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Darwin Correspondence Project

Voyage of HMS Beagle

Find links to all our articles about the people, places, and scientific discoveries of the Beagle voyage below.

Capt. F. wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman. …The Voyage is to last 2 yrs. & if you take plenty of Books with you, any thing you please may be done— You will have ample opportunities at command— In short I suppose there never was a finer chance for a man of zeal & spirit. (Letter from J. S. Henslow, 24 August 1831)

It was this letter from his friend and former teacher, John Stevens Henslow, Cambridge University Professor of Mineralogy and Botany, that brought the 22-year-old Charles Darwin news of the offer of a place on board the Admiralty surveying vessel HMS Beagle on a voyage to chart the coast of South America.  During the five years of the voyage it was letters that not only kept him in touch with family and friends, but with Henslow and others from whom he could learn about observing and collecting.  Letters also helped build the networks of locals Darwin relied on during the months he spent exploring on land, and the networks of specialists he recruited to work on his specimen collections after he returned to England.  It was even letters sent back to Henslow and published without Darwin's knowledge that first brought him to wider scientific attention.

Henslow's letter was waiting for Darwin when he returned home to Shrewsbury on 29 August 1831 from a geological fieldtrip in Wales with another former teacher, Adam Sedgwick.  Henslow had been asked to recommend a young man to join the voyage, someone who could take advantage of the opportunities to study and explore, and who would be a companion for Robert FitzRoy, the Beagle's captain.  Darwin was not the first choice for the trip, but a combination of his engaging social skills and an already evident appetite for natural history, brought him to the top of the list when first Henslow himself, and then Leonard Jenyns, were forced to turn the offer down.

It took several weeks to persuade his reluctant father, Robert Waring Darwin, to give his permission and finance the trip, and more delays were caused by the refitting of the ship and then by bad weather, but when the Beagle finally sailed from Plymouth on 27 December 1831, Charles was on board.  They did not arrive back in England until 2 October 1836.

Darwin later wrote that his education ‘really began on board the Beagle’, and he kept in touch with many of the friends he made in those years for the rest of his life. 

See all letters from the voyage on a map, and find out about more of the Beagle's passengers and crew, and other principal characters connected with the voyage.

View our Beagle learning resources for ages 7-11: Darwin's fantastical voyage; and for ages 11-14: Beagle voyage and Offer of a lifetime.


FITZROY-R-01-05660.jpg

Robert FitzRoy
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw115429/Robert-FitzRoy-Fitzroy-Fitz-Roy?
Robert FitzRoy (Fitzroy, Fitz-Roy) by London Stereoscopic & photographic Company albumen print on card mount, early-mid 1860s, NPG x128426
mw115429
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Robert FitzRoy

Robert FitzRoy was captain of HMS Beagle when Darwin was aboard. From 1831 to 1836 the two men lived in the closest proximity, their relationship revealed by the letters they exchanged while Darwin left the ship to explore the countries visited during the Beagle’s voyage round the world. FitzRoy and Darwin could not have been more different, but these differences were minimised by their shared interests during the voyage. Once back in England, however, their divergent views became more apparent, especially on religious matters and evolutionary theory.

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Barrier reef.jpg

Barrier reef
Barrier reef, Journal of researches (1845), p. 469

Journal of researches

Within two months of the Beagle’s arrival back in England in October 1836, Darwin, although busy with distributing his specimens among specialists for description, and more interested in working on his geological research, turned his mind to the task of preparing an account of his travels. Journal of researches was his first published book. The circumstances of its publication were not shaped by Darwin, however, but by the Beagle’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, who, according to custom in the Navy, had the right to decide the use of the materials produced by those on board his ship. The Journal of Researches thus began life in 1839 as the third volume of the Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle. . ., with the title Journal and remarks. Darwin’s volume was soon issued separately with the new title Journal of Researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle, and this much reprinted book later became widely known as The voyage of the Beagle, although this title was never used in Darwin’s lifetime.

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Jemmy Button in 1833
CUL CCA.24.2
Jemmy Button in 1833 from 'Fuegians' in The narrative of the voyages of H.M. Ships Adventure and Beagle. Vol.2. FitzRoy, R. 1839. Proceedings of the second expedition, 1831-36. 'Fuegians' [plate] pp.324-325
Cambridge University Library

Orundellico (Jemmy Button)

Orundellico was one of the Yahgan, or canoe people of the southern part of Tierra del Fuego.  He was the fourth hostage taken by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, in 1830 following the theft of the small surveying boat. This fourteen-year old boy was called Jemmy Button by the Beagle crew because FitzRoy had given a large mother-of-pearl button to the man who was in the canoe with Orundellico.

