RECORD: Chancellor, John. 2007. FitzRoy's Beagle. [Previously unpublished manuscript c. 1980].

REVISION HISTORY: Original typescript OCRed by John van Wyhe, corrections and editing by Gordon Chancellor and van Wyhe. RN4

NOTE: See the introduction to this essay by Gordon Chancellor.

FitzRoy's Beagle

by John Chancellor

John Chancellor's HMS Beagle in the Galapagos

I seldom break my rule, which requires that I never portray a particular vessel unless I have plans or draughts of her or a sister. As a mariner however, I have such a profound admiration for the achievements in seamanship, science and leadership of Capt. Robert FitzRoy of the Beagle that I felt bound to try to bring her to life.

As a major work of this sort progresses, attention is focused on every detail as it appears. Sometimes the investigations to verify these details throw an oblique shaft of light onto hitherto doubtful or conflicting evidence.

Doubts concerning the Beagle as fitted for her second survey voyage abound. Inevitably inroads into these doubts must, for the most part, be speculative, being largely derived from the interpretation of scanty information. This does not mean that such speculations are totally valueless and it seems that where the Beagle is concerned any valid ideas should be aired.

I would not have contemplated making a study of Beagle without the advantage of the work of those who have gone before me. Notably the excellent work of Lois Darling and in particular the unfailing help and guidance of David Stanbury who as most readers will acknowledge, must surely be our leading Beagle expert. I have followed faithfully in Lois Darling's footsteps regarding the draughts and plans of the various vessels as advised by Arthur Waite, terminating with the Brisk as the principle reference, with Barracouta providing the position of the mizen and probable dimensions of the patent windlass.

At this point one realises the extent to which contemporary sketches not only differ from the basic details of the class, but also from one another and this must lead us to regard them all with scepticism. After all, most were just little sketchy pictures providing an impression of the vessel and the artists could not have predicted that one day historians would be studying them closely in search of particular details. The well known watercolour of Beagle in Sydney harbour on her third voyage for instance, shows her with quarter galleries and one too many gunports on each side, the forward one of which, is abaft the cathead. These details differ from other contemporary sketches and one can only therefore attach any relevance to those details which are confirmed in the majority of cases.

In drawing attention to certain features in my portrayal of Beagle, I will endeavour to present arguments to support my opinions particularly when they differ from the concepts of others.

It is difficult to show the precise line of the deck in a picture of a warship of this period because the deck did not follow the sheerstrake exactly, it being usual to have the deck fairly flat, presumably for the better handling of the guns. However, close examination of the painting shows that although the deck has been raised 8" aft and 12" forward, neither the gunports nor the bulwarks have been altered. (One of the little six pounders has been run out forward for signalling and it can be seen that although the deck has been raised there was no need to raise the gunports as well for these small pieces).

As my opinion concerning the bulwarks and gunports is contrary to the beliefs held by Lois Darling, I should perhaps endeavour to present some sort of case. The following extracts are flimsy evidence concerning the final outcome, but they do suggest the intentions in the minds of those concerned at the time.

In FitzRoy's original request to the Admiralty to have the deck raised he pleads among other things. 'The Beagle is ordered to carry only two six pound guns therefore raising the deck will not be of consequence as respects the guns and their ports' (Slevin 1959, p. 81). The accompanying letter from the officers of the dockyard to the Admiralty reads.....'we beg leave to acquaint you that as the greater part of the flat of the Upper deck, waterways and skirketting are more or less defective, and will require to be replaced with new materials, we are of the opinion that the alteration of raising the deck eight inches may be performed at an expense of £120 and as the space between Decks is only five feet, [about 4' 3" under beams] the storage as well as the comfort of the crew will be increased by making the alteration' (Slevin 1959, p. 80). This budget suggests that other alterations would be kept to a minimum.

The following observations do not constitute evidence, they are, nevertheless, informed comment, which I hope will be considered when debating whether or not the bulwarks were raised with the deck.

Let us examine certain features of this class of vessel in the light of their poor reputation as sea boats. They were the victims of compromise. All small flush decked warships with all their armament on the upper deck needed to carry this great weight as low as possible, yet a low deck meant a lack of reserve buoyancy, a much needed component for the stability of such heavily rigged vessels.

Unfortunately in the case of the Beagle and her sisters, the effect of this lack of reserve buoyancy was exacerbated by high bulwarks. High bulwarks capped with hammock netting were a desirable feature in warships to provide protection against small arms fire in close action. Furthermore in moderate weather they provided a very desirable extension of freeboard. In heavy weather however, they were the recipe for disaster.

