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Darwin Correspondence Project

Voyage of HMS Beagle


Conrad Martens
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, and displayed for the Bicentenary exhibition A voyage round the world, in Cambridge University Library in 2009.  The text, captions, and images from the exhibition are available here.

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Emma Darwin
Emma Darwin with Leonard Darwin as a child
CUL DAR 225: 93
Cambridge University Library

Darwin in letters, 1837–1843: The London years to 'natural selection'

The seven-year period following Darwin's return to England from the Beagle voyage was one of extraordinary activity and productivity in which he became recognised as a naturalist of outstanding ability, as an author and editor, and as a professional man with official responsibilities in several scientific organisations. They are also the years in which he married, started a family, and moved to Down House, Kent, his home for the rest of his life. By 1842 he was ready to write an outline of his species theory, the so-called 'pencil sketch', based on a principle that he called ‘natural selection’. 

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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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Books on the Beagle

‘Considering the limited disposable space in so very small a ship, we contrived to carry more instruments and books than one would readily suppose could be stowed away in dry and secure places’. So wrote Captain FitzRoy in the Narrative (2: 18). CD, in his letter to Henslow, 9 [September 1831], discussing the preparations for the voyage, refers to FitzRoy’s ‘immense stock of instruments & books . . .

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The Voyage of the Beagle

It was a letter from his friend and former teacher, John Stevens Henslow, 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. It took weeks to pursuade his reluctant father to agree to the trip.  What was originally planned as a two-year voyage around the world stretched to five but they were the most formative years of Darwin's life.

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