Posted by: Rob Viens | August 2, 2012

A Good Man Goes to War…sort of

In its second military action in a week, on August 2nd the Beagle found itself the target of a trigger-happy gunboat. The excitement was captured by Darwin, who had probably only read of such things in the past.  I wonder if he was frightened?  He sounds so collected as he writes about listening as cannonballs “whistle” through the rigging:

“We certainly are a most unquiet ship; peace flies before our steps. On entering the outer roadstead, we passed a Buenos Ayres guard-ship.— When abreast of her she fired an empty gun; we not understanding this sailed on, & in a few minutes another discharge was accompanied by the whistling of a shot over our rigging. Before she could get another gun ready we had passed her range.— When we arrived at our anchorage, which is more than three miles distant from the landing place; two boats were lowered, & a large party started in order to stay some days in the city.— Wickham went with us, & intended immediately going to Mr Fox, the English minister, to inform him of the insult offered to the British flag.” (Aug 2)

No one is worried about the risk – it was all about the “insult” to the flag.

An English frigate under sail firing a gun, with shipping at anchor and under sail by John Cleveley the Elder (1712-1777).

English frigate under sail firing a gun

Next, FitzRoy’s plans were dashed as the Beagle’s whale boats are forced to turn around before reaching the shore.  The culprit – the fear of cholera, yet again. (Recall, that is what prevented Darwin from visiting the Canary Islands, too.  See <a href=””>Quarantine in the Canaries</a>)

“When close to the shore, we were met by a Quarantine boat which said we must all return on board, to have our bill of health inspected, from fears of the Cholera.— Nothing which we could say about being a man of war, having left England 7 months & lying in an open roadstead, had any effect.— They said we ought to have waited for a boat from the guard-ship & that we must pull the whole distance back to the vessel, with the wind dead on end against us & a strong tide running in.” (Aug 2)

FitzRoy was mad, and in the end pulled anchor rather than deal any further with the unreasonable government officials.

“During our absence, a boat had come with an officer whom the Captain soon despatched with a message to his Commander to say “He was sorry he was not aware he was entering an uncivilized port, or he would have had his broardside ready for answering his shot”.— When our boats & the health one came alongside.— the Captain immediately gave orders to get under weigh & return to M Video.— At same time sending to the Governor, through the Spanish officer, the same messages which he had sent to the Guard-ship, adding that the case should be throughily investigated in other quarters.” (Aug 2)

FitzRoy’s personal Narratives add:

“There, however, we did not remain an hour; for the misconduct of a Buenos Ayrean officer on board a vessel under their colours, and a vexatious regulation with respect to quarantine, decided my returning forthwith to Monte Video; and commissioning a capable person to procure for me copies of some original charts, which I thought would be exceedingly useful, and which could only be obtained from the remains of hydrographical information, collected by Spain, but kept in the archives of Buenos Ayres.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)

Now, returning to Montevideo meant passing the guard ship again.  This time the captain was prepared and ready to send it to the bottom of the river if it so much as looked funny at the Beagle.  Darwin continues:

“We then loaded & pointed all the guns on one broardside, & ran down close along the guard-ship. Hailed her, & said that when we again entered the port, we would be prepared as at present & if she dared to fire a shot we would send our whole broardside into her rotten hulk.— We are now sailing quietly down the river.— From M Video the Captain intends writing to Mr Fox & to the Admiral; so that they may take effective steps to prevent our Flag being again insulted in so unprovoked a manner.” (Aug 2)

Upon hearing of the situation the next day, Captain Hamilton immediately set sail to Buenos Aires to throw some muscle around and make sure the local government knew the Royal Navy took this threat seriously. FitzRoy writes:

“The Beagle anchored again off Monte Video, on the 3d of August, and as soon as the circumstances which occasioned her return were made known to Captain G. W. Hamilton, commanding the Druid frigate, that ship sailed for Buenos Ayres.” (Narratives, FitzRoy)

The Druid would return to Montevideo in a couple of weeks with word from the Argentinian government and  news of the fate of the guard ship.  But you’ll have to wait till the 15th to hear what happened…

Darwin ends his diary today with a short description of his first “visit” to Buenos Aires:

“From what I could see of the city of Buenos Ayres it appears to be a very large place & with many public buildings.— Its site is very low & the adjoining coast is elevated but a few feet above the level of the water.” (Aug 2)

Hmmm…flat and lots of government buildings…maybe they did not miss much after all 🙂 (RJV)


  1. […] unlike the last visit to the city where the Beagle was fired upon by an overzealous guard ship (see A Good Man Goes to War…sort of).  Clearly the HMS Druid “put them in their place” for the offense. Darwin […]

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