology came through.
Darwin’s father was paying for his son to participate in this voyage. More than £1,500, probably closer to the lion’s share of £2,000 is what Darwin’s father spent on his participation. He could have bought a house with that in England at the time. But this was crucial because Darwin, in fact, was not subjected to the usual naval discipline and command and he was free to leave the expedition whenever he wanted to. So this gave him a form of independence.
Although the specimens and the things that were being shipped back on a regular basis via naval ship and merchant ship and letters from home were coming via packet ships. Well the actual items themselves, the specimens, strictly speaking were his personal property but he ensured, of course Darwin did, that they were used for public benefit.
And you can see how far we’ve voyaged so far in terms of opening up the likes of FitzRoy and others, this crude triangular shape of Tierra del Fuego into well clearly a remarkable series of little inlets, of little islands and archipelagos, a whole series of penetrating surveying work.
The place they’re going to settle, these three surviving Fuegayans is Woollya that you can see here [shows image] although in fact they’re from different tribes.
And this relates because we can see poor old Augustus Earle towards the end of 1832 and the beginning of 1833 is invalided out of the expedition through sickness and he goes back home. And the replacement artist called Conrad Martens is going to be the man who is going to visualise many of these places along with some images from the zoology of the Beagle.
And Conrad Martens was sailing coincidentally on his own independent voyage on a naval ship called The Hyacinth sailing from Plymouth. And he’d heard once his vessel had called into Rio de Janeiro of this vacancy onboard the Beagle.
Well he was determined he was going to get this position and presumably he had the same terms and conditions as Augustus Earle, £200 a year and of course board and lodgings, if you like, on board the Beagle. And this is a self portrait of him, a very different personality, more studious, more introverted, something of the bearded adventurer about this picture which is from The Mitchell Library in Australia.
And his forte was landscapes and topographical works. Although he had German forbears he was born in the City of London. And he studied under the very extravagantly named landscape artist and teacher Anthony Vandyke Copley Fielding, that’s a series of names, isn’t it? And John Ruskin had also studied under that particular teacher too.
He also was very highly influenced like so many artists by the work of JMW Turner. And there’s no doubt that Martens assisted FitzRoy in creating some of his own compositions that were engraved in the series of works generally known by the reduced name of ‘The Narrative’, the narrative of the two surveying voyages of Beagle.
Well this is Woollya [image] where they were settled together and they, in fact, were also inspirational in terms of Darwin’s thinking. One story that hasn’t come out so far is that Darwin and others, they noticed on board the Beagle that the Fuegayans had excellent eyesight. They could see ships and boats on the horizon long before the Europeans.
Whirring around, pondering, Darwin, why is that? Of course all about environment, faculties had, of course, increased to become advanced shall we say depending on their needs, hunting, of course, very useful to have excellent eyesight. Darwin talks about also the incredibly useless range of gifts that they were given to help with the civilising missionary colony.
And there was a missionary, the Reverend Richard Matthews, here too. They were given, for example, large numbers of fine tea and coffee services and napkins as well. I think you can get the point that was pretty utterly useless.
Some have suggested that this image by Conrad Martens in a private collection might be Jemmy Button after he’s reverted to his state. What is true is that FitzRoy had a large number of portfolios around him in Britain when he got back. And he was collaborating with a number of engravers including Thomas Landseer, brother of the famous Edwin Landseer. And he was arranging them into animated more exciting compositions.
For example here we can see ‘The Wigwam’ as they were called, they were somewhat nomadic in existence, is in the background. There’s not much of an enlarged family group here and there’s no sign of any animal life down here. But when this appeared in ‘The Narrative’ engraving of 1839 I think very clearly we can see that The Wigwam is now in close up view, with the family group, and a dog has appeared just so.
And again the relationship of these people and their environment and the Europeans; Darwin was pondering in terms of trying to place all of us, if you like, in the Universe.
This is the most famous portrait, image of the Beagle with possibly, again the suggestion of this may be Jemmy Button waving goodbye to the Beagle in Murray Narrows. And if you want to see this little watercolour, about eight inches by about 11 inches or so, go into Darwin’s study in Down House and immediately on the right hand side you can enjoy this little watercolour.
Towards the end of 1834, from Valparaiso, Conrad Martens actually leaves the expedition and makes his way ultimately to Australia and when the Beagle finally meets up there with him he becomes a founding father of colonial art there.
