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Darwin Correspondence Project

To Robert FitzRoy   [19 September 1831]

17 Spring Gardens.

My dear Sir,

I have been hunting in several shops but have not succeeded in obtaining any pasteboard as thick as the sample you gave me. I send with this the thickest sort that they ever keep by them, and I hope it will answer your purpose.— I called on Watkins & Hill, and they promised they would use their best endeavours to hurry the glass house men. likewise they would try to get some colourless talc. I saw Captn. Beaufort on Saturday & the result of the interview was that he could at any time take my name off the books; but that if the Admiralty were disposed to play the part of the wolf, it would not in his opinion make any difference my being or not being on the books— I mentioned that I believed the Surgeons collection1 would be at the disposal of Government2 and this he thought would make it much easier for me to retain the disposal of my collection amongst the different bodies in London. He advised me to reconsider and talk the subject over with you and to call on him before I ultimately left town. I have been very busy these two days in picking up information and everything goes on most prosperously. nothing less than a cable shall prevent me from seeing some time or another a Palm tree in its country; and what opportunity can possibly be better than the present— I do think it is the greatest piece of good fortune that ever happened to me— And I shall always recollect your kindness in helping me in every possible way to my end with the truest pleasure.— I start for Cam tonight, and from thence to Shrewsbury and shall again be in London by the 1st. of October. If you have time and have anything to communicate, I shall be most grateful for a letter as I shall be anxious to hear how everything is going on. Captn. Beaufort said he thought the Surgeon could get apparatus free of expense from Sir W. Barnett3 (or some such name.) but that I had of course better not as I should lose so much vantage ground over the Lords of the Admiralty

Have you Cap. Beecheys voyage to the Pacific? if you have not, I will buy it, as it contains some most excellent Meteorological Journals—

Believe me, dear Sir, | Your most sincerely obliged —| Chas Darwin *S 2



Robert McCormick was Ship’s Surgeon and, as CD implies, it was normal for that officer to collect specimens on the voyage. When FitzRoy treated CD as the de facto naturalist, McCormick, who had reason to assume that this was his function, felt himself placed ‘in a false position’ and left the vessel at Rio de Janeiro to return to England (see letter to Caroline Darwin, 25–6 April [1832] and J. W. Gruber 1969). For a brief account of the naturalist tradition in the Royal Navy see Keevil 1957–63, vol. 4.
The collections of the Ship’s Surgeon and officers were considered government property. This was made explicit in the Admiralty instructions for the first voyage of the Beagle: ‘You are to avail yourself of every opportunity of collecting and preserving Specimens of such objects of Natural History as may be new, rare, or interesting; and you are to instruct Captain Stokes, and all the other Officers, to use their best diligence in increasing the Collections in each ship: the whole of which must be understood to belong to the Public.’ (Narrative 1: xvii). The instructions for the second voyage make no mention of collecting specimens. In a letter dated 16 November 1837 (DAR 164), FitzRoy states that the second Beagle voyage ‘was the first employed in exploring and surveying whose Officers were not ordered to collect—and were therefore at liberty to keep the best of all—nay, all their specimens for themselves.’ The Admiralty’s policy seems to have varied with each voyage. In 1825 (two years before the first voyage of the Beagle), when Frederick William Beechey set out in the Blossom, the orders on collecting read: ‘You are to cause it to be understood that two specimens, at least, of each article are to be reserved for the public museums after which the naturalist and officers will be at liberty to collect for themselves’ (Beechey 1831, p. xiv, Admiralty instructions). The naturalist on this voyage was George Tradescant Lay. His official appointment is mentioned in the instructions.
William Burnett, head of the Royal Navy Medical Department.


Beechey, Frederick William. 1831. Narrative of a voyage to the Pacific and Beering’s Strait, to co-operate with the Polar expeditions: performed in HMS Blossom … in the years 1825, 26, 27, 28. 2 vols. London.

Gruber, Jacob W. 1969. Who was the Beagle’s naturalist? British Journal for the History of Science 4: 266–82.

Keevil, John Joyce. 1957–63. Medicine and the Navy, 1220-1900. 4 vols. (Vols. 3 and 4 by C. Lloyd and J. L. S. Coulter.) Edinburgh and London: E. and S. Livingstone.

Narrative: Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty’s ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836. [Edited by Robert FitzRoy.] 3 vols. and appendix. London: Henry Colburn. 1839.


Reports on errands he has done for RF. Has discussed with Beaufort the question of his having right to dispose of his collection.

Letter details

Letter no.
Charles Robert Darwin
Robert FitzRoy
Sent from
London, Spring Gardens, 17
Source of text
Copy DAR 144
Physical description

Please cite as

Darwin Correspondence Project, “Letter no. 131,” accessed on 8 May 2021,

Also published in The Correspondence of Charles Darwin, vol. 1