23 January 2009

The Voyage of the Beagle by James Taylor.

Anovabooks, £20.00 ISBN 9781844860661

Until now I would have said that there were two essential books on the Voyage of the Beagle. The original by Charles Darwin and Fossils, Finches and Fuegians by Richard Keynes.

The Voyage of the Beagle by maritime historian James Taylor makes a third, because it sets the voyage in a wider and often neglected context. There is a whole story around HMS Beagle, the voyage and her crew that is readily lost in the Darwin-saw-some-finches-and-invented-evolution of popular myth. This book corrects that myth while keeping Darwin’s subsequent achievements in their rightful place.

First things first. This is one lovely book. The designer (Georgina Hewitt) deserves an award for her work. The book is a joy to read and very few of the pages are not complemented by beautifully chosen illustrations. Anyone putting coffee-cup rings on it should be sent to bed without any supper.

What more can be written about Darwin and the Voyage? He must be one of the best documented, most dissected figures in modern history and the Voyage likewise.

Well, in the hands of a maritime historian, there is plenty of new material to consider. There is a welcome chapter on FitzRoy’s officers and crew which brings these normally bit-part players to life and an excellent chapter on marine surveying, which was the main purpose of the 1831-36 voyage.

Those of us who sail take modern, accurate Admiralty charts or digital chart plotters for granted. The real heroes of the 18th and 19th century sailing world were the navigators like FitzRoy who sailed into unknown waters, landed on uncharted coasts and filled in the blanks. The work was incredibly painstaking, and the book contains reproductions of the charts made based on the work done by FitzRoy and his crew. The detail and precision are astonishing. That this kind of history is not taught in British schools is a disgrace.

The Beagle gets a chapter all to herself, and while it is obvious that Mr Taylor has thoroughly mined what sources there are, details of her build, refit, accommodation and life aboard are sketchy. She was one of many not well-liked line of workaday naval vessels all of which did valuable work. Had it not been for Darwin, they would otherwise have been remembered only for their wetness on deck and reputation for sinking. Most people don’t write about their offices, nor did Beagle’s crew.

The Voyage of the Beagle moves on to another under-appreciated aspect of the voyage in the chapter Earle and Martens: FitzRoy’s Painting Men. In the days before photography, the task of recording a coastline for navigational advice, illustrating a book or recording a specimen needed artistic skill and during the voyage Augustus Earle and Conrad Martens carried out this work. Sadly Marten’s stay aboard the Beagle ended when the Admiralty forced FitzRoy to sell his companion schooner and effectively lay off the artist in residence.

The book does cover the hinterland to the Voyage: Darwin’s early life, how he came to be aboard and the consequences both for the cast of characters and society. Given that this book is primarily about the Voyage, both of these chapters are overviews but still with nuggets for someone who thinks they know the ground well: I learned that Emma Darwin was a pianist who spent some time under the tuition of none other than Chopin.

To this sailor who has an enthusiastic interest in Darwin, this book is extremely welcome. I do occasionally get emails and comments here that Darwin gets all the puff and the poor old Beagle and FitzRoy none of the credit they deserve. They're right. This book goes a long way to righting that historic wrong, and spreads the story out into the voyages of Cook and Banks, the farsightedness of the Admiralty and the outstanding seamanship of Beagle’s crew.

James Taylor has done an excellent job telling the story of the voyage of the Beagle that is not told in The Voyage of the Beagle.

Now, can some philanthropist please endow every state school biology lab in the country with a copy for 2009? Oh and chuck a few coppers in the build-fund while you’re at it.

No comments: