HMS Beagle – homeward bound, 14 May 2020

Thursday, May 14, 2020


Darwin’s writings (later published as the “Voyage of the Beagle”) reveal that the relationship with FitzRoy was not always an easy one. FitzRoy was a conventional Christian, used to having his own way without being questioned and ran his crew with exacting expectations. His ways and opinions did not always sit well with the liberal-minded naturalist. Nevertheless, the two men forged a mutually respectful and intellectually robust relationship. Interestingly however, none of their quarrels were about religion – that came later! This interesting dynamic is explored by Juliet Lacey, the author of the play “The Ostrich and the Dolphin” which was commissioned by Lord Julian Hunt when he was Director General of the Met Office, the organisation founded in 1854 under the leadership of Captain, (later Vice-Admiral), Robert FitzRoy.


A specially edited excerpt of the play has been curated by Juliet for our Discover 2020 event. It explores the relationship between Darwin and FitzRoy as young men on the voyage and also as older men, reflecting back on their lives and their younger selves.


We are fortunate to be supported also by the Met Office so that FitzRoy’s contribution to modern science is not overlooked. Take a moment, if you can, to look up their website for more information about how weather forecasts are created, which is all based on the pioneering works of FitzRoy on that fateful Beagle voyage.


In June 1837, six months after returning Darwin and FitzRoy to England HMS Beagle was once again set sail; this time for Australia. This time she was under the command of Commander John Clements Wickham, who had been a lieutenant on the second voyage, with assistant surveyor Lieutenant John Lort Stokes who had been a midshipman on the first voyage of Beagle, then mate and assistant surveyor on the second voyage. Despite his namesake, Lort Stokes was no relation to Pringle Stokes but like his namesake he eventually took over the command of HMS Beagle in 1841 when Wickham fell ill and resigned. David Lort Philips, trustee of the HMS Beagle Trust is a descendant of this great man and a keen supporter of our HMS Beagle celebrations. The Trust has for the past 12 years sought to promote for the benefit of young  scientists, not just Charles Darwin’s scientific discoveries, but to bring out the crucial role played by HMS Beagle, and the remarkable Captain Fitzroy and crew on her second voyage. Also, to record the work undertaken on her less known but important first and third voyages. The Trust’s key objective is to bring to life the concept of science as an adventure using as a parable all the stories of the ship and of those who sailed with her. 


Another friend of our project is John Canaris who has been leading an expedition on the remote northern coast of Australia to find the lost anchors of the ship. In 2018 John’s team discovered one of the two anchors lost from HMS Beagle in 1839 having located precisely where the crew marked it as lost in 1839. Several days scanning and sounding the riverbed revealed that the sandbars had since covered the anchor and likely also obscured the second undiscovered anchor. Five handmade copper nails and a musket ball were unearthed where Beagle recorded it had dug two water wells which, along with the anchors, may be the only known objects left behind by HMS Beagle in its survey of the northern coast of Australia, and possibly the only verifiable remains of the ship.