A Ship and its Captain

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

Captain FitzRoy of the H.M.S. Beagle
© Wellcome Library London

Captain Robert FitzRoy had extremely high standards for any ship he intended to command—and the money to back up his wishes. What the Admiralty wouldn't pay for, he bought out of his own pocket. He claimed, with justification, "Perhaps no vessel ever quitted her own country with better or more ample supply (in proportion to her probable necessities) of every kind of useful provision." The newly built cabins were outfitted in mahogany, the deck was raised to make more room to walk below and the hull was covered in copper.

FitzRoy was especially demanding about scientific instruments. To prevent the ship's iron cannons from interfering with his precision compasses, he replaced them with brass cannons at his own expense. And after the Admiralty provided more than a dozen timepieces, which were used to measure longitude, FitzRoy insisted on buying six more, which only he and one other man were allowed to touch.

Crossing the Line

Tradition called for a raucous ceremony when crossing the equator. The ship's tight discipline was eased for one day, as sailors "crossed the line." Captain FitzRoy, dressed as Father Neptune, summoned the first-time equator-crossers for an alarming initiation. Darwin was blindfolded, flipped into a sail filled with water and roughly "shaved" with a piece of iron for a razor, and tar for shaving cream. Soon water was "flying about in every direction," and "not one person, even the Captain, got clear of being wet through."

The Beagle in the Strait of Magellan
H.M.S. Beagle in the Strait of Magellan
© AMNH Special Collections

A primary purpose of the Beagle's mission was to chart the treacherous channels of the Strait of Magellan, on South America's southern tip. Rough weather, high winds, and a maze of winding, rocky waterways made for dangerous sailing—one reason the Admiralty wanted more accurate maps.

Captain FitzRoy

Robert FitzRoy was a wealthy nobleman, a descendant of the Duke of Grafton and the Marquis of Londonderry. He was widely admired for his tight command of his men but had a fiery temper. Darwin felt FitzRoy's wrath himself when he disagreed with him over slavery. Darwin detested slavery, and though usually diplomatic around the captain, he refused to accept FitzRoy's opinion that Brazilian slaves were "happy." FitzRoy became so angry that Darwin prepared to leave the ship, but the dispute blew over when FitzRoy apologized.