Charles Darwin and HMS Beagle

Charles Darwin | Evolution | HMS Beagle | Timeline

24 November 2009 is the 150th anniversary of the first publication of Darwin's groundbreaking work On the Origin of Species in 1859. In it he set forth his theory of the evolution of species by means of natural selection.

Charles Darwin (1809–82) and the second Beagle voyage

Charles DarwinCharles Darwin
© English Heritage
Charles Darwin was born on 12 February 1809 in Shrewsbury, England. From 1831–36 Darwin (then a trainee Anglican parson) served as an unpaid naturalist on a science expedition aboard HMS Beagle. His father Robert at first refused to let him join the expedition though was later persuaded otherwise.

Darwin had been suggested for the post to the Beagle's captain, Robert FitzRoy, who wanted an enthusiastic and well-trained gentleman naturalist to accompany him on the second Beagle survey and to share meals at his dinner table. FitzRoy was a little suspicious of Darwin at first but they got along very well, although years after the Beagle voyages their relationship became strained due to differing views on evolution.

The expedition visited many places around the world and Darwin studied the various plants and animals, collecting specimens for further analysis. In South America, Darwin found fossils of extinct animals that were similar to modern species. Furthermore, on the Galapagos Islands he noticed many variations of plants and animals that were similar to those he found in South America.

Theory of evolution

Upon return to London, further analysis of the specimens collected on the voyage led Darwin to several related theories:

  • evolution did occur
  • evolutionary change was gradual, occuring over thousands and millions of years
  • the primary mechanism for evolution was a process Darwin refered to as natural selection
  • the millions of species alive today arose from a single original life form through a branching process he called 'specialization'.

Darwin's theory of evolutionary selection holds that variation within species occurs randomly and that the survival or extinction of each organism is determined by that organism's ability to adapt to its environment. He first published these theories in his book On the Origin of Species in 1859.

Charles Darwin was not of course the first to propose a theory of evolution. The ideas of common descent and the transmutation of species had been expounded by the Greek philosopher Anaximander as far back as the 6th century BC; and Charles's grandfather the natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin had set out his own evolutionary ideas in 1796. The British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace was also formulating a theory of evolution by natural selection at about the same time as Charles Darwin.

Nonetheless Darwin's work had a great impact on society at the time. While other thinkers used his research to support their various (often opposing) views and ideas, Darwin avoided talking about the theological and sociological aspects of his work. Darwin continued to write on botany, geology and zoology until his death in 1882. He is buried in Westminster Abbey.

HMS Beagle

HMS Beagle HMS Beagle © English HeritageHMS Beagle, launched in 1820, measured just 27m (90’ 4’’) in length, with a breadth of 7m (24’ 6’’) and weighed 235 tons. She was an unremarkable 10-gun brig, often called a 'coffin brig' because they had a reputation for sinking. She was specially commissioned for the new surveying programme and never saw active service.

Her career as a survey ship began in 1826 with voyages to Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego under the command of Captain Parker King, returning to Plymouth in 1830. At the end of 1831, she again sailed for South America under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy. For 17 years, the Beagle surveyed much of the world including Oceania from 1835–40. A number of significant discoveries were made during these voyages, most in those to Australia.

The ship suffered a great deal of damage but was extensivley refitted and improved throughout her life on the seas, often at great expense to her captain. For example, a mizzenmast was added to make her more manoeuvrable in the shallow coastal waters.

In 1845, the ship was left as a watch vessel, and was sold to Murray and Trainer in 1870 to be broken up.

Read HMS Beagle fact file (PortCities London)

Science on board Beagle

Brass theodolite Brass theodoliteThe Beagle voyages under Captain Robert FitzRoy saw the use of scientific technology such as theodolites, chronometers and barometers used to provide accurate survey information for new charts and, equally important, meteorological data and weather forecasting. The Darwin voyage was the first time the Beaufort wind scale was used for wind observations. The crew also undertook various experiments and, despite some disappointments, they produced useful results. They were especially successful in the measurement of earthquakes during experiments in 1835.

In 1854 Robert FitzRoy (now admiral) was appointed head of a new department that eventually became the Meteorological Office. His objectives were to compile wind statistics to aid navigation but soon added establishing barometer stations, telegraphic reporting, increasing weather observations and, in 1861, the first storm warnings. These activities became routine weather forecasts similar to those employed today. He invented the barometer which he named the 'FitzRoy barometer' and published The Weather Book in 1863.


  • 12 February 1809: Charles Darwin born in Shrewsbury.
  • 11 May 1820: HMS Beagle launched at Woolwich at a cost of £7803.
  • 1825–1843: HMS Beagle commissioned as a survey vessel.
  • 1828–31: Darwin attends Cambridge University.
  • 1830: Charles Lyell’s influential book, The Principles of Geology, published by John Murray, London.
  • 1831–1836: Robert FitzRoy takes full command of HMS Beagle for its second surveying voyage.
  • Dec 1831–Oct 1836: Darwin joins the crew of HMS Beagle on its surveying voyage to South America and Australia.
  • December 1831: HMS Beagle sets sail from England.
  • January 1839: Darwin marries his cousin, Emma Wedgwood.
  • 16 January 1832: HMS Beagle arrives at the Cape Verde Islands, its first land-fall.
  • March 1833 & March 1834: HMS Beagle visits the Falkland Islands on two separate occasions.
  • 15 Sept–20 Oct. 1835: HMS Beagle visits the Galapagos Islands.
  • 12–30 January 1836: HMS Beagle arrives at Sydney, Australia.
  • October 1836: HMS Beagle returns to Falmouth, England completing her voyage.
  • 1839: Darwin and FitzRoy publish Journal of Researches, relating to their voyages.
  • 1845: HMS Beagle becomes a Coast Guard Watch vessel.
  • November 1859: Darwin’s On the Origin of Species published by John Murray, London.
  • 19 April 1882: Charles Darwin dies at Down House, Kent.