Select Page


There is now a copious literature on Darwin’s life, travels, letters, and writings, much of it readily available on the web. The account here is intended as a quick overview of his life, his connection to Australia, and the significance of his scientific ideas. See Complete Works of Darwin Online. A brief account of Darwin’s life and theory of natural selection is given here.


‘The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined the whole of my existence.’

Charles Darwin – Autobiography

Charles Darwin & HMS Beagle

Charles Darwin’s voyage of scientific exploration in HMS Beagle provided much of the evidence for his theory of natural selection published in his 1859 On the Origin of Species . . . a book that would change public thinking about the world more than Newton’s monumental Principia . . . of 1687.

Within a couple of decades the general thesis of organic evolution was well known to public and scientists alike, although the mechanism of this evolution, natural selection, would remain controversial until the ‘modern evolutionary synthesis’ that emerged in the 1930s and 1950s. The purposeful function so evident in nature, and formerly assumed to have been breathed into life during god’s creation, now had a material explanation. This aspect of Darwin’s work still finds religious resistance.

To bring off his achievement he needed the moral support and temperaments of three other men who had all been through the rigorous training school of the world’s southern oceans around Australia. They were men who helped carry their friend Darwin’s coffin to its resting place alongside Isaac Newton at the funeral in Westminster Abbey: Joseph Hooker (botanist Director of Kew Gardens, a biogeographer who fought hard in support of Darwin’s thesis), Thomas Huxley (brilliant scientist and confident public Darwinian advocate) and Alfred Wallace (shy and self-effacing naturalist, biogeographer, and co-originator of the theory of natural selection but happy to defer to the senior man). Together they had changed the world for all time.

Prior to voyage

From 1826 to 1830 an expedition to map the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego had been sent out from Britain. It comprised two vessels, HMS Beagle under Captain Pringle Stokes and HMS Adventure under the command of Captain Phillip Parker King. In tragic circumstances captaincy of the brigantine Beagle was handed over to the 23 year-old Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865) when the deeply depressed Stokes, his ship in poor condition, scurvy rife, and in wretched weather, shot himself in his cabin in 1828 while the ship was in the bleak Strait of Magellan.

It was an unfortunate omen for Robert Fitzroy, now Commander of the second survey expedition of the Beagle[4] as he set set out from Plymouth on the 27 December 1831 to complete King’s charting work along the coasts of Chile, Peru and Pacific islands while simultaneously making chronometric observations. On board was his self-funded companion-naturalist, the inexperienced young graduate Charles Darwin.

In 1831 he joined the geology Professor Adam Sedgwick on a study tour of Snowdonia in North Wales but soon excused himself to join student friends at Barmouth on the nearby Welsh coast. It was shortly after this trip that he received a letter from John Henslow inviting him to join HMS Beagle on a circumnavigation of the world.

Voyage of HMS Beagle (1831-1836)

In 1831 with promising university results but mounting personal debt[10] he accepted his likely future as a country parson: at least it would allow him to indulge his interest in natural history. But before that the 22-year-old Charles was keen to see the world, although it needed grandfather Wedgwood to persuade his reluctant father to fund his passage.

Darwin had prepared himself by reading the work of John Herschel and his special explorer hero von Humboldt whose Personal Narrative he would read again and again on the voyage admiring Humboldt’s theme of the harmony of nature’s diversity, also taking Milton’s Paradise Lost for on-board reading (perhaps he had heard of Banks’s reading list on the Endeavour) along with the Romantic poets. He was perpetually sea-sick and shared a cabin with Philip Gidley King who would later feature in Australian navigational history. Collections from the voyage could go to whomever he wished, most being sent to Henslow at Cambridge but others retained for the Crown, passing first to the Admiralty and thence to the British Museum.

Robert FitzRoy

Aristocratic Captain Robert Fitzroy at 26 was now an accomplished seaman with a potential great future ahead of him. His father was a wealthy land owner and young Fitzroy had been educated at Harrow before graduating to the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth where he had excelled in maritime disciplines like cartography, hydrography, mathematics, and mechanics. Fitzroy was, however, sensitive to Stokes’s fate and, recognizing that he was himself prone to bouts of rage, suspicion and melancholy, he was looking for a steadying influence during the voyage. Henslow’s letter to Darwin had stated ‘ … Captain F. wants a man (I understand) more as a companion than a mere collector & would not take anyone however good as a naturalist who was not … a gentleman.’

