Outside the box

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 60

Outside the box

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 39, Summer 2014

Page 60

Charles Darwin shipped aboard the Beagle as its naturalist, and his discoveries changed the way we understand the world. But, writes Simon Keynes, the Beagle had another scientific mission – to establish longitude

HMS Beagle, under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy, set sail from Plymouth in December 1831. The voyage took her into the South Atlantic, around South America, across the Pacific (with her first stop the islands of the Galapagos), across the Indian Ocean to the Cape of Good Hope, across the Atlantic via St Helena to Brazil, and then back home.

That voyage is renowned for one great reason. Charles Darwin, in an autobiography written for his children in 1876, looked back from the comfort of his study at Down House, in Kent, to the years he had spent rather less comfortably in the 1830s in the poop cabin on the Beagle, after, as he put it, he had just thrown away the advantages of an education at Cambridge. He wrote: "The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life & has determined my whole career. I always felt that I owe the Voyage the first real training or education of my mind."

The voyage was Darwin's one and only such adventure; but for the Beagle, it was the second of three important voyages. Her first had been in 1826-30, when she had accompanied HMS Adventure on a survey of the southern coasts of South America, under Captain Pringle Stokes, 1826-8, and then under Commander Robert FitzRoy, 1828-30. In 1837-43, the Beagle both explored and surveyed the coasts of Australia, first under Captain John Clements Wickham, 1837-41, and then under Commander John Lort Stokes, 1841-3.

The story of the Beagle's second voyage in 1831-6 is best known from Darwin's journal, published three years after the return, and many times republished (with additional material), in which he makes the observations and raises the questions about the evolution of species that he spent the rest of his life answering. It can be supplemented by his many letters home to his family and friends, which preserve the immediacy and informality of his primary record. When on land, Darwin kept notebooks and collected specimens, and back in the poop cabin he examined those specimens, generating copious notes on geology, zoology, and ornithology. On the basis of all this evidence, he can be seen to have worked prodigiously hard throughout the voyage, and to very good effect.

Yet just as there is more to Darwin than the voyage of the Beagle, so too is there more to the voyage of the Beagle than Charles Darwin, whose studies in natural history were almost a by-product of the journey, considered important but not essential. There were 74 souls on board when the Beagle sailed from Plymouth, including the captain, his officers and men, and such supernumeraries (besides the naturalist) as an artist and an instrument maker. For most of those aboard, the job was first and foremost to sail and maintain the ship; and to survey the coasts and prepare new charts for official purposes. But for some specially qualified people, there was another, careful, business, keeping track of time on precious chronometers (the Beagle carried 22 of these instruments), and checking the results against astronomical observations made at certain locations, so that it became possible to confirm longitude as the Beagle circumnavigated the globe.

Two of the Beagle's chronometers are held by the British Museum, and the example that has now come to light, to be offered by Bonhams in July's Fine Clocks Sale, is the third known to have survived. The British Museum's director, Neil MacGregor, chose one of the museum's chronometers for his History of the World in 100 Objects (2010), to exemplify both technological advances and the changes in thought, priorities and habits that resulted from those advances.

All the activities aboard the Beagle led to the production of many different forms of record which, together, help those interested in the history of exploration, surveying, and scientific discovery to form an impression of the voyage in all its dimensions. The official record ranges from the log books, coastal profiles, and the captain's reports to the Admiralty, now held in the National Archives at Kew, to the draft and engraved charts, thick volumes containing data from the chronometers, and the captain's reports to the Hydrographer, now held in the United Kingdom Hydrographic Office in Taunton. The journal that FitzRoy must have kept during the voyage does not survive, though it lies behind his part of the official account, which was published in 1839.

Pictorial records of the voyage are more widely dispersed. Very little survives of the work done aboard by Augustus Earle, the ship's first artist. There are several sketch-books and a substantial number of fine watercolors by Conrad Martens, who replaced Earle at Montevideo in 1833, and left when the Beagle was at Valparaiso in 1834. After that, FitzRoy had to depend on the less well-advanced skills of a midshipman, Philip Gidley King, who drew views (as well as coastal profiles, an essential tool of surveying) in Chile, the Galapagos, and Tahiti, before leaving at Sydney.