In the revised master profile of the class (Brisk etc.) we find that the bulwark height was about 4' 5" above the deck, rising forward to an exceptional 5' 2" at the foremast. If swept by a big sea, these bulwarks could trap 70 or 80 tons of water on deck, making serious inroads into the little reserve buoyancy available. In this situation scarcely any stability remains and a heavy roll at this critical moment could result in a capsize. There can be little doubt that these features of the design of this class of vessel were the primary cause for the loss of those which foundered through stress of weather, but the question is, was FitzRoy aware of this? The value of reserve upper buoyancy as a component of stability in extreme situations, has only been fully understood in comparatively recent years.

To me, it is significant that although FitzRoy originally requested a raising of the deck by 8" throughout, he managed to get the dockyard to alter this to 8" aft rising to 12" forward, so that the new deck tended to follow the rising bulwarks thereby reducing their great height. At a stroke therefore, the two principle design faults of the class were rectified.

Beagle's shortcomings had been forcibly brought home to FitzRoy during a storm on the previous voyage and as her future role was not to be that of a warship, I cannot bring myself to believe that he would have had the bulwarks raised as well, (even if the Admiralty had been prepared to meet the expense) since by so doing, much of the benefit of raising the deck would be lost. Even after the deck was raised, the lowest part of the bulwarks aft and in the waist was only reduced to a height of about 3' 8", which was ideal. There was certainly no problem as regards security, for one must remember, that mounted on top of the bulwarks, there was a further 16" of hammock netting. In fact in spite of the new deck rising from 8" aft to 12" forward, the height of the original bulwarks adjacent the foremast was still about 4' 3", at which point a man of average height would have had difficulty in seeing over the netting, this being 5' 7" above the deck. There were therefore no practical reasons for increasing the height of the bulwarks and sound economic reasons for leaving them as they were.

The more I reflect on the alterations to the Beagle, the more I am convinced that FitzRoy's motives were aimed more at improving her stability factor than anything else. His plans for the number and size of boats he wanted to carry probably formed in his mind quite early and undoubtedly he recognised that about four tons of boats stowed well above deck level needed to be compensated for.

In my opinion when FitzRoy's Beagle finally emerged from the dockyard, she had every prospect of being a fine sea boat. The deck had been raised a significant amount and the 2" bottom sheathing had not only increased her potential carrying capacity by nearly eight tons, but had increased her waterline beam by 4". Whilst she must have loaded an astonishing tonnage of stores for such an expedition, these stores were stowed deep down in the ship and rather than being thoroughly tender like her gun laden fighting sisters, she was probably quite a stiff little vessel.

In my painting, both bowsprit and catheads are in their original positions. The original heel point of the bowsprit was a good foot above the original deck, allowing the deck to be raised the 11" or so at that point without interfering with it. The only alteration necessary would have been the plugging of the original hawse holes and a new chock fitted above, to take the new iron hawse pipes just above the new deck level.

In those days 5' 6" headroom under beams would have been considered lavish in a small vessel and likely to be found only in the Captain's cabin. It would certainly have been considered adequate under the t'gallant forecastle beams in way of the new patent windlass. It is true that the t'gallant forecastle rail being above the catheads and entry point of the bowsprit, appears rather high, but in my view this is offset by the poop and looks aesthetically quite acceptable. I have no evidence to support my belief that the bowsprit and catheads were unaltered, except that it seems unlikely that funds would have been made available for such extensive modifications for purely cosmetic reasons. I have so far been unable to find evidence that the hammock netting was boarded in on Beagle. It would certainly have been a retrograde step concerning bulwark height. Most contemporary sketches and King's profile suggest them to be open. In the great gale off the Horn, the hammock netting was torn away on one side and whilst this is no proof, it does suggest that they were exposed. At this time hammock cloths were often lashed down over the hammocks to keep the weather out. These cloths were dressed or painted and would at a distance, appear as a structural feature. (The term "hammock cloths" had a dual meaning, for it was also used to describe any tarpaulins made presumably from a similar fabric to that of the hammocks. Such tarpaulins were spread out over the lower decks in wet weather to absorb damp and dirt, after which they would be scrubbed and dried on the upper deck in readiness for further use.) [P.R.O. Adm. 106/1346 F of 97 Capt. FitzRoy].

It is difficult to be certain about details of Beagle's rig. Everything about the rest of her was modern and up-to-date and on the strength of FitzRoy's remark that chain was used aloft where ever it might serve, I have taken the view that everything aloft was also up-to-date. This suggests that her yards were fitted with iron jackstays, her tops'ls rigged with whip sheets and the under belly slabline-cum-buntlines of the post 1825 Brig rig.

