Midshipman Forsyth's Log from the voyage of HMS Beagle (1833-1836)

Simon Keynes

Charles Forsyth's log book appeared at Sotheby's, London, on 24 May 1948, as part of the collection of Sir (Robert) Leicester Harmsworth (1870-1937). It was listed in the sale catalogue as lot 4725, and was described by an enthusiastic cataloguer in the following terms:

4725 Darwin. Log Book of H.M. Surveying Sloop Beagle, Robert Fitz Roy Esqr. Captain, kept by Charles Forsyth, Midshipman, beginning October 22nd 1834 and ending on the 17th November 1836, during Charles Darwin's famous voyage to South America, 130 11., with a large pen-and-ink map of South America showing the course taken by the "Beagle" with a shield in the centre containing a sketch of the ship, also pen-and-ink sketches of the Island of Robos, Yalama Height, Port Ajuja, Black Beach Bay, Charles Isle, and Galapagos, Charles Isle, folio, original boards with leather label

* Darwin had been on board H.M.S. Beagle nearly three years when this log commences on 22nd October, 1834. He joined her on 27th December, 1831, when she sailed on her memorable voyage. The Beagle was a 10-gun brig of 235 tons, and was commanded by Captain (afterwards Admiral) FitzRoy. Darwin went as naturalist without salary, at the invitation of the Captain, who gave him a share of his cabin. He was on the ship's books for victuals, and was to have the disposal of his collections. The object of the voyage was to extend the survey of South America, begun under Captain King in 1826, and to "carry a Chain of chronometrical measurements round the world".

It is impossible to overrate the importance of this Log Book which contains a record of the day-to-day proceedings in the ship which carried Darwin during this memorable voyage. Among the places recorded in the volume are Montevideo, Valparaiso Bay, St. Carlos Roads, Concepcion Bay, Galapagos, Charles Isle (where the fossils of Galapagos birds impressed on Darwin his thoughts on evolution), Callao Bay, Payta, etc.

At the end of the volume are remarks in H.M.S. Constitution which for some time accompanied H.M.S. Beagle.

The original Sotheby's catalogue entry

The log book was bought for £270 by Capt. Oddera, Naval Attaché of the Argentine Embassy, and passed thereafter to the Museo Naval de la Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires.

Whatever the impression created by the Sotheby's description, readers of Forsyth's log will not find any illuminating references to the ship's naturalist, let alone any evidence of the impact made on him by 'fossils of Galapagos birds'. None the less, the log constitutes a significant addition to the records of the voyage, seen in its own right as a complex historical event. Although (as shown below) there are many complications, and although it is a naval log as opposed to a more discursive private journal, it enables one to follow the Beagle for an extended period in 1833-1835 from a perspective different from that of her captain or her naturalist. No less interesting, however, is the view it affords of an aspect of the voyage of which, hitherto, little has been known: the survey of the coast of northern Chile and Peru, conducted under FitzRoy's orders by Alexander Burns Usborne and Charles Forsyth, in H.M. Tender Constitution, with seven men and one boy from the crew of HMS Beagle, between September 1835 and May 1836. By the time they had finished, the Beagle had done the Galapagos, crossed the Pacific, crossed the Indian Ocean, and was about to arrive at Cape Town. Usborne returned with his party to England the shorter way, via Cape Horn, reaching Greenwich just in time to rejoin the Beagle there on 28 October 1836.

HMS Beagle and the smaller vessels associated with her

The surveying work carried out by the officers and men of the Beagle depended in the first instance on the effective operation of the Beagle herself, making use of the seven small boats which she carried on board. However, FitzRoy soon realized that his work could be facilitated, and expedited, by the use of other vessels hired or acquired locally, for shorter or longer periods, at different places on the east and west coasts of South America. As it happens, Charles Forsyth was often picked or often volunteered for service on one or other of these smaller vessels, taking him away from the Beagle for extended periods in 1832-6.

