RECORD: Darwin, Francis. 1912. FitzRoy and Darwin, 1831-36. Nature 88 (12 February): 547-8.

REVISION HISTORY: Scanned, OCRed and corrected by John van Wyhe 8.2007. RN1

[page] 547

FitzRoy and Darwin, 1831-36.

DARWIN'S "Naturalist's Voyage" is the principal record of a period of the greatest importance to him personally and to the world at large. There is also much interesting matter in the accounts of the voyage given in "The Life and Letters"1 and in "More Letters." In his "Autobiography"2 Darwin gives his impressions of FitzRoy; thus, he wrote:—

"FitzRoy's character was a singular one, with very many noble features: he was devoted to his duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, and indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway." After going on to say something of FitzRoy's unfortunate temper and of one of the rare quarrels that occurred between them, he goes on:—"But after a few hours FitzRoy showed his usual magnanimity by sending an officer to me with an apology and a request that I would continue to live with him. His character was in several respects one of the most noble which I have ever known."

The interest of the following extracts is that they give the other side of the picture—that is, they supply us with FitzRoy's impressions of Darwin written in 1831-6. I am much indebted to the Hydrographer, Admiral Purey-Cust, for directing my attention to the existence of the references to my father in the correspondence of FitzRoy with the hydrographer of his day, and for allowing me to see copies of them. These the Lords of the Admiralty have been good enough to permit me to publish. In FitzRoy's "Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle," ii., p. 39, he states that he was directed to transmit reports from time to time, so that if "any disaster should happen to the Beagle, the fruits of the expedition should not be altogether lost." He was also directed to keep up a detailed correspondence with the hydrographer (Captain Beaufort), who, as it happens, was a personal friend.

No. 1. September 5, 1831.

"I have seen a good deal of Mr. Darwin, to-day having had nearly two hours' conversation in the morning and having since dined with him.

"I like what I see and hear of him, much, and I now request that you will apply for him to accompany me as a Naturalist. I can and will make him comfortable on board, more so perhaps than you or he would expect, and I will contrive to stow away his goods and chattels of all kinds and give him a place for a workshop.

"Upon consideration, I feel confident that he will have a much wider field for his exertions than I was inclined to anticipate on Friday last; and should we even be disappointed, by giving me the means of discharging him from the Books, he might at any time return to England or follow his own inclinations in South America or elsewhere."

On September 5, 1831, Darwin3 had practically given up all hopes of the voyage, having seen an unfavourable letter from FitzRoy to Wood, who was a sort of intermediary between him and Darwin. It scarcely seemed worth his while to come to town, "but here I am . . . Captain FitzRoy is in town and I have seen him. It is no use attempting to praise him as much as I feel inclined to do, for you would not believe me." It appears from Darwin's letter4 of September 9, 1831, that FitzRoy had confessed that the unfavourable letter to Wood was meant to throw cold water on Darwin's candidature; "he seems to have taken a sudden horror of the chances of having somebody he should not like on board the vessel." The more cheerful view as to a "wider field for his [C. D.'s] exertions" is presumably the official reflection of his favourable view of C. D. as a future shipmate. It is only fair to FitzRoy to remember that up to September 5 he was hampered by a friend who proposed to accompany him,5 and that it was only on that day that FitzRoy heard that the friend could not come.

No. 2. September 12 [Monday], 1831. Spithead.

''I like what I see of Mr. Darwin very much. He will do well, I think—you are aware, I believe, that he is now with me on his way to see the Beagle and get an idea of the square inches he will be allowed."

In " Life and Letters," i, p. 211, Darwin says:—"I shall go on Sunday [September II] per packet to Plymouth."

With regard to the "square inches," Darwin wrote,6 September 19, 1831:—"My objection to the vessel is its smallness, which cramps one so for room for packing my own body and all my cases, &c, &c"

No. 3. September 15, 1831.

"He [Darwin], Captain King and I now think that it would be better in many respects, that he should not be on the Books, but that he should go out in a strictly private capacity. I am, however, equally ready to receive him in either manner, and I have recommended his asking which plan meets your approbation.

P.S.—He has seen his future dwelling and is satisfied with it.''

At this date Darwin certainly believed himself to be on the books, as he wrote 7 (September 9, 1831):— "Captain Beaufort says I am on the Books for victuals"; and this arrangement was adhered to.

