A Stunning Invitation

Part of the Darwin exhibition.

In August 1831, Darwin rushed home from a geology trip to Wales, eager to begin two weeks of partridge shooting with the Wedgwoods. But a letter was waiting for him from his Cambridge professor and mentor J. S. Henslow. It contained a chance of a lifetime: an invitation to go on a trip around the world as a naturalist on the HMS Beagle. Darwin was elated—he was longing to travel and explore natural history in tropical lands.

His father, however, threw cold water on the idea. It was time for Charles to settle down, he said, not go dashing off on some "wild scheme." The plan was reckless, dangerous and unfitting for a future clergyman. Charles sadly turned down the invitation. But his father had left one ray of hope: "If you can find any man of common sense who advises you to go, I will give my consent." No one was more sensible and respected by his father than Charles's uncle Josiah Wedgwood. Fortunately Josiah sided with Charles, and together they crafted a point-by-point response that changed his father's mind--and Charles Darwin's future.

Permission Granted

Uncle Josiah "Jos" Wedgwood II
© AMNH Special Collections

Letter: Robert Darwin to Josiah Wedgwood September 1, 1831

Josiah Wedgwood's letter to Charles's father contained detailed, thoughtful responses to all of Robert Darwin's objections. The letter worked. Within hours of reading it, Darwin's father wrote Josiah that he had changed his mind, and Charles could go on the voyage.

"Dear Wedgwood,

Charles is very grateful for your taking so much trouble & interest in his plans. I made up my mind to give up all objections, if you should not see it in the same view as I did.

Charles has stated my objections quite fairly & fully--if he still continues in the same mind after further enquiry, I will give him all the assistance in my power."

Robert Darwin made good on his offer, paying all of Charles's expenses for the entire trip--no small consideration, since it was an unpaid position.

There was no time to be lost. The ship was scheduled to depart in less than a month. Charles raced to Cambridge to consult with Henslow, then hurried on to London to meet the ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy, after which he had to buy supplies and receive a crash course in collecting methods.