The Second Voyage of HMS Beagle

John Woram

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Not a few “authorities” tell improbable tales of the reason for the second voyage of HMS Beagle, and of the role Charles Darwin played in that voyage. For example:

This page cites a few typical examples of each claim, along with some comments on their validity, or lack thereof.


1933: Fate has dealt ironically with FitzRoy and his zeal to have a naturalist on board, who would collect “useful information,” but who also, so we understand from other passages in his account of the voyage, was to gather knowledge that would ultimately confute the geological sceptics who impugned the strict and literal truth “of every statement contained in the Bible.” §

§ From Nora Barlow's “Preface” to her edition of Charles Darwin's Diary of the Voyage of H.M.S. “Beagle” (p. xv).

— and —

1968: FitzRoy was later to confide to paper that one of his reasons for asking a naturalist to accompany him had been the hope that this expert would discover added evidence to support his own growing conviction that the Bible's description of creation was wholly true.

FitzRoy [insisted] that the biblical Flood is the cause [of the Rio Santa Cruz valley], but regrets that at the time he was so misinformed and ignorant [of scripture] as to agree with his friend [Darwin] that it would be anything different.§

§ H. E. L. Mellersh: FitzRoy of the Beagle. (pp. 73 & 128, respectively). New York: Mason & Lipscomb.

— and —

1980: Robert Fitzroy, who was a captain in the Royal Navy of Great Britain, for many years wanted to prove the literal truth of the Bible. In 1833, Captain Fitzroy embarked upon a voyage around the world to do this very thing. A passenger on Captain Fitzroy's ship the [sic, no “the” here] H. M. S. Beagle was Charles Darwin. Darwin as well as Fitzroy, at that time believed the written accounts of the book of Genesis could be proved in the natural sciences (God's creation.)§

§ William Sutton: The Antichrist 666 (p. 3), Ringgold, GA: Teach Services, Inc. 1980

— and —

2005: FitzRoy … can prove the truth of the Book of Genesis. To this end, he takes a passenger: Charles Darwin.§

§ Excerpted from dust jacket of Harry Thompson's This Thing of Darkness. London: Headline Book Publishing.

— and finally —

2009: The captain of the Beagle was Robert Fitzroy, a deeply religious man of twenty six, who had invited a scientist along to find evidence to support the literal truth of Genesis, an activity proving popular at the time.§

§ Andrew Parker: The Genesis Enigma: Why the First Book of the Bible is Scientifically Accurate (unpaginated), New York: Dutton, 2009.

In fact, Captain FitzRoy was not a deeply religious man at the time of either voyage, and had no particular interest in proving the literal truth of Genesis or any other part of the Bible. We know this thanks to a reliable authority on the subject: Robert FitzRoy. A few years after returning to England, he wrote of his religious views during the voyages:

I suffered much anxiety in former years [that is, during both voyages of the Beagle] from a disposition to doubt, if not disbelieve, the inspired History written by Moses. I knew so little of that record, or of the intimate manner in which the Old Testament is connected with the New, that I fancied some events there related might be mythological or fabulous, …

And later, while exploring Rio Santa Cruz,

While led away by sceptical ideas, and knowing extremely little of the Bible, one of my remarks to a friend [guess who?], on crossing vast plains composed of rolled stones bedded in diluvial detritus some hundred feet in depth, was “this could never have been effected by a forty days' flood,” … an expression plainly indicative of the turn of [my] mind, and ignorance of Scripture.

It's odd that Lady Nora Barlow—Darwin's grand-daughter—would write that FitzRoy expected Darwin to gather knowledge pertaining to the Bible, as she of all persons should have known better. And in fact, although the two phrases above in quotation marks imply that she is quoting some unidentified source, neither one can be found in anything written by FitzRoy. Nor does Lady Nora identify any “other passages in his account of the voyage.”

Perhaps drawing on Lady Nora's example, FitzRoy biographer H. E. L. Mellersh made the claim that the captain hoped a naturalist would substantiate his own beliefs in the authenticity of the Bible. The author does not identify his source for this (mis-)information, and there is no known evidence elsewhere that the “paper …” he claims FitzRoy wrote actually exists. For the moment, the claim appears to be the invention of Mellersh himself. FitzRoy did, however, write the following:

“I had … a conviction that the Bible was true, … and that sooner or later the truth of every statement contained in the record would be proved.”

