Darwin’s Voyage of Discovery
To say that Darwin’s journey aboard the Beagle and time spent at sea was not life-changing would be an understatement. In 1831 – at the age of 22 – Charles Darwin was given the opportunity of travelling aboard a survey ship, HMS Beagle, as a naturalist. It was a round the world journey that took in several continents and equipped the young Darwin with a fundamental knowledge of geology and biology, as well as information on various animal species that would later prove extremely important when developing his theory of evolution.
‘The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life, and has determined my whole career. Everything about which I thought or read was made to bear directly on what I had seen or was likely to see; and this habit of mind was continued during the five years of the voyage. I feel sure that it was this training which has enabled me to do whatever I have done in science.’ - The life and letters of Charles Darwin, 1887
During his five year journey, Darwin filled countless note books and ledgers with an abundance of information and facts on the various animal and plant life that he picked up on his travels, shipping home more than 1,500 different species in the process.
Darwin was also able to make many important geological findings and notes on the effects of erosion, earthquakes and volcanoes. In an age when sea travel was both exciting, exotic and highly dangerous, sailing in a small Navy brig, the journey aboard the Beagle was a true voyage of discovery for the budding young naturalist, as he travelled from England to South America, into the Pacific Ocean and the Galapagos Islands, before returning via Australia, Mauritius and South Africa.
The Beagle & Journey
The Beagle was a Royal Navy brig just 27 metres (90 feet) long, yet it circumnavigated the world in just less than five years. On board were 74 people, countless provisions, supplies and 22 clocks, all stored in very small quarters.
The passage the Beagle took on leaving England was a popular route taken by ships in the nineteenth century. From England, the Beagle sailed south towards the Cape Verde Islands off Africa’s western coast, before heading West across the Atlantic to what is now Brazil. Moving down the coast the Beagle then surveyed the coast of modern day Argentina and the Falkland Islands before rounding Cape Horn – the southern tip of Latin America – and following the Pacific coast of Latin America north before reaching the Galapagos Islands. From the Galapagos, Darwin’s journey then took him right across the Pacific Ocean to Sydney, Australia, before moving onwards, once again, to Mauritius in the Indian Ocean and then Cape Town, South Africa. From Cape Town the Beagle then crossed the Atlantic once again, touching the Brazilian coast, before finally, after nearly five years at sea, making its way back to Britain. Although Darwin never stopped there – the place did not exist at the time of his journey - Darwin in north Australia was named after Charles Darwin by his former shipmate John Lort Stokes, who was on the Beagle’s next voyage.
Even today, a sea voyage of this length and distance would not be without risks, but it is worth remembering that Australia and much of the Pacific Islands, as well as New Zealand, were only discovered and accurately mapped by Captain Cook just over sixty years before Darwin undertook his journey. Sixty years on, there were still plenty of wild and unknown places for an enquiring naturalist to explore in the world.
Although the Beagle and even Darwin to some extent are now inextricably linked with the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean, for most of the five year expedition the Beagle actually spent the majority of its time surveying the Southern Coast of what is today Argentina and Chile. It was in Latin America where Darwin made many of his most important discoveries that had a lasting influence on his future work and evolutionary theory.
In Brazil, Darwin first experienced the rainforest; collecting samples and making meticulous field notes to send back home. Further south, in what is now Argentina, and also on the bleakly desolate Falkland Islands, Darwin was able to find countless fossils and geological findings.
Later in the journey when the Beagle was surveying the coast of Chile, Darwin explored extensively Chiloé Island. After Tierra del Fuego, Chiloe is the largest island in South America. From north to south it measures 112 miles.
Interestingly, because of its geographical location and because the coastal mountains cross its entire length, Chiloé has two completely different environments. The Pacific facing side of the island is very damp with heavy rainfall and high winds to create an environment rich with vegetation. The continent facing side of the island is protected by the mountains and has a unique micro-climate that has supported native life for centuries. It was while exploring Chiloé Island that Darwin witnessed the volcanic eruption of Mount Osomo, something which increased his understanding of the earth’s geology.
The Galapagos Islands
Straddling the equator and approximately 600 miles to the West of the Latin American continent in the Pacific Ocean, the Galapagos archipelago has been described as one of the most unique, scientifically important, and biologically outstanding areas on the planet. Today, the Galapagos are a popular destination with naturalists and wildlife tourists. The Galapagos had a profound affect on Charles Darwin, where he was able to witness first hand the effects of evolution in isolation. Somewhat surprisingly however, on a journey that lasted nearly five years, many Darwin fans might be surprised to learn that the Beagle spent only five weeks on the Galapagos. Made up of lots of small islands, Darwin landed at only four of the islands on the archipelago: San Cristobal, Floreana, Santiago, and Isabela. It was the numerous differences between the animals, flora and fauna on each island that caused such a sensation to Darwin and helped him prove his theory. He wrote at the time ‘…the circumstance that several of the islands possess their own species of tortoise, mocking-thrush, finches, and numerous plants, these species having the same general habits, occupying analogous situations, and obviously filling the same place in the natural economy of this archipelago, that strikes me with wonder.’