Well Darwin acquires a couple of watercolours and writes back to his father saying he’s been a bit extravagant. He’s bought two watercolours for six guineas. So we know that this one cost three guineas. But it is one of the most evocative watercolours from this particular Beagle voyage. Here’s some of the key places that we’re going to look at through the eyes of Conrad Martens and others, the area where Montevideo up here where poor old Augustus Earle leaves the expedition. An interesting fossil found in Bahia Blanca that we can see here, a key area of Southern Argentina, Patagonia, this place here, this fishing port that we’re going to look at in detail, a river trip on the river Santa Cruz rounding Cape Horn up to Chiloe Island and up to Valparaiso before we complete our voyage.
And at Bahia Blanca, this was in fact featured in the zoology of the Beagle, a series of illustrated works with some introductions by Darwin who edited them that came out in parts from 1838 to 1843 or so, sponsored in fact by the British Government to the tune of a thousand pounds.
And this is known as a Megatherium. It’s a giant ground sloth like a huge bear with a bit of a monkey about it. But clearly fossils that were found there in some cases, there was evidence Darwin could see of creatures much smaller scale that were in existence that related to these fossils of creatures that had died out.
Clearly evidence that seems to disprove, and Darwin’s not alone, that the bible says what the world is 4,000 years old, 6,000 years old and that all the creatures were created together. Well of course in terms of the voyage as we all know this is exactly what Darwin puts together, the reverse of that. Of course the world is millions of years old, much more as we know today and of course creatures changed, evolved and adapted over a long period of time as well.
So he was already famous before he returned home. These things were crated up and shipped back to the Cambridge men and examined. And parts of his journals were also sent back as well. So he was already a celebrated scientist.
Other types of natives were of importance to his ponderings and thinkings, and they included the Patagonians, a name also derived from Ferdinand Magellan, the Spanish word Pata [for] foot or leg. And Darwin talks about their incredible height and the extra illusion of height as well because they wore these long Guanaco mantles and straggly hair.
And inshore seashells were discovered, now why on earth would seashells be there in terms of � So clearly and he was influenced by Charles Lyle’s principles of Geology, the actual earth’s surface itself had changed dramatically. So [you have] all sorts of little pointers and evidence that gave rise to support The Origin of Species.
Later on of course FitzRoy’s conversion meant that he then used the evidence of seashells inland in Patagonia as evidence of Noah’s flood.
This is an important area, Port Desire, [in] which you can see the Beagle with an additional surveying vessel called Adventure. This is from one of the sketch books of Conrad Martens from the Cambridge University Library. And this is a game that was very popular in the navy during this period which you no longer play because of various health and safety reasons. What you do is you create a tripod and you strap a seaman upside down by his legs and you blindfold him and you give him a stick. The other chaps surrounding the tripod have got sticks and they are beating you about the body and the person. But if you blindfolded, with a stick, upside down can hit one of these chaps they have to take your place. Play slinging the monkey, usually it was a barrel but I think FitzRoy thought that this was quite exciting and motivating to divert the men to use a live person in slinging the monkey.
But in this area there was also a little mini eureka moment because Conrad Martens was not only a very gifted artist but he was a good shot. The Gauchos had told Charles Darwin about the existence of a lesser Rhea, a type of Ostrich in a way. He’d seen the larger one and he was wondering why you would have two creatures, one bigger, one smaller, living so closely together. What’s that all about?
Well he wanted to see a smaller one. Conrad Martens had shot one. It was actually on Darwin’s plate with some of his other fellows when what happened was there was this little mini eureka moment and Darwin showing how persuasive and charming he could be persuaded his fellow chaps to back off the meal. Reassembling the bits, pack them up, crated and ship them back to Cambridge where John Gould the artist and ornithologist created this image from the zoology of the Beagle. Which for a time [this bird] was named Rhea Darwinii. So in a sense that’s another one of those little golden moments in terms of the voyage of the Beagle.
The Falkland Islands was captured in this small scale letterbox composition by Martens here. This is the eastern island of the Falklands where fossils were found, roots were pulled but one of the creatures, in fact really the main quadroped on the island fascinated Darwin and again it became part of the series of evidence for the Origin of Species. I’m talking about the Falklands Fox with its wolf like characteristics. It’s got a white tip actually at the tail and Darwin observed that it was fairly tame, that it has different markings and a slightly different shaped head to those foxes on the mainland.
