For one of the most famous vessels in the history of the Royal Navy and, arguably, the most influential ship in human history, HMS Beagle seems an unlikely heroine.
She was a small 10-gun brig of the Cherokee class - known in the fleet as ‘coffin brigs’ because of her dangerously poor design and sea handling qualities. Laid down in Woolwich Dockyard in 1818, she was launched the following May and immediately placed ‘in ordinary’ at Woolwich until an operational role could be found to justify her commission into the fleet. Although she took part in the celebrations to mark the coronation of King George IV at the Fleet Review in July 1820, and despite her building cost of £7,803, she began a five-year wait to be called into active service.
In 1825, Beagle’s rig was re-fitted to that of a barque to make her both more robust and easier to handle in heavy seas. Although belated, her role was to prove crucial to many aspects of contemporary seafaring knowledge. By the early part of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy had effectively achieved global maritime dominance, having taken on the leading role of policing sea trade routes, and maintaining the British domestic, imperial and international commercial interests. Beagle and her sister ships had an important part to play in this bigger operation. Trade routes needed to be secured and protected, but they also needed to be safe for mariners; this meant a concerted programme of surveying.
For the first of her five commissions, Beagle was tasked with the challenge of surveying the inhospitable area of the southern coasts of South America. The man chosen for the overall command of a small charting force was Captain Phillip Parker King, with Commander Pringle Stokes in command of Beagle. They were left in no doubt about the extent or intensity of the commission as the Admiralty order concluded ‘You are to continue on this service until it shall be completed’.
1825 -1828 THE FIRST COMMISSION - SUICIDE IN THE SOUTHERN SEAS
Departing the UK in May 1826, Beagle, together with store ship HMS Adventure sailed south. After repairs and taking on supplies at Rio de Janeiro, Captain King took his command south to the inhospitable seas around Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia. Beagle spent eleven months on detached surveying duties – including rescuing the crew of a British sealing schooner Prince Of Saxe Coburg - before Stokes bought Beagle to rendezvous with King and then, in company, back to Montevideo.
1828 bought new challenges. Beagle was tasked with more surveying – this time through the Magellan Straits to the Pacific and thence to the western coast of South America. Foul weather followed the little ship, and the return journey to Otway Water. The appropriately named Port Famine was extremely testing, especially as the crew were suffering ill-health after their severe and prolonged exertions.
Stokes ordered only non-essential duties for his ailing crew, but for him the stress of isolated command had proved overwhelming. In the desolated Port Famine, Stokes shot himself and, after a lingering and agonising death, was buried in the land which had claimed him overlooking the seas which had debilitated both Beagle and her crew. Slowly and sorrowfully, Beagle – under the temporary command of Lieutenant William Skyring – completed her commission and returned to Brazil for re-fitting and new orders.
1828-1830 THE SECOND COMMISSION - SOUTH AGAIN - HOSTAGES TO FORTUNE?
At this point, one of the most heroic – and flawed – characters of this story was appointed to command Beagle. Robert Fitzroy, from a wealthy and privileged background, star student of the recently formed Royal Naval College in Portsmouth, was a young man with a glittering career ahead of him. As a great theoretical and practical seaman, and an officer who commanded deep personal loyalty, Fitzroy was totally committed to completing the surveying task facing Beagle and was willing to spend his personal fortune in the service of the Crown if that would assist the mission. Fitzroy was, it seemed, the perfect officer for the task.
Sadly, his undoubted skills, total commitment and absolute determination were flawed by his distant and autocratic attitude and bouts of extreme and worrying behaviour. These were to become evident to his crew over the next year when his leadership varied from exemplary to inexplicable. In modern terms, Fitzroy suffered from manic depression, or bipolar disorder, but in the nineteenth century such terms – let alone any effective treatment – were unheard of.
One fateful decision Fitzroy made during his survey of Tierra del Fuego reflects his rigid attitude to any perceived slight. When native Fuegians stole one of the ship’s whaleboats in November 1829, Fitzroy over-reacted. After fruitless punitive attempts to force the return of the boat he ordered the capture of several Fuegians; many escaped, but four were held – or allowed themselves to be held – and on Fitzroy’s orders were kept onboard to be transported to England where Fitzroy had developed plans for them.
Meanwhile, Beagle successfully completed much of her vast surveying task and, in October 1830, Fitzroy bought her back to Devonport. Overall, Fitzroy had done well, actually very well. He had managed to take over command from Skyring, a popular and proven officer, and still win the crew and wardroom around by his leadership and professionalism. His determination to accurately chart the isolated and dangerous parts of the southern tip of South America had fulfilled the Admiralty’s orders. Yet, despite years of hard and unremitting labour, the task of completing the basic survey of Tierra del Feugo remained unfinished.
1831-1836 THE THIRD COMMISSION - UNFINISHED BUSINESS IN TIERRA DEL FUEGO + ‘THE VOYAGE THAT CHANGED HISTORY’
Fitzroy was reappointed commander of Beagle in June 1831 and immediately began an extensive refit with many improvements paid at his own cost. Their destination was, of course, back to the hostile waters of the southern seas for more surveying. But in addition – as had become the norm for Royal Naval deployments – scientific exploration was to form part of their duties.
As Captain, Fitzroy had the final say on who might be embarked as a supernumary gentleman naturalist. He chose Charles Darwin – a twenty-twoyear- old former student of Edinburgh and Cambridge Universities – it was to be a choice that would change the course of history and Beagle was to be the ship that conveyed them on this journey.
For three years, Beagle surveyed the remainder of Tierra Del Feugo – setting up the returning Fuegians, and a mission in Patagonia before other adventures around South America. In June 1834, she entered the Pacific. Darwin was no sailor and never overcame debilitating seasickness; but fortunately for him over 80 percent of his time in the deployment was spent exploring on land. Even so, Beagle circumnavigated the globe – witnessing the aftermath of a huge earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Chile, visiting the Galapagos Islands, Tahiti, Australia, and Cape Town while en route home. With typical attention to duty, Fitzroy re-crossed the Atlantic to call at Bahia in Brazil, thus ensuring the accuracy of his longitudinal calculations. After four and three-quarter years, Beagle finally made her last observations in Greenwich in October 1836. Fitzroy had again succeeded although the true and lasting impact of this commission was not to become evident for some years.
1837-1841 FOURTH COMMISSION - AUSTRALIAN SURVEYING
Beagle was paid off in Woolwich in November 1836. Her re-commissioning, in February 1837, took four months. Under Commander John Clements Wickham, who had been Fitzroy’s First Lieutenant during the previous commission, Beagle embarked upon the long journey to Australia which was reached in October.
For the next two and a half years Beagle undertook surveys around the coast of Australia including searching for the sources of the fabled and, as we now know non-existent, inland lakes and, later, surveying the important commercial routes of the southern Bass Strait and exploration of the northern coast and Torres Strait.
It had been an exhausting and testing commission and the crew would have sailed into Sydney just before Christmas 1840 looking forward to the relative ease of refitting and re-supplying.