(1) La Paz and La Liebre. In September 1832, FitzRoy hired two small schooners from Mr Harris, an Englishman who made his living at Del Carmen, on the Rio Negro in Uruguay. The larger of the two vessels was La Paz, 15 tons, which in FitzRoy's view was as 'ugly and ill-built a craft' as he had ever seen; the other was La Liebre, 9 tons, formerly the barge of a Brazilian frigate. Both vessels were re-fitted, repainted, and made ready for survey work. La Liebre was assigned to John Clements Wickham (1st Lieutenant), accompanied by Philip Gidley King (Midshipman), with overall command of the detachment. La Paz was assigned to John Lort Stokes (Mate), accompanied by Arthur Mellersh (Midshipman) and Charles Forsyth (Midshipman). From mid-October 1832 until August 1833, while the Beagle was occupied with duties elsewhere, La Liebre and La Paz were engaged in surveying work along the coast south of the River Plate. [FitzRoy, Narrative 2: 109-12, 283-4, 286, 288, 295-315.]

(2) Constitución. In late April 1833, at Maldonado, east of Monte Video on the river Plate, FitzRoy was able to borrow a newly-built schooner, called the Constitución, from her owner, Don Francisco Aguilar. She was assigned to Alexander Burns Usborne (Master's Assistant), accompanied by Forsyth, and remained in FitzRoy's service for two months (May-June). [FitzRoy, Narrative 2: 282-4.]

(3) Adventure (formerly Unicorn). Earlier in 1833, when returning north from Tierra del Fuego via the Falklands, FitzRoy had purchased from Mr William Low a fine vessel called the Unicorn, 170 tons, to serve henceforth as the Beagle's consort or tender. The Unicorn was renamed the Adventure. (FitzRoy knew well how on the earlier surveying expedition to South America, in 1826-1830, Capt. Philip Parker King, in HMS Adventure, had operated in association with the Beagle; and, as he put it, he wished 'to keep up old associations'.) On 23 April the new Adventure arrived at Gorriti Island, in Maldonado Bay, for re-fitting. Command of the Adventure was assigned to Wickham, accompanied by Charles Johnson (Midshipman), Usborne, and Forsyth. On 6 December 1833 the Beagle and the Adventure left Monte Video together, parting company on 22 January 1834. The Adventure was sent off to survey the Falkland Islands. The Beagle continued south to Tierra del Fuego, returning via the Falklands (March/April 1834) to the coast of Patagonia, for some necessary repairs and an expedition up the Rio Santa Cruz (April/May 1834). The Adventure rejoined the Beagle on 28 May 1834, as directed, near the eastern entrance to the Strait of Magellan. The two vessels stayed together in early June 1834 for the passage from Port Famine, down the Magdalen Channel, along the Cockburn Channel, and out into the Pacific Ocean, and then headed north up the west coast of Chile to Valparaiso, arriving there on 22 July. To his intense regret FitzRoy was obliged to sell the Adventure at Valparaiso (in mid-September), whereupon her complement of officers and men rejoined the Beagle. [Darwin, Beagle diary, p. 207.] [FitzRoy, Narrative 2: 273-5, 280-4, 293-4, 360-1 (sale of Adventure).] <Beagle: FitzRoy, Narrative 2: 316-35 [Dec. 1833-April 1834], 336-58 [Rio Santa Cruz], 359-60 [passage].>

(4) Constitución. In May/June 1835, when the ship's company were engaged in refitting the Beagle at Herradura Cove, near Coquimbo in Chile, FitzRoy was able to borrow a vessel called the Constitución, 35 tons, from Don Francisco Vascunan, so that the work of surveying could continue along the coast of Chile. Command of the Constitutión, not of course to be confused with the other vessel of the same name (borrowed in Uruguay two years previously), was assigned to Bartholomew James Sulivan (2nd Lieutenant), accompanied Peter Stewart (Mate), King, and Forsyth. Sulivan received his orders on 6 June, and, after carrying the survey some way up the northern coast of Chile, as far as Paposo (by the Atacama Desert), he rejoined the Beagle at Callao, on the coast west of Lima, in Peru, on 30 July 1835. [FitzRoy, Narrative 2: 426-7 and 482-3, with Appendix, pp. 177-8.]

