The Norwood Society

HMS Beagle

There have been a number of ships whose names are well-known to history because of their association with a famous man; Nelson’s Victory, Columbus’s Santa Maria and Drake’s Golden Hind are amongst those which come readily to mind. The Beagle however belongs almost in a class of her own, having become famous through her association with not one but two famous men: Charles Darwin, the father of modern evolutionary biology and Robert FitzRoy, the father of modern meteorological science. With the publication of Keith Thomson’s book, she has now acquired another distinction, the only ship (as far as is known) to have her own biography. For this book is quite specifically the life story of a ship, not of any of those who may have sailed in her.

The author’s detailed research has established the full history of the Beagle from the day of her launch in May 1820 at Woolwich Naval Dockyard to her sale for scrap fifty years, almost to the day, later. For the last 25 years of her life she acted as a floating watch station for H.M. Customs and Excise from a permanent mooring at Maldon, a useful and not entirely undignified end to what had been a distinguished career as a survey vessel. In that capacity she made three surveying voyages between 1825 and 1845, the object of which was to collect the information required to produce accurate charts of the coast of South America, (particularly of Tierra Del Fuego and Cape Horn) and North Australia, and the success of which was literally a matter of life and death to mariners sailing in those treacherous waters. The 22-year old Darwin joined her on her second voyage in the course of which she put in at the Galapagos Islands where he made the observations which have passed into scientific history, but which were incidental to the main purpose of the voyage. FitzRoy took command of the ship mid-way through her first voyage, at the age of 23, and he commanded her throughout her second, employing whatever time was available to him in making those meteorological records from which he was later to develop the science of weather forecasting.

Besides the two great men with whom her name will always be associated, we meet in this book a host of minor but fascinating characters, such as Pringle Stokes, Beagle’s commander at the start of her first voyage, who was prone to fits of despondency, in one of which he shot himself, John Lort Stokes (no relation) who sailed with Beagle on all three voyages and kept notebooks which provide us with an invaluable record of events and, perhaps most interesting of all, three young natives of Tierra del Fuego, renamed Fuegia Basket, Jemmy Button and York Minster, who were originally taken as hostages for their tribes’ good behaviour and who were later brought back to England to be educated in the values of Victorian culture, an experiment which, not unsurprisingly in the circumstances, ended in complete failure.

In the course of his research the author discovered at Greenwich the original plans of the class of vessels to which the Beagle belonged, and as a result the book contains a good deal of technical information and detailed drawings, together with a number of other illustrations from contemporary paintings and drawings. Unfortunately the illustrations are not numbered and there is no index to them. Moreover, the drawings on pages 47 and 63 purport to show Beagle rigged as 10-gun brig and as a bark respectively, but both are in fact the same drawing. More seriously, there are no reliable maps showing the location of all the places mentioned in the text, only re-drawings of maps originally drawn by members of the crew at the time of the voyage. These are interesting enough in themselves, but it is difficult to work out how they relate to each other and many of the places mentioned in the text are not marked on them at all. These are irritations which one hopes will be put right in a subsequent edition; meanwhile, they should not be allowed to detract from what is an interesting and enjoyable book.

HMS Beagle
Keith S. Thomson. W.W. Norton & Co