The Harvard Classics Vol. 51/Voyages and Travel V.


By Professor George Howard Parker

HAD Charles Darwin never published more than "The Voyage of the Beagle,"[1] his reputation as a naturalist of the first rank would have been fully assured. Even before the close of that eventful circumnavigation of the globe, the English geologist Sedgwick, who had probably seen some of the letters sent by the young naturalist to friends in England, predicted to Dr. Darwin, Charles Darwin's father, that his son would take a place among the leading scientific men of the day. As it afterward proved, the voyage of the Beagle was the foundation stone on which rested that monument of work and industry which, as a matter of fact, made Charles Darwin one of the distinguished scientists not only of his generation but of all time.

The conventional school and university training had very little attraction for Darwin. From boyhood his real interests were to be found in collecting natural objects; minerals, plants, insects, and birds were the materials that excited his mind to full activity. But it was not till his Cambridge days, when he was supposedly studying for the clergy, that the encouragement of Henslow changed this pastime into a serious occupation.


About 1831 the British Admiralty decided to fit out the Beagle, a ten-gun brig, to complete the survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego begun some years before, to survey the shores of Chili, Peru, and some of the islands of the Pacific, and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world. It seemed important to all concerned that a naturalist should accompany this expedition; and Captain Fitz-Roy, through the mediation of Professor Henslow, eventually induced Charles Darwin to become his cabin companion and naturalist for the voyage. Henslow recommended Darwin not as a finished naturalist but as one amply qualified for collecting, observing, and noting anything worthy to be noted in natural history.

The Beagle, after two unsuccessful attempts to get away, finally set sail from Devonport, England, December 27, 1831; and, after a cruise of almost five years, she returned to Falmouth, England, October 2, 1836. Her course had lain across the Atlantic to the Brazilian coast, thence southward along the east coast of South America to Tierra del Fuego, whence she turned northward skirting the seaboard of Chili and Peru. Near the equator a westerly course was taken and she then crossed the Pacific to Australia whence she traversed the Indian Ocean, and, rounding the Cape of Good Hope, headed across the South Atlantic for Brazil. Here she completed the circumnavigation of the globe and, picking up her former course, she retraced her way to England.

When Darwin left England on the Beagle, he was twenty-two years old. The five-year voyage, therefore, occupied in his life the period of maturing manhood. What it was to mean to him he only partly saw. Before leaving England he declared that the day of sailing would mark the beginning of his second life, a new birthday to him. All through his boyhood he had dreamed of seeing the tropics; and now his dream was to be realized. His letters and his account of the voyage are full of the exuberance of youth. To his friend Fox he wrote from Brazil: "My mind has been, since leaving England, in a perfect hurricane of delight and astonishment." To Henslow he sent word from Rio as follows: "Here I first saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur—nothing but the reality can give you any idea how wonderful, how magnificent the scene is." And to another correspondent he wrote: "When I first entered on and beheld the luxuriant vegetation of Brazil, it was realizing the visions in the 'Arabian Nights.' The brilliancy of the scenery throws one into a delirium of delight, and a beetle hunter is not likely soon to awaken from it when, whichever way he turns, fresh treasures meet his eye." Such expressions could spring only from the enthusiasm of the born naturalist.


But the voyage of the Beagle meant more to Darwin than the mere opportunity to see the world; it trained him to be a naturalist. During his five years at sea he learned to work, and to work under conditions that were often almost intolerable. The Beagle was small and cramped, and the collections of a naturalist were not always easily cared for. The first lieutenant, who is described by Darwin in terms of the highest admiration, was responsible for the appearance of the ship, and strongly objected to having such a litter on deck as Darwin often made. To this man specimens were "d—d beastly devilment," and he is said to have added, "If I were skipper, I would soon have you and all your d—d mess out of the place." Darwin is quoted as saying that the absolute necessity of tidiness in the cramped space of the Beagle gave him his methodical habits of work. On the Beagle, too, he learned what he considered the golden rule for saving time, i. e., take care of the minutes, a rule that gives significance to an expression he has somewhere used, that all life is made of a succession of five-minute periods.