(5) Constitution. On 24 August 1835, at Callao, FitzRoy decided on Sulivan's recommendation to purchase the Constitutión, for £400, so that she could be used for further surveying work up the coasts of Chile and Peru. The Constitution (as she was called in FitzRoy's ownership) was fitted out afresh, and command was assigned to Mr Usborne. On 24 August FitzRoy issued his orders to Usborne for continuing the survey from the point where Sulivan had stopped (Paposo), 'northward towards to Callao, and thence toward Puná, near Guayaquil', where the survey would terminate. Usborne was further instructed to sell the schooner, return to Callao, and from there obtain passage for himself and his party back to England. Usborne was given provisions for eight months, indicating that FitzRoy expected Usborne's work to be completed by May 1836. He was accompanied on the Constitution by Forsyth, and by other volunteers from the Beagle (seven seamen, and one of the boys). The Constitution sailed from Callao on 6 September, heading south in order to resume the survey at Paposo; the Beagle left on the following day, heading north-west into the Pacific, bound for Galapagos and home. [FitzRoy, Narrative 2: 482-4, 638-9, with Appendix, pp. 186-8.]

Charles Forsyth and his log book

Charles Codrington Forsyth (1813-1873) entered the Navy in 1826. He served initially on anti-slavery operations on the west coast of Africa, and thereafter on the South American Station. In June 1832 Forsyth was transferred at Captain FitzRoy's request from the flagship to the Beagle, as a replacement for young Charles Musters, a 'Volunteer 1st Class' who had died of malaria not long after the Beagle had arrived in Brazil. He is named last among the midshipmen in the full list of the ship's company entered by Darwin in his diary for 24 July 1832, as the Beagle headed south from Rio to Montevideo.

The log book is a folio volume, still in its original full leather binding, with a red leather label attached to the front cover bearing the words 'LOG OF H.M.S. BEAGLE'. A hand-written title-page at the beginning of the volume reads as follows:

A Log of the

Proceedings of H. M. Surveying Sloop Beagle,

Robert FitzRoy Esqr. Captain,

Kept by Charles Forsyth, Midshipman,

beginning October 22nd 1834

and ending on the 17th Novr. 1836.

On the face of it, this title-page cannot have been composed before late November 1836. It is possible, however, that the first four lines constituted the original wording, and that the last two lines were added later. The content starts somewhat abruptly on 22 October 1833 (not 1834, an error corrected at some stage by Forsyth himself), and follows the Beagle from that date to the early days of June 1835. The first element of the text ends at the bottom of a page, with its entry for 5 June 1835, when the Beagle was refitting at Herradura, near Coquimbo, Chile, making ready for her long journey home. This entry is followed by a page left blank, and then by another title-page, similar to the first:

A Log

of the Proceedings of

H. M. Surveying Sloop Beagle,

Robert FitzRoy Esqr. Captain,

Kept by Charles Forsyth, Midshipman

The significance of the second title-page appears to be that it stands immediately before the entry for 6 June 1835, which includes the statement, 'Lieut B. Sulivan went on board & took command of the hired schooner Constitution', as if this would mark a new beginning. In fact, the log continues to follow the Beagle throughout June and July, as she sailed south from Herradura to pick up provisions at Valparaiso, and then north via Copiapó to Callao, near Lima, Peru, where she remained from 20 July until her departure for Galapagos on 7 September. This section of the log ends, significantly, with a page bearing entries for 18-27 August 1835, of which that for 25 August includes the entry: 'P.M. Sent Mr Usborne & Mr Forsyth (Mid) on board the Constitution.'

The page for 18-27 August 1835 is followed directly by a third title-page, uniform with the first and second:

A Log of the

Proceedings of H. M. S. Constitution,

Tender to H. M. Sloop Beagle,

Under the Orders of Captn Robt Fitz Roy

The first entry on the following page is for 28 August 1835, and the viewpoint is henceforth from the Constitution. The log remains with the Constitution for the survey of northern Chile and Peru, ending with the sale of the Constitution at Paita, Peru, on 30 May 1836. The volume also provides information, in the form of a large map, on the route taken by Usborne and his party from Callao back round Cape Horn to England. It ends, once they had rejoined their ship at Greenwich, with two pages representing a Beagle log from 28 October to 17 November 1836 (on which day the ship's company was paid off).

