22 May 2011

185 years ago today...

On 22nd May, 1826, His Majesty's Ship Beagle set sail from Plymouth on a surveying voyage to South America.

Neither Darwin nor FitzRoy were on board. This was Beagle's first voyage. Her more famous second voyage was to begin five years later.

But her first voyage was not without incident: hardship; scurvy; several deaths; the suicide of Beagle's captain, Pringle Stokes; his temporary replacement by Lieutenant Skyring; his official replacement by the 23-year-old Robert FitzRoy, who joined the ship at Montevideo; surveying; the discovery and naming of of the Beagle Channel; the abduction of four young Fuegian natives.

The first Beagle voyage was to establish Robert FitzRoy as an able and talented ship's captain, making him the logical choice to fulfil the same role on what was to become her far more famous second voyage. The need to return the young Fuegians to their homeland was surely a factor in FitzRoy's acceptance of the commission; Stokes's suicide a key factor in FitzRoy's decision to take a gentleman companion on the voyage.

In other words, were it not for the events of the first Beagle voyage, history might have been very different.

20 May 2011

The Beagle Project: news and website.

Pop over to The Beagle Project main website and you will see changes afoot. They are afoot, ahoof, afin and apseudopod (that's enough of that lame gag - Ed) organizationally too.

We are no longer run by three enthusiasts from their respective attics and bedrooms: David Lort-Philips, Karen James and I (with almost immediate help and support from Richard Carter at Friends of Charles Darwin go and join if you haven't) set the project up in our spare time and with our own resources.

However, with the Project gaining great interest and support in South America and arrival of our first large donation there is the need to put things on a more organized, professional footing. We now have scientists of the calibre of Dr. Simon Boxall on the board of trustees and are moving to secure our next lump of funding . The Beagle Project is developing a scientific programme. This is not independent of the ship build, building a new, sailing HMS Beagle remains our main objective.

It hasn't been easy keeping things running during the current economic crisis, and Karen James and David Lort-Phillips have done a fantastic job. I've been preoccupied with an evolutionary project of my own, but am back and excited that the Project is gaining momentum. Too many people have given time and money for the new HMS Beagle not to be built.

17 May 2011

The voyage of the Beagle

reported in the Manchester Guardian. Go read a contemporaneous report.

Beagle Project housekeeping: several member of the BP are in Chile doing Important Things. I will extract a report from them on their return and blog it for all to read. I know you're impatient for updates, but the Project is no longer treading water in the way it has been.

From the Beagle Project blogroll: if you don't go and read this wonderful piece from Deep Sea News about Hans Fricke and his research into the secret lives of coelacanths, you're missing something good. This kind of stuff is what the internets are for.

And congrats to NASA


for launching Endeavour safely.

Blogging about this from Whitby is particularly poignant because the Shuttle Endeavour was named after the ship in which our local hero James Cook made the first of his circumnavigations. Cook learned his sailing skills in Whitby and Endeavour (the Earl of Pembroke before she was bought into the Royal Navy) was a Whitby-built ship. Cook's first voyage, like the modern Endeavour's last, was of cosmic import - his trip was to observe the transit of Venus acoss the face of the sun. As Cook wrote:

Saturday 3 rd This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen the Whole day and the Air was perfectly clear, so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk: we very distinctly saw an Atmosphere or dusky shade round the body of the Planet which very much disturbed the times of the contacts particularly the two internal ones.


Endeavour's mission is to deliver a mass spectrometer, a high pressure gas tank, two radio antennae and spares for the all-important meteorite shield. Thier mission is at the cutting edge of what is possible just as Cook's was. As they orbit the earth, the crew of Shuttle Endeavour are the living embodiment of Cook's personal motto 'Nil intentatem reliquit'.

Leave nothing unattempted. We wish them all a successful mission and safe return. (Pic the Australian-built replica Endeavour sailing into Whitby.)

For those interested in Beagle's chronometers...

Wikipedia now has a page up about them.

The fact that Captain Fitzroy carried so many (more than 20, the majority purchased at his own expense) and cherished them so well throughut the voyage is a tribute to the man's rigour and seamanship. The primary purpose of the 1831-36 voyage was not to carry Darwin to fame, but to survey the coast of South America and to 'carry a chain of chronometric measurements' around the world.

Navigation in those days was far more complex than the modern penchent for punching up the GPS, and an accurate chronometer was crucial in calculating longitude. Fitzroy has a dedicated padded cupboard set aside for his stock of chronometers and a crew member appointed to ensure that they were wound.