After completing a geological field trip to Wales Darwin returned to his childhood home at the Mount in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, on 29th August 1831 to find two letters waiting for him.
He opened both letters and was astounded by what he read.
The first letter was from George Peacock (1791-1858), a lecturer in mathematics at Trinity College Cambridge.
Peacock was offering Darwin the once in a lifetime opportunity to travel to South America for a two year expedition on board HMS Beagle, a ship of the Royal Navy.
The primary purpose of the expedition was to produce accurate nautical charts which would improve the ability of British naval and merchant ships to navigate the coastal waters and harbors of South America.
Darwin would join the vessel as traveling companion to Captain Robert Fitzroy (1805 – 1865). Fitzroy wanted the company of a gentlemen of his own class who he could treat on equal terms and who would provide companionship on the long voyage.
Once at sea Fitzroy could never be familiar with his subordinates in case it weakened his command. Without a companion he could talk to as an equal, Fitzroy could become dangerously isolated on the long voyage.
Fitzroy was all too familiar with the fate that had befallen the previous captain of HMS Beagle, Pringle Stokes.
During the first voyage of HMS Beagle (1826-1830) to the coast of South America, Captain Pringle Stokes had succumbed to a serious bout of depression. Unable to cope with loneliness and isolation he had shot himself.
In his letter to Darwin Peacock went on the explain that, although the priority of the second voyage of HMS Beagle would be nautical map making, the expedition could provide an amazing opportunity for a gentleman naturalist to conduct his own scientific research.
Naturally the gentleman naturalist would have to pay his own way.
Peacock was a good friend of Captain Beaufort, a hydrographer (coastal map maker) from the Admiralty. It was Captain Beaufort (1774-1857 ) who had first approached Peacock to enquire if Peacock knew of a suitable gentleman who might provide companionship for Captain Fitzroy.
Peacock had first approached Leonard Jenyns (1800 – 1893), a Cambridge clergyman and another gentleman naturalist.
Jenyns was so close to accepting the offer that he had packed his clothes in readiness for the expedition. However he had turned down the invitation because he had not wanted to give up being a parish priest.
Peacock then approached the Regius Professor of Botany at Cambridge University, John Henslow, to enquire if he knew of any other suitable gentlemen naturalists who might be prepared to travel.
After learning about the expedition Henslow decided to accept the offer himself and his wife had reluctantly gave her consent. However Henslow’s wife had apparently looked so miserable about the prospect of losing her husband for two years that he had changed his mind and declined the offer.
Henslow had then advised Peacock that Charles Darwin was the best qualified person he knew for the long and arduous voyage.
The second letter was sent to Darwin by John Henslow. In his letter Henslow urged Darwin to accept the offer that Peacock was making him.
Henslow had recommended Darwin to Peacock, not on the basis of him being a “finished naturalist”, but one well qualified “for collecting, observing and noting anything worthy to be noted in Natural History.”
Henslow, in his letter, urged Darwin to pay Fitzroy a visit at his London residence at No. 7 Suffolk Street Pall Mall East.
There was no time to waste; HMS Beagle was due to sail within the month
Before traveling to London to meet Fitzroy Charles needed to secure his father’s agreement.
Robert Darwin was informed about the proposed voyage on the morning of 30th August 1831, the night after Charles had opened the letters.
To Charles’s bitter disappointment Robert refused to give his consent. Robert was adamant; Charles should not go.
Neither Henslow’s nor Peacock’s written recommendations would change Robert’s mind. A long voyage to South America was evidence of his son’s endless preoccupation with self amusement. The voyage would be a dangerous distraction from Charles’s destiny which was to join the Church.
Besides, the unsettling years in the company of coarse sailors could make his son unfit to join the Church.
Rober also wondered why a naturalist was being sought at such short notice within only a month of departure. There must be something wrong with the vessel, the voyage, Fitzroy or all three.
In view of his father’s opposition Charles decided not to go.
Feeling bitterly disappointed he paid his ‘Uncle Jos’ a visit to Maer Hall….
…in the county of Staffordshire.
‘Uncle Jos’ was actually Josiah Wedgewood II (1769-1843) -an industrialist, heir to the Wedgewood pottery fortune and brother of Charles’s deceased mother Susannah.
Unlike Robert, Uncle Jos believed that Charles should join the expedition to South America. Far from being too dangerous or expensive, Uncle Jos believed that such a voyage of discovery would shape Charles’s character and would prepare him very well for joining the Church.
As Uncle Jos told his brother-in-law Robert in a letter, “Natural History is very suitable to a clergyman.” Uncle Jos also remarked that Charles was “a man of enlarged curiosity” and stated his belief that the Admiralty would look after Charles very well.
When Robert learnt of Uncle Jos’s views he changed his mind and agreed that Charles could go after all! Robert also agreed to pay Charles’s expenses.
With growing excitment Charles wrote to Captain Beaufort, the map maker from the Admiralty, accepting the offer.
No sooner had he accepted the offer than he received a courteous message from Fitzroy. Fitzroy explained that he had already offered the post to a friend. If his friend declined the post he, Charles, would have first claim.
Fitzroy hoped that Charles had not been too inconvenienced…..
Feeling utterly crushed, Darwin took the stage coach to London to see Fitzroy in person in the vain hope that Fitzroy’s friend had declined the offer.
He finally met Fitzroy in Beaufort’s office in the Admiralty Building in Whitehall. Fitzroy was slightly built and had dark hair. He was a rich aristocrat and direct descendant of King Charles II.
Fitzroy came to the point at once; his friend had declined the offer only five minutes before.
Was Charles still interested?!