A composite record

Of its very nature as a naval record, Forsyth's log is far removed from the description of it provided by a Sotheby's cataloguer in 1948. A proper understanding of its contents would naturally require direct examination of the original in Buenos Aires; but one can make a good start with the images available on Darwin Online. The whole book would appear to have been transcribed by Forsyth himself; he claims on two title-pages that the record is his own; and he signs his name on its final page. The fact is, however, that for the period from October 1833 to August 1835, when the log follows the movements of the Beagle, it does so even at those times when Forsyth himself is known to have been first on the Adventure and then on the Constitución (above, nos. 3 and 4). Where this leaves Forsyth's statement that the log had been 'kept' by him is uncertain; and it is unfortunate, since it would have been particularly interesting to be able to follow him on the survey of the Falklands, and interesting also to see the view from the Adventure as the two vessels passed in company, in June 1834, from Port Famine, down the Magdalen Channel, along the Cockburn Channel, and out into the Pacific.

It should be noticed at the same time that the entries for this period (roughly the first 225 pages of the book) seem uniform in appearance, suggesting that they represent a fair copy as opposed to a day-by-day record written over an extended period. The question arises: from whose log did Forsyth derive the information for the Beagle, for those periods when he was on a different vessel, and was the same log in fact used for periods when Forsyth certainly was on the Beagle (in 1834-1835)? The answer seems to be that the record was abstracted in whole or in part from the Ship's Log (The National Archives, ADM 53/236), kept by Edward Chaffers (Master). That at least is the impression derived from random spot-comparison of the two records, though the exercise would need to be taken further in order to separate abstracted material from any original material. It may be, therefore, that before parting company with the Beagle, in August 1835, Forsyth needed to create a log book which would provide him with a record of the Beagle's movements during what might have been seen in retrospect as the 'main' episode of the voyage (the extended 'cruise' from Monte Video to Valparaiso in 1833-1834), despite the fact that (or perhaps because) much of his own experience during this period had been rather different. It begins with an entry for 22 October 1833, when the Beagle was at Monte Video; but the starting-point seems to be arbitrary, and raises the possibility either that this is the second of two volumes, or that Forsyth wished to provide some sense of a wider context before proceeding with the main event.

It is not clear what lies behind the provision of the second title-page, unless it represents a false start of some kind; but with the third title-page we move into clearer ground. Forsyth's log of the Constitution (on the next 50 pages of the book), covering the period from September 1835 to May 1836, provides evidence of the survey of the coast of northern Chile and Peru (above, no. 5). It differs from what had gone before, with entries seeming (at times) to change in appearance in ways which may be indicative of day-by-day recording.

The survey of the coast of northern Chile and Peru (1835-1836)

Forsyth's log of the survey of the coast of northern Chile and Peru adds significantly to our understanding of an unfamiliar aspect of the hydrographic work undertaken by FitzRoy during the voyage of the Beagle. In his orders to Sulivan (6 June 1835), FitzRoy had noted that Paposo was 'the northernmost inhabited place over which the government of Chile has authority', urging him to be on his guard. In his orders for Usborne (24 August 1835), FitzRoy displayed his continued concern: 'Remembering how frequent and uncertain are political changes, you will be very guarded in your conduct. You will show your instructions; explain distinctly that you are detached from the Beagle in her tender, for the purposes of continuing the survey of the coast of Peru; and you will most carefully avoid every act which might unnecessarily offend.' There is little further information in FitzRoy's Narrative about Usborne's survey of Peru, although it is clear that Usborne's work was highly regarded by his captain.

