Thursday, December 13, 2018
HMS Beagle

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’.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Read the rest of this article with additional pictures in Sea Breezes Magazine - April 2018 Issue
Click here to subscribe

Subscribe Graphic

Latest Issue - Look Inside!

Norwegian Pearl

Most Popular

  • End of Line for Jewel of a Cruise Ship +

  • Worse Things Happen at Sea +

  • Forty Years of Sailing for Mercy Ships +

  • No Shortage of Seafaring Jobs with Autonomous Ships +

  • Four LNG Tankers in One Day +

  • 1
  • 2

Top Ten Books and DVDs of 2018

Latest Products

Maritime Log

  • Wrecks From The First World War Brought Into Focus +

    U-87 and Damao A project examining shipwrecks from the First World War around the coast of Wales has pictured for the first time Read More
  • Shell’s First Ship-to-Ship Bunkering of LNG Fuel +

    Gagarin Prospect and Cardissa The first ship-to-ship bunkering of LNG fuel from the Royal Dutch Shell’s specialised LNG bunker vessel Cardissa took place at Read More
  • No Shortage of Seafaring Jobs with Autonomous Ships +

    Rolls-Royce Autonomous Ship There will be no shortage of jobs for seafarers, particularly officers, as a result of the introduction of autonomous ships, Read More
  • Clean Air Hero +

    Titus The first in a new class of four large roll-on,rolloff car and truck carriers for Wallenius Wilhelmsen, of Norway, has Read More
  • Airbus Flies Kite to Save Fuel +

    AirSeas Kite The European aerospace giant Airbus is to equip its own ships with automated flying kites to help reduce fuel costs Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

North America

  • Crude Oil Exports Help Boost Tonnage +

    Corpus Christi The major US oil exporting port of Corpus Christi, in Texas, set a new tonnage record during the first nine Read More
  • Four LNG Tankers in One Day +

    Ribera del Duero Knutsen In a major first on Oct 1, four liquefied gas carriers transited the Panama Canal in one day through the Read More
  • No Injuries in Engine Fire on Asphalt Tanker +

    Feng Huang AO The asphalt tanker Feng Huang AO, with a crew of 21, suffered an engine room fire early on the morning Read More
  • Disabled Bulk Carrier Towed Into Harbour +

    GDF Suez North Sea A 55,848dwt bulk carrier had to be towed into New York harbour after she became disabled while more than 100 Read More
  • Annual Surveys of Titanic Wreck to Start +

    Island Pride A major expedition takes place next summer to explore the wreck of the White Star Line passenger liner Titanic, 46,328grt, Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3


  • Cruise Ship in Banned Zone +

     L’Austral A French cruise company and one of its Masters were fined a total of NZ$100,000 for endangering human life and Read More
  • End of Line for Jewel of a Cruise Ship +

    Pacific Jewel The carnival Cruises subsidiary, P&O Cruises Australia, are to replace the cruise ship Pacific Jewel, 70,310gt, with the Star Princess, Read More
  • Cranes Lift Ferry Superstructure onto Hull +

    Express 4 The Australian shipbuilders Austal has rolled-out a new catamaran ferry for the Danish company Molslinjen at its Henderson shipyard in Read More
  • China is World's Top Shipping Nation +

    China Containers China is the world’s leading international shipping nation, according to a new report presented at a Hamburg trade fair on Read More
  • Automatic Berthing Project Test +

    Shioji Maru The proposed joint demonstration project by four Japanese organisations relating to the safety of vessels’ auto berthing and un-berthing has Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Naval Focus

  • F-35s Touch Down on HMS Queen Elizabeth +

    HMS Queen Elizabeth British News Many people never thought they’d see it happen, but F-35B Lightning II Joint Strike Fighters have finally flown Read More
  • Sea Trials Recall for Zumwalt-Class Destroyer +

    USS Michael Monsoor American News The Zumult class destroyer USS Michael Monsoor was in dockyard hands at Bath in Maine for the removal Read More
  • HMS Albion Proves Big in Japan +

    HMS Albion British News The assault ship HMS Albion, at time of writing, had just completed a five day visit to Tokyo Read More
  • Royal Navy Commissions New Survey Ship +

    HMS Magpie British News The latest survey vessel to join the Royal Navy was commissioned into service at her homeport of Devonport Read More
  • F-35 Stealth Fighters Land in UK +

