The Autobiography of Charles Darwin

Voyage of the ‘Beagle’ – Dec 27, 1831 to Oct 2, 1836

On returning home from my short geological tour in North Wales, I
found a letter from Henslow, informing me that Captain Fitz-Roy
was willing to give up part of his own cabin to any young man who
would volunteer to go with him without pay as naturalist to the
Voyage of the “Beagle”. I have given, as I believe, in my MS.
Journal an account of all the circumstances which then occurred;
I will here only say that I was instantly eager to accept the
offer, but my father strongly objected, adding the words,
fortunate for me, “If you can find any man of common sense who
advises you to go I will give my consent.” So I wrote that
evening and refused the offer. On the next morning I went to
Maer to be ready for September 1st, and, whilst out shooting, my
uncle (Josiah Wedgwood.) sent for me, offering to drive me over
to Shrewsbury and talk with my father, as my uncle thought it
would be wise in me to accept the offer. My father always
maintained that he was one of the most sensible men in the world,
and he at once consented in the kindest manner. I had been
rather extravagant at Cambridge, and to console my father, said,
“that I should be deuced clever to spend more than my allowance
whilst on board the ‘Beagle’;” but he answered with a smile, “But
they tell me you are very clever.”

Next day I started for Cambridge to see Henslow, and thence to
London to see Fitz-Roy, and all was soon arranged. Afterwards,
on becoming very intimate with Fitz-Roy, I heard that I had run a
very narrow risk of being rejected, on account of the shape of my
nose! He was an ardent disciple of Lavater, and was convinced
that he could judge of a man’s character by the outline of his
features; and he doubted whether any one with my nose could
possess sufficient energy and determination for the voyage. But
I think he was afterwards well satisfied that my nose had spoken

Fitz-Roy’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. He would undertake any sort of trouble to
assist those whom he thought deserved assistance. He was a
handsome man, strikingly like a gentleman, with highly courteous
manners, which resembled those of his maternal uncle, the famous
Lord Castlereagh, as I was told by the Minister at Rio.
Nevertheless he must have inherited much in his appearance from
Charles II., for Dr. Wallich gave me a collection of photographs
which he had made, and I was struck with the resemblance of one
to Fitz-Roy; and on looking at the name, I found it Ch. E.
Sobieski Stuart, Count d’Albanie, a descendant of the same

Fitz-Roy’s temper was a most unfortunate one. It was usually
worst in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could
generally detect something amiss about the ship, and was then
unsparing in his blame. He was very kind to me, but was a man
very difficult to live with on the intimate terms which
necessarily followed from our messing by ourselves in the same
cabin. We had several quarrels; for instance, early in the
voyage at Bahia, in Brazil, he defended and praised slavery,
which I abominated, and told me that he had just visited a great
slave-owner, who had called up many of his slaves and asked them
whether they were happy, and whether they wished to be free, and
all answered “No.” I then asked him, perhaps with a sneer,
whether he thought that the answer of slaves in the presence of
their master was worth anything? This made him excessively
angry, and he said that as I doubted his word we could not live
any longer together. I thought that I should have been compelled
to leave the ship; but as soon as the news spread, which it did
quickly, as the captain sent for the first lieutenant to assuage
his anger by abusing me, I was deeply gratified by receiving an
invitation from all the gun-room officers to mess with them. But
after a few hours Fitz-Roy 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 voyage of the “Beagle” has been by far the most important
event in my life, and has determined my whole career; yet it
depended on so small a circumstance as my uncle offering to drive
me thirty miles to Shrewsbury, which few uncles would have done,
and on such a trifle as the shape of my nose. I have always felt
that I owe to the voyage the first real training or education of
my mind; I was led to attend closely to several branches of
natural history, and thus my powers of observation were improved,
though they were always fairly developed.

The investigation of the geology of all the places visited was
far more important, as reasoning here comes into play. On first
examining a new district nothing can appear more hopeless than
the chaos of rocks; but by recording the stratification and
nature of the rocks and fossils at many points, always reasoning
and predicting what will be found elsewhere, light soon begins to
dawn on the district, and the structure of the whole becomes more
or less intelligible. I had brought with me the first volume of
Lyell’s ‘Principles of Geology,’ which I studied attentively; and
the book was of the highest service to me in many ways. The very
first place which I examined, namely St. Jago in the Cape de
Verde islands, showed me clearly the wonderful superiority of
Lyell’s manner of treating geology, compared with that of any
other author, whose works I had with me or ever afterwards read.

Another of my occupations was collecting animals of all classes,
briefly describing and roughly dissecting many of the marine
ones; but from not being able to draw, and from not having
sufficient anatomical knowledge, a great pile of MS. which I made
during the voyage has proved almost useless. I thus lost much
time, with the exception of that spent in acquiring some
knowledge of the Crustaceans, as this was of service when in
after years I undertook a monograph of the Cirripedia.

