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Darwin Correspondence Project

Journal of researches

Barrier reef.jpg

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

The Journal of researches, Darwin’s account of his travels round the world in H.M.S. Beagle, 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, between the years 1826 and 1836, describing their examination of the southern shores of South America, and the Beagle’s circumnavigation of the globe, 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.


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. He decided to approach close and distant relatives for advice, asking them to look at the journal he had kept during the voyage, which would form the basis of his publication.  After Henry Holland, Darwin’s second cousin, pointed out there would be too much overlap with FitzRoy’s account for Darwin’s journal to be published alone, Darwin ‘rather inclined to the plan of mixing up long passages with Capt FitzRoy’.

In contrast, when Darwin’s cousin Hensleigh Wedgwood and his wife Fanny read the manuscript journal, they were emphatic that ‘the less it is mixed up with the Captains the better’. They had subjected the journal to a severe test by reading it out loud and found it held their interest. ‘I am not in general a good reader of travels’, Hensleigh confessed, ‘but I found no part of yours tedious’. Darwin’s sister Catherine also reported that Fanny and Hensleigh thought the journal so interesting that they found it ‘quite difficult to stop to criticize’. By the end of 1836, the matter of whether Darwin’s journal would form a separate publication was settled by FitzRoy himself: he proposed that the narrative be divided into three volumes with one for Darwin alone, and the ‘profits if any to be divided into three equal portions’.


As Darwin set about preparing his volume of the Narrative, his sisters lamented the fact that the published book would be only half the length of the journal kept during the voyage, while another Wedgwood cousin continued to encourage him not to cut out too much for fear it would become ‘dryer’. Darwin’s revisions did not involve only cutting, but also a thorough restructuring, as he explained to his cousin William Darwin Fox in March 1837: ‘I intend giving a kind of journal of a naturalist, not following however always the order of time, but rather the order of position.— The habits of animals will occupy a large portion, sketches of the geology, the appearance of the country, and personal details will make the hodge-podge complete.’

Shortly after this, Darwin outlined the same plan to his Cambridge mentor John Stevens Henslow, stating that he intended to add to his account made during the voyage, by ‘studying the geographical range and other such subjects of the different branches’. His letters reveal circumstances that would mark the entire period he worked on the book: delays, and requests for help and information from others. ‘I have been going steadily,’ Darwin told Henslow, ‘and have already made a hole in the work, which I fear is more than the Captain can say.’ He also expressed the hope that by mid summer Henslow would have time to give him ‘some general remarks, which will much add to the value of the whole.’ By July 1837, Darwin had finished the draft of his book and was ‘very busy in filling up gaps & getting it quite ready for the press’. He was pushing Henslow for plant names, and stated that he was ‘hard at work, cramming up learning to ornament my journal with’. Darwin’s methods for acquiring information with which to augment his book show him building the kind of correspondence networks on which he would rely for the rest of his scientific career.

This flurry of activity had been spurred by assurances in May 1837 that Darwin’s volume would ‘begin to print in the beginning of August’ even though the whole Narrative would ‘not be published till November 1st.’ By 18 May, Darwin was working ‘very steadily’, but complained that although he remained ‘daily many hours at the work’ his progress was slow’. Nonetheless, Darwin kept to the schedule, even though the effort continued to surprise him. ‘I shall always feel respect for every one who has written a book, let it be what it may, for I had no idea of the trouble, which trying to write common English could cost one’, he told Fox.


Since books were sent to the printer in sections, Darwin still had a few days to complete later parts after the first manuscript pages had been sent off.  On 1 August 1837, he reminded the dilatory Henslow about ‘the thistles’ (questions first sent to him in March), and stressed urgency. ‘I send my MSS to the press the day after tomorrow,’ he reported, ‘but not the part with the thistles, which will go a few days afterwards’. Darwin also warned Henslow that he hoped to send him the first proof sheet very soon ‘for you to skim your eye over’, telling him that this was something he was ‘bound to do’ as he had sent Darwin out on the voyage. If Darwin found writing Journal of researches strenuous and time-consuming, he had long dreaded the thought that there still remained ‘the worst part of all correcting the press’. By late August, as the proof sheets began to ‘tumble in’, Darwin’s view was confirmed and he foresaw that he would be ‘tied by the leg, hard at work as any galley slave during the next five weeks.’  He found it ‘grievous’ to have to forego attending the renowned Birmingham Music Festival with his Wedgwood cousins. ‘To write a book, I do not doubt is a very grand thing, but there ought to be a deal of satisfaction from some source to repay one for all one loses.