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Benjamin James Sullivan
Bartholomew James Sulivan 1810–1890
Sulivan, Henry Norton, ed. 1896. Life and letters of the late Admiral Sir Bartholomew James Sulivan, KCB, 1810–1890. London: John Murray.

Bartholomew James Sulivan

On Christmas Day 1866, Bartholomew Sulivan sat down to write a typically long and chatty letter to his old friend, Charles Darwin, commiserating on shared ill-health, glorying in the achievements of their children, offering to collect plant specimens, and reminiscing about their time together on board HMS Beagle:

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Conrad Martens
http://acmssearch.sl.nsw.gov.au/search/itemDetailPaged.cgi?itemID=404668
Conrad Martens, ca. 1840, painted by Maurice Felton
ML 28
Mitchell Library, State Library of New South Wales

Conrad Martens

Conrad Martens was born in London, the son of an Austrian diplomat. He studied landscape painting under the watercolourist Copley Fielding (1789–1855), who also briefly taught Ruskin. In 1833 he was on board the Hyacinth, headed for India, but en route in Rio de Janeiro, learned that Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, was looking for a replacement after Augustus Earle, the Beagle’s original artist, had become seriously ill.

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A voyage round the world

Follow the story of the Beagle voyage through Darwin’s notes, books, letters, and specimens, now in the collections of Cambridge University. The text, captions, and images from the Darwin Bicentenary exhibition A voyage round the world, held in Cambridge University Library in 2009, are available here.

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Volcano of Osorno, from Chiloé
http://cudl.lib.cam.ac.uk/view/MS-ADD-07984/35
The volcano of Mt Osorno, Chile, from a contemporary sketch by the Beagle’s artist, Conrad Martens
CUL Add. 7984
Cambridge University Library

Darwin’s earthquakes

Darwin experienced his first earthquake in 1834, but it was a few months later that he was really confronted with their power. Travelling north along the coast of Chile, Darwin and Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, were confronted with a series of violent natural events that they were perfectly placed to study.

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Darwin’s hand-coloured geological map of islands off the South American coast
Darwin’s hand-coloured geological map of islands off the South American coast
CUL DAR 44: 13
Cambridge University Library

The geology of the Beagle voyage

The primary concern that linked much of Darwin’s geological work in the Beagle years was to understand the changing relation between the levels of land and sea. As he studied the shores of South America, and discovered shells inland at thousands of feet above sea level, he became convinced that the continent had been gradually uplifted.  His conviction was strengthened in February 1835, when he was witness to an earthquake that raised the harbour at Concepcion, Chile, several feet out of the Pacific Ocean. He went on to argue that coral atolls were formed when islands in the tropical ocean gradually sank, in the reverse of the process that raised South America.  Find out more about Darwin's geological discoveries here.

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MS-DAR-00044-000-00024-00001.jpg

Darwin’s hand-coloured cross-sectional view of the reef at Cocos (Keeling) atoll
Darwin’s hand-coloured cross-sectional view of the reef at Cocos (Keeling) atoll
CUL DAR 44: 24
Cambridge University Library

Darwin & coral reefs

The central idea of Darwin's theory of coral reef formation, as it was later formulated, was that the islands were formed by the upward growth of coral as the Pacific Ocean floor gradually subsided. It overturned previous ideas and would in itself have ensured his place as a scientific thinker. Explore the genesis of his theory during the voyage of HMS Beagle.

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FITZROY-R-01-05660.jpg

Robert FitzRoy
http://www.npg.org.uk/collections/search/portrait/mw115429/Robert-FitzRoy-Fitzroy-Fitz-Roy?
Robert FitzRoy (Fitzroy, Fitz-Roy) by London Stereoscopic & photographic Company albumen print on card mount, early-mid 1860s, NPG x128426
mw115429
© National Portrait Gallery, London

Darwin in letters, 1821-1836: Childhood to the Beagle voyage

Darwin's first known letters were written when he was twelve. They continue through school-days at Shrewsbury, two years as a medical student at Edinburgh University, the undergraduate years at Cambridge, and the of the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle. Letters exchanged with family and friends give a vivid picture of the social life of the Shropshire gentry of the 1820s and 1830s. In the earliest letters Darwin was already keenly interested in natural history. During the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle Darwin’s letters convey the excitement and enthusiasm of a keen and careful collector let loose in a new and challenging land. 

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