A Philatelic History of the Royal Navy Pt 13 – HMS Beagle and Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin and the Voyage of Discovery of HMS Beagle 1831-1836

Charles Darwin

Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery was the second major voyage of HMS Beagle from 1831-1836. 

The first voyage of Beagle, without Darwin, was commanded by Captain Pringle Stokes, from 1826 to 1830, for a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. This voyage is notable for the tragedy that befell Stokes. During the voyage through the desolate waters of Tierra del Fuego, Stokes fell into a deep depression and locked himself in his cabin for 14 days; he then shot himself. When the Beagle returned to Montevideo, Robert FitzRoy was given command of the Beagle for the rest of the voyage. FitzRoy would become the commander of the Beagle for the second voyage.

Captain Robert FitzRoy and HMS Beagle
The Beagle Channel, named after HMS Beagle during the first voyage.

There was a third voyage of the Beagle from 1837-1843 when she was commissioned to survey large parts of Australia under Commander John Wickham.

The Second Voyage of Discovery of HMS Beagle   1831-1836

Darwin was born into a free-thinking family in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, on 12 Feb. 1809.  Darwin was educated at the University of Edinburgh Medical School followed by entry into Christ’s College, Cambridge where he took a great interest in botany. Darwin’s voyage on HMS Beagle began in 1831 when Captain Robert FitzRoy invited Darwin to be an unpaid naturalist aboard the Beagle, about to begin a 5-year voyage to circumnavigate the world. Darwin had been recommended by his Cambridge professor as a ‘gentleman naturalist’ for the voyage. The primary purpose of the voyage was to survey the coastline and chart the harbours of South America in order to make better maps and protect British interests in the Americas.

Darwin was instructed to make scientific observations not only on the ocean but also on land, he spent over five-months ashore at various places during the five-year voyage.

HMS Beagle
HMS Beagle

The Beagle was a Cherokee-Class, 10-gun, brig-sloop launched on 11 May 1820. She was one of a hundred similar vessels built and although designed as a man-o-war she was modified to a survey barque for these three voyages. She was sold and broken up in 1870.

Robert FitzRoy & HMS Beagle

1831, Dec. 27
Darwin embarks on the Beagle with Commander Robert FitzRoy leading the expedition.

1832, Jan. 16
Beagle Lands in Porto Praya, Cape Verde Islands. Darwin was unable to visit Tenerife due to a cholera quarantine. Darwin had made plans for a visit to Tenerife to study natural history when he was in Cambridge. Darwin was interested to observe cuttlefish and their odd way of changing colour. He explores the volcanic island of St. Jago, 450 miles off the African coast.

1832, Feb. 14
Beagle crosses the equator.

1832, Feb. 29
Anchors in Fernando Norinho, Brazil, then sails to Bahia. Darwin explores the Brazilian rainforest and “saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur. . .”

A map showing the many journeys around South America taken by the Beagle and Darwin.

1832, Apr. 04
Anchors in Rio de Janeiro harbour and makes an excursion inland to Rio Macaé. Darwin is appalled by the cruel treatment he saw of slaves.

1832, Jul. 05
Leaves Rio to sail to Montevideo, Uruguay, where they arrive on 26 July.

HMS Beagle
Darwin and the Descent of Man

1832, Sep. 06
Arrives in Bahia Blanca, Argentina.

Prehistoric Skulls

1832, Nov. 02
Arrives in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Darwin is intrigued by giant fossils. He digs up fossils of gigantic extinct mammals such as the ground sloth. Returns to Bahia.

1832, Dec. 05
Sails to the Patagonia Coast.

1832, Dec. 16
Darwin camps near a Fuegian Village and considers the tribal people of Tierra del Fuego “savages.” One of the goals of the Beagle voyage was to establish a Christian mission. FitzRoy’s attempt to spread Christianity throughout the village fails. Another goal was to repatriate three native people he had brought to England on the first voyage of the Beagle.

Beagle returns to Bahia to make more measurements.

1833, Jan. 15
Arrives at Navarino Island, Chile.

1833, Feb. 26
The Falkland Islands. Darwin finds the bleak and wind-swept Falkland Islands “desolate and barren.” However, he finds fossils, brachiopods, which are two shelled animals once among the most abundant creatures on Earth. Here Darwin collects distinctive island birds and fossils that offer a startling contrast to mainland species.

