Posted by: Rob Viens | June 17, 2012

John Clements Wickham – Tortoise Herder

True to form, after a day in the forest Darwin was back in the “surf” on June 17th. He writes:

“Took my usual evening stroll to the bay; there to lie down on the coast & watch the setting sun gild the bare sides of the Sugar Loaf.— Wickham & Chaffers paid me a visit.” (June 17)

Not much is written about Edward Chaffers  – the Beagle‘s master. The master, or sailing master, is the one of the senior officers on a ship, in charge of navigation. In the 1830’s on a ship in the Royal Navy, this position was considered a “warrant officer” – somewhere between a commissioned officer (such as the captain or lieutenants) and a non-commissioned officer (various “mates”).  The ship’s master was in charge of outfitting the ship for sailing, as well as daily inspections, navigation, and routine docking and operations. As a very apt sailing man himself, I suspect that FitzRoy was a bit more hands-on than most captains.  Certainly the record shows that it was FitzRoy who was involved in any major modifications to the ship during the journey.

John Clements Wickham was one of the Beagle’s lieutenants (along with Bartholomew Sulivan). The lieutenants were the highest ranking officers below the captain, and served as the interface between the captain and the crew.

A young John Wickham:

John Clements Wickham

Wickham was born in Scotland in 1798 and joined the Royal Navy as a midshipmen in 1812.  He has the unique distinction of having traveled on all three voyages of the Beagle (though somewhat indirectly on the first voyage). In 1819, he passed his lieutenant’s exams about the same time as the slightly younger Robert FitzRoy. From 1825 to 1930 he served under Philip Parker King as second lieutenant on the HMS Adventure.  The Adventure and its companion ship, the HMS Beagle were charged with surveying the southern coast of South America – a job the Beagle took up again on its second (and most famous) voyage. Actually, all the senior officers of “Darwin’s” Beagle voyage were on this first trip – FitzRoy, Wickham, and Sulivan. In fact, it was the suicidal death of the Beagle‘s captain (Pringle Stokes) that resulted in FitzRoy getting his first command.

On the current voyage (the Beagle‘s second), Wickham had advanced to the rank of first lieutenant.  It was here that he became friends with Darwin.  Francis Darwin later wrote of his father’s opinion of John Wickham:

“My father speaks of the officers as a fine determined set of men, and especially of Wickham, the first lieutenant, as a “glorious fellow.”” (Edition of Darwin’s Autobiography edited and annotated by Francis Darwin)

John was also a bit of an artist – below is a sketch of the Beagle that he made at some time during the trip:

John Clements Wickham's sketch of the Beagle

Wickham had been promoted to captain by the time the Beagle made it’s third voyage in 1837, and it was under his command that the ship followed out its orders to survey the  coast of Australia.

Wickham remained life-long friends with both Darwin and the Beagle‘s midshipman Philip Gidley King.  On the third voyage of the Beagle, this friendship and respect was reflected in the fact that Wickham named a small harbor on the north coast of Australia Port Darwin. This is the very same port that became the city of Darwin, Australia.

In 1841, Wickham resigned from the Royal Navy (for unknown health reasons) and moved to Australia. In 1842 he married Anna Hawkins Macarthur, who happened to be the sister of Elizabeth Hawkins Macarthur who (the next year) married Wickham’s old friend and crew mate Philip Gidley King. Shortly thereafter, he moved to Brisbane and took up the post of police magistrate of the Moreton Bay region – a part of what is now Queensland (then New South Wales).  In 1853 he became the Government Resident (the senior government official in the region). History reflects that he was fair and well liked by the settlers of the region, and there are several landmarks that still carry his name today.

John Wickham during his later years in Australia:

John Clements Wickham

In 1859 John Wickham “retired” to France (sounds like a good idea) where he lived until he passed away of a stroke in 1864.

One other interesting bit of trivia – Darwin reportedly brought home and gave to Wickham a Galapagos tortoise (though some question Darwin as the source).  This tortoise – named Harriet – only just died in 2006 at an age of approximately 175 years!

Harriet – the longest surviving “traveler” from the HMS Beagle – oh, the stories she could tell! (from the Wikipedia Commons):

Harriet – Galapagos tortoise



  1. […] Ah – those squishy and “desolate” Magellanic Moorlands. I can almost hear the sounds of the crew marching through the soft, wet peat. I recall the felling well, although I had the benefit of having rubber boots that went up to my knees when I spent time in the Alaskan peatlands.  I have to remind myself that Darwin had no such benefit, and I’m sure it did not take long for the whole crew to have wet feet. (You can find a little bit about Edward Chaffers – the ship’s master who was apparently in charge of the small survey party – on an earlier post.) […]

  2. […] Lieutenant John Wickham, since they separated 6 months ago (for a refresher on Wickham see John Clements Wickham – Tortoise Herder from almost exactly one year ago).  It appears to have been a happy […]

  3. […] was the ship’s master – you can find a little more about him and his role in the post John Clements Wickham – Tortoise Herder. Meanwhile here is what Darwin had to say about the survey […]

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