Posted by: Rob Viens | September 10, 2012

An Expensive Gamble

September 10th was a fairly typical day for Darwin, and he got to do one of his favorite things – shooting. I’m sure it felt good being out with his rifle during what was partridge season back home.

“All hands have been busily employed to day; some surveying: some digging a well for water & others cutting up an old wreck for fire wood.— I took a long walk with a rifle, but did not succeed in shooting anything. I saw some deer & Ostriches, the latter made an odd deep noise; I also found a warren of the Agouti, or hare of the Pampas; it is about the size of two English ones, but in its habits resembles a rabbit.” (Sept 10)

The agouti is actually a rodent, like the capybara Darwin encountered last (see Stalking the Wild Mega-Rodent). These members of the genus Dasyprocta are found in the New World, particularly in parts of Central and South America, including northern Argentina.

Central American Aguoti – Dasyprocta punctata (from Wikipedia Commons)

Central American agouti

Darwin’s story then returns to the helpful Mr. Harris, who seems to have quickly gotten himself embedded in the Beagle‘s mission. At the moment he was trying to help patch things up the with the local authorities, as they were still very suspicious of the presence of the British Navy.

“In the evening the merchant Schooner arrived from the Settlement; bringing with it Mr Harris, bound for Rio Negro; & our Spanish host who was invited to pay us a visit.— Mr Harris tells us that the Majors fears are not yet quieted, & that no one in the place, excepting our host, would venture to pay us a visit.— When the schooner sailed, Mr Rowlett accompanied her, in order at Rio Negro to try to procure fresh provisions for the ship.” (Sept 10)

Even more interesting though, Mr. Harris struck up a deal with the Captain to procure two additional survey boats.  FitzRoy. Always the practical man, saw this as an opportunity to work more efficiently.  He could have the two survey boats work in one area while the Beagle worked in another, thereby doubling the rate at which they could survey the coast.  Darwin explains the situation:

“During the last two days the Captain has formed a plan which will materially affect the rest of our voyage.— Mr Harris is connected with two small schooners employed in sealing & now at Rio Negro. He & the other Captain is well ackquainted with the adjoining coast. The Captain thought this so fine an opportunity that he has hired them both by the Month & intends sending officers in each who will survey this intricate coast whilst the Beagle (after returning to M Video) will proceed to the South.— By this means the time spent on the Eastern coast will be much shorter & this is hailed with joy by everybody.— Mr Harris will immediately go to Rio Negro to bring the vessels & soon after that we shall return to the Rio Plata.” (Sept 8)

FitzRoy adds:

“At last, after much anxious deliberation, I decided to hire two small schooners—or rather decked boats, schooner-rigged—from Mr. Harris, and employ them in assisting the Beagle and her boats. Mr. Harris was to be in the larger, as pilot to Lieutenant Wickham— and his friend Mr. Roberts, also settled at Del Carmen, on the river Negro, was to be Mr. Stokes’s pilot in the smaller vessel. These small craft, of fifteen and nine tons respectively, guided by their owners, who had for years frequented this complication of banks, harbours, and tides, seemed to me capable of fulfilling the desired object— under command of such steady and able heads as the officers mentioned— with this great advantage; that, while the Beagle might be procuring supplies at Monte Video, going with the Fuegians on her first trip to the southward, and visiting the Falkland Islands, the survey of all those intricacies between Blanco Bay and San Blas might be carried on steadily during the finest time of year. One serious difficulty, that of my not being authorized to hire or purchase assistance on account of the Government, I did not then dwell upon, for I was anxious and eager, and, it has proved, too sanguine. I made an agreement with Mr. Harris, on my own individual responsibility, for such payment as seemed to be fair compensation for his stipulated services, and I did hope that if the results of these arrangements should turn out well, I should stand excused for having presumed to act so freely, and should be reimbursed for the sum laid out, which I could so ill spare.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)

I am always impressed by how quickly Darwin and FitzRoy were to trust the people they met.  Darwin arranged a backcountry trip just a day after arriving in Rio (see Strangers on a Trail) and now FitzRoy was buying boats and taking on additional men from a schooner captain he met a couple of days earlier. In some ways it is kind of refreshing to see such trust.

This was a huge risk for FitzRoy as he did not have approval to purchase the additional ships (which later records suggest cost him £1680).  Using a couple of inflation calculators – that translates to the equivalent of around £120,000 (about $200,000) today.  He had to pay it out of his own pocket and hope the Admiralty would pay it back on the return – but there were no guarantees.

Since it would be more than a year before FitzRoy knew the answer, I’ll spill the beans now.  The Admiralty did not approve, and hence, did not reimburse FitzRoy.  That was certainly a hard hit on his personal finances, but illustrates what FitzRoy was willing to do to get the job done.  In the end, writing his Narrative after returning home, he remains convinced he did the right thing writing:

“However, I foresaw and was willing to run the risk, and now console myself for this, and other subsequent mortification, by the reflection that the service entrusted to me did not suffer.” (Narrative, FitzRoy)



  1. […] that FitzRoy purchased (out of his own pocket) from the English sealer Mr. Harris in September (see An Expensive Gamble).  The ships arrived in rough condition and Wickham was charged with getting them up to the […]

  2. […] captain bought another boat. Much like the smaller La Paz and La Lièvre back in Argentina (see An Expensive Gamble), FitzRoy purchased the schooner on his own nickel.  Only in this case it was a little more than a […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: