The Beagle- from Rio to Montevideo

Darwin stayed in Rio de Janeiro  for 3 months; on the 5th July 1832 the Beagle weighed anchor and headed south.

Beagle sails off coast of South America©  Dr John van Wyhe at

Darwin became seasick as he lay on the hammock in his tiny cabin. John Milton’s epic poem Paradise Lost afforded him some comfort from the unbearable rocking motion of the Beagle as it sailed in stormy seas.

Paradise Lost depicts the war in Heaven between God and the Angel Lucifer, the attempts by Satan to create an army in Hell, Satan’s travels to Earth to tempt Adam and Eve to eat the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden and their expulsion from the Garden by God.

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise by Gustave Dore

Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise 

No doubt Darwin would have read Book VII of the epic poem which describes how God made the Earth and all the creatures that live on the Earth. Line 450 of Book VII explains how:

                                                         …….God said, 
Let th’ Earth bring forth foul living in her kinde,
Cattel and Creeping things, and Beast of the Earth,
Each in their kinde. The Earth obey’d, and strait
Op’ning her fertile Woomb teem’d  at a Birth
Innumerous living Creatures, perfet formes, 

Limb’d and full grown:

Among the Trees in Pairs they rose, they walk’d:
The Cattel in the Fields and Meddowes green: 

This illustration from a 19th century edition of Paradise Lost, by the French artist and illustrator Gustave Doré, depicts God’s creation of the birds and the fish.

the-creation-of-fish-and-birds by Gustave Dore

HMS Beagle arrives in Montevideo

On the 26th July 1832 on the approach to Montevideo a guardship fired a warning shot across the Beagle’s bows. The British were not welcome; to some Montevideans the sailors of HMS Beagle represented the enemy who were to be accorded a hostile welcome. Montevideans had a long memory; British troops had sacked the town 25 years previously, an act which had left a bitter legacy.

Conrad Martens, Montevideo Harbour

Montevideo from anchorage of the Beagle by Conrad Martens

Furious, Fitzroy loaded a broadside and informed the captain of the rotting guardship that the next time the ‘greeting’ would be answered with force.

Conrad Martens,1840, by Maurice Felton

Conrad Martens

HMS Beagle sailed away from Montevideo but soon returned to find the city in a state of anarchy.

On 31st July 1832 the police chief of Montevideo pleaded for Fitzroy’s help in quelling a mutiny perpetrated by local black troops. Judging that local British residents to be at risk, Fitzroy was willing to act. He sent 52 well armed sailors to hold the fort until reinforcements arrived.

Darwin accompanied the sailors into the ‘dirty town’ armed with a cutlass and pistol. The sailors occupied the fort without incident where they waited until reinforcements arrived. Their mission accomplished, they returned to the safety of the Beagle.

Darwin wondered whether “despotism is not better than such uncontrolled anarchy”. He admitted that he had derived “a great deal of pleasure from this sort of work” but it was not what “we philosophers bargain(ed) for”.

It was in Montevideo that Fitzroy first met artist Conrad Martens. Conrad Martens was employed to replace the previous ship’s artist Augustus Earle who had fallen ill. Darwin and Martens struck up an enduring friendship.

street scene montevide by martens

Sketch of street scene in Montevideo by Conrad Martens 

It was on the 19th August that the Beagle left port to sail up and down the Patagonian coast charting the sea and coastline. Just before leaving Darwin shipped off his first box of specimens to his old Cambridge professor John Henslow. The specimens included rocks, tropical plants, four bottles of animals in spirits, many beetles and various marine animals. All the specimens were numbered, catalogd and described. Apparently Darwin had nagging doubts about the quality of his work and feared Henslow would think the shipment was of little importance to science.

The Beagle sailed south towards Bahia Blanca where Darwin witnessed millions of bristle jawed worms swimming near the surface of the sea.

bristle jawed worms

The bristle jawed worms were transparent, had hooked claws on their horseshoe shaped mouths and many were carrying eggs. Darwin netted many specimens, examining their tiny eggs under a high powered microscope.

