Darwin’s voyage aboard the Beagle

HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836.

HMS Beagle in the seaways of Tierra del Fuego, by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle, 1831-1836.

In 1859, the English naturalist Charles Darwin published his most famous work, On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection. This work carried a subtitle: Or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life. To me, this subtitle adds dimension to Darwin’s work, because it implies that human beings exist on the continuum of evolution. The subtitle also situates Darwin’s theory of evolution within a context of struggle. The struggle for survival is harsh and unforgiving, and it is the driving force behind all life on earth.

Darwin’s controversial theory of evolution did not appear overnight. Fifteen years passed from the time he started writing to the date of publication. Perhaps the most formulative of all Darwin’s experiences occurred in his youth, at the age of 22. In 1831, he embarked on a five-year surveying mission aboard the HMS Beagle – a journey which would take him across South America and the Pacific. It was the one and only time he would ever leave England. Much of what he collected and observed on this voyage lay the foundation for his groundbreaking ideas.

"Fragments of the lower jaw and teeth of a taxodon", taken as a specimen by Darwin. From John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online.

“Fragments of the lower jaw and teeth of a taxodon”, Beagle specimen drawing by Darwin. Image courtesy of John van Wyhe, ed. 2002-. The Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online.

Darwin’s writings from aboard the Beagle were published in 1839, and they are among the best of all 19th-century naturalist surveys. The level of detail and depth in Darwin’s observations reveal a passionate enthusiasm for scientific endeavor. Naturalism had been a hobby for Darwin throughout his early life, but his experience aboard the Beagle helped him to realize his future in science. Every theory had to be backed up by meticulous study and rigorous observation. The voyage of the Beagle afforded him the opportunity to do just that. On the Origin of Species (1859) is the product of years spent reading, researching, and building upon existing theories about the natural world. It is also the result of a personal transformation that took place while aboard the Beagle.

Charles Darwin (1840)

Watercolor of Charles Darwin by George Richmond in 1840, one year after the publication of his Beagle writings.

Thoughts on Slavery

What did Darwin think about the human race and the nature of man? The island worlds that Darwin encountered on his voyage were firmly established colonies of the Empire. At the time of Darwin’s visit in 1836, for example, Australia had been receiving convicts from England for almost fifty years.

Amidst descriptions of prosperous Sydney and the trees of the Blue Mountains, we catch a fleeting glimpse of the indigenous population in colonial Australia:

The number of aboriginies is rapidly decreasing… This decrease, no doubt, must be partly owing to the introduction of spirits, to European diseases (even the milder ones of which, as the measles, prove very destructive), and to the gradual extinction of the wild animals.

Darwin noticed an epidemiological correlation between the native populations of Australia and South America. He wrote about the devastating effects of European diseases brought by settlers on both continents. This, of course, is just one of the ways in which colonization irreperably harmed native populations around the world. But Darwin’s voice in this quote remains detached and clinical. He focuses squarely on the apolitical.

In South America however, we read a very different Darwin. He witnesses first-hand immense cruelty shown towards slaves in Brazil, acts he describes as “heart-sickening atrocities”. Slavery disgusted Darwin so much so that he vowed to “never again visit a slave-country”. After seeing instruments of torture and the remnants of slave rebellions, the young Darwin reflected sorely upon what he had seen:

And these deeds are done and palliated by men, who profess to love their neighbours as themselves, who believe in God, and pray that his Will be done on earth! It makes one’s blood boil, yet heart tremble, to think that we Englishmen and our American descendants, with their boastful cry of liberty, have been and are so guilty.

Here, we see the politics of slavery emerging in Darwin’s early work. At the time of On the Origin of Species‘ publication, he must have known that his theories and observations would have political ramifications. Darwin came from a family of progressive liberals, and members of his extended family were well-known abolitionists. Throughout the Beagle’s voyage, the issue of slavery was a point of contention between Darwin and the captain of the HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy. Some historians believe that Darwin’s abolitionist background would later play an important role in the development of his theory of evolution.

One of the major impacts of Darwin’s theory of evolution is that it undermined the slavery argument completely. If men of all races descended from a single ancestor, slave-owners could not reasonably argue that their slaves were a separate, inferior species.

The irony of all this is that after Darwin’s death in 1873, advocates of his theory such as the philosopher Herbert Spencer would appropriate his argument to give rise to the idea of Social Darwinism. Darwin would have vehemently opposed this construct. The idea that “survival of the fittest” permits one race to lord over weaker, poorer races would have seemed to him absurd. Social Darwinist theories would later perpetuate the very horrors of colonialism that so appalled Darwin on his voyage around the world.

Map of Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle

Darwin’s voyage lasted five years and took him all around the world. Image from the 1890 John Murray illustrated edition of “The Voyage of the Beagle”.

Explore Darwin Online

By far the most comprehensive collection of Darwin materials can be found at Darwin Online. This excellent resource provides readers with free access to all of Darwin’s original publications, including On the Origin of Species, The Voyage of the Beagle, and his many private papers and manuscripts. The Links section of the site pulls together all of the best online resources available on Darwin worldwide.

To better understand Darwin’s ideas about the origins of man specifically, I recommend The Descent of Man, and Selection in Relation to Sex (1871).