Posted by: Rob Viens | December 12, 2013

The Art of the Beagle – Conrad Martens Part I

On December 7th Darwin’s day started with a somewhat emotional (for Darwin) departure from Uruguay:

“With a fair wind stood out of the river & by the evening were in clear water; never I trust again to enter the muddy water of the Plata.” (Dec 7)

I find this to be somewhat poetic – the thought of leaving one world behind and setting sail for another – the transition metaphorically captured in the movement from fresh water to salt water. This was a major milestone for Darwin – the Rio de la Plata was his home base for the better part of a year and a half.  From now on, his letters would have to be addressed to Valparaiso in Chile – in an entirely different ocean basin.

Maybe I am sentimental about the quote because this is a milestone for me to – it is my 400th post on the Beagle Project – almost two years sailing and riding with Darwin.  And it will be spring before we are even halfway through the journey!

Montevideo from the anchorage of H.M.S. Beagle. December  4, 1833 (Conrad Martens’ first drawing from the Beagle voyage)

Montevideo from the anchorage of H.M.S. Beagle

Back in 1833, Darwin goes on to describe changes to the crew:

“The Adventure kept ahead of us, which rejoiced us all, as there were strong fears about her sailing. — it is a great amusement having a companion to gaze at. — The following changes have taken place amongst the officers. — Mr Wickham commands the Adventure; he has with him Mr Johnstone & Forsyth & Mr Usborne as under-surveyor. — Mr Kent from the Pylades has joined us as surgeon. — Mr Martens is on board the Beagle filling the place which Mr Earle is obliged to vacate from ill health.” (Dec 7)

Conrad Martens in about 1840 (by Maurice Felton):

Conrad Martens

If you recall, Captain FitzRoy had brought a resident artist along on the trip (largely at his own expense) – Augustus Earle. (For more on the Beagle’s first artist see The Art of the Beagle: Augustus Earle Part I and Part II).  Unfortunately Earle suffered from what appeared to be debilitating arthritis and had been laid up and unable to do much of anything for most of the journey.  Sometime earlier this year he left the Beagle and returned to England.

However, much to his credit, FitzRoy valued the idea of having an artist on board, and through some unknown connections, he was able to convince another countrymen (who happened to be in Montevideo) to join the Beagle crew (for what would end up being the next 15 months). And thus, in 1833, Conrad Martens joined the hearty crew of adventurers.

Martens came on board sometime back in September – while Darwin was traveling overland across northern Argentina. He first shows up in a letter from FitzRoy to Darwin (during Darwin’s long time away from the ship). The tone is familiar –  much like FitzRoy’s earlier letter to his friend (see “My Dear Philos”):

“If Mr. P. has written as he intended you have heard of Mr. Martens —Earle’s Successor,—a stone pounding artist —who exclaims in his sleep“think of me standing upon a pinnacle of the Andes—or sketching a Fuegian Glacier!!!” By my faith in Bumpology, I am sure you will like him, and like him much —he is—or I am wofully mistaken—a “rara avis in navibus,— Carlo que Simillima Darwin”.— Don’t be jealous now for I only put in the last bit to make the line scan— you know very well your degree is “rarissima” and that your line runs thus— Est avis in navibus Carlos rarissima Darwin.— but you will think I am cracked so seriatim he is a gentlemanlike, well informed man.— his landscapes are really good (compared with London men) though perhaps in figures he cannot equal Earle— He is very industrious— and gentlemanlike in his habits,—(not a small recommendation).” (Correspondence from Robert FitzRoy, 4 October 1833)

Recall that FitzRoy was a strong believer in phrenology – something that almost got Darwin eliminated from the voyage (see Warm Butter and the Shape of Darwin’s Head). It is funny here that he refers to it as “Bumpology”. His Latin translates as something like “Carlo (Conrad?) is a rare bird about ships, much like Darwin” or “he is a very rare bird in the fleet, like Charles Darwin”. (Excuse my Latin and feel free to correct me in the comments.) I believe this is both an attempt to speak to Darwin as an academic equal, and to compliment him.  FitzRoy clearly was missing his friend.

This same letter is full of several other memorable quotes that show that, although he had to stay aloof as Captain, FitzRoy just liked to be silly sometimes.  Here are a few more lines from the October 4th letter:

“But firstly of the first—my good Philos why have you told me nothing of your hairbreadth scapes & moving accidents How many times did you flee from the Indians? How many precipices did you fall over? How many bogs did you fall into?— How often were you carried away by the floods? and how many times were you kilt?— that you were not kilt dead I have visible evidence in your handwriting,—as well as in a columnar paragraph in Mr. Love’s unamiable paper.”

” `Well, but the conjunctions—the conjunctions” I hear you saying—“you have got to the end of a sheet of paper without telling me one thing that I wanted to know’ ”

“I never will write another letter after tea—that green beverage makes one tipsy—besides it is such a luxury feeling that your epistle is not to go across the wide atlantick—and has only to cross the muddy Plata. It is so awful writing to a person thousands of miles off—when your conscience reproaches you with having been extremely negligent and tells you that six or eight or (oh—how awful) twelve months’ “History” is due to your expectant and irate correspondent.

Still you get no answer — “what is the Beagle going to do—will you tell me, or not?”—

Philos—be not irate—have patience and I will tell thee all.” (Correspondence from Robert FitzRoy, 4 October 1833)

These notes always paint a picture of the human (almost nutty) side of FitzRoy that is so rarely captured in his biographies.  It is always a pleasure to read that.

Apparently I was sidetracked today by milestones and captain’s logs.  I’ll have to continue with the rest of Marten’s story in the next post… (RJV)



  1. Congratulations for the safe sailing up to the 400th post!

  2. Hi Mr. Viens,

    I’m interested in communicating with you, about the reproduction of a Conrad Martens draw for a book. Can you write to my email for more details, please?
    Thank you, best regards,


    • Hi Daniel
      Sorry for the delay. What sort of information are you looking for? I am not an expert on Conrad Martens and all of my images are linked to other sources, so I cannot give permission for use, etc. Please let me know if there is something I might help with.

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