12 November 2007

The voyage of?

Thanks to Michael Barton of the Dispersal of Darwin for this: someone on eBay is flogging a poster of the BBC series The Voyage of the Beagle, except the eagle-eyed among you will see it's headlined the 'Voyage of Charles Darwin'. (Currently $7, £3.20 ish). Maybe HMS Beagle doesn't yet have the brand recognition she deserves.

Charles Darwin was accused by Captain Fitzroy of giving HMS Beagle and her officers insufficient recognition (read on), but there is one definite case of an ambitious naturalist barefacedly snatching all the glory from a ship and her commander: Joseph Banks. Banks sailed with James Cook during Cook's 1768-71 circumnavigation. Banks was independently wealthy, an aristocrat and a botanist of some ability. James Cook was a Yorkshire shopboy turned Royal Navy non-commissioned officer who safely commanded the tubby Endeavour around the world: also a man of great ability, a 'genius' according to Lord Colville .

On Endeavour's return, it was Mr Banks (according to the London Evening Post) who had 'discovered a southern continent' (Australia) and was 'one of the gentlemen who 'went to the South Seas to discover the transit of Venus'. Banks and his companion Solander were presented to the King, and in all their feteing and good press appear to have done little to credit the man who made it all possible, and even put up with Banks bringing aboard his greyhounds. There was no doubt in society's mind whose voyage it had been: Joseph Banks', not the bosun captain James Cook's.

Something of the Captain and naturalist guest rivalry spilled over into the Voyage of the Beagle, too. Captain Fitzroy was a very different creature to Cook, and when he received drafts of Charles Darwin's book about the Voyage of the Beagle he wrote to Darwin in something of a passion:
I will now tell you frankly my ideas upon the subject of prefaces to any of yours works immediately resulting from the Beagle's voyage.

Most people (who know anything of the subject) are aware that your going in the Beagle was a consequence of my original idea and suggestion—and of my offer to give up part of my own accommodations—small as they were—to a scientific gentleman who would do justice to the opportunities so afforded.— Those persons also know how much the Officers furthered your views—and gave you the preference upon all occasions—(especially Sulivan—Usborne—Bynoe and Stokes)—and think—with me—that a plain acknowledgment—without a word of flattery—or fulsome praise—is a slight return due from you to those who held the ladder by which you mounted to a position where your industry—enterprise—and talent could be thoroughly demonstrated—and become useful to our countrymen—and—I may truly say—to the world.

The sentence by which I was specially struck in your letter of Monday last—and for noticing which—to my astonishment—I was almost derided by a person I had thought your friend—and to whom therefore I went in the hope that he would suggest some change which I could not so well do being personally concerned—was this— “By the wish of Captain FitzRoy, and through the kindness of the Hydrographer— Captain Beaufort &c”—

I was also astonished at the total omission of any notice of the officers— either particular—or general.— My memory is rather tenacious respecting a variety of transactions in which you were concerned with them; and others in the Beagle.f1 Perhaps you are not aware that the ship which carried us safely was the first employed in exploring and surveying whose Officers were not ordered to collect—and were therefore at liberty to keep the best of all—nay, all their specimens for themselves. To their honour—they gave you the preference.

Some time ago—it occurred to me that you had consulted with some person, not aware of the whole state of the case, who looked at the subject in a peculiar point of view—and I was informed yesterday, by a conversation with Mr. Lyell—that my conjecture was well founded.

He does not seem to consider that the connection of your volume with mine—and mine with Captain King's—is one of feeling and fidelity—not of expediency.

Believe me Darwin—I esteem you far too highly to break off from you willingly— I shall always be glad to see you—and if there is any question to be discussed let us talk it over here—or in your room—before referring it to the partial views and perhaps selfish feelings of persons who neither know, nor feel for, you—or for me—as your Father would feel for either of us. (From the Darwin Correspondence Project.
But there is no doubt that it became known to history as the Voyage of the Beagle.

Cook's forbearance in putting up with his pretty shabby treatment at the hands of both Banks and the Admiralty one can (just) understand. The dogs are a different matter: greyhounds whining and crapping around the cramped boat? Had I been in Cook's shoes I would have given Banks two options for his dogs: ashore alive or in the crew's next meal. Greyhound tastes like chicken, as many of you who had cheap take away meals in the 1970s will know. Still, a pretty poster for anyone wanting some Beagle-abilia. Bidding closes in 2 days 13 hours.

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