Posted by: Rob Viens | March 10, 2012

How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I

March 10th – As he lay on his bed of pain, I wonder if Darwin wished that he never came on the trip at all. Truth be told – he almost didn’t come.  This weekend seemed like as good a time as any to tell that story.

There are primarily two reasons why Darwin almost stayed home – first he was not the first person offered the position, and second, his father said “no”. I’ll touch on the first part today and the second tomorrow.

Darwin was an “unknown” for the most part when word entered the 1831 Cambridge “Facebook” network that FitzRoy was looking for a gentleman companion to join him on the voyage. Francis Beaufort of the Hydrographer’s Office of the Royal Navy, who was supporting FitzRoy and the voyage, had asked George Peacock to suggest someone for the job. (How Peacock became involved is unclear to me – he was a mathematician and lecturer at Trinity College.  Maybe it was like asking the “dean” to recommend someone in their department?)

Francis Beaufort and George Peacock:

BeaufortPeacock

Peacock described it to colleagues as an opportunity that could not be missed. In writing to his friend, the botanist John Henslow, he describes the opportunity as such:

“Captain Fitz Roy is going out to survey the southern coast of Terra del Fuego, & afterwards to visit many of the South Sea Islands & to return by the Indian Archipelago: the vessel is fitted out expressly for scientific purposes, combined with the survey,: it will furnish therefore a rare opportunity for a naturalist & it would be a great misfortune that it should be lost” (Correspondence from George Peacock  to John Henslow, 6/13 August 1831)

Peacock first asked Rev. Leonard Jenyns if he was interested.  Darwin summarizes the response best:

“Peacock has sole appointment of Naturalist the first person offered was Leonard Jenyns, who was so near accepting it, that he packed up his clothes.— But having two livings he did not think it right to leave them.—& to the great regret of all his family.”  (Correspondence to Susan Darwin, 4 September 1831)

Darwin later asked Jenyns to identify his fish samples and write the “fish” volume of the Zoology of the Voyage of the Beagle. Jenyns did it, but it must have been a bit of a bittersweet book to write.  He had passed on the chance of a lifetime and he must have realized it.

Peacock then asked John Henslow for a recommendation.  According to Darwin, Henslow considered the opportunity himself:

“Henslow himself was not very far from accepting it: for Mrs Henslow, most generously & without being asked gave her consent, but she looked so miserable, that Henslow at once settled the point.” (Correspondence to Susan Darwin, 4 September 1831)

Fortunately, Henslow had a young protégé who he thought very highly of, and in one of the great turning points in biological history, he offered the position to that student – young Charles Darwin:

“I have been asked by Peacock who will read & forward this to you from London to recommend him a naturalist as companion to Capt Fitzroy employed by Government to survey the S. extremity of America— I have stated that I consider you to be the best qualified person I know of who is likely to undertake such a situation— I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy to be noted in Natural History.” (Correspondence from Rev. J.S. Henslow to Charles Darwin, 24 August 1831)

Leonard Jenyns and John Henslow

JenynsHenslow

I can imagine Darwin’s face when he got the letter.  He must have been so excited that he did a little dance and prepared to pack his things (the trip was originally slated to start in less than a month). But as fate would have it, he was forced to send his regrets, and on August 30th, 1831 Charles Darwin made what was almost the worst decision in his career. Why? Daddy didn’t approve of the “wild scheme”.

Tomorrow – changing Dr. Darwin’s mind… (RJV)

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Responses

  1. […] of the crown – he was merely a “gentleman companion” and unofficial naturalist (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home I). So although he was given space on the ship, he did have to pay for food and supplies. (Though I […]

  2. […] William played a key role in Darwin’s life by introducing him to John Henslow – the professor who eventually recommended Darwin for the Beagle Voyage (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I). […]

  3. […] had been offered the position of naturalist on the Beagle before Darwin, and turned it down.  See How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I for details on Jenyns’s refusal and how it opened the door for Darwin to make history. […]

  4. […] written before about how Darwin was offered the position (see How Darwin Almost Stayed Home Part I for the story and the “offer letter” he received a year ago today). As he notes above, […]


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