Correcting the press proved a more onerous task than simply checking the text. For example, the argument in Journal of researches concerning the preservation of animals in ice drew on information about the climate of North America provided by the naturalist John Richardson, but Darwin did not ‘succeed in burying the Mammoth in ice’ quite to his ‘satisfaction’ until he had page proofs. By late September, the effort of correcting press began to take an ominous toll. ‘I have not been very well of late with an uncomfortable palpitation of the heart, and my doctors urge me strongly to knock off all work & go and live in the country, for a few weeks’, Darwin moaned to Henslow, who had taken on the role of checking all proof sheets after Darwin had gone through them first. With Darwin requiring rest to avoid a breakdown, Henslow volunteered to be the first to check the proofs as they came from the printers before forwarding them to Darwin at his father’s home in Shrewsbury.

In early November, when Darwin was feeling better and had the entire printed Journal  in hand, he expressed his thanks to Henslow: ‘If I live till I am eighty years old I shall not cease to marvel at finding myself an author: in the summer, before I started, if anyone had told me I should have been an angel by this time, I should have thought it an equal improbability. This marvellous transformation is all owing to you.

As the third volume of Narrative

Within days, Darwin’s bubble of wonder at finding himself an author was burst by FitzRoy, who, having read the printed Journal, spoke frankly about the wording of any preface of works relating to the Beagle voyage. FitzRoy objected to Darwin’s superficial acknowledgement of the assistance he received from the Beagle’s crew. He was also hurt by Darwin’s seeming lack of appreciation of how much FitzRoy himself had facilitated the opportunity for a scientific gentleman to be accommodated on board. Finally, he pointed out to Darwin that ‘the connection of your volume with mine—and mine with Captain King’s—is one of feeling and fidelity—not of expediency.’ Darwin, who was in the wrong, was duly chastened, and his published preface reflected FitzRoy’s wishes.

The incident shows just how far Darwin had detached himself from the world of the Beagle. FitzRoy and Darwin had spent the voyage largely in unison about its scientific aims, and able to overcome their political differences. Back in England, however, they had begun to rub each other up the wrong way. Not only was Darwin already thinking about his book more as an independent publication rather than the third volume of the Narrative, he was increasingly dismayed by the other two volumes. The first, based on information from Phillip Parker King, and compiled by FitzRoy, ‘abounds with Natural History of a very trashy Nature’, reported Darwin, who hoped that the ‘Captain’s own volume will be better.’ By the time the Narrative was eventually published in May 1839, FitzRoy’s volume showed just how far he and Darwin had drifted apart. FitzRoy’s conservative set of mind was reflected in his conclusion, where he set out his views on human migration and reconciled geology with the Biblical account. ‘You will be amused with FitzRoy’s Deluge Chapter’, Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline, adding that Charles Lyell ‘says it beats all the other nonsense he has ever read on the subject’.

Darwin had long fretted that his volume was not going to appear in good company or simply get lost as part of three-volume set. In September 1838, Charles Lyell reported that his father (also Charles Lyell) was ‘disappointed at hearing that Darwin’s Journal was to be fettered by the other volumes, for although he should equally buy it, he feared so many of the public would be checked from doing so’, and they agreed that it ‘would have a great sale if separately published’. The publisher of the Narrative, Henry Colburn, had also recognised that Darwin’s Journal would be more popular than the other two volumes, so, as early as September 1837, he had secured an agreement with FitzRoy that would allow Darwin to publish the Journal independently after the completion of the sale of the first edition of the Narrative.

Journal of researches

Colburn did not respect the terms of his agreement made two years previously, and Darwin’s volume was published as a separate work with the title Journal of researches as early as August 1839. The speed with which this occurred probably reflected the positive reception of Journal and remarks as well as both Darwin’s and Colburn’s frustration at the long delay in publishing Narrative and the length of time it would take for the edition to sell out. Darwin’s Journal was already known to some extent in the scientific community because Darwin had circulated the page proofs from early 1838, not least to William Whewell, president of the Geological Society of London, who praised the work in his anniversary address to the society in that year. The following year, Whewell expressed his regret that the delay in publication was keeping Darwin’s valuable contributions to science from the world. Darwin welcomed this private reception of his work, and especially appreciated the positive view of Charles Lyell Sr, claiming that ‘to hear such tidings is a kind of resurrection, for I feel towards my first born child, as if it had long since been dead, buried & forgotten’.