Her Spencers, or try s'ls as they were called then, were rigged by FitzRoy for the second voyage and further indicate his concern for stability, for their centre of effort was when reefed, well below that of close reefed courses. Being fore and aft rigged they must have been very useful when trying to keep to wind'd in heavy weather. That they were retained on future voyages indicates their success. It may be that Beagle' s stern was unaltered when the poop was first built. When the deck was raised however, with the consequent raising of the poop deck as well, my sketches indicated that the archway of her stern must surely have been re-shaped to embrace it, and I agree with Lois Darling that without this modification the poop would have appeared like an ungainly box perched on her stern and aesthetically quite unacceptable. From the cost stand point, this alteration to the arch of the stern would have been relatively trivial.

When a scaled perspective picture of a vessel is undertaken with all the functional components coming together, their relationship to one another often dictates their position fairly accurately. So it is with the davits.

There were really only two positions for quarter davits available to small vessels, whether Ships, Brigs or Barques. These positions were dictated by the lead of the main sheet. In the most aft position, the sheet led outside and under the swan neck of the forward davit, leading to the ship's side inboard of the bow of the boat. For this arrangement in a Brig, the farther aft the davits could be placed without interfering with the spanker boom the better.

The next available position, which was not as satisfactory for obvious reasons, was for the davits to be about 8ft. farther forward, with the main sheet leading inboard of the forward davit and the griping spar, and under the swan neck of the aft davit, a foul lead which must have needed constant clearing. (The later training Brig Liberty, had a boat on the port side in the aft position and one in the forward position on the starboard side).

When Beagle was nearly ready for sea she swung her compasses. To everybody's surprise there was practically no deviation. A chance remark that this might have been due to the iron davits located abeam and abaft the compasses cancelling out other iron work in the rest of the ship, leaves little doubt that her davits were in the aft of the two available positions as shown. I should perhaps mention that in those days the davits were not used for swinging boats inboard and they were therefore placed much closer together to provide the best suspension for a fully manned, lightly built boat without straining her.

Having established the position of the quarter davits on Beagle we should perhaps turn our attention to the drawings of Gidley King in order to establish their value for research purposes. King was a midshipman aboard Beagle on her second voyage and signed off in Australia. Many years later when in his eighties, he was asked to recall all he could of the Beagle. Bearing in mind that when serving in the Beagle he was a young and relatively inexperienced seaman and that during the intervening years ashore, his nautical knowledge was not reinforced, it is astonishing how much the old man remembered. In fact there are many intimate details, which, without King's recollections, we would have no knowledge of today.King's sketch of the Beagle

However, as all students of Beagle have discovered, his plans are so out of scale and ill proportioned that we must be careful not to be mislead by them. The channels for the fore and main rigging for instance are pitifully short and the distance between the main and mizen masts greatly exaggerated. The position of the davitted boats does not conform remotely to either of the available positions and his boats are shown little more than half their scaled size. There are other instances of his drawings failing to fit Beagle's known proportions. Nevertheless, it seems on the whole, that he had a good memory for intimate details and these should be considered seriously.

David Stanbury's excellent study of Beagle's boats, not only saved me many hours of painstaking research but also saved me from some of the pitfalls. However our joint efforts at re-examining the interpretations of the existing evidence tend to invite further debate on two points, neither of which may ever be resolved.

The first concerns the two 28ft. whale boats (normally stowed over the quarter deck on skids). These boats along with the yawl and cutter were built by Mr. Johns the dockyard boat builder. Mr. Johns was the builder who invented the double diagonal planking system for boats, which has been successfully used to this day. When FitzRoy ordered these four boats, he requested that the yawl and the cutter be built on Mr. Johns' principle.

This we know was approved, for FitzRoy later described these boats in glowing terms, implying that they had retained their structural integrity right to the end of the voyage. What is not clear is whether the two 28ft. whale boats built by Mr. Johns were also built on his double diagonal principle.

In the absence of any statement to the contrary it is quite reasonable to suppose that being built by Mr. Johns, they were also of diagonal construction. This however makes the rather sweeping supposition that Mr. Johns only built boats on his diagonal principle which I think unlikely. Also we must not forget that FitzRoy requested that only the yawl and cutter be diagonally constructed. Furthermore when his order for the four boats to be supplied by the dockyard was approved, the following endorsement was attached: '….but the Committee of Naval Officers recommended Mr. Johns principle of building Boats, to be confined to Launches' (Slevin 1959, p. 80). I am satisfied that the definition Launch did not include whalers.