It must be noted, however, that the above sentence appears in the “Remarks on Early Migrations” chapter of his Proceedings …, written several years after the voyage of the Beagle. In context, it's clear that he was referring to what might happen in the future; not to Darwin and the voyage. However, and despite ample evidence to the contrary, some writers have chosen to bend the truth to suit their notion that FitzRoy the creationist set out on a biblical mission, with Darwin along to offer support for his religious views.

Some 40 years after the voyage, Darwin looked back on his own religious views at the time:

Whilst on board the Beagle I was quite orthodox, & I remember being heartily laughed at by several of the officers (though themselves orthodox) for quoting the Bible as an unanswerable authority on some point of morality.§

§ The Autobiography of Charles Darwin. London: Collins, 1958; p. 85.

— and earlier, —

Considering how fiercely I have been attacked by the orthodox, it seems ludicrous that I once intended to be a clergyman.§

§ same, p. 57.

As for the shipboard relationship between FitzRoy and Darwin, one reviewer (Chris Larkin) writes:

The occasional after-dinner disagreement usually involved Fitzroy’s fanatical belief in the absolute truth of the Old Testament.

In fact, in his Autobiography, Darwin mentions only two disagreements with FitzRoy; one on slavery, the other on hosting a party in Chile. FitzRoy mentions neither. In addition, FitzRoy's “fanatical belief” is a direct contradiction of his own statement that he knew little of the Bible during the voyage. By contrast, Darwin recalls his own beliefs just before the voyage:

I did not then in the least doubt the strict and literal truth of every word in the Bible. [Autobiography: Cambridge 1828-1831.]

In short, as this voyage of the Beagle began and ended, Darwin was the believer, FitzRoy the skeptic. But once on shore again, FitzRoy experienced a biblical sea change, perhaps influenced in part by his marriage to the deeply religious Mary Henriettta O'Brien. And then on reading Darwin's Journal and Remarks, he felt he must do something, which led him to “A very few Remarks with reference to the Deluge,” a last-minute addition to his Narrative of the Surveying Voyages …, from which most of his remarks above are taken. On publication, Darwin wrote to his sister Caroline:

You will be amused with FitzRoy's Deluge chapter—[Charles] Lyell, who was here to-day, has just read it, & says it beats all the other nonsense he has ever read on the subject.§

§ FitzRoy's “Deluge” chapter also did not go over well with a review in the Quarterly Review.

To bring the matter of Robert FitzRoy and the Bible to a close, we might assume for a moment that he was indeed a deeply religious man in search of the literal truth of the Bible. Would the British Admiralty go along with his plan and put one of His Majesty's ships at his disposal so he could go off in search of Genesis? To put it briefly; not a chance.

Mental Health

Other sources cite FitzRoy's family history playing a role in his actions. For example, on his Musings of a Scientific Nature website, Francis Smallwood (University of Cambridge) recalls FitzRoy's uncle, Viscount Castlereagh, had taken his own life, and says of FitzRoy:

Frightened by his biological and professional inheritance, Fitzroy sought to allay the acute loneliness he was otherwise fated to suffer by enlisting a companion of his social standing to accompany him and share his table, putting out an advert for a gentleman naturalist.

Of course FitzRoy was aware of his uncle's suicide, but never said a word about his family history. Not a public word, that is. But during the voyage he apparently confided in Darwin, who in a letter to his sister Catherine (November 8, 1834) wrote:

The Captain was afraid that his mind was becoming deranged (being aware of his hereditary predisposition). … he invalided [resigned as captain] & Wickham was appointed to the command.

On this point, Mellersh apparently indulges in a bit more “creative writing” (p. 135):

Darwin, aware of some mental instability in his own family, could be sympathetic.

Darwin was indeed sympathetic to his captain's fears, but there is no known record of mental problems within his own family.

