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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.


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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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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Robert FitzRoy
Robert FitzRoy (Fitzroy, Fitz-Roy) by London Stereoscopic & photographic Company albumen print on card mount, early-mid 1860s, NPG x128426
© 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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Charles Darwin: the Beagle letters

This volume contains the complete texts of all the letters that the young naturalist Charles Darwin wrote and received while sailing round the world on the surveying ship the Beaglebetween 1831 and 1836.  They start with letters written as a new and aimless graduate of Cambridge University before the offer of a place on the voyage had reached him, and go on to give  a vivid first-hand account of his exciting and scientifically significant travels to South America, the Galapagos, and Australia. Find links to selected letters here and get a flavour of one of the most famous voyages ever made.

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Books on the Beagle

The Beagle was a sort of floating library.  Find out what Darwin and his shipmates read here.

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