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Duration 22.27

Darwin’s voyage: HMS Beagle 1831-1836

In 1831, in his twenties and fresh out of university, Charles Darwin set sail aboard HMS Beagle on the expedition of a lifetime, into literally uncharted waters and a series of discoveries that would form the basis of his later pioneering work on the origin of species.
Join the Past Masters team as we delve into the Archives to find out where Darwin went, what life on the Beagle was like and to discover how the most exciting gap year in history went on to change the face of science.

Further Information

You can also read more of Darwin’s letters at the Darwin Correspondence Project and all his published works (including the complete Beagle diary) at The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. is an excellent online introduction to Darwin’s life and scientific work.

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Bob: Hi there, welcome to Past Masters, from the National Archives in London. I’m Bob and this is-

Jo: Jo

Bob: And this is the very first episode in a new series of podcasts where each month we will take a look at a different historical event with the help of a few items from the staggering 178 kilometres of collections we have here at the Archives. Do you want to tell the listening world what we’ve got in store for them?

Jo: Pfff. Gosh. Love letters, secret service files, six million maps, Christmas cards, photographs, bar bills, signed confessions, lost property-

Bob: I meant this month.

Jo: Ah, oh yes. This month we are going back to the 1830s. In December 1831, Charles Darwin accepted his first job out of university and at 22 set sail aboard HMS Beagle for South America.

Bob: 22? It’s really hard to think of him being young.

Jo: You need to get those old beardy pictures out of your head. This might be the most important gap year in history. In five years away from home Darwin ate armadillo in Patagonia, made Chilean girls blush, took hallucinogenic drugs, met the Queen of Tahiti, saw cities destroyed and collected plants and animals previously unknown to science.

Bob: Not all at the same time.

Jo: The voyage makes Darwin question some of the most basic scientific principles of his age; ultimately he goes on to rewrite not only science but the whole of human history.

Bob: I’ve got a bunch of stuff from the Archive.

Jo: And so have I.

Bob: And between us and our very talented actors reading from documents from inside and outside the Archives, we are going to try to find out what life aboard the Beagle was like and exactly how the voyage influenced Darwin’s ideas. I’m ready for some titles, I don’t know about you.

Jo: Absolutely.

Bob: So what was Darwin doing on the Beagle in the first place?

Jo: Usually the Ship’s Surgeon is in charge of the science aboard ship. He would be the one to collect and examine the plant and animal species that the ship might come across. But Robert Fitzroy, Captain of the Beagle doesn’t rate his surgeon. He wants a University trained expert aboard. Partly it’s to keep him company.

Bob: Ah, the loneliness of command.

Jo: Pretty much. Halfway through the Beagle’s first surveying mission Captain Stokes locked the door to his cabin and shot himself in the head. It wasn’t a clean shot and he took almost two weeks to die. Fitzroy doesn’t want to go the same way.

Bob: Can’t blame him. Quick change of subject. What’s in those big blue boxes you brought in?

Jo: If I undo these fastenings and pull one out you can see the original handwritten Captain’s Logs of the Beagle.

Bob: Oh wow, so what is Captain Fitzroy writing about? His fiancée in England?

Jo: It’s not exactly that sort of log.

Bob: You mean, he’s not pouring his heart out to it every night?

Jo: No. It’s mainly a very precise record of exactly where the ship sails and the sailing conditions: bearings, wind speed and direction, adjustments to the sails. That sort of thing.

Bob: It’s an official document for the admiralty?

Jo: Yes. But it also shows the pattern of daily life on board ship. And you get a real sense of Fitzroy’s personality from a log entry like:

Fitzroy: Captain’s Log, Monday 26th November 1832. Off Monte Video. Noon…Waiting for Mr. Rowlett, purser, who has not completed his accounts according to positive orders and by his extreme neglect prevented the ship sailing…At 8, ship still waiting. [ADM 51/3054]

Bob: Hmm. Likes things just so.

Jo: Exactly. And that’s how he comes to hire Darwin. Even though he is surrounded by talented officers, Fitzroy wants someone on board who can get the maximum scientific benefit out of the voyage and Darwin ends up being it. He’s not even the first choice, he’s just in the right place at the right time.