There were striking differences between the pair although it seems that as ‘gentlemen’ they got along together most of the time with the occasional confrontation, sharing opinions on most matters. During the voyage Darwin was working ashore most of the time on his geology and natural history collections while Fitzroy was busy with the main business, the coastal hydrographic survey needed to draw up accurate nautical charts, part of which was painstaking recording of depths and accurate calculation of longitudes using precision chronometers (these had only become affordable after about 1800).

At first the naval preoccupation with rank and discipline irked Darwin but his letters home indicated that, over time, he began to take a pride in the ship and its achievements, the efficiency of the crew during crises and the necessity for onboard routines: he even asked to join the military action, armed with musket and cutlass pirate-style, when the ship was requested to quell a minor revolt in a fort at Montevideo.

On the ship were three Fuegians who had been brought back from the previous voyage by Fitzroy, who had personally paid for their Christian education. Dressed in European clothes and with European belongings along with a Fitzroy-sponsored English missionary it was assumed that they could be returned home to spread the principles of civilization and Christianity among their native people while also acting as translators and otherwise assisting with any further British contact in the region. Fitzroy had also paid for an artist, Augustus Earle (later replaced by Conrad Martens) and other items he particularly required, including 22 of the latest chronometers and a state-of-the-art lightning conductor.

His naturalist-companion was to be self-financing (that is, financed by his father) but fed and clothed by the navy. By this time the post of naturalist had become quite an extravagance, these duties generally being allocated to the ship’s surgeons.

Cook's three voyages

The three voyages of Captain James Cook, with the first in red, second in green, and third in blue. The route of Cook’s crew following his death is shown as a dashed blue line

Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – File:Map_projection-Eckert_IV.png – Jon Platek with blank map by en:User:Reisio – Accessed 19 March 2021

Charles Darwin

Social etiquette required that Darwin be called ‘sir’ by junior officers as he was a guest and social equal of the captain. However it was not long before the amenable young man was known to the crew as ‘our flycatcher’ to the officers as ‘dear old philosopher’ (he was 22) and to FitzRoy as Philos.

After leaving Plymouth the ship touched in at Madeira, then called at Tenerife where a cholera epidemic prevented anyone going ashore.

Santiago, Cape Verde (Jan, 1832)

Darwin’s journal begins at the first major stopover which was Porto Praya on the island of St Jago (Santiago, Cape Verde islands) a volcanic island where the ship moored for 23 days. Here he was able to experience the tropical luxuriance of bananas, tamarinds, coconut trees and other palms, but it was the geology that would hold his attention.

Darwin was now familiar with the famous geologist Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830) which appeared in print the year before the Beagle set off. It was the most respected geology text of its day and a copy of volume one had been given to him by FitzRoy who knew the author, a creationist who believed in the immutability of species.

In the early 19th century geology was still extricating itself from the biblical story of creation in Genesis, the flood, Noah’s ark, and the biblical timeframe that started in 4004 BC. One school of thought, Neptunism, held that rocks were formed as strata settling out in water by sedimentation, the oldest being granite while newer layers contained fossils as a result of further flooding. In contrast Plutonism (Vulcanism), held that rocks were formed in fire, eroded by weathering and then re-formed and uplifted under heat and pressure, the whole process taking eons of time rather than the thousands of years assumed by biblical time-frames. Lyells ‘uniformitarian’ approach appealed to Darwin as he examined fossil shell deposits in the upper volcanic strata of the island and speculated on how the shell layer had been elevated so high by volcanic activity.

Brazil, Bahia (28 Feb.)

In South America the ship stayed at Fernando de Noronha for a day before putting into the Bay of All Saints in Bahia (Salvador), today’s eastern Argentina. It was one of the most memorable part of the voyage for Darwin where for three weeks he could explore the delights of the Brazilian rainforest although.