And he’s pondering, how on earth, why do these creatures seem to differ to those on the mainland? It’s all about environment of course but these again are questions that he puts together and finds the evidence to support his controversial theory.
Here I think we’ve got a very good example of the use of the small boats captured [shows image] in a small scale that he’s brilliant Martens at giving us this expanse of space. So, on this remarkable small boat expedition you can see part of the southern chain of the Cordilleras Mountains in the background here.
Now just to the left hand side there is a column of men who are pulling lines that connect to these three ships’ boats and Darwin is amongst those men there, active and full of vitality and vigour as you can see. And they manage to travel some 200 miles pulling often against the tide. As you can see they turn back eventually because they are actually running short of supplies.
It is less about botanical images. It’s certainly more about images relating to people, places, buildings and architecture. And after we’ve rounded Cape Horn here Darwin was fascinated and Martens too by the architecture of the buildings of Chiloe Island and they manage to accurately survey the island and they work out she is the lion’s share of 120 miles from top to bottom, about 40 miles in terms of width. She’s got mountains across her range so she’s got a fascinating series of different micro-climates.
Here’s one of Marten’s watercolours showing that interest in the buildings with lots of really fascinating colonial buildings that go back to the 16th Century when the Jesuits and the various Spanish missionaries were first active on this island.
Well, moving up the coast this is a lady of Lima and it’s captured in a series of amateurish watercolours but nonetheless some spirited, in fact by Charles Darwin’s assistant. His father found an additional £60 a year to pay for an assistant for all the various topics and subjects he was covering. Basically Syms Covington was his name, this 19 year old lad from Bedfordshire was helping him shooting and pack up and crate up specimens.
Now he kept a journal, and it’s now in The Mitchell Library, and this is a lady of Lima relating to when they called into of course Peru, into the port there to Callao. Charles Darwin, when you read his writings, gets incredibly excited about these ladies of Lima, the tight fitting elasticating gown, he gets excited about that, and also the single eye full of expression poking through. And so excited was he that he writes back home to his sisters suggesting that they adopt this fashionable dress. Marvellous isn’t it? They don’t as far as we can gather but what a fabulous image created and you can see [that] in the journal from The Mitchell Library.
Now the place that we’ve all heard of, which you now know of course they visited through the Admiralty instructions, it wasn’t as many of us think Darwin stepping on a ship and going off having his own way. Of course he was hugely independent but they were here essentially to do scientific measurements and various surveys and here from the 15th [August] to the 20th [September] 1835 was a five week period where you can see in the black dots that most of the stopovers related to Chatham Island, for example, as it was called there. You’ve got Charles Island, James. Now the tortoise you’ve probably all heard of, Lonesome George, comes from this island right at the top there.
And there were no eureka moments in the Galapagos, in fact he overlooked so much obvious evidence that was under his nose in many cases but he is able to piece it together with the help of others later on.
This is a lovely image showing Darwin testing the speed of a tortoise and even though he’d been told by a governor of one of the islands that [with] the shapes of the shells this governor could tell which tortoise had come from which island because of the shapes of those shells.
Some of the shapes of the shells of the tortoises were dome shaped whereby clearly the head of the tortoise could access food closer to the ground. Whereas, and this is where the Spanish word comes from, there was a type of shape of a shell called a saddleback where it goes up like that [shows on image] where clearly the creature needed to access food higher up. So they had adapted and evolved, fit for purpose if you like, those beneficial characteristics have been passed down depending on where those particular tortoises actually lived.
He used to climb on their backs as well and do experiments with them. He in fact opened up the stomachs of some of the marine iguanas that were very fit for purpose along the actual coasts and he did an experiment on some of those iguanas too by trying to find out how long they could hold their breath for by strapping a rope around one with rocks and sinking it and then pulling it up.
But I’m sure you’ve all heard of course about the finches in terms of the Galapagos but uncharacteristically Charles Darwin’s cataloguing and labelling at this particular period was rather slapdash and in fact when he returned home he had to borrow more accurately catalogued images, shall we say specimens of birds from Robert FitzRoy who was happy to oblige.
And what John Gould came back with was really groundbreaking stuff in that Darwin thought he’d collected together a disparate group of birds but John Gould came back and said actually they’re all part of the finch family. So what clearly had happened is that you’ve got on different islands over a long period of time the beak of the finch [changing]. Large beaks had changed and adapted for crushing things perhaps, whereas on some islands you’ve got this small tapering beak for catching insects and for using for tools.