The details of Usborne's survey can now be reconstructed from Forsyth's log, and the record of their progress along the coast followed on the map of South America published with FitzRoy's Narrative (1839), and in relation to charts published by the Hydrographic Office. On the afternoon of Sunday 6 September 1835, after hearing Divine Service on board the Beagle, Usborne took the Constitution out of Callao Bay and headed south, reaching the Juan Fernandez Islands by mid-October, and putting into Valparaiso Bay for repairs (20-27 October) and for some further supplies (received from HMS Blonde). From Valparaiso they headed back north, and by 3 November were off Paposo Pt (25o S), where the survey began. On 1 December Usborne brought the Constitution into the port of Arica, Chile, where he found two Peruvian ships already at anchor. The ships opened fire upon the town during the night, and on the following day continued their bombardment. On 3 December they stopped, and Forsyth remarks: 'Employed watering, the Peruvian vessels of war having ceased firing to permit us so to do.' On 4 December, the Constitution remained at anchor at Arica, and for some reason Forsyth was sent to sick quarters. On 5 December, 'Daybreak firing commenced from the town & vessels', whereupon the bewildered Englishmen sensibly took leave of Arica and continued on their way. That Usborne and Forsyth had to contend also with difficulties of a different kind is suggested by entries concerning one of the crew: 27 December 1835, 'Disrated John Evans B[osuns] Mate to AB [Able Seaman] for repeated acts of drunkenness and mutinous conduct'; 9 February 1836, 'Reported John Evans to Captain Eden of H.M.S. Rover for drunkenness and insubordination on Saturday evening. And he was punished with 24 lashes on board the said ship.' None the less, the surveying work continued. On 6 April they reached Lobos de Tierra Island, off the coast at Chiclayo; by 19 April they were at Pt Ajuga, by 21 April in the Bay of Payta (Paita), and by 27 April at Cabo Blanco. On 4 May Usborne brought the Constitution to anchor off the Island of Puná (c. 3o S), and after a day or two of surveying the work came to an end. On 10 May the Constitution took up a mooring off the town of Guayaquil; and at 10.30 that morning 'the Captain of the Port & the captains of the English Merchant Ships Manly & Hippomenes came on board to hold a survey on the vessel'. Five days later, still moored off Guayaquil, Able Seaman Evans was behaving again in ways which suggested that he had not learnt his lesson: 15 May 1836, 'Put John Evans (AB) in confinement on shore for insolence to Mr Forsyth on Friday & drunkenness & insolence to Mr Usborne on this day'. On the following day they took on board 'a distressed British subject', and headed back south, reaching Paita, on the tip of northern Peru, on 23 May. The final entry in the log, for Monday 30 May, reads: 'A.M. 8.40. Shifted on board the US Barque George & Henry for a passage to Callao, having sold the Constitution to Mr Clarke of Payta by order of Captain Robert FitzRoy.'

Forsyth positioned a note in the middle of the following page: 'from the 31st of May to the 29th of October, on our passage to rejoin H.M. Sloop Beagle with the crew of H.M. late Tender Constitucion. C.C.F.' The American barque George and Henry took them south from Paita to Callao, but it was presumably in a different ship or ships that they were able to make their way back thence to England. It is FitzRoy who reports their remarkable reunion on 28 October 1836:

Greenwich was the last station at which observations were made; and, singularly enough, Mr Usborne and his companions came on board as we anchored there. Independent of the gratification of meeting them again, after so wide a separation, it may be supposed how my mind was relieved by his safe return from a very successful expedition, in which he had surveyed the whole coast of Peru, from Atacama to Guayaquil, without loss or accident. Although his own life was seriously risked on two or three occasions, by shots fired under misapprehension, I must not omit to mention that hostilities were suspended for a whole day, at Arica, between the land-forces and an attacking squadron, in order that Mr Usborne might carry on his operations. (Narrative 2: 638-9)

Forsyth's log ends with a record on two pages of the last days of the Beagle's voyage, beginning with an entry recording the return on board, at Greenwich, of Messrs Usborne and Forsyth (28 October), and ending with reference to the paying-off of the officers and men at Woolwich (17 November). It is not, however, an independent record, since the information was evidently abstracted by him from the Ship's Log.