As for FitzRoy, there is a comparision to be made here: Pringle Stokes—his mind truly deranged—took his own life after two years in command of the Beagle; And then on the second voyage, Robert FitzRoy invalided; after two years in command of the Beagle. But before that there was the first voyage, successfully completed under his command. And fortunately for Darwin and the others, his fellow officers on the second voyage persuaded him to reconsider, and as Darwin tells Catherine in the same letter:

The Captain, at last, to every ones joy consented & the resignation was withdrawn.

Of course all this speaks of FitzRoy's state of mind two years into the second voyage. But did he have premonitions of things to come on the previous voyage, or during the first years of this voyage with Darwin? There's no evidence one way or another, and all observations that this played a part in his search for someone to accompany him are pure speculation.

It might be worth noting too, that in his own Narrative, the captain writes nothing of anxiety, nor of his brief resignation. For the rest of the voyage, to and beyond Galápagos, FitzRoy enjoyed good health—both physical and mental—and arrived home in the best of spirits. Shortly thereafter he happily announced to Darwin that he was about to marry Miss O'Brien.

In later years, the captain's fortunes took many a turn for the worse, and of course he eventually followed his uncle into a suicide's grave. But not every source gets the facts straight on this, as this example shows:

Suicides had occurred in Fitzroy's family, and it is possible that he had an inherited mental instability that finally overcame him. He shot himself on April 30, 1865.§

§ from Encyclopedia of Evolution. New York: Facts on File, 2007 (p. 163).

As is well-known to almost everyone else, suicides did not occur in FitzRoy's family—Lord Castlereagh was the one, and only one, other than FitzRoy himself, who ended his life with a razor (not a bullet).

Scandal Avoidance

For yet another spin on the second voyage of the Beagle, some sources cite (or allude to) an anecdote in Felix Riesenberg's Cape Horn, in which FitzRoy's coxwain James Bennett encounters York Minster and Fuegia Basket taking part in some activities that would compromise the lady's virtue. Bennett chases York Minster off, and later reports to his captain, who is properly shocked:

Bennett, this is the most terrible thing that yet has happened. I'd rather—I'd rather see her in a Christian grave, … But, what is to be done?

Sail, sir, sez I. Slip the cable, Captain, an' I'm with you, sir.

In his Evolution's Captain, author Peter Nichols writes:

This episode, suggesting that Coxwain Bennett caught York Minster and Fuegia Basket in flagrante delectio is … fanciful, unsupported, and written as if Riesenberg had stayed up too late reading Treasure Island.

Despite the fact that Riesenberg is writing pure fiction, not a few sources have picked up on his fable and some have even “improved” it, as in Chris Larkin's online review of Nichols' work, cited above. He writes that:

York Minster was caught raping a 12-year-old girl, Fuegia Basket, in a ditch. To the highly moral Fitzroy it was a bitter blow and confirmed his belief that savages would always be savages. To save blushes in society he resolved to get them back to Tierra del Fuego post haste. The Beagle's second voyage and Darwinism was therefore borne out of a rape in a ditch.

Larkin played the title role in “Darwin's Dangerous Idea” in the PBS “Evolution” series, and here plays the role of reviewer, perhaps not having troubled himself to actually read Nichols' work before reviewing it.

A somewhat watered-down spin appeared some years ago on the BBC News website, which reported that “York Minster … became sexually interested in young Fuegia Basket.” Under a “Fearing humiliation” header, the BBC quotes Nichols:

Although the official records don't note it, says Mr Nichols, it can be deduced from other writings at the time.

Needless to say, neither the BBC nor Nichols identify those “other writings at the time.”

It's worth noting that in the first chapter of his own Narrative, written several years after returning the Fuegians to Tierra del Fuego, FitzRoy stated his intention to send them home after two or three years in England. Now, if he cut their visit short to avoid a scandal, surely he would have amended his “two or three years” to something more in line with their actual time spent in England.

It may be remembered that in an 1830 letter to Captain King, Admiralty Secretary John Barrow informed him that, regarding the Fuegians and FitzRoy:

… their Lordships will not interfere with Commander Fitz-Roy's personal superintendence of, or benevolent intentions towards these four people, but they will afford him any facilities towards maintaining and educating them in England, and will give them a passage home again (emphasis added).