The Beagle anchored off Bahia Blanca which was then a frontier town. Bahia Blanca was a remote settlement and just about as far south as the Argentinian state reached; violent disputes over land ownership and unofficial war with the native Indians made the region incredibly dangerous.

Skirmishes were frequent between the local Indians and their Spanish overlords. Darwin heard atrocious stories of the frontier war and its barbarities. “The Indians torture all their prisoners and the Spanish shoot theirs.”

Voyage of Beagle from Montevideo to Bahia

Darwin found himself fraternising with the murderous gauchos. Englishmen were usually safe providing they carried guns and plenty of money; Darwin had both.

gauchos and horses by Conrad Martens

Sketch of gauchos and horses by Conrad Martens

The gauchos took Darwin riding and showed how to bring down a rhea with their bolas.

gaucho hunting rhea with bola

Gaucho hunting rhea with a bola

He ate roasted armadillo for the first time and remarked,” … cooked without their cases the (armadillos) taste and look like duck.”


Darwin spent much of September hunting and shooting just like he would have done at home in Shrewsbury.  He killed three deer and ate an agouti which provided “the best meat” he had “ever tasted”.


An Agouti by Aert Schouman (1710-1792)

Darwin was worried about whether he would ever find any good fossils in South America. Much to his disgust he learnt that that the French fossil hunter Alcide d’Orbigny had been working the area for months, collecting fine specimens for a museum in Paris.

Alcide d'Orbigny


Darwin found the situation very upsetting. Alcide d’Orbigny had been sponsored by the French government to roam through South America at will for six years in pursuit of science. In contrast Darwin had had to pay his own passage to South America. He shared his thoughts in a letter to John Henslow,”I am very selfishly afraid that he will get the cream of all good things.”

Darwin’s fear proved to be unfounded. On 22nd September Darwin made an amazing discovery. Inspecting some low cliffs at Punta Alta he spotted the bones of an enormous extinct mammal .

Darwin spent several days excavating the bones before discovering that he had stumbled across the remains of six animals including a megatherium, a huge ground-living relative of the sloth. He packed up the bones and sent them to the Beagle leaving the Captain Fitzroy to remark how Darwin was transporting “cargoes of apparent rubbish” on board ship.

Megatherium americanum

On 19th October 1832 the Beagle headed back to Montevideo. Charles felt homesick and wrote to his cousin Darwin Fox, “poopr old dear England…I hope my wanderings will not unfit me for a quiet life & that in some future day, I may be qualified to become like you a country clergyman…. I must remain contented with sandy plains & great megatheriums.”

Darwin went shopping in Montevideo; he bought cigars, scissors notebooks and pens, saw a dentist and visited several Catholic churches.

A treat arrived in the post, the second volume of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology. Darwin had read the first volume on the journey across the Atlantic. Where the first volume had examined the gradual changes in past landscapes, the second volume asked whether plants and animals had also been modified to match the gradual changes to those landscapes.

This image, from Volume II, shows the Valley del Bove near Mount Etna, Sicily. Lyell uses the volcanic activity on Mount Etna as an example of a gradually changing landscape.

Valley del Bove Mount Etna Sicily by Charles Lyell

Lyell asked whether there a natural mechanism for the ‘transmutation’ (evolution) of plants and animals in the same way that landscapes had been transformed.

Geologist Charles Lyell wrote principles of geology

Charles Lyell

His answer was a definitive no. Lyell maintained that each species of plant or animal was adapted to the place where it had been born -its “center of creation.” Any change in the landscape or environment which did not suit would lead to the plant or animal becoming extinct rather than being transformed into an entirely new species.

