Charles Darwin and the “Beagle” Myth

Myths serve myriad functions, whether to bolster a spurious argument, succor a misconception, even affirm or discredit a worldview. Whatever myths are for, their persistence assuredly owes to their appeal. The myths surrounding Charles Darwin, his life and work–a number of which shall be discussed in this and futher posts–despite their falsity refuse to relinquish their currency. Some of the myths are more grievous than others, some are more counterfactual than others, yet all are, despite their pertinacity, falsehoods.

Robert McCormick

The Beagle myth may be what I referred to as one of the less grievous myths. Nevertheless, a myth it is. Darwin did not sail aboard HMS Beagle as ship’s naturalist; this position was taken by one Robert McCormick, who also held the position of ship’s surgeon.1 McCormick, a working-class surgeon, trained at Edinburgh University, possessed a passion for natural history and had sought passage on various other expeditionary vessels, landing his position on the second voyage of HMS Beagle. Although trained as a surgeon, Gruber writes that ‘Despite the limitations of his education in science, the surgeon or assistant surgeon was in fact the only member of a naval company with the educational background sufficient to make such an activity [namely, naturalism] practicable… the tradition of the naval-surgeon naturalist was a real one and those who made the tradition provided much of the exotic data available in natural history through most of the first half of the nineteenth century.’2 So if not ship’s naturalist, what exactly was Charles Darwin doing aboard the Beagle?

Captain Robert Fitzroy

Captain Robert Fitzroy was only twenty-six years of age when he stood at the Beagle‘s helm as it set off from Plymouth Sound late in December 1831. The captains of such expeditions would suffer ineluctable loneliness, the stricture of the class system proscribing social contact with the rest of the crew. Expeditions such as Fitzroy’s could last a number of years–the Beagle returned to England at the beginning of October 1836, almost five years after its departure–and such protracted solitude could prove intolerably toilsome. The Beagle‘s previous commander, Captain Pringle Stokes shot himself dead in the third year of the expedition. What’s more, depression and suicide plagued Fitzroy’s family; his uncle, the Viscount Castlereagh, had slit his throat in 1822.3 In a letter to his sister Emily, Darwin wrote that Fitzroy was ‘aware of his hereditary predisposition.’4 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.

The young Charles Darwin, recently graduated from Cambridge, possessed of an ebullient passion for natural history after becoming acquainted with a score of the greatest scientific minds of his day and amassing his own collections, heard about Fitzroy’s advertisement for a gentleman naturalist from a tutor and excellent friend from his alma mater, the Regius Professor of Botany, John Stevens Henslow. Henslow had been asked by George Peacock ‘to recommend him a naturalist as companion’ to Fitzroy. Henslow told Darwin ‘there never was a finer chance for a man of zeal & spirit’, assuring him that he was ‘the very man they are in search of…’5 However, if the expedition was already furnished with a naturalist (McCormick), why should Fitzroy have requested a naturalist for a companion? Burstyn writes, ‘The study of nature along the Beagle‘s route provided the captain with a polite fiction to explain his guest’s presence and an activity attractive enough to lure a gentleman on board for a long voyage.’6 Hence, Henslow’s admission that ‘Capt. F. wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take any one however good a Naturalist who was not recommended to him likewise as a gentleman.’7 Ultimately, Fitzroy’s primary concern was companionship, rather than augmenting his scientific personnel. According to Gruber, then, Darwin’s role aboard the Beagle was something of ‘an anomalous one.’8 Fitzroy’s advertisement for a gentleman naturalist may not have been completely a ‘polite fiction’, however (see below). Stephen Jay Gould writes that Fitzroy ‘wished to make his mark by setting a new standard for excellence in exploratory voyages… A “supernumary” naturalist meshed well with Fitzroy’s scheme to beef up the Beagle‘s scientific mettle.’9 Whatever, whilst officially sanctioned, Darwin’s ‘supernumary’ position on the expedition was private, and so it had to be privately funded. Fortunately, money was never a bother for Darwin with his father’s exorbitant wealth covering his multifarious expenses.

HMS Beagle in the Murray Narrows, Beagle Channel by Conrad Martens

In his private capacity and with ready funds, Darwin was not tethered to the ship, allowing him to roam ashore for extended periods whilst the Beagle lay in port. In South America, on these terrestrial excursions Darwin was able to examine the geology of the exotic continent, ascending the undulating fold mountains of the Andes. Enthused by Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Darwin’s investigations led to a number of observations appreciably reported back home to the Geological Society, London by no less than Cambridge University’s Woodwordian Professor of Geology Adam Sedgwick. Away from the ship’s cramped confines, he unearthed a horde of fossiliferous treasures–’his entrée into the world of high science’10–which were packed and shipped home, gratefully received by Henslow, and was able to observe the exotic wildlife, working ‘from the mere pleasure of investigation…’11 Darwin later wrote how his ‘love for science gradually preponderated over every other taste,’ and how his ‘mind became developed through the pursuits during the voyage,’ and of his ambition ‘to take a fair place among scientific men, – whether more ambitious or less so that most of my fellow-workers I can form no opinion.’12