Darwin, however, not only learned on the Beagle how to work against time and under conditions of material inconvenience, but he also acquired the habit of carrying on his occupations under considerable physical discomfort. Although he was probably not seriously ill after the first three weeks of the voyage, he was constantly uncomfortable when the vessel pitched at all heavily, and his sensitiveness to this trouble is well shown in a letter dated June 3, 1836, from the Cape of Good Hope, in which he said: "It is lucky for me that the voyage is drawing to a close, for I positively suffer more from seasickness now than three years ago." Yet he always kept busily at work, and notwithstanding the more or less continuous nature of this discomfort, he was not inclined to attribute the digestive disturbances of his later life to these early experiences.

The return voyage found his spirits somewhat subdued. Writing to his sister from Bahia in Brazil where the Beagle crossed her outward course, he said: "It has been almost painful to find how much good enthusiasm has been evaporated in the last four years. I can now walk soberly through a Brazilian forest." Yet years after in rehearsing the voyage in his autobiography he declared: "The glories of the vegetation of the Tropics rise before my mind at the present time more vividly than anything else."


Darwin's opinion of the value of the voyage to him can scarcely be expressed better than in his own words. In his later years he wrote: "The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event of my life," and again: "I have always felt that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved, though they were always fairly developed." And finally in a letter to Captain Fitz-Roy he said: "However others may look back on the Beagle's voyage, now that the small disagreeable parts are well nigh forgotten, I think it far the most fortunate circumstance in my life that the chance afforded by your offer of taking a naturalist fell on me. I often have the most vivid and delightful pictures of what I saw on board the Beagle pass before my eyes. These recollections, and what I learned on natural history, I would not exchange for twice ten thousand a year."

But the voyage of the Beagle was not only training for Darwin, it was the means of gathering together a large and valuable collection of specimens that kept naturalists busy for some years to come, and added greatly to our knowledge of these distant lands and seas. In the work of arranging and describing these collections, Darwin was finally obliged to take an active part himself, for, to quote from his "Life and Letters," it seemed "only gradually to have occurred to him that he would ever be more than a collector of specimens and facts, of which the great men were to make use. And even of the value of his collections he seems to have had much doubt, for he wrote to Henslow in 1834: 'I really began to think that my collections were so poor that you were puzzled what to say; the case is now quite on the opposite tack, for you are guilty of exciting all my vain feelings to a most comfortable pitch; if hard work will atone for these thoughts I vow it shall not be spared.'" Thus the collections made on the Beagle served to confirm Darwin in the occupation of a naturalist and brought him into contact with many of the working scientists of his day.


Darwin, however, not only brought back, as a result of his work on the Beagle, large collections of interesting specimens, but he came home with a mind richly stored with new ideas, and one of these he put into shape so rapidly that it forms no small part of "The Voyage of the Beagle." During much of the latter part of the journey he was occupied with a study of coral islands and his theory of the method of formation of these remarkable deposits was the first to gain general acceptance in the scientific world. In fact, his views gained so firm a foothold that they are to-day more generally accepted than those of any other naturalist. But coral islands were not the only objects of his speculations. Without doubt he spent much time reflecting on that problem of problems, the origin of species, for, though there is not much reference to this subject either in the "Voyage" itself or in his letters of that period, he states in his autobiography that in July, 1837, less than a year after his return, he opened his first notebook for facts in relation to the origin of species about which, as he remarks, he had long reflected.[2] Thus the years spent on the Beagle were years rich in speculation as well as in observation and field work.

Doubtless the direct results of the voyage of the Beagle were acceptable to the British Admiralty and justified in their eyes the necessary expenditure of money and energy. But the great accomplishment of that voyage was not the charting of distant shore lines nor the carrying of a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world; it was the training and education of Charles Darwin as a naturalist, and no greater tribute can be paid to the voyage than what Darwin himself has said: "I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science."

  1. Harvard Classics, xxix.
  2. For Darwin's conclusions on this subject see "The Origin of Species" in H. C., xi.