Volume II of book was also replete with well worked arguments militating against the idea that life could be represented as a family tree. Lyell was appalled at the thought of a monkey in the human family tree and of an ape aspiring to “the attributes and dignity of man”. Lyell believed that the sequence of fossils from ancient times showed no progress towards the ‘transmutation’ (or evolution) of apes into humans.

Darwin attended a “grand ball” at the theater to “celebrate the re establishment of the president” after the chaos and anarchy of the preceding months. The following night he returned to the same theater to watch a performance of Rossini’s opera Cenerentola, a variation of the traditional Cinderella story.  He also sent two large casks of fossil bones and a small cask of skins, beetles and picked fish to Professor Henslow in Cambridge.

Rossini s Cenerentola

Rossini’s opera Cenerentola

After completing more marine surveys the Beagle finally left Montevideo on 27th November 1832 and headed towards Tierra del Fuego. Fitzroy’s next mission was to drop off three native Fuegians in Tierra del Fuego. All three passengers had been onboard ever since the Beagle had departed Plymouth 11 months previously.

  • So who were these three Fuegans? What had they been doing in England? Why were they now on the Beagle?

The story of York Minster, Jeremy Button and Fuegia Basket

In February 1830 Robert Fitzroy was captain of the Beagle when the ship carried out mapping and surveying work of the coastline and waters of Tierra del Fuego.

route taken by first voyage of the Beagle 1826-1830©

On February 5th 1830 a party from the Beagle spent the night on a small island they thought was uninhabited. The party did not post a watch and sometime during the night their whaleboat was stolen.  The crewmen were stranded and forced to build a makeshift boat, which they called a “basket”, to enable them to return to the Beagle.

early 19th century whaleboat of a similar type to the one that the Yagans stole while Captain Fitzroy was surveying Tierra del Fuego

Early 19th century whaleboat

Fitzroy immediately set about searching for the stolen whaleboat. In exchange for providing clothing Fitzroy hired some natives as guides to help him in his search. The first time he tried this tactic the Fuegians he recruited escaped into the night, stealing coats and hats from the crew.

Fitzroy then tried a different approach; he took Fuegians as hostages onto the Beagle as a way to prevent his guides running off. After about two weeks into the search not only did his guides escape but all hostages, apart from three young children, also escaped by swimming ashore.

Fitzroy complained, “after much trouble and anxiety, much valuable time lost, and as fine a boat of her kind as ever was seen being stolen from us by these savages, I found myself with three young children to take care of, and no prospect whatever of recovering the boat.”

FitzRoy released two of the children but kept one girl a hostage. The crew named her Fuegia Basket.

fuegia basket was taken hostage by captain fitzroy during the first voyage of the Beagle©  Dr John van Wyhe at

Fitzroy now realized that, if he wanted to have meaningful conversations with Fuegians he would need to learn to communicate:

“I became convinced that so long as we were ignorant of the Fuegian language, and the natives were equally ignorant of ours, we should never know much about them, or the interior of their country; nor would there be the slightest chance of their being raised one step above the low place which they then held in our estimation.” (The people from the part of Tierra del Fuego visited by Fitzroy spoke ‘Yaghan’, an indigenous language now virtually extinct.)

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan©  Dr John van Wyhe at

Fitzroy now believed that his best chance of recovering the missing whaleboat was “by getting one of these natives on board, there would be a chance of his learning enough English to be an interpreter, and that by his means we might recover our lost boat”.

On the 3rd March 1830 Fitzroy kidnapped the youngest member of a fleeing Fuegian boat. The second Fuegian was named ‘York Minster’ after a nearby cliff of the same name.

York Minster was brought on board HMS Beagle in March 1830 and taken to England©  Dr John van Wyhe at

On the 9th March 1830 the Beagle pursued a group of Fuegians whom the captain believed might have known of the whereabouts of the missing whaleboat. During the ensuing chase Fitzroy captured another young Fuegian who was given the name ‘Boat Memory’.

