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Darwin's Diary

Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882


April-August 1831 (Voyage of the Beagle)

Darwin is destined for life as a country parson. But before settling into such a quiet life, he yearns to have an adventure in the tropics. He reads and rereads Alexander von Humboldt's inspiring account of his expeditions through the rain forest.

"All the while I am writing now my head is running about the Tropics: in the morning I go and gaze at Palm trees in the hot-house and come home and read Humboldt: my enthusiasm is so great that I cannot hardly sit still on my chair ... I never will be easy till I see the peak of Teneriffe and the great Dragon tree; sandy, dazzling plains, and gloomy silent forest are alternately uppermost in my mind ... I have written myself into a Tropical glow."

Humboldt's Personal Narrative is more than just an exciting travelogue. It touches on some of the most important scientific questions of the time, and hints that the answers can be found through an exploration of nature.

"Humboldt's work stirred up in me a burning zeal to add even the most humble contribution to the noble structure of Natural Science."

For six months, Darwin plans a "naturalizing" trip to the Canary Islands, off the coast of Africa, with friends from Cambridge.

"At present I talk, & think & dream of a scheme I have almost hatched of going to the Canary Islands ... I have long had a wish of seeing Tropical scenery & vegetation: & according to Humboldt, Teneriffe [one of the Canary Islands] is a very pretty specimen."

Then, suddenly, his hopes are dashed when one of his would-be travelling companions dies.

Late August 1831 (Voyage of the Beagle)

Only days after his crushing disappointment, Darwin gets the letter of his lifetime. His Cambridge mentor, John Stevens Henslow, has recommended him to a Captain Robert FitzRoy for a two-year voyage around the world. Henslow writes:

"[T]here never was a finer chance for a man of zeal & spirit ... [Capt. FitzRoy] 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 ... [I recommend you] not on the supposition of yr. Being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History ... Don't put on any modest doubts or fears about your disqualifications for I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of."

Darwin is ecstatic.

"I was instantly eager to accept the offer, but my father strongly objected, adding the words fortunate for me, -- 'If you can find any man of common sense, who advises you to go, I will give my consent.'"

Charles's father Robert has many concerns about the proposed voyage. Charles makes a list of them:

"(1) Disreputable to my character as a Clergyman hereafter.
(2) A wild scheme
(3) That they must have offered to many others before me, the place of Naturalist
(4) And from its not being accepted there must be some serious objection to the vessel or expedition
(5) That I should never settle down to a steady life hereafter
(6) That my accommodations would be most uncomfortable
(7) That you should consider it as again changing my profession
(8) That it would be a useless undertaking"

Darwin rushes to his uncle Josiah Wedgwood II for help. Wedgwood addresses each of Charles's father's concerns about the Beagle voyage. Near the end of his note, he writes:

"The undertaking would be useless as regards his profession [the clergy], but looking upon him as a man of enlarged curiosity, it affords him such an opportunity of seeing men and things as happens to few."

His uncle is ultimately persuasive:

"As my uncle thought it would be wise in me to accept the offer, and as my father always maintained that he was one of the most sensible men in the world, he at once consented."

The aristocratic Captain Robert FitzRoy, at 26 years old, is worried about the strains ahead. He wants a "gentleman" companion to relieve the isolation of command. In 1828, plagued by scurvy and navigation errors, the captain of the first Beagle trip to South America commits suicide after noting in his logbook "The soul of man dies in him."

September 1831 (Voyage of the Beagle)

After scurrying around London collecting supplies for the trip, Darwin gets more bad news: Captain FitzRoy has offered the place to an unnamed "friend," but if this falls through, there may still be a spot. This "friend" may, in fact, be a ploy -- a way for FitzRoy to reject Darwin if he doesn't like him.

Darwin sets off to London to meet the captain. He knows he will face judgment. He is surprised to find FitzRoy "open & kind ... there is something most extremely attractive in his manners, & way of coming straight to the point."

The point FitzRoy makes clear is that this will not be an easy voyage. And he tests to make sure Darwin can "bear being told that I want the cabin to myself when I want to be alone, -- if we treat each other this way, I hope we shall suit, if not probably we should wish each other at the Devil."

FitzRoy writes a friend that night, "I like what I see and hear of him, much ... I will make him comfortable on board, more so perhaps than you or he would expect, and I will contrive to stow away his goods and chattels of all kinds."

Darwin is again elated.

"Afterwards on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my nose! He ... was convinced that he could judge a man's character by the outline of his features; and he doubted whether anyone with my nose could possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage."

When Darwin first sees the Beagle, he is struck by claustrophobia.

"The absolute want of room is an evil that nothing can surmount."

But there is no turning back. This will be his home for years. A crew of more than 60 men will squeeze into a ship 90 feet long and 24 feet wide. Charles will share a 10-by-11-foot cabin with the 19-year-old assistant surveyor.

Darwin begins keeping detailed notebooks. He is determined to make the most of the voyage.

"I am often afraid I shall be quite overwhelmed with the number of subjects which I ought to take into hand. The principal objects are, first, collecting, observing and reading in all branches of Natural History that I possibly can manage ... If I have not energy enough to make myself steadily industrious during the voyage, how great and uncommon an opportunity of improving myself shall I throw away. May this never for one moment escape my mind."

The cost of Darwin's supplies -- microscopes, glassware, pickling fluids, and preserving papers -- runs close to 600, comparable to two years' expenses at Cambridge University. His father foots the bill.

October-December 1831 (Voyage of the Beagle)

Darwin heads to the port of Plymouth. He packs gear into his tiny cabin and tests out his hammock. But heavy gales keep the Beagle from sailing, and Darwin is stalled.

"These two months at Plymouth were the most miserable which I ever spent ... I was out of spirits at the thought of leaving my family and friends for so long a time, and the weather seemed to me inexpressibly gloomy. I was also troubled with palpitations and pain about the heart ... I did not consult any doctor, as I fully expected to hear the verdict that I was not fit for the voyage, and I was resolved to go at all hazards."

Finally, the Beagle is stocked for the long journey ahead. Darwin notes, "All the stores are completed and yesterday between five and six thousand canisters of preserved meat were stowed away. Not one inch of room is lost; the hold would contain scarcely another bag of bread. My notions of the inside of a ship were about as indefinite as those of some men on the inside of a man ... a large cavity containing air, water and food, mingled in hopeless confusion ..."

On December 27, 1831, the Beagle sets off for a proposed two-year voyage.

"The object of the expedition was to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego ... to survey the shores of Chile, Peru, and some of the islands of the Pacific; and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world."

In his cramped cabin, Charles slings his hammock above the large worktable he shares with two men. It takes him days to learn how to properly "jockey" into the hammock. He sleeps with his face two feet beneath the skylight. "It is rather amusing," he writes, "whilst lying in my hammock to watch the moon or stars performing their small revolutions."

The Beagle, a 10-gun brig designed for coastal surveys in shallow waters, rides rough over the open sea. Throughout what will become a five-year odyssey, Darwin is plagued by seasickness.

"I will now give all the dear-bought experience I have gained about seasickness. In the first place the misery is excessive, and far exceeds what a person would suppose ... I found the only relief to be in a horizontal position: but that it must never be forgotten the more you combat with the enemy the sooner will he yield. I found the only thing my stomach would bear was biscuit and raisins: but of this ... I soon grew tired ... But the only sure thing is lying down, and if in a hammock so much the better."

-> Go to 1832


Introduction | 1809-1825 | 1826-1829 | 1831 | 1832 | 1833 | 1835 | 1836
1837 | 1838 | 1842-1854 | 1856 | 1858-1859 | 1881 | 1882

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