Posted by: Rob Viens | February 9, 2012

A Field Guide to 19th Century Ships of the British Royal Navy

Not more than a day out of port, Darwin’s bane – seasickness – was back.  The only entry on Feb. 9th states:

” Beautiful & calm day, but I could not enjoy it, as to my great indignation I felt squeamish & uncomfortable.” (Feb 9)

I thought about a post of seasickness today, but it just didn’t appeal to me. So I thought this might be a good place to start to get to know the ship that would be Darwin’s home for the next five years.

HMS Beagle, by Captain Owen Stanley:

HMS Beagle

The HMS Beagle was a Cherokee class brig-sloop.  So what does that mean? Let’s break it down:

A “sloop” or “sloop-of-war” was a particular class of ship in the British Royal Navy (BRN).  In the 19th century the BRN was using a rating system for warships that was based on the number of guns the ship carried.  A “first-rate” ship was one that had over 100 guns spread out on three decks, and carried between 800 and 900 men. These “ships of the line”, as they were called, where built to be at the front line of a naval battle. They were part of a naval tactic of the day that was based on the two navies lining up, broadside to broadside, and blasting the heck out of each other until one side defeated the other.  The navy with more broadside guns and heavier/sturdier ships would prevail.

This rating system bottomed out at 6th Rate ships (one type of which were called Frigates).  Sixth rate ships had 20 to 28 guns and carried about 200 men, and because of their smaller size, they were typically not part of the “line”.  Instead they served as escort ships or dispatches.  The BRN rating system did not have a ranking for ships smaller than 6th Rate.  This is where sloops come in.

A sloop-of-war was the term used for any unrated warships – essentially anything with 1 gun deck and 18 or less guns. Sloops typically carried around 100 men, and in general were relatively small vessels. (There were also civilian sloops, but that was something different yet.) A brig-sloop was the name given to a specific type of two-masted sloop-of-war. (That being said, the HMS Beagle was actually re-masted about 5 years after it was launched and actually had three masts.) In the early 1800’s the BRN built a lot of brig-sloops as they were one of the most efficient small ships, needing a relatively small crew and having the ” highest ratio of firepower to tonnage of any ships in the Royal Navy” (Wikipedia). The Beagle was not the first (or last) sloop used for exploration. In fact, the HMS Resolution, captained by James Cook, was also one.

That brings us to the last part of the Beagle’s title – Cherokee class. The Cherokee class brig-sloops were simply a “model” that had 10 guns – that’s it.

The Beagle was part of a large order of Cherokee class ships that was ordered around 1817. It was build in the Royal Dockyards and launched on May 11, 1820. It sat around for a few years, and as mentioned before, in 1825 was refitted with an extra mast to give it extra maneuverability as an exploration vessel. It traveled to South America on its first voyage from 1826 to 1830. After some additional repairs the Beagle left on its second voyage on December 27, 1831. The 90-ft long ship carried a crew of 74 men when it departed Plymouth, including the hero of our story, Charles Darwin.

HMS Beagle in Tierra del Fuego by Conrad Martens during the voyage of the Beagle:

HMS Beagle

Funny how the diary takes me places I never would have though about before – even if they are somewhat tangential to the story. I’ll take a closer look at the Beagle itself in a later post. (RJV)



  1. […] mentioned in an earlier post the HMS Beagle was a Cherokee class brig-sloop (see A Field Guide to 19th Century Ships of the British Royal Navy).  However, it was modified in 1825 and 1831 to make it more maneuverable and a better ship for […]

  2. […] Thetis was a 46 gun 5th-rate Frigate of the Royal Navy (see A Field Guide to 19th Century Ships of the British Royal Navy) captained by Samuel Burgess. The last voyage of Thetis began when it left Rio on December 4th, […]

  3. […] Baker’s flagship on the South American Station. It was a 3rd rate ship of the line (see A Field Guide to 19th Century Ships of the British Royal Navy). A 3rd rate ship by definition has 2 gun decks, 64-80 cannons, and carried 500-650 men – it […]

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