A Magellanic Penguin

Darwin encounters a Magellanic penguin. A South American penguin breeding in coastal Patagonia, Argentina and The Falklands. Named after Ferdinand Magellan who spotted the birds in 1520.

Falkland Island Wolf

The Falkland Islands Wolf, also known as the Warrah, or the Falkland Islands Dog or Antarctic Wolf, is the only known land mammal native to the Falklands Islands. It became extinct in 1876. It is unknown as to how the Warrah arrived on the islands or how long ago.

1833, Apr. 06
Leaves the Falkland Islands for Patagonia.

1833, Aug. 03
Rio Negro, Argentina. Here Darwin explores the fertile lowland areas known as the Pampas. He rides across the plains of Patagonia with a group of Argentine Gauchos.

1833, Sep. 20
Buenos Aires

1833, Dec. 23
Port Desire, Argentina

1834, Feb. 22
Traverses the Straits of Magellan.

1834, Mar. 10
Darwin returns to the Falkland Islands where he carried out a zoological survey of the islands. The town of Darwin, lying on the Choiseul Sound, was named after him some 25 years after his visit.

HMS Beagle in Berkley Sound

1834, Apr. 13
Returns to Santa Cruz, Argentina.

1834, Jun.
The Beagle finally reaches the Pacific Ocean after two and a half years into the voyage.

1834, Jul. 23
Valparaiso, Chile

1834, Aug. 14
Makes a journey to Bell Mountain and the mines of Jajuel.

1834, Nov. 10
Leaves for Chiloe Island, Chile.

1835, Jan. 23
Chiloe. Here Darwin sees Mount Osomo erupt while he was on the island and he experiences an earthquake in the woods near Valdivia. Seeing the aftermath of the earthquake affected him tremendously.

1835, Feb. 01
Chiloe. The earthquake that Darwin experienced lifted the ocean floor and the land rose 2.7 meters above sea level. He climbed the Andes and found rocks containing fossil sea shells in mountains high above sea level. Darwin becomes certain that the mountains rose over time, “slowly and by little starts.”

1835, Mar. 11
Valparaiso, Chile

1835, Jul. 19
Lima, Peru

1835, Sep. 07
Leaves Lima for the Galapagos Islands.

1835, Sep. 16
Arrives on the Galapagos Islands at Isla de San Cristobel. Darwin finds many species of plants, birds and tortoises that are unique to the islands but seem to be mysteriously related to mainland species. In particular, Darwin was most fascinated by the enormous Galapagos tortoises and the marine Iguanas.

A Flightless Cormorant, maps of Isla Fernandina, Isla Isabela and Isla Santiago
Giant Tortoise and Cactus Finch
Floreana Mocking Bird and Chatham Island (Isla San Cristobel)
A Middle-aged Darwin and a Galapagos Tortoise
A Young Darwin and a Woodpecker Finch
An older Darwin and Galapagos Penguins

The Galapagos Marine Iguana is unique to the Galapagos Islands and is the only modern lizard that forages for food in the sea.

Darwin and a Marine Iguana
A Marine Iguana and Albemarle Island
Galapagos Tortoises
Cactus Ground Finch and Large Ground Finch
Marine Iguanas

1835, Oct. 01
Isla Isabela, Galapagos Islands. This island is where Darwin first saw marine iguanas feeding under water, not feeding off fish but to his surprise algae. When he returned to London, Darwin was surprised to find out that the group of Galapagos specimens that he had thought included many different birds were actually all finches. Darwin did not have a “eureka” moment during his visit to the Galapagos. It was not until he was back in England that he developed his theory of evolution.

1835, Oct. 20
Leaves for Polynesia.

1835, Nov. 15
Hitiaa, Tahiti

1835, Nov. 20
Matavai Bay, French Polynesia

1835, Nov. 26
Leaves for New Zealand.

1835, Dec. 21
Bay of Islands, Pahia, North Island, New Zealand

Darwin’s route around New Holland (Australia)

1836, Jan. 01
Leaves New Zealand for Australia where Darwin arrives in Sidney Cove. He saw many different varieties of marsupials and began to wonder why there is a completely different set of mammals in Australia. The town of Darwin, capitol of the Northern Territory, was not visited by Darwin on this voyage. It was named Port Darwin in 1839 by John Wickham in honor of his former shipmate in a visit of the Beagle during the third voyage. It was renamed Darwin in 1911.