Fitzroy gave Darwin further details of the voyage. It was expected to last not two but nearly three years.
The cabin would be cramped with plain food and “no wine.” The costs of accomodating Darwin, some £500 in total, would not be met by the Admiralty. Darwin could expect to become seasick during the voyage. He would be free to leave the ship for England at any time or stay in “some healthy, safe and nice country.”
If he chose to stay on the ship Darwin would be closely confined with the captain for years on end.
Fitzroy advised Charles not to make his mind up “quite yet”. Fitzroy felt it advisable for the two of them to get to know each other better before Darwin made his final decision.
Charles stayed in accomodation close to the Admiralty. He watched the coronation procession of King William IV, the ‘sailor king’ which took place in London on 8th September 1831.
Darwin spent the rest of the week in the company of Fitzroy. They dined together and drove round London in Fitzroy’s gig.
Darwin thought Fitzroy “very scientific” but quite extravagant with his money. Fitzroy lavished money on books, barometers and £400 on firearms. Charles for his part bought a £50 rifle and a pair of “good pistols”.
Darwin got on with Fitzroy very well and was as “happy as a king”.
Fitzroy took Darwin to see HMS Beagle which was moored in Devonport, Plymouth. (HMS stands for His/Her Majesty’s Ship) They travelled to Plymouth by boat; the whole trip lasted three days allowing Fitzroy to judge Darwin’s “sea legs”.
Once on board the Beagle Darwin met all the ship’s officers, describing them as an “active, determined set of young fellows”. Fitzroy did all he could to make Darwin feel comfortable in his new “home”.
At the beginning Darwin had little enthusiasm for his new “home”, which was far smaller than he had ever imagined it would be. The Beagle was only 90 feet (27.43m) long and had a maximum width of 24 feet (7.32m).
Charles would be accomodated in the tiny pooppcabin along with the nineteen year old assistant surveyor John Lort Stokes and the fourteen year old Midshipman Philip King.
The pooppcabin was dominated by a vast table on which nautical charts were spread.
Sleeping arrangements would be awkward. His bed would be a hammock which he would have to sling up every night above the chart table.
HMS Beagle was nearing the end of a major refit which Fitzroy was supervising personally She had a new upper deck with skylights…
…a reinforced copper bottomed hull and a new rudder.
The old iron cannons were replaced with brass ones to avoid interference with the ship’s compass.
Sailing was to be postponed for a few weeks with Fitzroy still fussing about the refit. Darwin’s plans to join the expedition were now “fixed and certain”. He could now tell all his friends and family that he was definitely going.
He left Plymouth to make some final preparations for the voyage.
He raced up from Plymouth to London by stage coach, covering an amazing 250 miles in 24 hours.
From London he took the the night coach to Cambridge to stay for a couple of days with his old botany professor John Henslow.
After that he returned to the family home at the Mount in Shrewsbury.
He was well aware that he would be separated from all his loved ones for years on end. If the voyage ended in disaster he might never see his father and sisters again.
Darwin could hardly bear to embrace his father and sisters for the last time. He choked back the tears as he said his farewells and headed back for London.
In London he teamed up with the landscape artist Augustus Earle (1793-1838). Earle was traveling on the Beagle in a private capacity to to provide Captain Fitzroy with a painted record of the ships’s stopover points. Darwin found Earle, who had already travelled around the world painting, a bit “eccentric.”
Darwin collected scientific equipment including specimen jars stuffed with chemicals and preservatives, dissecting tools , microscopes, a telescope, compass, rain gauge, barometer, spare parts for his guns , geological hammer and a collection of books.
He consulted experts about the latest ways of stuffing and preserving the many specimens that he planned on collecting.
Darwin sent all his luggage to Plymouth by sea and followed shortly afterwards by land, arriving on Monday 24th October.
He then met the the ship’s surgeon Robert Mc Cormick, who was also the ship’s official naturalist.
Darwin found McCormick friendly enough, but a bit of an “ass” with some old fashioned ideas about science. Darwin worried that McCormick was more interested in the color of his cabin than he was in science.
The Beagle was ready to sail on 4th November but persistent gales delayed the departure until early December.
Being cooped up in such a small cabin took some getting used to and left Darwin feeling claustrophic and ” in continual fear”. He became despondent and worried about seasickness. He became very anxious after a sailor slipped overboard and drowned. If this could happen in port, what chances were there of surviving years at sea?
Through all this “wearisome anxiety” he thought about his family and friends. He wondered whether it was worth being separated from those he loved for so long.
He cheered up considerably when his brother Erasmus visited the ship to say his farewell.
On the morning of the 10th December the weather finally cleared and and Fitzroy gave the order to hoist the sails. Reaching the choppy seas Darwin was immediately sick and continued to feel sick all day. In the evening a fierce gale blew from the south-west and the Beagle crashed into mountainous waves.
The next morning Fitzroy admitted defeat and headed back to shelter in Plymouth resolved to wait for a more favorable easterly wind.
On Wednesday 21st December 1831 the weather and the wind were perfect . Fitzroy headed out to sea again at low tide – and promptly ran the Beagle aground onto a sandbank. The ship’s crew were unable to free the Beagle for several hours until high tide.
Once again Fitzroy headed back to the safety of Plymouth- this time to inspect the ship for any damage.
On Tuesday 27th December 1831 the Beagle’s 73 passengers and crew awoke to blue skies and a stiff easterly wind. The Beagle finally got underway and travelled along Plymouth Sound into the English Channel. The voyage around the world had begun. An expedition originally planned to last two years would take five!
HMS Beagle now sailed towards Brazil and stopped off at the Cape Verde Islands en route.