The two 28ft. whalers were considered to be rather heavy and it is thought that this indicates that they were probably of double diagonal construction. One must not forget however that they were also very large whale boats for so small a vessel and would have been quite a handful anyway. Certainly double diagonal boats were heavier than clinker built ones, but FitzRoy described the yawl as roomy, light and buoyant, which suggests that not all Mr. Johns' double diagonal boats were annoyingly heavy for their type.

Mr. May the ship's carpenter, who built the two smaller 25ft. whale boats normally carried in the quarter davits, seemed to have gained a reputation for building particularly light boats and it is possible that Mr. Johns' 28ft. whalers were therefore considered heavy in a comparative sense.

In my view the debate hangs on two questions, (1) Did FitzRoy and the dockyard adhere to the advice of the Committee of Naval Officers and restrict Mr. Johns' principle of construction to launch type boats? (2) Did Mr. Johns continue to build conventional carvel and clinker boats as well as his double diagonal ones?

An affirmative answer to both these questions would weigh in favour of the opinion that the two 25ft. whalers were of conventional construction, a conclusion which would be supported by King's memory for detail, for his profile clearly shows them to be clinker built.

The second point concerning Beagle's boats which likewise will probably never be accurately resolved is as follows:- We know from FitzRoy's descriptions that Beagle left England with the following boats:-

1 28ft. yawl stowed on deck between the fore and mainm'st

1 cutter probably 25ft. which stowed inside the yawl.

2 28ft. whalers stowed over the quarter deck on skids.

The above built by Johns

2 25ft. whalers hung in the quarter davits. Built by Mr. May, the ships' carpenter

1 dinghy probably about 14ft. across the stern under horn davits. Builder unknown, (FitzRoy's private property).

On the 13th January, 1833 in a severe gale off the Horn, one of the 25ft. whale boats in the davits filled and carried away the aft fall. The flaying wreck had to be cut adrift. It is quite probable for a while after this event, that the cutter, normally stowed inside the yawl, was transferred to these vacant davits for convenience. Later however the log refers to 2nd. cutter or gig and it is almost certain that the lost whaler was finally replaced by a transomed boat like the cutter.

Curiously there is no record of this acquisition nor of one being built, but it would seem probably that it was either among the items purchased from a wrecked French whaling vessel in the Falklands, or it might possibly have been a boat belonging to the schooner which FitzRoy purchased to assist the survey.

King's deck plan shows the transom sterned cutter stowed inside the yawl and another transom sterned boat in the port davits, where the lost 25ft. whaler used to be, which further supports the log references to second cutter. King even labels this boat 'Cutter 2nd. (Gig).'

FitzRoy stated that he always carried seven boats in the Beagle, yet we know that a whaler was lost. It is reasonable to conclude from this, that the period during which Beagle had only six boats, was therefore relatively short.

It is unfortunate for me, that the most dominant feature in my painting, namely the boat in the port davits, is an item about which we know very little. I have shown a cutter-like, transom sterned, clinker built boat with a length of 24ft, a foot shorter than the whaler, which used to occupy those davits. This can be no more than a reasoned guess, based on the flimsy evidence available at this time.

After 700 hours at the easel, this scaled portrayal of Beagle was a startling revelation to me. How tiny Beagle was and how large her boats seem in comparison. The 28ft. whalers on the skids extended from well fore side of the mainm'st almost back to the mizen. The second cutter partially lowered in the port davits looks absurdly large, yet she is scaled to a length of only 24ft.

2nd. Lieut. Sulivan of the Beagle who writing later under the heading of "Management of Ships Under Sail" The mariner's Mirror 37 pp. 243-245 mentions the method of getting quarter boats away, developed aboard the Beagle. I believe the method was copied from the whaling ships who needed to get their boats down near the whales, often with plenty of way on the ship.

It was briefly this:- A large, single block was attached to the end of each davit. Through these a short pennant was rove, probably a substantial 4.5" circ. rope just long enough to lower the boat to the surface and no more. The lifting falls were then unhooked from the boat and lead out of the way. The painter would be cast off and the boat, fully manned, gently lowered to just above the surface. At the right moment judged by the cox'n, the pennants were simply let go together and allowed to run out through the blocks and go with the boat. Sulivan states that this was successfully accomplished at speeds of up to 9 knots.

A close look at the painting shows that the whaler in the starboard davits and the 2nd. cutter in the port davits, have been partially lowered on these pennants and their crews are getting them ready for launching, as soon as Beagle has reached the calm water under the land. A strong current runs northwards along this shore, so the boats were probably put down early, in order to fetch the shore in the vicinity of Cape Cowan, where Darwin's party were to rendezvous.

The picture is a reconstruction taken from the Captain's log and shows Beagle at about 2.15 p.m. on the afternoon of the 17th October, 1835, running up along the north west coast of James Island, Galapagos. She is making for the north west point of the island to pick up Darwin and his party who have been on the island for nine days.

