Eight Reasons Darwin Almost Didn’t Board the HMS Beagle

The HMS Beagle

For Charles Darwin, it was an invitation from his former Cambridge mentor J.S. Henslow that would change his life. Up until that time, Darwin had been given nothing more than what his uncle Josiah Wedgwood described as “an enlarged curiosity,” a phrase that may or may not have been a jab at his inability to fit in with society.

The invitation was nothing short of mind-altering. Henslow had been asked by one John Peacock to fill a position as a naturalist on a boat called the HMS Beagle. Darwin had already displayed a massive interest in animal life throughout childhood, but he hardly had any definitive qualifications. This opportunity came because of the connections he made at Cambridge, plain and simple. As Henslow stated in his letter: “Don’t put on any modest doubts or fears about your disqualifications for I assure you I think you are the very man they are in search of.”

If I could ever believe a jaw actually dropped while reading a letter, this would be the moment. I imagine a young Darwin pacing back and forth in his room, blown away, imagining all the places he would see. Henslow wrote that the trip would be for two years (in truth it lasted five). As soon as the euphoria at the idea of traveling around the entire globe faded, what remained was Darwin’s physician father, and a water bucket of reality. He needed Dr. Darwin’s approval, yes, but he also needed his money.

After telling his father of the trip, young Darwin was given a descriptive rejection. His father had eight reasons why getting on the HMS Beagle was a bad idea. Extracted from a letter written at the end of August, 1831, they were:

  1.  The trip would be disreputable to Charles’s character as a clergyman;
  2.   The trip could be nothing more than a wild scheme;
  3.  The crew must have offered the position of naturalist to many others before Charles [ouch];
  4.  Since no one had accepted the position, there must be something seriously wrong with the vessel or expedition;
  5.  The journey would cause Charles to never settle down to a steady life;
  6.  His accommodations on the HMS Beagle would be most uncomfortable;
  7.  If Charles accepted the naturalist position, he would once again be changing his profession;
  8.  And finally, the trip could very well be a useless undertaking.

In fact, Dr. Darwin’s eight reasons had been so convincing to Charles that his son surrendered all hope. He declined, overwhelmed by his father’s logic.

Here are twenty-two year old Charles’s words in a response to Henslow’s letter. As you read, push past the almost suffocating Victorian politeness and watch how his boiling frustration drips from his voice in the form of commas and dashes:

As far as my own mind is concerned, I should think, certainly most gladly have accepted the opportunity, which you so kindly have offered me. —But my Father, although he does not decidedly refuse me, gives such strong advice against going,—that I should not be comfortable, if I did not follow it…Even if I was to go, my Father disliking would take away all energy, & I should want a good stock of that.

The act of writing this letter must have been torturous. Having finished and sent it off, Darwin then went shooting in Maer with his uncle, hoping to blow off some steam.

In truth, Darwin did have a history of screwing around without a clearly defined purpose. When he was fifteen, Dr. Darwin bluntly explained to his son what he thought of his character: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

Even at Edinburgh University, Charles could not stay on the path he was told to walk down. His father wanted him to be a doctor, but instead, according to several sources, he spent most of his time with the “card-playing and drinking set.”

His interest in studying at a low, his father pulled him out of Edinburgh and urged him to study Latin and Greek so that he could commit himself to the church, join Cambridge University, and start a secure life as a clergyman.

There was just one minor obstacle: Darwin, even at that age, was deeply suspicious of the Church. Even with his reservations, Darwin stuck it out and completed his studies. The life of a clergyman had one very useful perk for Charles: free time. More importantly, Charles had enough of a chance to daydream about an expedition around the globe. Henslow’s offer was his chance, but his father had rationalized it to death. His only hope lay with his uncle, Josiah Wedgwood.

Perhaps intentionally, Dr. Darwin had left the door slightly ajar and told Charles that if Uncle Josiah could see the trip as beneficial, he might reconsider.

During Charles’s visit with his uncle “Jos,” he explained the eight reasons why his father would not let him board the HMS Beagle. His uncle smiled, shaking his head. He couldn’t believe the doctor had left out more obvious risks, such as unbearable loneliness at sea or the fear of…well…death! Perhaps those fears were of the emotional kind. In any event, Uncle Jos could tell that Charles wanted on this ship, badly. So they sat down together and devised a way to convince Dr. Darwin to approve of the idea (and pay for it too).

First, they decided to send two letters at the same time. Charles would write one, showing his father an almost epic level of respect:

I am afraid I am going to make you again very uncomfortable. [I am] not so bent on going, that I would for one single moment hesitate, if you thought, that after a short period, you should continue uncomfortable.

