13 January 2012

"Sorely tried" on the first leg of the voyage

Guest post by Beagle archivist, writer and editor Dr Gordon Chancellor

The voyage around the world of HMS Beagle was finally under way, this time 180 years ago in January 1832. She was sailing briskly in as southerly a course as possible, heading for Madeira where Captain FitzRoy intended to check the longitude. On board the little 235-ton survey ship were 74 men, plus three Fuegian Indians, the young naturalist Charles Darwin and a few personal servants and all their provisions for crossing the Atlantic to Brazil.

By 13 January they had already crossed the Bay of Biscay where Darwin had suffered terribly from sea sickness. He had been forced to lie down much of the time but this gave him a chance to re-read Alexander Humboldt’s Personal Narrative. That book had fired Darwin’s imagination as a student the year before with its classic descriptions of the Canaries and had convinced him that he needed to explore the tropics himself. He had even starting to plan his own expedition, but this was of course completely ‘knocked on the head’ by the offer of the place on the Beagle.

Around 4 January the voyage had reached Madeira but the swell prevented their landing and FitzRoy decided to press on for Tenerife in the Canaries, which they made on 6 January. Here Darwin suffered what FitzRoy called ‘a real calamity’; a quarantine meant a wait of 12 days before landing. FitzRoy not being a man to twiddle his thumbs, once more gave the order to press on. Darwin was bereft, having longed to see nature as Humboldt had so beautifully described it.

On that day Darwin did, however, do something which in many ways now seems more important for the history of science: he opened his ‘zoological diary’ (published by his great-grandson Richard Keynes in 2000). Apart from his geological training in Wales and near his Shropshire home, this was Darwin’s first ever chance to make new discoveries. His first short entry that day described the way the sea water gave off ‘sparks’ at night.

The Beagle crossed the Tropic of Cancer on 10 January and the weather was beautiful. Darwin constructed a net to catch marine life and started to describe and draw anything unusual. He also started to collect ‘specimens in spirits of wine’, each with its own unique number stamped onto a tin tag and his notes rapidly became more professional-looking.

I have chosen 13 January for this blog post because exactly one year later in 1833 the voyage of the Beagle was very nearly aborted forever by a terrible storm. That was the moment off Tierra del Fuego immortalised by FitzRoy’s account of how the Beagle was ‘sorely tried’ by a giant wave. This tore away one of the precious ship’s boats and nearly sent the Beagle and all who sailed in her to the bottom. My father John Chancellor painted the scene in 1982, not long before his untimely death, as I described in the special Darwin issue of ‘The Linnean’ in 2009. It is sobering to reflect that if the little ship had sunk that day the wonderful Beagle Project would not be happening and every one of us would be the poorer.

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