There is a real problem with the imbalance of the written record. Darwin was not the only journal keeper, nor the only man aboard to have written home (Nor can the Darwins have been the only family who never threw anything away.) However, the other surviving journals, kept by Robert McCormick, P. G. King, Robert Hamond, Syms Covington, and Conrad Martens, are all eclipsed by Darwin's account. Apart from his official letters, little has survived of FitzRoy's correspondence.

The papers of the First Lieutenant, J. C. Wickham, were lost in a fire, while the letters home written by the Second Lieutenant, B. J. Sulivan, remain untraced.

We know the rest of the ship's company only by name, and those names have no voices. Thomas Burgess, of the ship's company of marines, wrote home to his parents before the Beagle sailed, and again upon her return, but seems not to have done so during the voyage. He later served with the Cheshire Constabulary, and liked to tell people about his acquaintance with the naturalist. In 1875, Burgess wrote to Darwin, recalling their shared experiences, to establish his credentials. He wanted a signed photograph of Darwin, so that his friends would believe his stories; of course Darwin was happy to oblige him. Darwin also sent him a copy of his Beagle journal, which Burgess was delighted to receive, and which he said he would leave to one of his grandsons.

If the chronometer can surface after so long, we can still hope that more journals and letters will come to light that might help to enhance our understanding of the dynamics on the poop deck, in the gunroom, and all the way forward to the forecastle. Darwin remained in touch over the years with several of his shipmates, and was always keen to remember the voyage. Sulivan came to be the closest among them; but only Hamond, who spent the rest of his working life as a bank manager in Fakenham, Norfolk, before retiring to Weyborne, was there to represent the ship's company at Darwin's burial, as an honored national figure, in Westminster Abbey in 1882.

And what of the Beagle? In July 1821 she had gone up the Thames, and under London Bridge, to give the salute at the coronation of King George IV. On her three longer voyages, she had made a significant contribution to charting barely known coastlines and the establishment of the measurements necessary for reliable navigational use of longitude. All of this helped Britain in the development of overseas trade and the control of the seas; and the scientific spin-off was impressive. But the Beagle is not preserved in a museum, unlike the Vasa in Stockholm; she is not in a dry dock, like HMS Victory in Portsmouth. Whatever remains of her is presumed to lie somewhere in the mud banks of the River Roach at Paglesham, in Essex, where she spent her last years, from 1846 to 1870, as a coastguard watch vessel.

There were many amazing objects collected by those who went on shore, and then carried home aboard the ship. Sir George Darwin, son of Charles, wrote in his reminiscences that he and his many siblings loved to play in the garden at Down House with spears from Patagonia and Australia; there was also a rocking horse with stirrups and spurs that had been brought from South America. Darwin's microscope and telescope are still on display at Down House.

John Lort Stokes, who had served on all three voyages, turned his front hall at Scotchwell House, Haverfordwest, in Wales, into an informal Beagle museum, with boomerangs, whips, and stuffed lizards, a model of the ship herself, and an interesting carving over the main door. The contents of this collection were dispersed in 1960, but the carving still lurks in storage at the National Maritime Museum. Six scrimshaws, some engraved during the voyage by another of the marines, James Adolphus Bute, have appeared at auction since 1970, all of special interest for their decoration because they record scenes of exploration and surveying.

The voyage of the Beagle is a good story for any object to tell, however humble its activities, and the chronometers were originally regarded as the most important equipment aboard her; they were certainly the ship's most expensive and sophisticated instruments, the enforcers of globalized Greenwich Mean Time as well as location finders. Yet any one object, like any one sketchbook, or even any one journal, tells only a small part of the Beagle's story. That thought helps keep Darwin in his place.

Simon Keynes is author of a forthcoming book on Darwin, FitzRoy, and the voyage of the Beagle. He is a Professor of Anglo-Saxon, University of Cambridge.

Related auctions