Fitzroy and Darwin fell out here as Darwin resented the cruel treatment of black slaves he experienced here, and which Fitzroy regarded as a necessity. he was appalled by the slavery and experienced FitzRoy’s temper (who considered slavery a necessary evil) when he expressed his disapproval. FitzRoy’s temper was familiar to those aboard ship who dubbed it ‘hot coffee’: FitzRoy soon apologized to Darwin and the two were on speaking terms again. Darwin was from a liberal Whiggish background, Fitzroy a high Tory, a conservative traditionalist.

Rio de Janeiro (4 Apr.)

In Rio Darwin moved into a rented house at Botofogo from 26 Apr. to 5 Jul spending three months absorbed in the bizarre tropical exuberance of plant and animal colour and form, collecting all the time while FitzRoy continued his charting.

Montevideo (26 Jul.)

There was then a short stay at Montevideo then on to Bahia Blanca where he was amazed by a find of fossilized bones. These bones threw up all sorts of questions about the history and age of the Earth and the different organisms that lived on it currently and in the past. Back aboard ship he explored his questions with Fitzroy whose literal interpretation of the Bible Darwin found exasperating.

In August the Governor of Montevideo asked Fitzroy to assist with a local uprising and Darwin eagerly joined the 52 sailors and marines armed with muskets and cutlasses to attack the fort occupied by the rebels but to his disappointment they surrendered peacefully.

Darwin was to explore the Argentinian pampas with half-caste Argentinina-Indian soldiers, camping in the open and hunting ostriches.

In Sept. 1832 fossil bones of a giant megatherium were excavated from the Punta Alta cliff side

Tierra del Fuego (Dec. 1832)

In Dec 1832 the vessel was in Tierra del Fuego where the sight of naked painted Fuegians set Darwin to musing about human origins. Two of their three Fuegians were, with some consternation, returned as ‘missionaries’ to their people, referred to by Darwin as ‘miserable degraded savages’. The aim was to establish a Patagonian mission led by English missionary Matthews and aided by the Anglicised Fuegians now named Jemmy Button,York Minster, and Fuegia Basket. Returning a year later in Apr. 1834 the mission had been abandoned with Matthews fearing for his life. York and Fuegia had moved to their ownpeople and Jemmy Button now near- naked again had married, declining an offer to return to England.[5]

Argentina Aug-Oct.1833
Trekking 500 km with gaucho cattlemen.

Into the Pacific (10 Jun. 1834)
Beagle sailed through the Strait of Magellan into the Pacific on 10 June with the west coast of South America looking unappealing as they put in to the main Chilean port of Valparaiso on 23 July.

Island Chiloé (Jan. 1835)

Off this

island Darwin, spellbound, watched the eruption of Mt Osorno on the mainland discovering when, a few weeks later, they put into nearby Valdivia and Conceptión, a devastated landscape and being told that the eruption had been accompanied by the worst earthquake in a generation accompanied by a Pacific Tsunami. Then back to Valparaiso where Darwin in March climbed the western face of the Andes to about 4,500 m then down the eastern side of the Cordillera range. Having now read Lyells’s volume 2 he was musing on the effects of such a geographic barrier on the climate and composition of the vegetation, his thoughts challenged by the fossilized trees that he found in the rock at the tip of the Andean mountains and the possibility of totally different vegetation in the geological past. Before departing he made a last trek of about 700 km up the coast to the port of Copiapó where he was to meet up with the Beagle.

Falkland Islands

From Tierra del Fuego the ship sailed to a brief stop at the Falkland Islands before Darwin was left for three months at Maldonado travelling into the interior then packaging his specimens for dispatch back to England. Then putting in to El Carmen, the southernmost point of colonial presence in the pampas Darwin decided to trek in an armed party of six gauchos 1,000 km across the pampas to meet the ship at Montevideo. After journeying on the inhospitable coast and putting in to Valparaiso Darwin set back on a 6-week excursion on horseback studying the geology of the Cordilleras discovering shells and petrified pines in a region where earthquakes and eruptions were still evident.