In the three months between the publication of Narrative and the appearance of Journal of researches as a separate work, Darwin distributed the additional copies of Journal and remarks he had received from the publisher. William Buckland praised its ‘high scientific merits’; Richard Owen thought it ‘as full of good original wholesome food as an egg’; William Henry Fitton considered the geology to be ‘excellent’ while relishing the ‘tone of kind & generous feeling that is visible in every part’; and William Lonsdale also admired the ‘matter and manner’ of the work. As soon as Darwin had copies of the separately published Journal of researches, he was able to distribute his work more widely. The French geologist Léonce Elie de Beaumont was taken by ‘les vues ingénieuses’ he found in the book, while the mineralogist C. F. A. Hartmann thought it ‘one of the best scientific travelworks of this time’ and intended to have it translated into German.

The praise Darwin most likely appreciated above all came from his scientific hero Alexander von Humboldt, who wrote a long and appreciative letter about the ‘excellent et admirableJournal of researches. Darwin’s reply revealed both the emotional and intellectual impact of Humboldt’s writing: ‘That the author of those passages in the Personal Narrative, which I have read over and over again, & have copied out, that they might ever be present in my mind, should have so honoured me, is a gratification of a kind, which can but seldom happen to anyone.’ When John Washington informed Darwin that Humboldt had also stated in print that the Journal was ‘one of the most remarkable works that, in the course of a long life, I have had the pleasure to see published’, Darwin had to confess that ‘even a young author cannot gorge such a mouthful of flattery’.

Later editions

By 1842, the number of copies of Journal of researches that had sold was 1337, and the only money that had changed hands between Darwin and his publisher was the £21 10s. paid by Darwin for the ‘the copies I presented to different people’. Never having received a penny from Colburn, Darwin had few scruples when, in 1845, at Lyell’s suggestion, he asked whether the publisher John Murray would publish a second edition. ‘If I may at all judge from the opinion of scientific acquaintances,’ he told Murray, ‘I should hope for a considerable sale’.

Before any negotiations could start in earnest, the copper plates, woodcuts, and Darwin’s notes on his revisions to the text that had been sent to Ernst Dieffenbach, the translator of the German edition produced in 1844, needed to be returned. ‘Lyell recommended me to write to the great Humboldt & set him to worry the little Devilbach’, Darwin joked, not realising that Dieffenbach was in difficulties because of ‘political connections that were not tolerated’. Once Colburn agreed that Murray could publish a new edition, and Dieffenbach had arranged the return of the materials he had been loaned, Murray moved ahead with producing Journal of researches as volume 12 of his Colonial and Home Library. This volume comprised three numbers, which were issued separately between late June and late August 1845, with the slightly amended title Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the countries visited during the voyage of H.M.S. Beagle round the world. The length of the book was calculated in standard length monthly numbers, and Murray originally estimated that two would be sufficient, offering Darwin ‘100£ for the copyright’, but agreed to pay an extra £50 when Darwin pointed out that the book had required three.

Darwin had also stressed that he had ‘taken the utmost pains with this new Edition’. There had been ‘a good deal to alter in the scientific part’ and, for his now stand-alone volume, Darwin had to add accounts of the Fuegians, drawing on material from FitzRoy’s account in Narrative. In making revisions, Darwin was heavily reliant on the botanist Joseph Dalton Hooker, to whom he had confided his thoughts about species mutation, as is evident in Hooker’s comments on passages in the Journal: ‘The more I ponder upon Insular Floras the less inclined I am to admit the mutation of species to any very great amount’.

No mention of transmutation appeared in the Journal, however, not least because it would have been anathema to Charles Lyell, to whom Darwin dedicated the work. ‘I have long wished, not so much for your sake as for my own feelings of honesty, to acknowledge more plainly than by mere references, how much I geologically owe you’, Darwin told Lyell, adding that authors, ‘who like you, educate people’s minds as well as teach them special facts, can never, I should think, have full justice done them except by posterity, for the mind thus insensibly improved can hardly perceive its own upward ascent.’

The Journal continued to be reissued regularly by Murray. A new edition of 1860, following the publication of Origin of species, produced the final definitive text in which revisions by Darwin appear in a postscript to the prefatory material (rather than in the main text). This edition was and continues to be widely reprinted and has been translated into many languages.  Other than the Origin of species, the Journal of researches is Darwin’s most read work.