The map and sketches

The large pen-and-ink map of South America, pasted in on a folded sheet of paper at the front of the log book, and said by the Sotheby's cataloguer in 1948 to show 'the course taken by the Beagle', was constructed presumably by Forsyth in 1836. It marks what must have been the route taken by Usborne, Forsyth, and their ship-mates, in some other vessel, on their passage south, and then north towards the North Atlantic on a course which would lead home to England. The map is of further interest for its careful delineation of the coast of Peru, marking some of the features seen in the survey of 1835-1836, and for its curious inaccuracy in the depiction of Tierra del Fuego (losing the Beagle Channel). It is also of interest for its decoration, in the form of a scroll unrolling from a ship's spar, revealing two small sketches of the Beagle at sea: one showing the ship between an island and a prominent rock, and the other showing the ship making her way to windward towards a craggy shoreline. The first might represent the Beagle off the coast of Peru, or Brazil; the second appears to be related in some way to a drawing of the Beagle entering the Rio Santa Cruz in April 1834, known from versions by John Lort Stokes, by Syms Covington, and (in scrimshaw) by James Adolphus Bute.

Three pen-and-ink sketches on two sheets also tipped in at the front of the volume show views from the sea of prominent coastal features in northern Peru, seen in April 1836: 'Yalama Height', 'Pt Aguja', and 'Land about False Pt Aguja … Island of Lobos de Tierra just in sight'. [Coastal profiles taken at Cobija, in Chile, north of Herradura Bay, are preserved in The National Archives (ADM 344/2263), made apparently from the Beagle as she sailed north along the coast towards Callao.]

Curiously, Forsyth's log book also contains two pen-and-ink sketches of Charles Island (now called Floreana), Galapagos. These sketches, on a folded strip of paper, were pasted into the log opposite the page containing entries for the beginning of the year 1835. One shows the north-west coast ('Black beach bay Charles Isle', with the note 'From anchorage a road leads from the beach to the settlement'), and the other the south-west coast, from Saddle Point to South Point ('Charles Island Galapagos. 18 or 20 miles').  

The views represented in these sketches of Charles Island would have been seen by members of the ship's company of HMS Beagle on 24-27 September 1835, a few days after the ship had first arrived in Galapagos.  By this stage in the voyage, Captain FitzRoy had lost the services of his (second) official artist, Conrad Martens, and seems to have relied for views and coastal profiles on the services of one of his junior officers, Philip Gidley King.  Midshipman King is known to have made several views and coastal profiles of islands in the Galapagos archipelago, including Chatham, Charles, Brattle, Albemarle, James, Wemers, Abingdon, and Culpepper.  Among them is a fine view of the interior of Charles Island, looking towards 'Round Hill' (Cerro Pajas).  In the entry in his diary for 26-7 September, Darwin remarks that he ascended the highest hill (Round Hill), and that he had counted '39 conical hills, in the summit of all of which there was a more or less perfect circular depression'. Round Hill, and some of the other conical hills, are clearly visible in the views pasted into Forsyth's log book.

In his orders to Usborne, FitzRoy had remarked, 'If opportunity should offer, a measurement from Puná to the Galapagos would be very desirable'. However, there is no indication in the log that Usborne and Forsyth had been able to make any such measurement when they reached Puná in early May 1836; so the question arises whether these sketches of Charles Island were copied for some reason from views or coastal profiles made by King, and shown to Forsyth when he rejoined the Beagle at the tail end of her voyage.

Forsyth, Charles. 1833-6. 'A log of the Proceedings of H. M. Surveying Sloop Beagle.' Museo Naval de la Nación, Tigre, Argentina. Images PDF


Forsyth's log book was brought to attention in 2010 by Henry von Wartenberg, who also took the photographs available on Darwin Online. I am grateful to Horacio Molina Pico, Capitán de navío, and Director of the Museo Naval de la Nación, Tigre, Buenos Aires, Argentina, and to Dr John van Wyhe for their kindness in the same connection.

Simon Keynes

1 November 2010

Further reading

Keynes, Simon. 2010. Charles Darwin, Robert FitzRoy and the voyage of HMS 'Beagle'. London: Henry Sotheran Ltd.

Stone, Ian R. 1985. Charles Codrington Forsyth (ca. 1810-1873). Arctic 38: 340-1

Papers relating to the British Franklin Search Expedition, 1850, led by Forsyth, are in the Scott Polar Research Institute, University of Cambridge.


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