She has been firing a gun from time to time to announce her arrival to those ashore. (Only forward guns were used for this purpose to reduce the risk of upsetting any of the 22 chronometers which were vital to part of the mission). An American whaler is at anchor in James Bay and a man on Beagle' s poop can be seen preparing to hoist the ensign to her. Capt. FitzRoy can also be seen steadying his telescope against the mizen mast looking along the shore for signs of Darwin's party.

This view of the coast is taken from a watercolour made by a member of 2nd. Lieut. Sulivan's survey party, which spent 19 days in the yawl surveying these central islands. It is one of a number of Beagle' s survey views held in the archives of the Hydrographic Office in Taunton. It is also supported by a little detailed chart of this particular stretch of coast made by Sulivan's boat expedition.

Unfortunately we do not see the yawl stowed aboard, for it departed 9 days previously with a party under Mr. Chaffers to examine the northern islands. The cutter is just out of sight behind the bulwarks. The 28ft. yawl when aboard, occupied most of the available space between the fore and mainm'st, mounted on boat chocks on deck to keep her keel just clear of the hatches at each end. I am inclined to think the galley funnel was placed off centre to clear the yawls bow.

I have puzzled at length as to how the 28ft. whalers were launched. If they were swung out from their stowed position, they would have had to have been hung from a sling or span to enable them to be swung athwartships after being lifted, in order to pass out abaft the main t'gallant rigging. This could certainly have been done with a tackle from the maintop in conjunction with a similar tackle from the mizen forestay, (which I have shown) and the main yard tackle, which would have finally plumbed overside. It is possible however, that they were worked forward in some way and put over with the forward boat gear. Whatever method was used they must have been quite a handful, for like the yawl, they were more than a quarter of the overall length of the ship'.

The picture I believe removes any doubt about the need for any sort of a rail around the poop deck. It is evident that the davits and mizen rigging provided plenty of protection. In point of fact the little t'gallant forecastle, was probably the most dangerous deck area aboard the Beagle.

The painting shows Beagle having just reduced practically all sail and having pulled up a single reef in her fore tops'l, is now doing likewise to the maintops'l. This it seems was to reduce speed to exactly what FitzRoy wanted without the vessel losing her neat and orderly appearance. Sulivan refers to reefing tops'ls in fine weather, suggesting that this was frequently done for reasons other than the weight of wind.

Beagle's watch on deck was seldom idle, for FitzRoy believed that, not only was morale best sustained by keeping people busy, but that efficiency was maintained through constant practice. To go to all the trouble of putting a single reef in both tops'ls just to run up 6 miles of coast, rather than perhaps just lowering the maintops'l for a while, is typical of the sail adjustments constantly recorded in the log. There is plenty of evidence that Beagle's seamen achieved a high standard in sail handling and were proud of it.

Within three months of FitzRoy first assuming command of the Beagle towards the end of the previous voyage, she was caught in a violent storm. This was the storm in which she filled her then cavernous decks and nearly capsized, bringing home to FitzRoy the weakness in the design of her class. It was during this storm that two men fell from aloft and were drowned. The remorse FitzRoy felt for this loss of two of his men was profound, for being his first command, he felt in some way to blame. Sulivan's references to practices in the Beagle in his notes entitled "Management of Ships Under Sail", suggest that after the first voyage, FitzRoy developed a set of rules governing the techniques to be used in virtually every aspect of handling the vessel and her gear. Clearly these guide lines were aimed at reducing not only the hazards to the vessel, but risks to the men handling her. That, during the five year voyage, much of it in an area boasting some of the most savage weather in the world, no serious accident occurred aboard this tiny vessel, is truly remarkable.

Whenever Beagle "brought up" in those wild regions, she would close reef her tops'ls before furling them, so that if a gale should spring up suddenly making it necessary to "get her anchor", she was already under shortened sail to suit the conditions. The disciplined techniques for reefing the tops'ls safely were adhered to just as strictly in fine weather as in foul and doubtless similar disciplines applied to almost every other activity aloft.

The very nature and enormity of this tiny vessel's lonely assignment, much of it in the tempestuous region of Cape Horn, required a daring and courageous Captain. Seamanlike prudence and daring are almost a contradiction in terms, yet somehow FitzRoy forged these elements together into a display of judgement and seamanship, the equal of which is hard to find. To this must be added his impeccable hydrography and his penetrating advances into the almost unknown science of meteorology and we begin to get a measure of this man.

Return to homepage

Citation: John van Wyhe, editor. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online. (

File last updated 2 July, 2012