Bob: So what is the Beagle actually doing? Why is the expedition happening?

Jo: Captain Fitzroy has been instructed by the Department of Hydrography at the Admiralty to prepare maps of the coast of South America.

Bob: You mean like this one? [FO 925/1220]

Jo: Um. Yes. What’s this exactly?

Bob: This is an 1840 Admiralty map of the east coast of Argentina made from the records kept by the Beagle: Patagonia from Rio Negro to Cape Three Points. There’s an incredible amount of detail around the coastline. You see all the tiny numbers?

Jo: Yes.

Bob: They represent hundreds of depth soundings the Beagle took to help British ships navigate safely along the coast.

Jo: That’s the plan. It’s a round the world tour with a bit of exploring thrown in.

Bob: Who could turn that down?

Jo: Funny story.

Darwin: September the 1st, Shrewsbury. Sir, I take the liberty of writing to you…to acquaint you with my acceptance of the offer of going with Captain Fitzroy…perhaps you may have received a letter…stating my refusal; this was owing to my father not at first approving of the plan, since which time he has reconsidered…therefore if the appointment is not already filled up I shall be very happy to have the honour of accepting it…I remain sir, your humble and obedient servant Charles Darwin. [ADM 1/4541]

Bob: Why is a 22 year old man having to wait for his Dad to say if he can go on a trip or not?

Jo: Darwin isn’t getting paid by the Navy for the voyage, he’s travelling on the Beagle as a passenger, not crew. So it’s Robert Darwin’s money that will make it happen and he thinks the voyage is a very long distraction from proper work. Robert wants Charles to be a clergyman. Now the upside of not working for the Admiralty is Darwin can decide how he wants to go about his research. The downside is he has to find the cash to pay for it.

Bob: How much does it all cost?

Jo: Oh a fortune. His father spends six hundred pounds equipping Darwin for the voyage. He also pays the Navy fifty pounds a year for Darwin’s meals.

Bob: He eats with Captain Fitzroy?

Jo: That’s right. He spends another sixty pounds a year to hire one of the ship’s crew as Darwin’s servant. And that’s just the cost of keeping him aboard. Ashore Darwin travels collecting specimens and hires guides, horses, baggage. It all adds up to over twelve hundred pounds – in today’s money almost a million. But Robert Darwin’s a rich man.

Bob: How much time does Darwin spend ashore?

Jo: Of the five year voyage Darwin actually spent over three years on land collecting plants and animals and examining geology.

Bob: So the Beagle actually spends most of its time in harbour?

Jo: Well, often it’s out surveying near a port while Darwin is further inland, but yes, quite a bit of the time.

Bob: Doesn’t that mean that the sailors aren’t doing that much?

Jo: Not according to the log. If you take a random week when the Beagle’s in port, mid-January 1832 say, you can see the log’s completely full. “Employed turning in and setting up lower rigging afresh.” “Loose lower yards to refit”. “Ropemaker making spun yarn. Armourer at forge.” “Watering ship”. Keeping the ship supplied and the sails in proper order was a full time job.

Fitzroy: Captain’s Log, Monday 27th August 1832. At 6, fell overboard and was lost by the carriage breaking, the 4lb howitzer…September 1st, in heaving up, found the shank of the anchor broken.

Jo: Any damage has to repaired quickly or it could affect the seaworthiness of the ship. And it has to be done properly, because if anything happens the chances of another ship being around to help you are very, very small indeed.

Bob: And the Beagle’s covering vast distances.

Jo: Plymouth to Rio, Montevideo, Buenos Aires, Patagonia, the Falklands, the Galapagos, Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia.

Bob: Tell me about the ship? Is it big?

Jo: No. The Beagle’s less than thirty metres long and not quite eight metres wide. It’s got a crew of 75. There’s not a lot of personal space going on.

Bob: How does Darwin settle in on board?

Jo: Not that well according to his diary.

[Creaking of ship’s timbers]

Darwin: 29th December 1831. We are in the Bay of Biscay and there is a good deal of swell on the sea. I have felt a good deal of nausea several times in the day…the misery…far exceeds what a person would suppose who had never been at sea more than a few days…the only thing my stomach w[ill] bear are biscuits and raisins…But the only sure thing is lying down.

