A Five-Year Journey

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

The captain and crew of the HMS Beagle originally planned to spend two years on their trip around the world. Instead, the voyage took nearly five years, from December 1831 to October 1836. The primary purpose of the trip, sponsored by the British government, was to survey the coastline and chart the harbors of South America, in order to make better maps and protect British interests in the Americas.

In addition to the ship's official mission, however, it was understood that Darwin was to make scientific observations. So while the ship systematically measured ocean depths, Darwin went ashore to explore and collect specimens. In fact, two-thirds of Darwin's time was spent on dry land, largely in the South American wilderness of Brazil, Argentina, Chile, and remote areas such as the Galápagos Islands. By any measure, Darwin's labors were hugely successful. He brought back specimens of more than 1,500 different species, hundreds of which had never before been seen in Europe.

Plymouth, England

December 27, 1831
After months of delays, the Beagle finally departs.
"The misery I endured from sea-sickness is far beyond what I ever guessed at."

Canary Islands

January 1832
Darwin has dreamed of visiting Tenerife for a year, but a cholera quarantine forces the Beagle to pass without stopping.

Cape Verde Islands

January 1832
"It then first dawned on me that I might perhaps write a book on the geology of the various countries visited, and this made me thrill with delight."


February 1832
Darwin explores Brazilian rain forests for the first time. "Here I first saw a tropical forest in all its sublime grandeur...I never experienced such intense delight."

Rio de Janeiro

April 1832
On a 150-mile trek inland, Darwin is appalled by the cruel treatment of slaves.

Punta Alta

September 1832
"I have been wonderfully lucky with fossil bones. Some of the animals must have been of great dimensions: I am almost sure that many of them are quite new."

December 1832

Tierra del Fuego
Captain Robert FitzRoy repatriates three native people he had brought to England on a previous voyage; he attempts to start a Christian mission, which fails disastrously.

Falkland Islands

March 1833
Darwin collects distinctive island birds and fossils that offer a startling contrast to mainland species.

Rio Negro

August 1833
Darwin explores the Pampas with local gauchos.
"There is high enjoyment in the independence of the Gaucho life--to be able at any moment to pull up your horse, and say, 'Here we will pass the night.' "

Strait of Magellan

June 1834
Two and a half years into the voyage, the Beagle at last reaches the Pacific Ocean.


January 1835
Darwin witnesses the eruption of Mount Osorno.


February 1835
Darwin experiences an earthquake in Valdivia and later visits the leveled town of Concepción. He notes that the coast rose several feet.


March 1835
Darwin climbs the Andes and finds petrified trees similar to those at sea level. He becomes certain the mountains rose "slowly and by little starts," in a long series of earthquakes.


September-October 1835
Darwin finds plants, birds and tortoises with many variations unique to the Galápagos Islands, but that seem mysteriously related to mainland species.


January 1836
Marveling at marsupials, Darwin wonders why there is a whole different set of mammals in Australia.

Cocos Islands (aka Keeling Islands)

April 1836
Darwin studies coral atolls to test his theory of reef formation.
"I am glad we have visited these islands; such formations surely rank high amongst the wonderful objects of this world."


April-May 1836
"It's a complete & very beautiful picture. But, there is no country which has now any attractions for us, without it is seen right astern, & the more distant & indistinct the better. We are all utterly home sick."

Cape of Good Hope

May-June 1836
Darwin visits the English scientist John Herschel, who like Darwin was curious about the origin of new species, which he called the "mystery of mysteries."


August 1836
Both homesick and seasick, Darwin is dismayed when the Beagle makes an unscheduled detour to South America for additional longitude measurements.
"This zig-zag manner of proceeding is very grievous...I loathe, I abhor the sea, & all ships which sail on it."

Falmouth, England

October 2, 1836
"I reached home late last night. My head is quite confused with so much delight."

St. Jago

June 9, 1833

St. Jago, June 9, 1833; watercolor by Conrad Martens
Courtesy Professor Richard D. Keynes. ©AMNH / Denis Finnin

Conrad Martens painted this watercolor just before he joined the Beagle as ship's artist in July 1833. The painting shows St. Jago, the island in the Cape Verdes where Darwin became inspired to write about geology.