    F-35 British News The first four of Britain’s next generation F-35 Lightning supersonic fighter jets touched down in the United Kingdom Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ferry World

  • Tragedy in Tanzania +

    Nyerere A country well used to tragedy, saw another, on Lake Victoria in September. Read More
  • Seatruck Irish Sea Expansion +

    Seatruck Power Seatruck Pace At this time, when all cross-border ferry operators ex UK must be extremely apprehensive as leaving the EU approaches, Seatruck Read More
  • Worse Things Happen at Sea +

    Ulysse and CSL Virginia I would have liked to have seen the face or hear the language of the OOW when he realised he Read More
  • The Inevitable Brexit Debacle Item +

    Stena Hollandica To the inevitable ‘Brexit’ debacle and huge concern for ferry companies. Read More
  • Trouble for "Loch Seaforth" +

    Loch Seaforth Ferry services between Ullapool and Stornoway were disrupted when Caledonian MacBrayne’s Loch Seaforth lost power just over an hour into Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Sail Review/Coastal Comment

  • Brexit Impact on Ports and Cars +

    CIty of Amsterdam I am amazed the port industry has not made more thorough and timely comments about the potentially negative impact of Read More
  • Barge Race Review +

    Edme Apart from the Whitstable Harbour Barge Race, all the other barge races have a yearly points system that counts up Read More
  • The Temps Fête Maritime Festival +

    La Recouvrance During World War II, most of France’s traditional sailing vessels were destroyed and after the war, the emphasis was on Read More
  • Sunderland to Esbjerg Race +

    Oosterschelde On the north east coast of England, it was Sunderland’s proud claim that more ships had been built here than Read More
  • Tall Ships at Liverpool +

    Belem At the end of May, a Tall Ships fleet met at Liverpool. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

From the Lookout

  • The Great Cunarders +

    Queen Elizabeth II 2018 has seen some significant landmarks in the history of two of Cunard Line’s most famous vessels – the RMS Queen Read More
  • A Port Rich in History +

    v One of my Sons recently visited Montreal in Canada on a business trip and reported back favourably on “The history Read More
  • The Plymouth Merchant Navy Memorial +

    Plymouth Merchant Navy Monument I was delighted to receive a very positive update on the development on the Plymouth Merchant Navy monument. Read More
  • Forty Years of Sailing for Mercy Ships +

    Africa Mercy Over the years, I have been a great admirer of the vital work which Mercy Ships carries out in the Read More
  • World Class Simulator Arrives at Montrose +

    Ethos simulator Coming from the NE of Scotland myself, I have been impressed by how, in recent years, Montrose Port Authority (MPA) Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Cruise News/Superyacht News

  • Dropping an Anchor in Glasgow +

    Anchor Line The history of former shipping lines are frequently well chronicled in various museums. Read More
  • Three Year Restoration for Alicia +

    Alicia The Southampton headquartered ship repairer and marine engineering services provider, SMS, has launched the classic 1930’s superyacht Alicia from its Read More
  • Latona - A Family Affair +

    Latona With her wide open-air spaces, CRN’s new superyacht Latona offers an original interpretation of timeless elegance, coupled with Italian style Read More
  • Back to Back Transatlantic on the Queen Mary 2 +

    Queen Mary 2 In the past I have been fortunate in that I have been on a cruise to a number of the Read More
  • Turnkey Explorer Yacht +

    Explorer 67 An exciting opportunity for an owner looking to build one of the finest explorer yacht projects available has presented itself. Read More
  • 1
  • 2
  • 3

Ships, Ports and Places

The Congo

Sailing up the Mighty Congo

Even if for only the first eighty-five miles, to reach Matadi I was fortunate to be able to travel the Read More
Matadi Palm (2)

Ships we forgot to remember...Matadian/Matadi Palm

The need for raw materials has spawned a wide range of shipping companies in modern times. Read More
  • 1
  • 2

Companies, Events and Other Features

Spijook Museum

The World’s Funniest Sea Museum

Tourists visiting Germany’s North Sea coast will be amazed to come across a submarine with cyrillic inscriptions in the yacht Read More
MV Crestbank

A Bank Line Voyage in 1959

The Crestbank was the second of a massive 17 ship order from Harland & Wolff in Belfast commencing with the Read More
  • 1
  • 2