HMS Beagle’s contributions to science 13 May, 2020

Wednesday, May 13, 2020


HMS Beagle’s first commission took her to South America under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes on a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego. Alas the rigours of the journey took their toll on Stokes who fell into a deep depression and eventually shot himself on 2 August 1828 at the ominously named Port Famine on the Strait of Magellan. He died an agonizing 10 days later. HMS Beagle sailed to Montevideo for repairs where she was put under the command of the enigmatic Robert FitzRoy. The 23-year-old aristocrat FitzRoy commanded Beagle through the remainder of her commission until her return to England on 14 October 1830.


FitzRoy’s competency was rewarded when he was appointed by the Navy to lead a further hydromapping commission to South America, again in HMS Beagle. As a gentleman FitzRoy had significant private wealth and at his own personal expense he rebuilt and refitted the ship, not only making her more comfortable and resilient for the treacherous journey ahead but also kitting her out with the latest sophisticated meteorological equipment. This time FitzRoy resolved to take a companion who would accompany him on the long and lonely journey and who would also assist with the study of the geology of the land which Beagle was mapping. After some searching, FitzRoy was introduced to a young Cambridge undergraduate, Charles Darwin. Fortunately Darwin was also a gentleman and so met FitzRoy’s exacting standards for companionship although he was very nearly not accepted because FitzRoy considered his nose to be the wrong shape! Darwin was pleased to be offered the post but like many parents his family felt he should get a proper job. Darwin had failed to graduate in medicine and his family had picked out a career for him as a rural clergyman and he seemed to be avoiding that too!


Beagle’s five year voyage with Darwin and FitzRoy (1831-1836) is now famous for the ground breaking work that it achieved at the time and the history making thinking that it subsequently inspired. The centre piece of our Discover 2020 event will be a magnificent scale model of HMS Beagle loaned to us by Professor Simon Keynes of Cambridge University. Professor Keynes is the great great grandson of Charles Darwin and he commissioned this beautiful model for his father.


Despite suffering badly and persistently with sea-sickness Darwin spent most of that voyage investigating the geology and making natural history collections. His letters, notes and diaries meticulously documented his observations and he sent specimens back to Cambridge which are still housed by one of our Discover 2020 partners, the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences. The museum has some wonderful online resources which you can use to get interactive with HMS Beagle.

Observing the natural world around us enables us all to follow in Darwin’s footsteps and become explorers of our environment. Our friends at RSPB Wallasea Island

and the Essex Wildlife Trust are fine examples in our district of places where we can engage with nature up close. Although COVID 19 has temporarily meant that these nature reserves are not accessible at present, their websites have a host of different digital resources to help you bring nature into your home.


Our friends at Marks Hall Fisheries and the Salisbury School of Angling may be out of action at the moment but we look forward to seeing them at our Discover 2020 event next year along with Southend Raspberry Jam who will be showing us how coding enables us to be better scientists.


Darwin’s impact in the fields of natural sciences, geology and biology are recognized the world over. I’m proud that some of the organisations which trace their work back to Darwin’s life and works are part of our Discover 2020 event too:

Please do investigate their websites for fascinating information and great interactive materials which you can access from home. I’m looking forward to working with these prestigious organisations to bring our postponed event to life next year.