Second Voyage of the Beagle Began (1831)

It’s a few days after Christmas, and some of the fortunate among us are escaping the winter for cruises to the Caribbean.  On this date—December 27—a different sort of cruise began in 1831.  That cruise lasted 1742 days, and the results changed the entire way civilization viewed the world.

Plan of HMS Beagle. Darwin shared a cabin at the aft, top deck (drawing by R. T. Pritchett)

            The vessel conducting the cruise was His Majesty’s Ship Beagle.  HMS Beagle was one of more than 100 built in the design of a “10-gun brig-sloop.”  It was relatively small (90 feet 4 inches long), with two masts.  Launched in 1820, Beagle’s task was to scout for larger ships and convoys and to transport letters and other light materials from place to place (learn more about the ship here) .  A few years later, Beagle was refitted with a small third mast (making it a “bark”), a small cabin and some additional features for more extensive journeys. 

            And so, in 1826, HMS Beagle embarked on its first major journey.  The task was to survey the coasts of South America, taking hydrologic and cartographic measurements. Two years into the voyage, the original captain became depressed and shot himself.  The second-in-command, Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy, took over as captain.  The voyage ended in 1930, after four years exploring the South American coast.

Robert Fitzroy, Captain of HMS Beagle’s second voyage (photo by Herman John Schmidt)

            The first voyage just whetted England’s appetite for information about South America and the lands and waters of the Pacific Ocean.  So, Beagle was given another make-over—the deck was raised one foot, the hull was made two inches thicker, 22 chronometers and much scientific equipment were put on board—in readiness for its second major voyage.  Fitzroy was re-appointed the captain with a similar but larger challenge—resurvey all the coasts of South America, then traverse the entire southern ocean to survey the complete latitude of the earth. 

            There was also a secondary task of “collecting, observing, and noting, anything worthy to be noted in Natural History.”  At the time, natural history meant not only living plants and animals, but also geologic materials and fossils.  Fitzroy realized he needed help—and that he needed a gentleman peer to accompany him as an equal, to provide companionship (he didn’t want to end up like Beagle’s previous captain).  After some false starts, he eventually settled on a 22-year-old graduate of Cambridge who planned to be a clergyman but was also an amateur naturalist eager for an adventure.  That man was Charles Darwin.

HMS Beagle (center) in 1841 (painting by Owen Stanley)

            After several months of delays, HMS Beagle left Portsmouth, England, on December 27, 1831, commencing a five-year voyage that covered nearly 40,000 miles. The early voyage wasn’t pleasant for Darwin.  He wrote, “The misery I endured from sea-sickness is far beyond what I ever guessed at.”  The ship was so crowded that he slept in a hammock suspended over the small table in the main cabin.  But things got much better after the ship reached South American.  In February, 1832, he caught his first glimpse of the rainforest in Brazil, noting, “Here I first saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur…I never experienced such intense delight.”

            Darwin’s job was to explore the lands the ship encountered.  He understood that this was an extraordinary opportunity, noting that “[N]othing can be more improving to a young naturalist, than a journey in a distant country.” So, he went off on expeditions for much of the voyage, tramping some 2,000 miles in all.  He spent only 18 months aboard Beagle during its five years at sea.  He made good use of his time onshore, collecting 5,000 specimens of plants, animals, minerals and fossils and filling dozens of notebooks with his observations.  Throughout the journey, he sent his specimens back to England where they could be examined by experts.  Most of the specimens were new to science, and, consequently, Darwin’s reputation as a naturalist grew while he was on the voyage, and he returned home in 1836 as a well-established scientist. 

Charles Darwin, at about the time of the Beagle’s voyage (painting by George Richmond)

            Darwin kept working on his specimens and his theories, eventually bringing us natural selection, evolution and, really, ecology (learn more about Darwin’s work here). The Beagle, however, wasn’t so fortunate. It took one more significant voyage, to survey the entire coast of Australia.  By 1845, however, the ship had outlived its usefulness.  The masts were removed and it was moored in the estuary at Essex, England, as a lookout for smugglers.  The ship’s name changed to Watch Vessel 7.  And in 1870, it was sold for scrap. 


American Museum of Natural History.  A Trip Around the World (Part of the Darwin exhibition).  Available at:  Accessed January 15, 2020.

The HMS Beagle Project.  HMS Beagle’s Second Voyage.  Available at:  Accessed January 15, 2020.

Thomson, Keith S.  Beagle.  Encyclopedia Britannica.  Available at: Accessed January 15, 2020.

Tietz, Tabea.  2015.  The second Voyage of the HMS Beagle.  SciHi Blog, 27 December 2015.  Available at: Accessed January 15, 2020.

Tripline.  The Second Voyage of the HMS Beagle.  Available at: Accessed January 15, 2020.

This Month in Conservation

February 1
Afobaka Dam and Operation Gwamba (1964)
February 2
Groundhog Day
February 3
Spencer Fullerton Baird, First U.S. Fish Commissioner, Born (1823)
February 3
George Adamson, African Lion Rehabilitator, Born (1906)
February 4
Congress Overrides President Reagan’s Veto of Clean Water Act (1987)
February 5
National Wildlife Federation Created (1936)
February 6
Colin Murdoch, Inventor of the Tranquilizer Gun, Born (1929)
February 7
Karl August Mobius, Ecology Pioneer, Born (1825)
February 8
President Johnson Addresses Congress about Conservation (1965)
February 8
Lisa Perez Jackson, Environmental Leader, Born (1982)
February 9
U.S. Fish Commission Created (1871)
February 10
Frances Moore Lappe, author of Diet for a Small Planet, born (1944)
February 11
International Day of Women and Girls in Science
February 12
Judge Boldt Affirms Native American Fishing Rights (1974)
February 13
Thomas Malthus Born (1766)
February 14
Nature’s Faithful Lovers
February 15
Complete Human Genome Published (2001)
February 16
Kyoto Protocol, Controlling Greenhouse-Gas Emissions, Begins (2005)
February 16
Alvaro Ugalde, Father of Costa Rica’s National Parks, Born (1946)
February 17
Sombath Somphone, Laotian Environmentalist, Born (1952)
February 17
R. A. Fischer, Statistician, Born (1890)
February 18
World Pangolin Day
February 18
Julia Butterfly Hill, Tree-Sitter, Born (1974)
February 19
Lincoln Boyhood National Memorial Established (1962)
February 20
Ansel Adams, Nature Photographer, Born (1902)
February 21
Carolina Parakeet Goes Extinct (1918)
February 22
Nile Day
February 23
Italy’s Largest Inland Oil Spill (2010)
February 24
Joseph Banks, British Botanist, Born (1743)
February 25
First Federal Timber Act Passed (1799)
February 26
Four National Parks Established (1917-1929)
February 27
International Polar Bear Day
February 28
Watson and Crick Discover The Double Helix (1953)
February 29
Nature’s Famous Leapers
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