Jo: And he’s not the only one feeling bad. The crew celebrated Christmas Day by getting very, very drunk and the log tells us what happened next.

[The sound of sailors being whipped?]

Fitzroy: Wednesday 28th December 1831. Disrated: William Bruce, able seaman to landsmen for breaking his leave, drunkenness and fighting….Punished: John Bruce, 25 lashes for drunkenness, quarrelling and insolence. David Russel, carpenter’s crew, with 34 lashes for breaking his leave and disobedience of orders. James Phipps, with 44 lashes for breaking his leave, drunkenness and insolence. Elias Davis, 31 lashes for repeated neglect of duty.

Bob: Wow, does that happen a lot?

Jo: Only a few times a year. And generally sailors who have been punished once don’t commit another offence.

Bob: And is it always for drinking?

Jo: Overwhelmingly, yes.

Bob: Where do they get the booze?

Jo: From ashore. Or the ship has vast stores. The log records all the supplies bought for the crew.

Fitzroy: 19th November 1832. Received provisions from His Majesty’s Ship Pylades…74 lbs of fresh beef, 37 lbs of vegetables…310 lbs suet, 10 bushels of peas, 5 bushels of oatmeal, sugar 735 lbs…Rum 484 gallons, Bread 3300 lbs…raisins 1360 lbs, [beans] 50 bushels…cocoa 740 lbs, tea 240 lbs. Vinegar 100 gallons, tobacco 1520 lbs, soap 375 lbs.

Bob: So they smoke more than they wash but get quite a varied diet?

Jo: Yes, and they can supplement it with whatever animals they can catch That can be a problem for Darwin. Animals are less interesting to him once they’ve been stewed and eaten by the crew.

Bob: Did that really happen?

Jo: Darwin liked to tell the story about how, halfway through a delicious meal of ostrich, he suddenly realised that the animal was a species that he didn’t recognise. He had to scrape together the leftovers for his collection. Afterwards it was named Rhea Darwinii in his honour and the way it was different from other Rhea eventually began to give him ideas about speciation; the way in which species develop.

Bob: Lucky the sailors didn’t eat quicker.  Were they a scurvy crew of villainous swabs?

Jo: Have you been watching Pirates of the Caribbean again?

Bob: …No.

Jo: Actually they were a talented bunch. Five of the officers later became admirals. There were three doctors, two artists, an instrument maker, a future MP; these are capable professionals – much more experienced than Darwin. And there’s no scurvy because the doctors on board know the importance of sailors eating the right things.

Fitzroy: Saturday 3rd of January 1835. Moored in Patch Cove, Anna Pitch Bay. AM. Employed mending clothes. Issued pickles to ships company.

Jo: The latest in food technology.

Bob: So they’re healthy?

Jo: Generally.

Fitzroy: 19th May 1832. [At] 8.45 departed this life Mr. Charles Musters, volunteer 1st class…At 1.30 sent the body of the deceased on shore for internment attended by the officers and ships company.

Bob: Is this ship a deathtrap? Crammed full and with really poor sanitation?

Jo: The ship is full but the crew take care to keep things as clean as possible.

Fitzroy: 28th January 1832. Scrubbed and washed clothes. Washed lower deck….Slung clean hammocks, sent a party to haul the sluice.

Jo: Everything is cleaned out every few weeks. But over a five year voyage a few things are bound to happen. A couple of crew get ill in the tropics and die, someone falls overboard. One man dives for a particularly interesting specimen of duck and drowns.

Bob: A few months on a ship and everyone thinks they’re a naturalist.

Jo: Well Darwin isn’t the only one doing science. Many of the ship’s officers were interested in the natural world. After the voyage Captain Fitzroy complained that the crew didn’t get any credit in Darwin’s books even though they had collected a number of the specimens he wrote about. Fitzroy is interested in weather and in the back of each Beagle Log he sets out his own method of describing weather conditions using the new Beaufort Scale to record the strength of the winds from 1 to 12 with a series of letter codes to describe atmospheric conditions.

Fitzroy: By the combination of these letters, all the ordinary phenomena of the weather may be employed with facility and brevity.