FitzRoy8 speaks of obtaining the services as naturalist of "Mr. Charles Darwin, a grandson of Dr. Darwin the poet, a young man of promising ability, extremely fond of geology, and indeed all branches of natural history." An order was "given by the Admiralty that he should be borne on the ship's books for provisions. The conditions asked by Mr. Darwin were that he should be at liberty to leave the Beagle and retire from the Expedition when he thought proper, and that he should pay a fair share of the expenses of my table."

No. 4. November 19, 1831.

"Messrs. Earle9 and Darwin are the very men, of all others, for their employment, and I assure you that Darwin has not yet shown one trait which has made me feel other than glad when I reflect how much we shall be together." When this was written Darwin was expecting to sail10 on November 30, but a series of gales prevented this, and it was not until the Beagle had twice been driven back to Plymouth that finally, in a dead calm, "we warped from our sheltered and picturesque retreat in Barn-pool"11 and made a real start on December 27.

Darwin12 had been living at Plymouth from October 24, and in a very low state of spirits, convinced that he had heart disease, but determined not to consult a doctor, lest he should be declared unfit for the voyage. It is to his credit that he was able to conceal his depressions from his leader, FitzRoy.

No. 5. March 5, 1832. Bahia.

"Darwin is a very sensible, hard-working man and a very pleasant messmate. I never saw a 'shore-going fellow' come into the ways of a ship so soon and so thoroughly as Darwin. I cannot give a stronger proof of his good sense and disposition than by saying 'Everyone respects and likes him.'" It is pleasant to find that what FitzRoy could say of Darwin after a few months' experience was substantially repeated by his other shipmates after five years' knowledge of his character. Thus, for instance, Admiral Mellersh, who was mate on board the Beagle, wrote:—"I think he was the only man I ever knew against whom I never heard a word said; and as people when shut up in a ship for five years are apt to get cross with each other, that is saying a good deal."13

1 In these footnotes the "Naturalist's Voyage" (edit, 1860) will be referred to as N. V., "The Life and Letters" as L. and L.. "More Letters" as M. L, FitzRoy's ''Voyages of the Adventure and Beagle" 1839, as V. A. and B.

2 L. and L., i., p. 60.

3 L. and L., i., p. 101.

4 L. and L., i., p. 208.

5 L. and L., i., p. 201.

6 L. and L., i., p. 212.

7 L. and L,., i., p. 207.

8 V. A. and B., vol. ii., p. 18.

9 Mr. Augustus Earle was an artist privately engaged by FitzRoy. He was in bad health and resigned in the summer of 1832. (V. A. and. B., ii., p 20 )

10 L. and L., i., p. 214.

11 V. A.; and B., ii., p. 42.

12 L. and L., i., p. 64.

13 L. and L., i., p. 222.

[page] 548

No. 5, continued.

FitzRoy goes on:—"He was terribly sick until we passed Teneriffe, and I sometimes doubted his fortitude holding out against such a beginning of the campaign. However, he was no sooner on his legs than anxious to set to work, and a child with a new toy could not have been more delighted than he was with St. Jago. It was odd to hear him say, after we left Porto Praya, 'Well, I am glad we are quietly at sea again, for I shall be able to arrange my collections and set to work more methodically.' He was sadly disappointed by not landing at Teneriffe and not seeing Madeira, but there was no alternative."

Darwin had written to his sister14:—"I daresay you expect I shall turn back at Madeira; if I have a morsel of stomach left I won't give up." With regard to this part of his voyage, he wrote in 1846:—"Farewell, dear FitzRoy, I often think of your many acts of kindness to me, and not seldomest on the time, no doubt quite forgotten by you, when before making Madeira, you came and arranged my hammock with your own hands, and which, as I afterwards heard, brought tears into my father's eyes."15

It was at St. Jago, in the Cape de Verd Islands, that his career as a discoverer in geology began. He wrote in his "Autobiography"16:—"That was a memorable hour to me, and how distinctly I can call to mind the low cliff of lava beneath which I rested, with the sun glaring hot, and a few strange desert plants growing near, and with living corals in the tidal pools at my feet."

No. 6. March 4, 1832. Bahia. (Official letter to the hydrographer, extract from.)

"Mr. Darwin has found abundant occupation already, both at sea and on shore; he has obtained numbers of curious though small inhabitants of the ocean, by means of a Net made of Bunting, which might be called a floating or surface Trawl, as well as by searching the shores and the Land. In Geology he has met with far much more interesting employment in Porto Praya than he had at all anticipated. From the manner in which he pursues his occupation, his good sense, inquiring disposition, and regular habits, I am certain that you will have good reason to feel much satisfaction in the reflection that such a person is on board the Beagle, and the certainty that he is taking the greatest pains to make the most of time and opportunity."