Later, their Lordships apparently had a change of heart, and FitzRoy—on learning the Admiralty would not in fact support a second expedition—apparently decided to take matters into his own hands. He requested a leave of absence so that he could honor his word to the Fuegians, and made arrangements to charter a private vessel to do the job. Then, thanks to the intervention of powerful relatives, the Admiralty relented, orders were given, and FitzRoy set out on the return voyage with the Fuegians, and Darwin too. But it was hardly a speedy departure: first, the Beagle was extensively refurbished, and as Darwin noted in an 1831 letter to John Stevens Henslow:

… one thing is certain no vessel has been fitted out so expensively & with so much care.—Everything that can be made so is of Mahogany, & nothing can exceed the neatness & beauty of all the accomodations.

Given all the time and effort—to say nothing of money—that went into outfitting the ship, at this point it would have been awkward—if not impossible—to accept the Admiralty decision, but ask that it be postponed for another year or two.

As for those Admiralty orders, it's worth noting that they amounted to more than 6,000 words, the voyage was to encompass a circumnavigation of the entire globe, and of course an entire crew was assigned for a voyage that would take several years to complete. In view of all this, to state (as some sources have done) that the purpose of the voyage was to get York Minster and Fuegia Basket out of town post haste is—to say the least—ludicrous. If that were actually the plan, surely it could have been put into action for a fraction of the cost of the actual voyage.

But to return to the alleged misbehavior of the Fuegians, author Harry Thompson presents a variation on the above events in his This Thing of Darkness, with the action taking place not in an English ditch, but on the Beagle as it made its way back to England at the end of the first voyage. Divine Service is interupted by noises from below, and the captain sets off to find the source, which turns out to be the hammock in John Lort Stokes' cabin:

In it, his face a mask of furious concentration, his breeches about his ankles, lay York Minster. Bouncing astride York, her skirts gathered about her waist, her head bent against the ceiling, sat Fuegia Basket. Still bouncing, she turned delightedly and favoured FitzRoy with her most beaming smile. “Fuegia love Capp'en Fitz'oy,” she said.

Like his predecessor, Thompson was writing fiction. But unlike his predecessor, he admitted it. As for the actual relationship between the two Fuegians, FitzRoy makes a passing reference to it in his Narrative as the Beagle approached Wulaia on its second voyage:

The attentions which York paid to his intended wife, Fuegia, afforded much amusement to our party. He had long shewn himself attached to her, and had gradually become excessively jealous of her good-will. If any one spoke to her, he watched every word; if he was not sitting by her side, he grumbled sulkily; but if he was accidentally separated, and obliged to go in a different boat, his behaviour became sullen and morose. This evening he was quizzed so much about her that he became seriously angry, and I was obliged to interpose to prevent a quarrel between him and one of his steadiest friends.

And later, in a letter to a cousin,

In January, 1833, the Fuegians were landed at a pretty and really pleasant spot in Tierra del Fuego, at the northern part of what is called in the maps, Nassau Bay. … York had been desperately in love with Fuegia during some months, and on their landing we married them. … [The place is called] Wullia (or Wool-lī-ă). §

§ Excerpts claimed to be taken from an undated letter to an unidentified cousin were printed in a tribute to FitzRoy published in Good Words for 1866, June 1, 1866 (pp. 406-413). London & New York: Strahan & Company.

The authenticity of the letter may be open to question. For example:

Finally, there is no known source for the letter, other than this one. And how did it come into the hands of Good Words more than a quarter-century after it was written? If there actually had been a ceremony, presumably the Reverend Matthews (not “we”) would have officiated, and surely one of these writers would have mentioned it. Yet FitzRoy says nothing about it in his Narrative, other than that passing reference to York's intended wife mentioned above, and Darwin simply writes (2nd edition only):

York Minster was very jealous of any attention paid to her [Fuegia]; for it was clear he determined to marry her as soon as they were settled on shore.

