Posted by: Rob Viens | February 27, 2012

HMS Beagle – The Right Ship for the Job

February 27th – On the verge of reaching the New World Darwin simply writes:

“Quietly sailing. tomorrow we shall reach Bahia.” (Feb 27)

Since he has been spending a lot of time on the ship these past few weeks, I thought today might be a good time to describe Darwin’s home – the HMS Beagle. Surprisingly very little primary evidence has survived on the design of the Beagle.  A lot of what is known comes from naval records, but the only record of the interior and deck was a detailed description left by midshipman Phillip Gidley King.  The catch – although his sketches are quite detailed, he described what he remembered in 1897 – 61 years after the voyage ended!

The Beagle being laid ashore for repairs on the Santa Cruz River (engraving by Thomas Landseer):

Beagle being repaired

As 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 surveying.  The major modifications included:

  1. Adding a third mast (the mizzenmast) in the back of the ship (1825) – This provided more maneuverability and made it possible to run the ship with a smaller crew.
  2. Adding a “poop deck” to the back of the ship (1825) – essentially an elevated deck at the stern of the ship.  The added elevation gave someone standing on deck a better view of the ship, and also facilitated navigation and survey work. (For the record, the poop deck is named after the French word for the back of the ship – la poupe.) Since this deck was over 5 feet higher than the original deck, it created a new room at the stern of the ship. This room, which could be called a poop cabin, became the chart room on the Beagle. More on this shortly…
  3. Elevating the deck of the ship by 8-12 inches (1831) – which created more headroom in the mid deck.  This certainly made life more comfortable for the long voyage, and by some accounts, also made the ship a little more stable.

Cross section of the Beagle based on sketches from midshipman Phillip Gidley King:

Beagle cross section

In addition, during the 1831 modifications, Robert FitzRoy (who oversaw the work) worked to make the Beagle one of the most up-to-date survey ships in the fleet..  I’ve never been a fan of the phrase, but it works here, so you might say that he “pimped up” the Beagle. For example, he had much of the exterior of the ship refinished in copper and the upper deck replanked.  He found the most state-of-the-art lightening conductors. (These conductors were newly designed by W.S. Harris ,who was later knighted for this invention.) And, at his own expense, Fitzroy replaced the ships iron cannons with brass ones.  Why?  Well those pesky iron cannons were messing with the magnetic survey instruments! In the end the 1831 renovations cost £7,583.  Records state that the original cost of the Beagle’s construction was approximately £7,800!

FitzRoy spared no expense to prepare the Beagle for its assigned task – and I suspect that he should be credited for greatly increasing its chance of success. I’ve raved in several posts on how good Darwin was at his job.  I think it is fair to say that Capt. FitzRoy was very good at his, too.

When not seasick, Darwin probably spent a lot of time on the deck.  In addition, he ate his meals in the captain’s cabin and probably attended common functions in the mid deck (where most of the crew (sans officers) lived). But his home-away-from-home was the aforementioned chart room located below the poop deck. This space, which was approximately a 10 ft x 10 ft room, had about 5 ft of headspace, was not Darwin’s alone.  It housed the extensive ship’s library (many of Darwin’s own books) and the chart table (used by the ships navigators), which filled the center of the room.  Darwin’s “bed” was a hammock that was hung above the chart table.  It was here that he also examined and cataloged samples, and wrote his extensive journals and diaries.

David Leff from made a nice graphic of Darwin’s quarters:

Diagram of the Beagle's Chart Room

The chart room had a skylight above the chart table to let natural light in.  Though I’m not sure how transparent it was, it is a pleasant image to picture Darwin falling asleep each night watching the stars through this little window.

As a big fan of Darwin’s voyage, I have to mention the charitable organization in the UK – The HMS Beagle Project – that is working to rebuild the Beagle and promote the science of discovery.  Check out their web site – The HMS Beagle Project.  Wouldn’t it be grand to see the Beagle sail again! (RJV)


  1. […] force could sometimes go a long way. (Read all about FitzRoy’s modifications to the Beagle at HMS Beagle – The Right Ship for the Job.) Brass was preferred because FitzRoy did not want the guns to interfere with the compasses and […]

  2. […] that being said, the beagle had three masts (the mizzenmast was added after the ship was built (see HMS Beagle – The Right Ship for the Job).  It was square-rigged on the front two masts, with four sets of sails (course, topsail, […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: