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Darwin Correspondence Project

The Voyage of the Beagle

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.

In this section:

Interactive map

See all letters from the voyage in a map


See also The geology of the Beagle voyage.

All the letters have been published and are available in an illustrated book Charles Darwin: the Beagle Letters.   To find out more about the books that Darwin read during the journey, see the article on the 'Books on the Beagle'.