In the early part of the nineteenth century, the Royal Navy employed some of its ships to make accurate maps of shores and shoals around the world, to make the dangerous profession of seafaring safer. HMS Beagle was built at Woolwich on the River Thames and was converted into a hydrological survey ship in 1825. It was sent in 1828 under the command of Captain Stokes to survey the dangerous coasts of southern South America. The importance of this desolate area was that it provided the only shipping route joining the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans.
Sadly, Captain Stokes became very depressed and shot himself, and command was taken by Robert FitzRoy. Captain FitzRoy sailed north up the coast of Chile surveying and back south to Tierra del Fuego. Here he discovered the Beagle Channel, which enabled small ships to pass between the two great oceans while avoiding the terrible seas off Cape Horn.
In 1831, a second surveying voyage was planned for HMS Beagle, again with FitzRoy as Captain. He felt that the ship needed a scientist who could assess the land while he and his crew carried out the hydrological mapping. So he looked for a “gentleman companion” with whom he could discuss these scientific matters over the dinner table. FitzRoy was certainly conscious of the dangers of loneliness for naval captains, such as had led to the suicide of Captain Stokes a couple of years earlier. He knew that he himself was subject to fits of depression and was fearful of its consequences.
To find a suitable gentleman scientist, FitzRoy turned to his old friends at Cambridge University. A number of distinguished names were discussed, including Professor John Henslow, but none of them could contemplate leaving their responsibilities for the two year trip. Henslow, however, had great faith in the all-round abilities of his pupil Charles Darwin and recommended him to FitzRoy as the ideal person to undertake the voyage.
HMS Beagle sailed from Plymouth on 27 December 1831 bound for South America and home via the East Indies. The voyage was greatly extended from its proposed two years and the Beagle eventually returned to England in May 1836. During the voyage, Darwin spent the majority of his time studying geology as FitzRoy had intended, and in this he took great delight. But he also observed and collected animals and plants everywhere.
Darwin sent all his specimens – rocks, fossils, animals and plants - back to Henslow at Cambridge in big chests, whenever he had the opportunity. Henslow looked after them all, awaiting Darwin’s return and also prepared herbarium sheets of all the plants. These were a gift for Henslow and most have remained in Cambridge ever since.