Bob: How do Fitzroy and Darwin get on?

Jo: Fitzroy’s a talented officer but he’s quite a difficult character, very moody. He can be quite hard on the crew.

Darwin: His temper was generally worse in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could generally detect something amiss about the ship and was unsparing in his blame. The Junior Officers…used to ask ‘whether much hot coffee had been served out this morning?’ which meant, how was the captain’s temper?

Bob: But Darwin doesn’t spend that much time with him if he’s on shore all the time.

Jo: Do you want to talk about what Darwin is getting up to on dry land?

Bob: I could do a bit of that. Pay attention, because here comes the science bit.

[The sound of an earthquake]

Fitzroy: Tuesday 3rd of March 1835. At 10.26 felt the shock of an earthquake. Wednesday 4th, PM. At 12.10 shortened all sail and came to…observed the town of Talcahuano in ruins.

Bob: Talcahuano had been destroyed by a tsunami, a massive wave caused by the quake. Further inland the town of Concepcion was left with hardly a building standing. But in the middle of the catastrophic destruction, Darwin noticed something on one of the nearby islands.

[Sound of waves on the shore]

Darwin: During my walk round the island I observed that numerous fragments of rock, which, from the marine animals adhering to them must recently have been lying in deep water, had been cast high up on the beach: one of these was a slab six feet by three square and about two thick. The Island itself showed the effects of the Earthquake, as plainly as the beach did that of the consequent great wave.

Bob: On previous visits Fitzroy had taken depth soundings, now new soundings proved that the earthquake had raised the level of the sea bed. Darwin was seeing first hand a process that he had only read about in books as a theory. That forces at work within the planet could over time cause land from deep under the sea to rise to the tops of mountains.

Jo: How much time?

Bob: He doesn’t talk about that yet but he must have begun to understand that it would take a very long time indeed. Much longer than the 6000 years which were generally supposed to have passed since the Earth was created. But even though he’s making extraordinary discoveries like the Rhinoderma Darwinii-

Jo: The what?

Bob: Darwin’s Frog. The young are born out of the male’s mouth.

Jo: Urgh.

Bob: So he’s starting to see geology and wildlife that just don’t seem to fit how 1830s science says the world works. Like in Australia.

[The sound of crickets at night]

Fitzroy: Tuesday January 19th 1836. Moored in Sydney Cove.

Darwin: In the dusk of the evening I took a stroll along a chain of ponds, which in this dry country represent the course of a river and had the good fortune to see several of the famous [platypuses]…They were diving and playing about the surface of the water…Mr Browne shot one; certainly it is a most extraordinary animal…Earlier in the [day], I had been lying on a sunny bank and was reflecting on the strange character of the Animals of this country as compared to the rest of the World. A disbeliever in everything beyond his own reason, might exclaim “Surely two distinct Creators must have been [at] work.”

Jo: Is Darwin a disbeliever?

Bob: I think, like any good scientist, he’s asking questions. Are you going to talk about the end of the Voyage?

Jo: Well Australia’s nearly it. Obviously they have to spend months on board the ship getting back to England. It takes them from about March to September of 1836 and you can tell they’re getting a bit restless because they start counting down the miles in the log 414, 327, 177. They first catch sight of England again on 2nd October 1836 and land in Falmouth the next day. After almost five years away, Darwin is absolutely delighted to be home.

Darwin: Shrewsbury, Thursday morning 6th October 1836. My dear Fitzroy. I arrived here yesterday morning at breakfasttime, and, thank God, found all my dear good sisters and father quite well. My father appears more cheerful and very little older than when I left. My sisters assure me I do not look the least different, and I am able to return the compliment. Indeed all England appears changed excepting the good old town of Shrewsbury and its inhabitants, which, for all I can see to the contrary, may go on as they are now until Domesday…The stupid people on the coach did not seem to think the fields one bit greener than usual; but I’m sure we should have thoroughly agreed that the whole wide world does not contain so happy a prospect as the rich cultivated land of England.

Bob: I suppose he’s missed quite a bit.

Jo: Yep. Four Prime Ministers, the abolition of slavery, reform of the child labour laws, the founding of the Conservative Party and the Poor Law Amendment Act which creates workhouses. Parliament’s been quite busy.