The Beagle was a small vessel inadequate for some of its surveying tasks and while Darwin was trekking, Fitzroy had purchased a larger American vessel but without contacting the Admiralty. Eventually news came through that the purchased could not be supported throwing Fitzroy into a rage and despair, feeling he was losing control and telling his officers that ‘there was insanity in the family’.[6] Eventually the ship was sold at a slight profit and Fitzroy calmed down the ship proceeding to the islands off the coast of Chile before putting in to Valdivia where Darwin experienced several earthquakes. Darwin left the Andes crossing the Cordillera by a high and dangerous route arriving in Mendoza on the other side feeling in great physical condition, then proceeding 700 km to Copiapo to meet up with Fitzroy now in good spirits having received a promotion to captain.

Moving on to Peru Darwin made a brief visit to Lima before they headed to the place Darwin had been looking forward to, the Galapagos Islands.

Galapagos Islands

Here the ship sailed from island to island Darwin drinking in the exciting volcanic geological formations and observing how the animals were adapted to their local conditions. His most profitable time was spent on James Island (San Salvador) where he spent a week with four others admiring the giant tortoises, huge iguanas, and the range of finches whose beaks provided an interesting comparison with those on other islands, their form being a clear adaptation to their food source. These finches were to later feature in his argument for ‘natural selection’ in the Origin of Species although their significance was not appreciated at the time.

It was in the Galapagos that he first seriously entertained the idea of variation deriving from common ancestral forms; that is the mechanism of speciation. He was so excited by these ideas that he wrote to his sister saying that he was having difficulty in sleeping.

Return journey
The main official work of the voyage was now complete and the men relaxed a little with only a few chronometric measurements left. From this point Darwin’s journal indicates travel fatigue and a desire to be back in England his dismissive remarks being even more marked than usual. The ship putting in to Tahiti where Darwin was disappointed by the women (now no doubt Europeanised in various ways), then on to the Bay of Islands in New Zealand where the Maoris did not make them welcome although Darwin especially noticed the quality of the colonial gardens. Missionaries had been in strong evidence in both stops and appeared to be giving some assistance.

Sydney & Hobart

Arriving in Sydney on 12 Jan. 1836 Darwin felt proud of the English achievement and prosperity and noted the pleasant walks in the Botanic Gardens and Government Domain. There were many large impressive buildings and many others being constructed although people were complaining about the cost of rents and purchase. Carriages with liveried servants were evident. In a city of about 23,000 people he noted that there was an idle class living off the labour of the convicts; there was tension between emancipists and free settlers; an absence of literature and a preoccupation with acquiring wealth; luxuries were plentiful and food cheaper than in England; numbers of Aboriginals were rapidly declining and they appeared uncomfortable in their own land; animals like the emu and kangaroo were becoming scarce from the use of hunting dogs. While in the colony for about six weeks he rode over the Great Divide to Bathurst impressed with the macadamized road surface especially through to Parramatta, enjoyed the sight of platypus.[11] It was clear to him that the lack of water would hamper future development.

Sailing on to Hobart the Aboriginals seemed in even worse condition and he did not really like Hobart town although the countryside appealed and he climbed to the top of Mount Wellington, admiring the tree ferns and noble eucalypts.

Then on to King George Sound, a settlement of 30-40 small whitewashed cottages, where he experienced a Corroboree but was happy to leave on March 14th. Overall Darwin was tied of journeying and pleased to be setting off home: he had not seen the more biologically stimulating landscapes of the continent and Australia would not be featured among the memorable highlights of his voyage. He was pleased to leave most of the places he visited but none more so than King George Sound and Australia ‘if he thinks, like me, he will never wish to walk again in so uninviting a country’. On leaving King George’s Sound Darwin wrote in his journal:

‘Farewell Australia, you are a rising infant and doubtless some day will reign a great princess in the South, but you are too great and ambitious for affection, not great enough for respect; I leave your shores without sorrow or regret.’

Cocos Keeling & Cape

The ship moved on to the Cocos Islands (Cocos Keeling) where Darwin theorized about the formation of coral reefs.