During some part of the day I wrote my Journal, and took much
pains in describing carefully and vividly all that I had seen;
and this was good practice. My Journal served also, in part, as
letters to my home, and portions were sent to England whenever
there was an opportunity.

The above various special studies were, however, of no importance
compared with the habit of energetic industry and of concentrated
attention to whatever I was engaged in, which I then acquired.
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.

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Looking backwards, I can now perceive how my love for science
gradually preponderated over every other taste. During the first
two years my old passion for shooting survived in nearly full
force, and I shot myself all the birds and animals for my
collection; but gradually I gave up my gun more and more, and
finally altogether, to my servant, as shooting interfered with my
work, more especially with making out the geological structure of
a country. I discovered, though unconsciously and insensibly,
that the pleasure of observing and reasoning was a much higher
one than that of skill and sport. That my mind became developed
through my pursuits during the voyage is rendered probable by a
remark made by my father, who was the most acute observer whom I
ever saw, of a sceptical disposition, and far from being a
believer in phrenology; for on first seeing me after the voyage,
he turned round to my sisters, and exclaimed, “Why, the shape of
his head is quite altered.”

To return to the voyage. On September 11th (1831), I paid a
flying visit with Fitz-Roy to the “Beagle” at Plymouth. Thence
to Shrewsbury to wish my father and sisters a long farewell. On
October 24th I took up my residence at Plymouth, and remained
there until December 27th, when the “Beagle” finally left the
shores of England for her circumnavigation of the world. We made
two earlier attempts to sail, but were driven back each time by
heavy gales. These two months at Plymouth were the most
miserable which I ever spent, though I exerted myself in various
ways. I was out of spirits at the thought of leaving all my
family and friends for so long a time, and the weather seemed to
me inexpressibly gloomy. I was also troubled with palpitation
and pain about the heart, and like many a young ignorant man,
especially one with a smattering of medical knowledge, was
convinced that I had heart disease. I did not consult any
doctor, as I fully expected to hear the verdict that I was not
fit for the voyage, and I was resolved to go at all hazards.

I need not here refer to the events of the voyage–where we went
and what we did–as I have given a sufficiently full account in
my published Journal. The glories of the vegetation of the
Tropics rise before my mind at the present time more vividly than
anything else; though the sense of sublimity, which the great
deserts of Patagonia and the forest-clad mountains of Tierra del
Fuego excited in me, has left an indelible impression on my mind.
The sight of a naked savage in his native land is an event which
can never be forgotten. Many of my excursions on horseback
through wild countries, or in the boats, some of which lasted
several weeks, were deeply interesting: their discomfort and
some degree of danger were at that time hardly a drawback, and
none at all afterwards. I also reflect with high satisfaction on
some of my scientific work, such as solving the problem of coral
islands, and making out the geological structure of certain
islands, for instance, St. Helena. Nor must I pass over the
discovery of the singular relations of the animals and plants
inhabiting the several islands of the Galapagos archipelago, and
of all of them to the inhabitants of South America.

As far as I can judge of myself, I worked to the utmost during
the voyage from the mere pleasure of investigation, and from my
strong desire to add a few facts to the great mass of facts in
Natural Science. But I was also ambitious to take a fair place
among scientific men,–whether more ambitious or less so than
most of my fellow-workers, I can form no opinion.

The geology of St. Jago is very striking, yet simple: a stream
of lava formerly flowed over the bed of the sea, formed of
triturated recent shells and corals, which it has baked into a
hard white rock. Since then the whole island has been upheaved.
But the line of white rock revealed to me a new and important
fact, namely, that there had been afterwards subsidence round the
craters, which had since been in action, and had poured forth
lava. It then first dawned on me that I might perhaps write a
book on the geology of the various countries visited, and this
made me thrill with delight. 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, a few strange
desert plants growing near, and with living corals in the tidal
pools at my feet. Later in the voyage, Fitz-Roy asked me to read
some of my Journal, and declared it would be worth publishing; so
here was a second book in prospect!

Towards the close of our voyage I received a letter whilst at
Ascension, in which my sisters told me that Sedgwick had called
on my father, and said that I should take a place among the
leading scientific men. I could not at the time understand how
he could have learnt anything of my proceedings, but I heard (I
believe afterwards) that Henslow had read some of the letters
which I wrote to him before the Philosophical Society of
Cambridge (Read at the meeting held November 16, 1835, and
printed in a pamphlet of 31 pages for distribution among the
members of the Society.), and had printed them for private
distribution. My collection of fossil bones, which had been sent
to Henslow, also excited considerable attention amongst
palaeontologists. After reading this letter, I clambered over
the mountains of Ascension with a bounding step, and made the
volcanic rocks resound under my geological hammer. All this
shows how ambitious I was; but I think that I can say with truth
that in after years, though I cared in the highest degree for the
approbation of such men as Lyell and Hooker, who were my friends,
I did not care much about the general public. I do not mean to
say that a favourable review or a large sale of my books did not
please me greatly, but the pleasure was a fleeting one, and I am
sure that I have never turned one inch out of my course to gain

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