1836, Jan. 30
Leaves for Hobart, Tasmania.

1836, Feb. 05
Hobart

HMS Beagle

1836, Apr. 01
The Beagle arrives at the Cocos (Keeling) Islands. Darwin studied coral-reefs that were in evidence around islands in the Pacific to test his theory of atoll formation; land sinks, corals grow up to make up for sinking land. Darwin conceived of this idea on the voyage out to the Pacific and when captain FitzRoy chose to survey the Cocos (Keeling) Islands, the result supported Darwin’s theory. A Volcano is created and rises up to form an island. As the extinct volcano starts sinking, a reef grows around the cone forming first a barrier reef then an atoll once the volcano has submerged. As a part of his research, Darwin also studied the different corals that formed on atolls and reefs.

Darwin’s theory of the formation of coral reefs and atolls.
HMS Beagle off the Cocos Islands
HMS Beagle and Lobophyllia Coral
Darwin and Pavona Cactus Coral

1836, Apr. 29
Mauritius. Darwin observes and notes on a walk along the coast, a plain quite uncultivated consisting of a field of black lava, smoothed over with coarse grass and bushes, the greater part were mimosas.

1836, May 31
Cape Town, South Africa. Darwin visits the Cape winelands where the geology of the mountainous regions of the Western Cape left a lasting impression on him which influenced his ideas on organic evolution. His publication The Origin of Species left a lasting impact on the science of winemaking.

1836, Jul. 08
St. Helena. Flagstaff Hill and The Barn form two of the most prominent features on the northern part of the island. Darwin supposes that the hill once formed the lower extremity of a sheet of lava and ashes which erupted from a central, crateriform ridge. It was on St. Helena that Darwin’s observations confirm his belief that volcanos were forced up slowly from the sea bed to form islands above the sea’s surface and this can be observed by the layers of different rocks from the many eruptions under water.

HMS Beagle off St. Helena
Darwin’s hammer and Flagstaff Hill

The Rheinhardt’s Argus Pheasant occupied a prominent place in Darwin’s “Descent of Man,” on account of the enormous development of the secondary wing-feathers, the like of which is seen in no other bird.

An Argus Pheasant and Partridge
HMS Beagle off St. Helena

1836, Jul. 19
Ascension Island. After visiting St Helena, Darwin sails to Ascension Island which was a barren, windswept island devoid of trees, but contains a busy Royal Naval base. Darwin and his Botanist, Joseph Hooker, advise the Royal Navy, with the help of Kew Gardens, to send shipments of trees to Ascension. These would capture more rain, reduce evaporation and create rich loamy soils. Starting in 1850 and continuing year after year, an assortment of trees from Europe, South Africa and Argentina were planted. By the 1870s great changes could be seen as trees had run riot across the island and created a completely new and lush environment. The world’s first experiment in “terra-forming”. They had created a self-sustaining and self-reproducing ecosystem in order to make Ascension more habitable.

HMS Beagle off Ascension Island
Charles Darwin
Rock Crab
Darwin’s pistols
The Parsley Fern

The Parsley Fern is unique to Ascension and presumed extinct. It was nearly eradicated after the island was planted with trees and shrubs under the advice of Charles Darwin. A few plants were discovered in 2011 and brought back to Kew Gardens in London for cultivation.

1836, Aug. 01
Bahia and Pernambuco, South America. In the jungles of South America, Darwin finds many incredible creatures. However, homesick and seasick, he is dismayed when the Beagle makes an unscheduled detour to make additional longitudinal measurements.

1836, Sep.
Azores, Angra

1836, Oct. 02
Falmouth, England. The Beagle reaches the end of its 5-year journey circumnavigating the world.

1859, Nov. 24
When Darwin returns to England he spent several years rewriting his diaries and publishing various books. It took him until 1859 to publish his most famous book The Origin of Species. His work established evolutionary descent as the dominant explanation of the diversity in nature. It was not very well received when published, however, over the years it became a staple scientific text attracting attention from all walks of life. 

Darwin’s ‘The Origin of Species’

1882, Apr. 19
Darwin dies aged 73 in Downe, Kent.

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