Calling in at the Cape Fitzroy and Darwin visited Darwin’s student hero and FitzRoy’s acquaintance astronomer John Herschel. Between 1834 and 1838 he was cataloguing the stars and nebulae of the southern skies. Herschel who in England was highly respected and in much demand was happy to get away from his hectic life, regarded his time in Africa as probably the happiest time in his life as, taking a break from his astronomy, he and his wife Margaret shared the work of producing 131 delightful botanical illustrations of the Cape flora using a camera lucida to ensure the accuracy of the floral outline and dimensions., a compilation of the 112 best being published in 1996 as Flora Herscheliana.

??Then on to Mauritius, St Helena, Ascension and, to Darwin’s disappointment, before returning to England Fitzroy steered once more to South America.

Finally the ship completed its voyage on 2 October 1836: of the nearly five years away Darwin had spent three years and three months on land. Though travel weary and keen to get back to England Darwin was consistent in his disdain: on his return he wrote ‘To my surprise and shame, I confess the first sight of the shores of England inspired me with no warmer feelings than if it had been a miserable Portuguese settlement …’ Was he already missing the prospect of further travel? It seems unlikely as he later admitted to his family ‘I loathe, I abhor the sea and all the ships which are on it’.[18]

Back in England

For the first two years back in England bachelor Darwin worked hard and joined the social whirl befriending geologist Lyell (who had placed geology within a timeframe of millions of years contrary to the prevailing accepted view of Irish Bishop Ussher who had dated the creation to the night preceding Sunday, 23 October 4004 BC according to the proleptic Julian calendar) and comparative anatomist Owen (who would later attack his views) and botanist Director of Kew gardens Joseph Hooker (one of his most outspoken advocates). He met his former explorer hero and inspiration von Humboldt but, as on so many other occasions in his life, could not be complementary, describing him as ‘only a paunchy little German’. He renewed acquaintance with John Henslow and Robert Brown and maintained a correspondence with botanist Asa Gray in America.

Darwin’s publication on the voyage in 1839 (a third volume of a series of three) were preferred over those of Fitzroy and he was in 1845 published separately, this version being translated into many languages.

Darwin married a childhood friend in 1938 and they had 10 children, although only 4 sons survived him. There was a brief period of London of parties and entertaining international scientists but this life didn’t suit the retiring Darwin: he became ill and the family moved to the country. For Darwin it was all a strain: he stopped travelling in 1842 and after 1859 avoided appearing in public observing much later, in 1871, that he had never spent a day without feeling ill ‘always suffering from gastro-intestinal problems accompanied by vomiting, somnolence, and heart trouble. The doctors were unable to ascribe this incurable illness to any organic cause’[7] His palpitations, ‘accursed stomach’, periods of ‘inexpressible gloom’, sleeplessness, head noises, trembling, and vomiting (a terrible reminder of the endless seasickness when on the Beagle) have been the subject of much debate, being attributed variously to guilt, depression, psychoneurosis and Chagas’s disease caught from the great black bug of the Argentinian pampas. Certainly the very real symptoms allowed him to avoid the various chores that would have diverted him from his own interests

With inherited wealth his time was his own and he set about writing up and describing all his finds in his many publications. He was now totally convinced that evolution was a fact but still uncertain of the precise mechanism by which it occurred. In 1838 he had read Thomas Malthus’s on population. The ‘struggle for subsistence’ that Malthus noted and which Darwin saw everywhere in nature: it was to be the stimulus for his theory of natural selection. He spent much time examining the human process of ‘artificial’ selection of birds, dogs, cattle, sheep, horses and plants. Then in 1842 he penned a 35 page resume of his theory and this was extended to 230 pages in 1844. It was to take 10 years from the return of the Beagle before he confessed to his friend Joseph Hooker at Kew that he was now working on the theory of evolution. He did not find it a pleasurable task as it conflicted with the religious views of the time held dear by many of his friends and associates, his concerns possibly manifest through physical ailments of various kinds and procrastination over publication.

In 1856 after 20 years work he began writing his definitive theory and had completed 10 chapters when, in 1858, he was asked to comment on a manuscript sent to him by geologist Alfred Russell Wallace who had, in a fever of Malaria while on the island of Ternate in the Moluccas, come to the same conclusions as himself. It was a dilemma solved by Lyell and Hooker when the two theses were jointly presented at the Linnean Society on 1 July 1858, while the following year Darwin released On the Origin of Species which was an immediate success, quickly passing into three printings.