Unfortunately for McCormick, unlike Darwin, bound to the Beagle by his duties, he was unable to devote the same time and effort to studying and collecting as the captain’s brilliant companion. Despite Darwin’s unofficial capacity, McCormick became disheartened by Darwin’s naturalistic flair and the excellence of his swelling collections. What’s more, Darwin, untroubled by expense, had his own servant and shared the captain’s table. Though it had been amicable enough at the outset,13 their relationship was to sour, a rivalry germinating. Gruber writes that ‘once on board, McCormick did not seem to be the man Fitzroy would want as naturalist and/or intellectual companion.’14 And, furthermore, ‘Darwin’s very presence [aboard the Beagle] called into question the competence of McCormick as a naturalist and led to an inevitable conflict of role.’15 McCormick simply could not contend with the advantaged Darwin, and so, his spirits quashed, he abandoned the expedition at Rio de Janeiro in April, 1832, returning to England aboard HMS Tyne. Darwin wrote to his sister, Catherine, of McCormick ‘being invalided, ie. being disagreeable to the Captain,’ adding somewhat unfairly, ‘He is no loss.’16 It seems Darwin did not hold McCormick’s science in any great estimation. The next month Darwin wrote to Henslow, ‘He was a philosopher of rather an antient date; at St Jago by his own account he made general remarks during the first fortnight & collected particular facts during the last.’17

Darwin, then, was not the Beagle‘s naturalist. He was a private passenger, invited aboard by the Captain. Although it seems that Fitzroy was not convinced by McCormick in the first place and, as Gould said, may have wanted to ‘beef up the Beagle‘s scientific mettle’, his concern (and reason, therefore, for advertising the position eventually taken by Darwin) was with easing the numbing isolation he was otherwise certain to suffer. Nevertheless, young Darwin, freshly-graduated, having displayed great scientific promise, recommended to Fitzroy by Cambridge University’s Regius Professor of Botany effectively took up the position of ship’s naturalist following McCormick’s sullen departure.

The Beagle myth, then, is certainly less grievous than some of the myths surrounding Darwin’s life and work, and, due to Darwin’s effective usurping of the role, is certainly more pardonable than some of these others. Nevertheless, the myth exposes an error occasioned by hindsight. As Burstyn notes, we have come to view the second voyage of HMS Beagle ‘from the perspective of The origin of species.’18 Revealing the falsity of the myth tells an interesting tale in the history of science. In the words of Gould, ‘How different would the science of biology be today if Darwin had been the offspring of a tradesman and not the son of a very wealthy physician.’19 Although it appears that the barrier preventing the association of Fitzroy and McCormick was probably due as much to the nature of command as to social class20 (although class obviously would have entered into it), Darwin’s consequent passage aboard HMS Beagle on her second voyage–viewed from the present with such import once it has been realised that the explanation (natural selection) for the remarkable contrivances of the living world, so suggestive of design, was inspired by the voyage–owed as much, if not more, to incongruous contingencies of history as it did to the genius responsible for such a startling discovery.

References & Notes

  1. This arrangement was reported in: Gruber, J. W. Who was the Beagle’s naturalist? The British Journal for the History of Science, 4 (3): 266-282, 1969.
  2. See above note for reference, p.269.
  3. Tragically, Fitzroy’s worries were not unfounded; he shot himself on 30 April, 1865.
  4. Darwin, C. R. Letter to Emily Catherine Darwin, 8 November 1834. Available at: <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-262&gt;
  5. Henslow, J. S. Letter to Charles Robert Darwin, 24 August, 1831. Available at:
  6. Burstyn, H. L. If Darwin wasn’t the “Beagle’s” naturalist, why was he on board? The British Journal for the History of Science, 8 (1): 62-69, 1975. p.69.
  7. Henslow, op cit.
  8. Gruber, op cit., p.270.
  9. Gould, S. J. Darwin’s sea change, or five year’s at the captain’s table. In Ever since Darwin: reflections in natural history, ch.2. New York: W. W. Norton & Co, 1979. p.30.
  10. Desmond, A. and Moore, J. R. Darwin. London: Michael Joseph, 1991. p.205.
  11. Darwin, C. R. Autobiographies, eds. Michael Neve and Sharon Messenger. London: Penguin Books, 2002. p.45.
  12. ibid., p.43-5.
  13. Darwin wrote to Henslow, ‘My friend the Doctor is an ass, but we jog on very amicably: at present he is in great tribulation, whether his cabin shall be painted French Grey or a dead white— I hear little excepting this subject from him.’ (30 October, 1831. Available at: <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-144&gt;
  14. Gruber, op cit., p.271
  15. ibid., p.268.
  16. Darwin, C. R. Letter to Caroline Sarah Darwin, 25 April, 1832. Available at: <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-166&gt;
  17. –. Letter to John Stevens Henslow, 18 May, 1832. Available at: <http://www.darwinproject.ac.uk/entry-171&gt;
  18. Burstyn, op cit., p.63.
  19. Gould, op cit., p.31.
  20. ‘A captain’s effectiveness depended upon his maintaining a superhuman stature… he could never be intimate with [his officers].’ (Burstyn, op cit., p.68.)

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