Posted by: Rob Viens | April 2, 2013

FitzRoy’s own “Adventure”

Darwin remained quite throughout much of the rest of the month of March.  Though he did have one more event to report near the end of the month:

“A short time after our arrival here, a small American Sealing vessel came in; Capt. FitzRoy entered into terms for buying it, on condition of its return by the 25th.— As the vessel did not keep her appointment, we supposed she had failed to find her consort, & the Captain therefore purchased Low’s Schooner. — She is a fine vessel of 170 tuns, drawing 10 feet of water, and an excellent sea-boat. If the Admiralty sanction the provisioning & payment of men, this day will be an important one in the history of the Beagle. — Perhaps it may shorten our cruize, anyhow it will double the work done; & when at sea, it is always pleasant to be sailing in company; the consort affords an object of attention to break the monotomous horizon of the ocean.” (Mar 26)

Yup – the 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 nickel – in fact, it was more like £1300 plus another almost £500 to have the boat “fixed up” to the captain’s standards. Being a nostalgic man of the sea, FitzRoy also decided to rename the Unicorn – calling it the Adventure, after the larger “command” ship that sailed with the Beagle on its first voyage. The HMS Adventure had been captained by FitzRoy’s commanding officer Phillip Parker King – the father of Phillip Gidley King, one of the current midshipmen on the Beagle.

Phillip Parker King

Philip Parker King

So why did FitzRoy set his sights on buying William Low’s schooner?  Let’s let the captain explain his “unconquerable urge” to purchase the Unicorn:

“At this time I had become more fully convinced than ever that the Beagle could not execute her allotted task before she, and those in her, would be so much in need of repair and rest, that the most interesting part of her voyage—the carrying a chain of meridian distances around the globe—must eventually be sacrificed to the tedious, although not less useful, details of coast surveying.

Our working ground lay so far from ports at which supplies could be obtained, that we were obliged to occupy whole months in making passages merely to get provisions, and then overload our little vessel to a most inconvenient degree, as may be supposed, when I say that eight months’ provisions was our usual stock at starting, and that we sailed twice with ten months’ supply on board.

I had often anxiously longed for a consort, adapted for carrying cargoes, rigged so as to be easily worked with few hands, and able to keep company with the Beagle; but when I saw the Unicorn, and heard how well she had behaved as a sea-boat, my wish to purchase her was unconquerable. A fitter vessel I could hardly have met with, one hundred and seventy tons burthen, oak built, and copper fastened throughout, very roomy, a good sailer, extremely handy, and a first-rate sea-boat; her only deficiencies were such as I could supply, namely, a few sheets of copper, and an outfit of canvas and rope. ” (FitzRoy’s Narratives)

FitzRoy felt so strongly about this being the “right thing to do” that he took the risk at great personal expense.  And he knew it, even writing the Admiralty to explain his decision (though I notice that he did not describe it to them as an “unconquerable urge”):

“I believe that their Lordships will approve of what I have done, but if I am wrong, no inconvenience will result to the public service, since I alone am responsible for the agreement with the owner of the vessels, and am able and willing to pay the stipulated sum.’ However, their Lordships’ Minute across the corner mn: ‘Do not approve of hiring vessels for this. service, and therefore desire that they may be discharged as soon as possible.” (Cited as being from the Admiralty Records, Record Office, ADM/1/1819 in the footnotes of the published version of Darwin’s diary.)

Alas – it would be some time, but FitzRoy would find out the hard way that he would, in fact, have to sell off the Adventure and absorb the expenses himself. Ouch!

The truth is, however, that the decision to purchase the ship was probably very sound.  The extra ship not only allowed the expedition to carry more supplies (and therefore, be able to stay out longer), it was also able to conduct some survey work of its own. All of FitzRoy’s extra vessels made the survey work much more efficient, and in the end, may have actually saved the Royal Navy money by making the trip shorter and the survey more complete.


This decision is yet another example of FitzRoy’s skill at being a decisive leader who was willing to do whatever it took to make sure the mission was a success.  It’s too bad he had to pay the price for these decisions out of his own pocketbook.


A couple more days in the Falklands before the Beagle and its new companion would return to Uruguay for the southern winter.  It would be 1834 before Darwin was this far south again. (RJV)




  1. Perhaps the earliest documented “gotta buy the boat” story?!

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