While Charles worked on his letter, his Uncle Jos was summoning the exact voice required to talk to his brother-in-law. How, he must have asked, do I convince one of the most logical men on the planet to let his son travel around the world? It was not an easy letter, that’s for sure. But Uncle Jos knew Dr. Darwin, so while young Charles finished his I-respect-you letter, Uncle Jos decided to match logic with logic. He addressed each of the eight concerns in a manner that would make the strict yet caring doctor satisfied.

Here they are, dusted off a bit and preceded by the original concern:

1) Dr. Darwin: The trip would be disreputable to his character as a clergyman.

Uncle Jos: I disagree. Actually, I think it’s an offer that should be honored. He will be pursuing natural history. It’s not ideal for a clergyman, but quite suitable.

2) Dr. Darwin: The trip could be nothing more than a wild scheme.

Uncle Jos: I simply cannot see where you came up with such an idea. The truth is, he will acquire and strengthen many skills while on the voyage, and develop a habit of applying and practicing those skills. Surely he will do more on the trip than he would here at home for two years.

3) Dr. Darwin: The crew must have offered the position of naturalist to many others before Charles.

Uncle Jos: I reread the letters and cannot find any evidence to support your claim.

4) Dr. Darwin: Since no one had accepted the position, there must be something seriously wrong with the vessel or expedition.

Uncle Jos: I cannot begin to imagine that the admiral would send out a bad vessel for such an enormous trip.

5) Dr. Darwin: This journey will cause Charles to never settle down to a steady life.

Uncle Jos: You know Charles better than I do. If, however, you believe that this trip will make Charles less able to settle down, well, it should be a strong concern. However, don’t sailors, after traveling, end up settling down and desire a quiet life?

6) Dr. Darwin: His accommodations on the HMS Beagle would be most uncomfortable.

Uncle Jos: He’ll be fine. He’ll be a part of the crew. They’ll put him somewhere comfortable. He will have the same rights as everyone else.

7) Dr. Darwin:  If Charles accepted the naturalist position, he would once again be changing his profession.

Uncle Jos: Honestly, from what I can see, Charles isn’t striving toward something professional right now. He’ll learn just as much, if not more, on the expedition.

8) Dr. Darwin: The trip could very well be a useless undertaking.

Uncle Jos: You’re right, it’ll probably be useless for his chosen career. But Charles has a different kind of mind, and this is a chance for him to see new things and people.

On September 1, 1831, around sunrise, they sent off the letters and Charles did his best to breathe normally. During those early morning hours, they went hunting for pheasants, but they were hardly successful. “I shot one partridge,” Charles wrote later. His mind was elsewhere, perhaps on the sea, imagining the sights that seemed so close, yet so far. Pointing his gun at that particular partridge, it’s safe to assume that he felt no real pleasure in his kill. He had clouds for thoughts, doors to unlock.

Uncle Josiah felt for him, and after a few hours of searching for pheasants, he’d had enough. He could wait no longer for his brother-in-law’s decision, so they loaded up the carriage and went straight to Dr. Darwin, to settle the matter in person.

All the tension of that carriage ride, all those put-on-hold daydreams, were released into the air. Dr. Darwin greeted them and announced to them a sentence rare for his character: I’ve changed my mind.

No dream, however, is achieved without struggle, and during the first week of his expedition, Charles Darwin struggled in every sense of the word. Indeed, if one had been on board the HMS Beagle in December 1831, they would have noticed their resident naturalist puking his insides out. Darwin and the sea were fighting, and the sea was winning. “The misery is excessive…it far exceeds what a person would suppose who had never been at sea more than a few days. –I found the only relief to be in a horizontal position.” Charles tried lying in his hammock, but it swung unpredictably. He then tried lying on a nice hard table, but even with its solidity, it was still a table—nothing like his soft bed at home.

His captain, Robert Fitzroy, in between flogging other sailors for drunkenness, disobedience, and insolence, tried to calm Charles’s churning stomach by talking about Jane Austen’s novels, for which both men had an appreciation. But that first week must have been hell for Charles, and Capt. Fitzroy had given up on believing Charles would last the journey: “He was terribly sick, and I sometimes doubted his fortitude holding out against such a beginning of the campaign.”

But Darwin, to everyone’s fortune, hung on. He made as good of friends with the sea as he could. His twenty-two year old body survived, and the Beagle reached the Cape Verde Islands, off the nose of Africa, on January 16, 1832. Forty-five months later, Charles would step onto his home soil a changed man, and twenty-three years after that, on this day in 1859, his On the Origin of Species would be published.

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  • Dan Thompson

    An interesting article. However, please do not use “the” in front of “HMS.” That is saying “the His Majesty’s Ship Beagle” which obviously is an incorrect construction. Of course, it’s perfectly fine to say “the Beagle.”

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