20 December 2011

Fuegians and false starts on the run-up to Christmas

Here's the second in a series of guest posts by archivist and historian Dr Gordon Chancellor, who has spent 30 years getting to know the HMS Beagle...

16 December 1831 was the first day Darwin spent entirely on the Beagle. He was daily writing his ‘journal’ for the voyage around the world of HMS Beagle, even though the little ship was still anchored in Plymouth waiting for a north-easterly breeze to take her south towards Madeira.

That day Darwin decided to write a preface, in which he recounted the months before his daily entries began on 24 October. He especially looked back to two ‘very anxious and uncomfortable days’ at the end of August when, having been offered the place on the Beagle, he had had to turn it down because his father had not approved it. Poor Darwin had been desperate to go and we have his uncle Josiah Wedgwood to thank for changing Darwin’s father’s mind and letting the young naturalist go.

Darwin had gone immediately to stay in Cambridge with his mentor John Henslow for a few days, before seeing the Beagle, then returning home to Shrewsbury for the last time. From there he was in London for three weeks, then arrived aboard the survey ship on 24 October. He spent the next month or so learning about longitudes and dipping needles, as well as doing some geology in limestone quarries and on the granite tors of Dartmoor.

The Fuegian Indians were on board by mid-November [!], and the superb ship’s library was stocked within Darwin’s easy reach - once he had learnt how to get into his hammock. HMS Beagle sailed on 10 December and Darwin’s brother Erasmus made his farewells, but she was driven back by storms.

On the 11th, the date before the first of these posts, Darwin reflected that though he had been right to accept the position on the Beagle, he doubted ‘how far it will add to the happiness of one’s life’. On the 12th he set out his agenda for the voyage, the number one priority being to collect, observe and read ‘in all branches of Natural history that I possibly can manage.’

A suitable breeze followed the Beagle from her moorings on 20 December and Darwin retreated to his hammock for the night to escape sea-sickness. A gale brewing off the Lizard had, however, forced her back again to Plymouth on the 21st, where she was anchored this day, exactly 180 years ago.

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