The Beagle reached Bahia on February 29, 1832. Darwin writes17:—"The day has passed delightfully. Delight itself, however, is a weak term to express the feelings of a naturalist who, for the first time, has wandered by himself in a Brazilian forest." At Bahia, too, he began his speculations on the geology of South America (loc. cit., p. 12).

Porto Praya is in St. Jago, already referred to in No. 5.

No. 7. April 28, 1832. Rio de Janeiro.

"Darwin is a regular Trump." On May 18, 1832, Darwin wrote18:—"The Captain does everything in his power to assist me, and we get on very well"; and again, "I am very good friends with all the officers."

No. 8. August 15, 1832. Monte Video.

"Mr. Darwin is a very superior young man, and the very best (as far as I can judge) that could have been selected for the task. He has a mixture of necessary qualities which makes him feel at home, and happy, and makes everyone his friend.

By this Packet, the Emulous, he sends his first collection to the care of Prof. Henslow, at Cambridge, there to await his return to England. I fancy that, though of small things, it is numerous and valuable, and will convince the Cantabrigians that their envoy is no Idler."

The letter with which he sent the first of his collection to Henslow is published in "More Letters of Charles Darwin." i., p. 10. Apparently it was not until July, 1834, that he received Henslow's encouraging remarks about his collections.19

No. 9. August 14, 1834. Valparaiso.

"My messmate Darwin is now roaming amongst the Andes—he left me a week ago, intending to wander until the end of September."

No. 10. November 3, 1834.

"Mr. Darwin has been ill, as well as myself, though from a different cause."

Darwin20 started on a "riding excursion" on August 14, 1834. On his way back he fell ill (September 20), and reached Valparaiso "with great difficulty" on September 27. He was kindly nursed back to health in the house of an old schoolfellow, Mr. Corfield. His father (Dr. Darwin) was apparently puzzled by Charles Darwin's description of the illness, and was unable to identify it. In later life Darwin was sometimes inclined to attribute his own breakdown in health to this South American attack. But when we remember the ill-health of his brother Erasmus there is no need to seek for any cause beyond a hereditary taint.

No. 11. January 26, 1836. Port Jackson.

"My messmate Mr. Darwin is so much the worse for a long voyage that I am most anxious to hasten as much as possible. Others are ailing and much require that rest which can only be obtained at home."

The return home was nevertheless delayed by the necessity of clearing up "some singular disagreements in the longitudes." Darwin21 wrote:—"This zigzag manner of proceeding is very grievous; it has put the finishing touch to my feelings. I loathe, I abhor the sea and all ships which sail on it.'"

The most interesting point about No. 11 is Captain FitzRoy's statement about the poor state of Darwin's health. I was quite unprepared for such a statement, and it seems probable that it was the beginning of the general breakdown in health which began so soon after his return to England.

No. 12. February 3, 1836. At sea.

"My messmate Mr. Darwin is now pretty well; but he is a martyr to confinement and sea-sickness when under way."

No. 13. May 3, 1836. Mauritius.

"I think you will allow, at a future day, that my mess-mate Darwin has well earned his stowage and provisions. Though still a martyr to sea-sickness, he recovers at the sight of land, and if the weather is not very bad, does a good deal at sea, in the thinking and writing way."

FitzRoy's statement as to the amount of suffering which Darwin went through from sea-sickness quite confirms the recollections of other officers.22 In after life he seems to me to have forgotten how much he suffered.

When he was safe home and settled in London he wrote to FitzRoy23:—"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." In the preface to the "Naturalist's Voyage" he wrote:—"As I feel that the opportunities which I enjoyed of studying the Natural History of the different countries we visited have been wholly due to Captain FitzRoy, I hope I may here be permitted to repeat my expression of gratitude to him, and to add that during the five years we were together I received from him the most cordial friendship and steady assistance."

The children of Charles Darwin learned from his stories a friendly feeling for those unknown companions of his travels. And I think we also learned from him to respect sailors and to agree with Fielding that "in their own element, there are no persons, near the level of their degree, who live in the constant practice of half so many good qualities."


February 18, 1912.

14 L. and L., i , p. 207.

15 L. and L., i., p. 332.

16 L. and L., i., p. 66.

17 N. V , p. 11.

18 L. and L., i., p. 237.

19 M. L., i., p. 14.

20 N. V., pp. 254, 269.

21 L. and L., i., p. 265.

22 L. and L., i., 224.

23 L. and L., i., 226.

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