Excusing himself on the grounds of ill health from the inevitable rancorous debate, especially one particular meeting of the British Association at Oxford. He had described the view that species were not immutable as ‘like confessing a murder’ and the release of his book undoubtedly caused him some distress. However, he had a strong supporter in Thomas Huxley, to be known as ‘Darwin’s Bulldog’, who amply argued his case.

In 1841 Fitzroy was appointed to the House of Commons and in 1843 appointed Governor of New Zealand; then partly on the strength of new meteorological work in 1857 he was made Rear Admiral, Darwin inviting him to spend a couple of days in the country but finding him embittered and exhausted, Darwin writing to his sister that Fitzroy had ‘the most consummate skill in looking at everything and everybody in a perverted manner’.[8]


Darwin’s funeral at Westminster Abbey was attended by a congregation of about 2,000 people. Starting out life training for the Christian ministry he had long struggled with his religious beliefs and while on the Beagle was anticipating a future in an Anglican parsonage, making a special study of the work of missionaries that he encountered in the latter part of the voyage. As his ideas changed it was clear that in later life he had rejected God and the idea of eternal damnation, his last words being ‘I am not in the least afraid to die’.[12] His preference was a small service at his local church and his wife Emma, though eventually agreeing to a London funeral, did not actually attend.

Though Darwin himself was inoffensive, his theory cut deeply into the beliefs of his day. It seems likely that his lifelong ailments, and long procrastination in publishing his theory, were a manifestation of his dread of the inevitable reaction that greeted his life’s work – the papers dubbing him ‘The Devil’s Disciple’ and pointing out the arrogance of his challenge to natural theology’s intelligent design by a divine creator. Cartoonists had a field day lampooning the degrading implication that humans were related to monkeys.

The theory of evolution, descent with modification under natural selection, was in many ways the culmination of Enlightenment science: it created a new grand narrative because it placed humans within nature rather than separate from it and challenged the idea of human moral superiority within the universe. By about 1870 the new grand narrative, the reality of evolution, was broadly accepted but Darwin’s claim that its mechanism was natural selection remained controversial until the modern evolutionary synthesis of the period 1930-1950. Under its explanatory power the various Christian churches moved from a literal interpretation of the Bible to treat its historical content largely as metaphor and allegory. To this day not all are convinced, believing that the Christian story is essentially correct or that there is (or need not be) conflict between the two accounts of the nature of the world. Darwin had sent the internationally famous Melbourne botanist Ferdinand Mueller a personal copy of On the Origin of Species but Mueller died in 1896 still believing in the immutability of species.

For natural scientists the theory of evolution neatly combined into a unifying and coherent theory anomalous information that had accumulated in biogeography, geology with its fossils and geological strata, embryology, and studies of artificial selection in the domestication of animals and plants. It placed humans within a branching evolutionary tree that that dated back many thousands of years and a geological time frame of eons that, less than 200 years ago, most thought was no greater than about 6,000 years.

Media Gallery

This marathon 7-part BBC series was released in 1978 and stars Malcolm Stoddard as Darwin, and Andrew Burt as Captain Fitzroy. At present it must stand as the definitive portrayal of Darwin’s famous voyage creating a convincing portrayal of the social atmosphere of early 19th century England and Darwin’s times. Only the first part is listed here, the others can be easily found on Youtube.

The Voyage of Charles Darwin, Part 1

ChiswickScience – 2013 – 56:41


First published on the internet – 1 March 2019
. . . revised 10 March 2021


HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan
The Popular Science Monthly, Volume 57 p. 87, reproduction of frontispiece from Darwin, Charles (1890), Journal of researches into the natural history and geology of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle etc. First John Murray illustrated edition, London The Voyage of the Beagle. Author R.T. Pritchett
Courtesy Wikimedia Commons – Accessed 10 March 2021

HMS Beagle in the Straits of Magellan
Print Friendly, PDF & Email