It now became apparent that the whaleboat was lost forever. By the end of March the ship’s carpenter had built a new whaleboat and the area had been surveyed to Fitzroy’s satisfaction. Fitzroy now decided to head eastwards back into the Atlantic.

On the 11th May Fitzroy obtained his forth Fuegian. In the ‘Murray Narrows’…

HMS Beagle in the Murray Narrows Beagle Channel where Fitzroy bartered for Jeremy Buttons

….Fitzroy bartered for a boy in exchange for ‘a large shining mother of pearl button.’ He was named ‘Jeremy Button’ by the crew.

jemmy button was bartered for in exchange for a shiny mother of pearl button©  Dr John van Wyhe at

So what was Captain Fitzroy going to do with these four Fuegians? On June 10 1830, Fitzroy wrote about his intentions:

The Fuegians were “happy and in good health” on board the Beagle.  Fitzroy thought of “the various advantages which might result to them and their countrymen, as well as to us, by taking them to England, educating them there as far as might be practicable, and then bringing them back to Tierra del Fuego.”

The four Fuegians were to remain on the Beagle until the ship reached England on 14th October 1830.

A few months after arriving in England ‘Boat Memory’, aged about 20,  contracted small pox and died. Fitzroy now embarked on a mission to civilize the “savages”, teach them English, the “plainer truths of Christianity… the use of common tools” and turn them into model citizens. They could then be usefully employed as translators and role models for their “less-civilized” countrymen back in Tierra del Fuego. They could also serve as missionaries.

Fuegia Basket (aged c.10), Jeremy Button (aged c.14) and York Minster (aged c.26) spent a year cared for by the Church Missionary Society and were all educated at Walthamstow Infants School. Whilst Fuegia Basket and Jeremy Button flourished….

jeremy button as savage and as a civilized englishman bought to England by Captain Fitzroy during the first voyage of the Beagle©  Dr John van Wyhe at

….by all accounts the 26 year old York Minster had difficulties fitting into a school in which the pupils were considerably younger than him!

Dressed as model citizens the Fuegans often accompanied FitzRoy on visits to the rich and famous. They even had an audience with King William IV and Queen Adelaide. Queen Adelaide was so taken with little Fuegia Basket that she gave her one of her own bonnets and a ring.

Their Majesties King William IV and Queen Adelaide met Fuegia Basket

King William IV and Queen Adelaide

The original plan had been to keep the Fuegans in England for a few years before sending them back to South America.  However less than a year passed before Fitzroy started looking for a ship to charter that he could use to return the three to Tierra del Fuego.

  • Why the hurry to return the Fuegians so quickly to Tierra del Fuego after only a year spent in England?

Some accounts report how York Minster and Fuegia Basket maintained an inappropriate relationship; if widely known the inappropriate relationship would have scandalised polite Victorian society and reflected badly on Captain Fitzroy. Fitzroy just had to return them to Tierra del Fuego post haste.

Admiral fitzroy_painting 1805 1865Fitzroy stumped up a large sum of money to charter a ship to return the Fuegians to their homeland. In the end he had no need for the charter ship since “a kind uncle” interceded with the Admiralty and landed him the command of the Beagle for a second time.

The three Fuegans arrived in Plymouth in November 1831 laden with the trappings of civilisation to take back with them. Well -meaning churchgoers had given them “clothes, tools, crockery-ware (and) books all of which had to be stored on board the Beagle in preparation for the voyage. The Fuegans were accompanied by a trainee missionary Richard Matthews, who was planning to settle with them in Tierra del Fuego.

  • Would the three Yaghans and their missionary minder be able to ‘civilize’ their countrymen on their return?
Fuegian Beagle Voyage by Conrad Martens

A Fuegian by Conrad Martens

The Beagle sailed out of Plymouth on 27th December 1831 bound for South America.

If Captain Fitzroy had not been so anxious to convey the three Yaghans back to Tierra del Fuego there is every possibility that Charles Darwin might not have been on board the Beagle on its voyage round the world…..

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