Posted by: Rob Viens | November 13, 2012

The First Voyage of the Beagle – Part I

For the past few days, the Beagle sailed from Buenos Aires to Montevideo. Darwin remained rather quiet, writing only the following two entries:

“The wind is unfavourable & we do not make much progress.— Every day is now of consequence, as it is one out of the summer.” (Nov 11)

“The wind continues dead in our teeth & although carrying on night & day we get on very slowly.— In the evening it blew hard & we dropped the anchor.” (Nov 12/13)

The November 11th entry refers to the primary mission on the Beagle – to map the coast of southern South America.  Sailing in the waters of Terra del Fuego is not a walk in the park at the best of times. One of the reasons the captain was taking his time working in Brazil, Uruguay and Northern Argentina was that he was waiting for summer to arrive before moving south. It was now time to head south.

The Beagle started this survey work on its first voyage between 1826 and 1830.  As the crew prepared to move south, it is a good time to start telling that story.

In May 1826, the Admiralty sent the Beagle (as a support ship for the larger HMS Adventure) to South America with orders to survey the southern coast of South America. This was largely a military and political mission, since accurate maps of the coastal regions were essential if the Royal Navy wanted to be able to control the coastline of South America. In many ways, the second voyage was meant to complete the work of the first.

The HMS Beagle was captained by Commander Pringle Stokes and was ultimately under the command of the senior captain of the HMS Adventure – Phillip Parker King. Incidentally, King’s son Philip Gidley King was along on the voyage, too.  He would later be a midshipmen on the Beagle‘s second voyage, sharing a cabin and a life-long friendship with Darwin.

Phillip Parker King in about 1816 (artist unknown):

Phillip Parker King

The ship’s adventure paralleled the second voyage – calling on many of the same ports – Cape Verde Islands, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo (and many others Darwin would see in the coming years) and creating detailed maps of several of the same regions. Though, as it was one of the first attempts to really try and survey Tierra del Fuego, the crew learned just how difficult the conditions were in that part of the world.  A little over two years into the voyage (in summer of 1828) the crew was suffering from malnutrition as the Beagle‘s food supplies were virtually gone.  And scurvy and infections were taking a heavy toll on the men.  On August 1st, the commander, who was suffering from depression (along with the lack of food and other illnesses), shot himself in the head. He suffered for almost two weeks before he finally passed away.

Pringle Stokes Grave Site in Teirra del Fuego (from

stokes grave

The grave states: “In memory of Commander Pringle Stokes RN, HMS Beagle, who died from the effects of the anxieties and hardships incurred while surveying the western shores of Tierra del Fuego, 12-8-1828″

Following Stokes death, as was customary, the 1st lieutenant (William Skyring) took command until the ship until it could reach Rio de Janeiro for a more permanent assignment to take effect.  By all accounts both Captain King (and Interim Commander Skyring) assumed that the Admiral of the South America Station would permanently appoint Skyring to Command the Beagle.  However, the Admiral saw something in his own Flag Lieutenant (the first lieutenant on the Admiral’s Flag Ship the HMS Ganges) that showed great potential.  So on November 13th, 1828 – exactly four years earlier to the day – Admiral Sir Robert Otway commissioned 23-year old Robert FitzRoy to take command of the Beagle. It was FitzRoy’s first command and he spent the next two years proving that it was the right choice. (RJV)

PS – Stokes suicide (and fear of a similar fate) was one of the main reasons FitzRoy decided to bring a social equal on the second voyage with him.  Someone to help keep him sane.  That someone, of course, was our Mr. Darwin.


  1. […] being officially assigned captain of the Beagle by the Admiral of the South American Station (see The First Voyage of the Beagle Part I), Captain FitzRoy left Brazil and took the ship back to Tierra del Fuego to continue his survey […]

  2. […] to the Adventure – after the command vessel that the Beagle sailed with on its first voyage (see The First Voyage of the Beagle). This milestone must have been exciting for Darwin, since it meant that he would soon be able to […]

  3. […] The next time the Port Famine “made the headlines” was 1828, when it was visited by the HMS Beagle on its first voyage of discovery. At that time the ship was commanded by Pringle Stokes (second in command to Philip Parker King who commanded the expedition from the HMS Adventure).  It was in Port Famine that Stokes succumbed to deep depression brought on by the desolation of the southern weather and shot himself.  Along with the ruins of the Spanish colony, Stokes’ grave site is one of the few landmarks of Port Famine.  Recall that this was one of the things that set in motion a string of events that led to Darwin’s invitation to join the Beagle‘s second voyage. (For more on Stokes’ story see The First Voyage of the Beagle – Part I.) […]

  4. […] o navio para o próximo em linha de comando, o primeiro-tenente William Skyring, o almirante optou pelo jovem ajudante-de-ordens Robert FitzRoy, então com 23 anos, como novo capitão do Beagle. Ao dar continuidade à missão histórica, o […]

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