Now the eureka moment was really on the homeward legs where Darwin had accurately labelled and catalogued some mockingbirds and he was noticing that the bodies and the beaks were different, and the markings. That really was the first kind of point if you like for him talking about the stability or unstability of the species.
Well, finally they return home to Falmouth initially where Darwin can’t wait, he gets hugely homesick. Of course he’s taken part like the rest of them in the stopovers in Tahiti, where in fact they had a very warm colourful welcome. But Darwin describes Tahiti as a fallen paradise. In New Zealand there are some important things going on there, they had a lukewarm welcome but FitzRoy and Darwin were very impressed with the missionaries and their work. They certainly inspired FitzRoy by saying ‘Look, your idea of a missionary colony in Tierra del Fuego hasn’t worked but it’s an important first step’.
And there was a longer stopover in Australia as well where Darwin marvels at the diversity of life, the mammals, the kangaroos and talks about there being two creators at work. But he also comes up with some interesting kinds of words of which I’ve slightly scrambled them. I’ll probably use them next year when I’m in Australia.
Because he was very unimpressed with Australia, Darwin describes it more or less along the lines of these words � ‘as a rising, arrogant infant’.
Now next year in Australia should I use those words? [laughter]. I think so. A slight distortion of Darwin’s words but why not?
Well, Fitzroy, of course has got one more job to do, to check the chronometers on board those that are working against those at Greenwich. And after all the calculations are done in taking this chain of chronometric measurements around the world there is a difference of 33 seconds which is quite extraordinary and was one of the supporting points for his election as a fellow of the Royal Society.
He was an infrequent visitor to Down House, was Robert FitzRoy, and somehow although he married twice he didn’t have a partner who could essentially be his rock or his anchor. Darwin had that in Emma Wedgwood. She shielded him from society. She enabled him to undertake his research work and his correspondence. She was one factor in a series of different sorts of facets really, different reasons why he didn’t want to publish on the Origin of Species during his own lifetime but of course he was flushed out and forced to by the arrival of the manuscript by the rival naturalist specimen seller Alfred Russel Wallace.
And the sadness I think is clear here in a sense that Robert FitzRoy, lacking this rock, lacking this anchor really wanted to do things for public benefit but somehow always felt let down. Surrounded by family and friends, he was in fact gradually spiralling out of control in terms of depression.
He’d had a spectacularly varied career. MP for Durham, temporarily he was governor of New Zealand. He was involved actually supervising a new type of screw propelled craft for the Navy. But it is I suppose that as the founding father of the Met Office that he’s remembered today. His weather forecasts were first published in The Times newspaper in 1860 and of course they were mocked because of the capricious nature of the weather.
And more recently a newspaper journalist compared Robert FitzRoy to Michael Fish (the great storm) [laughter]. But sadly in many ways FitzRoy, what I hope is coming across is that I’m a huge fan and supporter of him, he didn’t have the sense of humour, he wasn’t able to shrug things off. Perhaps he needed a thicker skin. And those criticisms against the weather forecasts, the fact that he was really over worked and stressed and maybe the connection with allowing Darwin to achieve what he had achieved meant that he spiralled out of control. Ultimately he was bankrupt and took his own life on 30th April 1865.
And Darwin and some of the other ‘Beaglers’ as they were called raised a relief fund of £3,000 to clear FitzRoy’s debts and Queen Victoria offered a grace and favour apartment at Hampton Court.
Well for many years later of course, FitzRoy dies at 59, Darwin was 73, he had many more research projects and writings to get through, he dies with family and friends around him. And Darwin dies far from bankrupt. He’s one of the wealthiest men in Britain leaving an estate valued at a quarter of a million pounds. And it wasn’t his wish to be buried in Westminster Abbey but some of his keen supporters such as Huxley too who could have been, well Huxley, Hooker, and Wallace is the one I think I’m thinking of here, who could have been jealous today. He could have rushed out his publication but he was very deferential to Charles Darwin.
And I suppose we remember Charles Darwin today above all as a writer. Although he had a number of regrets in life, one of them was that he couldn’t draw, he would have loved to have been able to draw. One Victorian critic, probably William Broderick described Charles Darwin as a first rate landscape painter with a pen.
Thank you very much indeed for listening.