Some 20 or so years later, the South American Missionary Society apparently thought it best for the shipboard pair to have behaved as proper Christians do:

So Fuegia Basket was betrothed to York Minster, and savagely watched by him the whole time afterwards.§

§ In The Voice of Pity for South America. London: J. Nisbet, 1854 (p. 133)


Well then, if all of the above had little or nothing to do with the voyage, where do we turn to uncover the real reason for HMS Beagle leaving England for a second voyage; this time for a voyage round the world, and this time with a scientifically-qualified person onboard? Again, we need look no further than an authority mentioned earlier: Robert FitzRoy. In the first volume of the Narrative, he concludes Chapter XX as follows:

I much regret that no person in the vessel was skilled in mineralogy, or at all acquainted with geology. It is a pity that so good an opportunity of ascertaining the nature of the rocks and earths of these regions should have been almost lost. I could not avoid often thinking of the talent and experience required for such scientific researches, of which we were wholly destitute; and inwardly resolving, that if ever I left England again on a similar expedition, I would endeavour to carry out a person qualified to examine the land; while the officers, and myself, would attend to hydrography.

Since FitzRoy would share his cabin, and his table, it follows that any person qualified to join him would have to be a gentleman; it simply would not do to share accommodations with someone not his social equal. And this lead him to a meeting with Charles Darwin, followed by an invitation to participate in the second voyage of HMS Beagle.


H. E. L. Mellersh and FitzRoy of the Beagle

Although not directly (nor even, indirectly) related to the voyage, some additional remarks about Mellersh's biography of FitzRoy are added here to clear up some confusion introduced in that biography.

The biography gets off to a bad start as Mellersh describes a confrontation between the Prince of Wales and Charles FitzRoy, the second Duke of Grafton. The former would later become George II, while the latter was Captain FitzRoy's great-great grandfather. According to the Mellersh account:

There is a tale that the Prince of Wales, having been inadvertently bumped into by Lord Grafton [sic, Duke of Grafton], remarked boorishly that you couldn't move for bastards. To which [Grafton] replied, no doubt with great dignity:

‘Sir, my father was as great a king as yours, and as for our mothers, the less we say about them the better!’

That the Duke must have been referring to his grandparents and not parents no doubt did not destroy the point of the repartee.

What does destroy the point is that the anecdote makes no sense, unless one believes that the Duke had trouble distinguishing his parents from his grandparents.

Mellersh does not identify his source, but it's not hard to trace: A footnote in Lewis Melville's The First George in Hanover and England (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1909, vol. II) reads as follows (p. 6, footnote 2):

“One can't move here for bastards,” said the Prince of Wales angrily, when George, Duke of Northumberland, Charles II's son, by accident touched him (emphasis added).

“Sir,” said the Duke, “my father was as great a King as yours, and as for our mothers, the less we say about them the better!”—
Reliquiæ Hearnianæ.

Melville's citation probably refers to a May 7, 1718 entry about “The late duke of Northumberland (who was one of king Charles the IId's natural sons …)” in Reliquiæ Hearnianæ (London: John Russell Smith, 2nd edition, 1869, pp.62-63).

The duke coming one day into court, happened to touch the prince as he passed; upon which the prince, turning, said, What! can't a man stand still, for a bastard? Upon which the said duke readily and aptly replyed, Your highness is the son of no greater a king than my father, and as for mothers—we will neither of us talk upon that point.

The encounter at last begins to make sense: it was between the Prince and the Duke of Northumberland, not the Duke of Grafton. Northumberland was of course a natural (ie, an illegitimate) son of King Charles II, while the second Duke of Grafton was the legitimate son of the first duke, who was never a king himself—a point which would have been known to the future George II. In context, it appears that Melville revised the duke's response, which Mellersh then repeated word-for-word, and at the same time replaced Northumberland with Grafton, for reasons unknown. Perhaps it was little more than a clumsy attempt to link the anecdote to one of the captain's ancestors.

The illustration at right traces Robert FitzRoy's family tree back to King Charles II, and shows the succession of the Dukes of Grafton. Note that Lord Augustus FitzRoy pre-deceased his father, the second duke, and therefore did not inherit the title, which on his father's death passed to Captain FitzRoy's grandfather, Augustus Henry FitzRoy, and later to his uncle, George Henry FitzRoy, the third duke's first-born son.