Posted by: Rob Viens | April 3, 2012

The Wreck of the HMS Thetis

April 3rd found Darwin and the crew exited as they approached the grand city of Rio de Janeiro:

“All day we ran along the coast & in the evening drew near to the harbour of Rio. — The whole line is irregularly mountainous, & interspersed with hills of singular forms. — The opening of the port is recognized by one of these, the well known Sugar-loaf.” (Apr 3)

However, among the excitement, there was a shadow over the ship as they passed the wreck of the HMS Thesis at Cape Frio.  Darwin simply notes:

“This morning Cape Frio was in sight: it is a memorable spot to many in the Beagle, as being the scene of the disgraceful wreck of the Thetis.” (Apr 3)

Both Captain FitzRoy and Lt. Sulivan served on the Thetis from 1824 to 1828, as a lieutenant and midshipman respectively. During that time the Thetis escorted dignitaries around Europe, scoured the coast for smugglers, and even made at least one trip to Rio. Being a navy man, and having actually served on the Thesis, Captain FitzRoy had much more to say about the wreck than Darwin did. If fact, he actually devoted 7 pages to it in his Narrative, beginning with:

“Among the shipwrecks which have taken place during late years, perhaps none excited so much astonishment, or caused so much trouble and discussion, as the loss of that fine frigate the Thetis.”

5th Rate Frigate (from the Fitz Museum)

Fifth Rate Frigate

The 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, 1830, carrying $800,000 in gold bullion back to England.  FitzRoy spends a page or more describing details of the early part of that fateful trip out of Rio, with a lot of details such as:

“At 1h. 30m. the wind being scant, the ship was steered E. by N., and at two, a cross sea checking her way through the water, the course was altered to E.N.E…” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

Basically, the Thetis got caught up in some unexpected currents, lost her reckoning and by the time the weather turned bad, the crew did not realize that they were so close to Cape Frio.  Then disaster struck:

“Soon after eight one of the look-out men, named Robinson, said to another man on the forecastle, ‘Look how fast that squall is coming’ (this was the cliff looming indistinctly through the rain and darkness), and next moment, ‘Land a-head,’ ‘Hard a-port,’ rung in the ears of the startled crew, and were echoed terribly by the crashing bowsprit, and thundering fall of the ponderous masts.

The hull did not then strike the rocks, having answered the helm so fast as to be turning off shore when the bowsprit broke; but the lee yard-arm irons (boom-irons) actually struck fire from the rocky precipice as they grated harshly against it, the boom ends snapping off like icicles. All three masts fell aft and inward, strewing the deck with killed and wounded men.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

The imagery is incredibly dramatic – cliffs rising out of the rain with no warning; irons sparking fire as the ship scraped past the rocks; the ship heading full speed into the rocks; and all three masts, rigging and all, crashing down on the deck.  It must have been terrifying.

Being well-trained sailors, the remaining crew reacted quickly:

“Sentries were placed over the spirit-room; a sail was hoisted upon the stump of the main-mast; the winches were manned; guns fired; rockets sent up, and blue-lights burned; the quarter-boats were cleared away to be ready for lowering; and an anchor was let go” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

Cape Frio, Brazil in 1848 by Admiral Edward Gennys Fanshawe (from Wikipedia Commons)

Cape Frio

But the boats were soon dashed on the rocks, the anchor lost and the Thetis drifted hopelessly, until “the effects of repeatedly striking were soon but too apparent, as the water burst open the spirit-room hatches”. The ship drifted into a small rocky cove where her fate was sealed:

“The ship struck heavily in the cove, gave some tremendous yawns, and sunk. As she then lay upon the rocky bottom, each succeeding wave broke over and just covered her.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

The remaining officers and crew worked valiantly to save the survivors:

“Every effort that could be made to convey a rope to the shore was attempted in vain, until Mr. Geach, the boatswain, went out on the stump of the bowsprit, and by the help of two belaying-pins, succeeded in throwing the end of a small rope to the rocks, by which a large one was immediately hauled ashore, and then kept as much stretched as the strength of the men who had landed would allow. On this larger rope each man was slung, in his turn, and hauled by the small one through the surf to a rough craggy rock. Mr. Geach and John Langley, the captain of the forecastle, were among the last to leave the ship, having almost exhausted themselves in slinging their shipmates.

As day-light broke, the last man was hauled ashore. Many were terribly bruised and lacerated by the fall of the masts, or during these struggles for life, and twenty-five persons perished.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

FitzRoy must have known that this was a potential fate for any sailing ship in the 1830’s, and I am sure that the story of the wreck must have weighed heavy on his mind any time the Beagle was in dangerous conditions.  FitzRoy seemed to care a great deal for the welfare of his crew. He knew it was his job to not let the Beagle have a similar fate.

In the end, FitzRoy concludes with a statement that proves us with great insight into his philosophy of life:

“Those who never run any risk; who sail only when the wind is fair; who heave to when approaching land, though perhaps a day’s sail distant; and who even delay the performance of urgent duties until they can be done easily and quite safely; are, doubtless, extremely prudent persons:—but rather unlike those officers whose names will never be forgotten while England has a navy.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

This single statement adds a lot of depth to FitzRoy’s character and puts his dedication to the Beagle voyage in context.  He put 120% into making this trip a success, and clearly realized that he was being judged not just by his superiors, but also by history. My friend, you have surely not been forgotten!

Salvage work in Cape Frio – 1836 lithograph (from The Book of Buried Treasure, by Ralph D. Paine):

Cape Frio

Fast forward to 1832 – the Beagle arrived at Rio on the evening of April 3rd but:

“As it would be impossible to get a good anchorage or enjoy the view so late in the evening, the Captain has put the ships head to the wind & we shall, to my great joy, cruize about for the night.” (Apr 3)

It would be the last night at sea for Darwin for several months. (RJV)


  1. […] is not always entirely obvious from Darwin’s notes.) For reference, note Cape Frio where the wreck of the HMS Thetis occurred in 1830 and Macaé, the final destination of the […]

  2. […] that pride (as in the quote above).  And some of his descriptions, such as the detailed account of the Wreck of the HMS Thetis are downright […]

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