Posted by: Rob Viens | July 17, 2012

The Beagle’s Library

July 17th – the winds were again favorable and the Beagle was making good time with it’s “studding sails” (which I now understand).  Darwin writes:

“My eyes were rejoiced with the sight of studding sails, alow & aloft.— that is wind abaft the beam & favourable.” (July 17)

One of the things that kept Darwin occupied on the long days at sea was reading books from the relatively extensive library on board the Beagle. This library continued to grow as the voyage continued – Darwin would frequently request books and/or have them sent to him by Henslow or his family. In the end, it is estimated that the library contained between 245 and 275 volumes, which (according to the Books on the Beagle at the Darwin Correspondence Project) “if one allows, conservatively, two inches per volume, approximately 46 linear feet of shelf space would be needed to accommodate them”. Many of the surviving books are now housed in the Darwin Library at Cambridge (shown below – also from the Darwin Correspondence Project):

Beagle Library

The books on board the Beagle were lent out based on a set of rules defined by the captain.  This transcription, from the papers of John Lort Stokes and reproduced at the Darwin Correspondence Project is worth sharing:

“The books in the Poop Cabin are at the Service of all the Officers of the Beagle who will comply with the following regulations: —

  1. Books are to be taken from, and returned to their places by the Person appointed for that purpose.
  2. Every Book, whether Old or New, bound or Unbound, is to be covered, temporarily, by the person who has it in use.
  3. Books are not to [be] transfered from one Officer to another without the knowledge of the person who has it in charge.
  4. Two Catalogues will be kept, one for general use, the other for the Cabin.
  5. The names of those who take Books are to be written in a list kept for that Purpose.
  6. Any Officers who have books which they think will be generally useful and of which there are not already Duplicates in the Catalogue will confer a general benefit by lending them in a similar manner, inserting their names in the Catalogue, and if more convenient keeping them in the Poop Cabin.
  7. Books are to be taken, or returned in morning before ½ past 8.
  8. Books are never on any account to be taken out of the Vessel.”

Ah, library rules – some things never change :). I’m not sure if this was standard, but to his credit it seems that FitzRoy supported the large library and the opportunity for the officers to read when they had the chance.

To see a complete list of the books that are believed to have been on the Beagle check out Books on the Beagle, but in general most can be lumped into two general categories:

  • Narratives of historic voyages of exploration, such as George Anson’s Voyage Round the World, Humboldt’s Personal Narratives, Cook’s Voyages and La Perouse’s Voyage Round the World. (This category seems to have made up at least 2/3’s of the library.)
  • Natural history books including Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Cuvier’s The Animal Kingdom (pictured below from the University of Otago Library), Playfair’s Illustrations on Hutton’s Theory of the Earth, and Kirby’s Introduction to Entomology.

Animal Kingdom Vol 3

In addition there were some textbooks (e.g., Wood’s Elements of Algebra), popular non-fiction (e.g., Milton’s Paradise Lost) and scripture (e.g., Bible). And it is very likely that the captain also had several nautical books that may have been kept separate from the main library and/or not mentioned by Darwin.

Interestingly, a large number of the books appear to be in French.  This is not surprising, as many of the great naturalists of the time (at least the ones that were known in European culture) were French. But it does raise the question for me – was Darwin able to read French?  He has admitted in his diary that he does not speak Spanish very well.  But his classical education would have at least included Latin, so he may also have learned French.  If anyone knows, please feel free to comment – I am curious.

Links above are to earlier posts regarding some of these books.  As the voyage continues I will use some of the slow days at sea to explore some of the other volumes that occupied Darwin’s free time and, in some cases, may have influenced his view of the world. (RJV)


  1. […] to much of the work that others had published in biology and geology. As mentioned before (see The Beagle’s Library) Darwin had an extensive library in his cabin on the Beagle (which technically he shared with the […]

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