Bob: Darwin gets to work straight away too. Within months of arriving home he’s presenting a paper to the Geological Society on the Andes mountain range and then to the London Zoological Society on his rhea.

Jo: Didn’t he stand up at all?

[Long pause]

Bob: Moving on. He’s got over 1500 specimens in bottles filled with wine spirits and almost 4000 bones, shells, skins and other dry specimens as well as thousands of pages of notes; years of work for him and naturalists across Europe.

Jo: So is that the main legacy of the Beagle expedition?

Bob: Officially it’s the maps. That was the purpose of the voyage. In reality it must be this extraordinary collection of animals and plants but the other thing the expedition does is make sure that there is no chance of Darwin being anything other than a naturalist. There’s no way he’s becoming a vicar after this. It’s science all the way. But let’s go back for a second.

Fitzroy: Thursday 17th September 1835. At anchor in St. Stephen’s Bay…Chatham Island…Galapagos

Bob: When the ship called in at the Galapagos Islands, off the coast of Ecuador, Darwin was incredibly impressed by the huge diversity of the animal life.

Jo: But that’s as far as it goes?

Bob: Exactly. It’s not until years later that he starts to understand the importance of the differences between the animals on different islands. He collects finches from the Galapagos and these were vital to the development of his work on the origins of species. But at this point in 1835 he doesn’t even know that they are finches because each one is so different. It takes decades for Darwin to understand all the mysteries locked in these specimens and how they adapt to their environment. He spends eight years just studying barnacles.

Jo: Eight years?

Bob: His scientific credibility was absolutely vital in the acceptance of his ideas about species and evolution. In the past, writers had put forward similar views but they had never been argued by such a distinguished scientist who knew so much about the subject. Darwin takes his time and that’s why he’s starting to look like those pictures we know so well with the big beard before he fully publishes his ideas, let alone before they become accepted.

Jo: Do we have any?

Bob: Photographs of Darwin. There are quite a few in the collection actually. I did bring a couple.  [COPY 1/57/225]

Jo: Oh let’s see.

Bob: You can see all the documents we’ve been talking about on the website at Do you want to finish the story?

Jo: What?

Bob: What happens to the Beagle? What happens to Fitzroy?

Jo: Oh, okay, so back to 1836. Beagle’s voyage takes a few weeks longer than Darwin’s. Fitzroy sails her back to London to Woolwich Arsenal and 6 months later the she’s off again under a new commander. Fitzroy writes a long book about the voyage and then goes out to be governor of New Zealand where he gets sacked for being too sympathetic to the Maori, spends a bit more time at sea and then in the 1850s gets heavily into weather forecasting.

Bob: Like in the log.

Jo: Yes.  He publishes his Weather Book in 1863 and produces some of the first scientifically based weather predictions. They’re not very accurate but they’re much better than the old almanacs which used to guess all the weather a year in advance. But the government decides Fitzroy’s job should just be recording weather patterns not forecasting and shuts down the operation and that and his increasing deafness makes him depressed. He kills himself in 1865.

Bob: Oh no.

Jo: I prefer to think of him in his last entry in the Beagle Log.

Fitzroy: Captain’s Log, Thursday 17th November 1836. Woolwich. AM. At 10 sent Ship’s company on shore to the pay office. At 2 paid off the ship’s company and officers. Sunset – struck the pendant. Robert Fitzroy, Captain.

Bob: We’ve ended on a downer, I can’t believe it.

Jo: Darwin has 10 children and becomes the world’s most famous scientist, how’s that? We’ve only scratched the surface of his life and work and Fitzroy’s. There are links on the site at

Bob: That’s a little better. Anything else?

Jo: Next month I’ll be challenging you to a duel.

Bob: I’m sorry?

Jo: Did I not mention? Next episode we’ll be looking at records of duelling in the National Archives. Why duels happen, how they work and what happens to the winners and losers.

Bob: Pistols at dawn.

Jo: I’m not really a morning person. Could we make it some time after lunch?


Bob: Thanks to our readers Andrew Ashmore and Andrew Ormerod.

Jo: See you next month.