Earthbound starship: The strange fate of the HMS Beagle.

hms beagle australia 1837

The HMS Beagle is arguably one of the most famous ships in the history of seafaring. This relatively small British ship–only 90 feet long–is justifiably remembered for being the vessel on which Charles Darwin sailed from 1831 to 1836, and on this voyage he made the observations from which he developed the theory of evolution, which remains one of the most important and revolutionary single contributions to the history of science in the last 200 years. What’s interesting is that the Beagle was a ship of the British Navy–a military vessel, but one which was sent on a non-military mission that turned out to be one of the most epic adventures in the history of science. In that sense the Beagle is not unlike the fictional starship USS Enterprise from Star Trek: a military tool used for peaceful scientific purposes. There’s something cosmic about Darwin and the second voyage of the Beagle, and areas that it explored like the Galapagos Islands were the 1830s equivalents of alien planets, so one can be forgiven for thinking of the ship as sort of a starship on Earth.

This article is not really about Darwin or the historic second voyage of the Beagle. I thought it would be interesting to look into what happened to this famous ship after her period of fame–similar to how I covered the sad but interesting career of the Mary Celeste following the 1872 incident that made her famous. In the Beagle’s case there’s a bit of a mystery as well as a story, because there are still a lot of holes in her post-Darwin history.

The Beagle was built as a warship in 1820, but five years later she was converted to a survey barque and sent on largely scientific and exploratory missions–which is how Darwin came aboard. When the ship returned to England in October 1836, she was overhauled and sent within a few months on another long voyage of exploration: to Australia and the South Pacific. The Beagle’s captain on this voyage was John Clements Wickham, who was a lieutenant on the second voyage and had known Darwin well. In fact Wickham named a location in Australia after his famous passenger, Port Darwin, and Wickham also carried to Australia a Galapagos turtle that had been given to him by the naturalist. Astonishingly, this turtle, named Harriet, lived into this century, dying in 2006, less than a decade ago.

harriet turtle by fritz geller-grimm

Harriet, a Galapagos turtle, is believed to have been collected by Darwin in the 1830s and wound up in Australia aboard the Beagle years later. She died in June 2006.

The isolation and pressures of command on a long voyage of exploration–similar, again, to those depicted as part of a long space voyage on Star Trek–proved too much for Wickham. In March 1841 Wickham became ill and resigned his command, which fell to his executive officer, John Stokes. The Beagle continued to explore Australia, Tasmania and the Timor Sea for two more years, ultimately concluding its third long voyage in 1843–nearly six years after it set out. By now she had been around the world and on the forefront of scientific, geographic and biological discovery for many years. The Royal Navy decided it was time for more austere duties. Wickham returned to Australia, serving in the colonial government; Stokes went on to another command and rose to the rank of admiral. The Beagle was retooled and sent out for patrol on homeland English waterways in 1845.

In this part of her career, the Beagle’s mission was to keep watch for smugglers along an extensive series of waterways now called the River Roach Tidal River System. If that sounds kind of dull, it’s because it probably was. She served as a “watch vessel” for the Custom & Excise department of the British government. Evidently the Beagle didn’t move around much during this part of her career, and eventually she became a fixture of the river landscape–possibly even moved onto land after oyster fishermen complained that it was blocking their usual routes. An 1847 chart of this area shows the Beagle moored in a particular part of the river. Somehow she also eventually lost the name Beagle, becoming known as “W.V No. 7.”

hms beagle in strait of magellan

The Beagle in happier times, in the Strait of Magellan on her historic second voyage. This illustration appeared as a frontispiece to one of the original printings of Darwin’s book.

Strangely, only one other piece of documentary evidence exists as to the fate of the Beagle after 1847: a bill of sale in which her hulk was sold to shipbreakers. This document is dated 1870. It was not known precisely where the old ship was broken up at that time, but recent evidence suggests that the breakers, Messrs. Murray and Trainer, took apart her above-water superstructure and then may have scuttled what was left of the ship where she lay in the River Roach. The physical evidence that suggests this was not discovered until the year 2000, when a team of researchers from the University of St. Andrews began investigating nautical Victorian artifacts found in an Essex marsh. Using radar imaging technology, the investigators found lumps of wood and metal buried 5 meters beneath sticky mud of the marsh–but right in the place where the Beagle may have been moored permanently as a customs vessel.

Interestingly, there were other artifacts found in the area that support this claim. In 1871 a new farmhouse appeared in the Paglesham area where the Beagle was broken up. That house was demolished about the time of World War II, but some of its timbers were used in constructing a nearby boathouse. The timbers were exactly the same size, shape and composition as some that would’ve been used to construct the Beagle. Then in 2003 an anchor was found beneath the marsh. Manufactured in 1841, it matched the kind used by the Beagle. Other anchors have also been located in nearby towns.

resting place of the beagle

This muddy flat across from Paglesham, England is thought to be the final resting place of the HMS Beagle.

It’s amazing that a ship of this importance, associated with one of the most consequential scientific expeditions in human history, wound up broken into pieces and sinking into the mud beneath an English marsh. This is the part of the Beagle’s story that isn’t so much like Star Trek. Imagine if, decades after Kirk, Spock and the crew went on to greater glories, the Enterprise herself were somehow lost, then found again in minute pieces that had long ago been dismissed as junk. Unfortunately this is what happens to ships, even famous ones.

Other pieces of the Beagle and her connection to Darwin’s voyage did survive and have been given the respect they are due. The ship’s chronometer from the second voyage, for instance, has been preserved in the British Museum. I showcased it on this blog a while back as part of my “42 Historical Objects” series. Also, a replica of the Beagle is currently being built in South America.

The header image was created by Owen Stanley in 1837 and is in the public domain. The photo of “Harriet” is by Fritz Geller-Grimm and is used under Creative Commons 2.5 (Attribution) license. The image of the Beagle in the Strait of Magellan was created by R.T. Pritchett and is also in the public domain.
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4 Comments

  1. I can think of two other historic ships that were allowed to disintegrate or rob. Drake’s “the Golden Hind” was in existence for over a century after it’s historic voyage around the globe but by 1700 it’s location was lost and it was believed to have disintegrated tied to a dock in the London area of the Thames. More recently, the flagship of Admiral David Farragut at the battle of Mobile Bay (August 1864), on which he made his famous statement “Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead!”, was the U.S.S. Hartford. Incredibly it survived the 19th and early 20th Century, and was docked in Newport News, Virginia, when specialist naval architects and historians reported it was rotting for lack of adequate care. The Eisienhower administration began trying to get money in the budget for reconstructing and restoring Farragut’s ship, but in 1958 it fell apart at it’s dock. Like HMS Beagle parts were rescued and put into museums or places of honor. Still the boat was lost.

    So was Commodore Stephen Decatur’s ship USS Macedonian, which after a long and checquered career ended as a kind of floating restaurant, until it burned to the water’s edge in New York City in 1925.

    Ironically, it is frequently those ships that met tragic fates that last longest these days. The “Mary Rose”, the “Monitor”, the ironclad “Cairo” all were partly saved from the sea, and put into museums. A few were fully saved (Nelson’s “HMS Victory”, “HMS Warrior” – the first ironclad warship, “The Great Britain” of Brunel, Dewey’s “USS Olympia”, “the USS Constellation”, “the CSS Hunley”). But many shipwrecks exist, (“Titanic”, “Empress of Ireland”, “Lusitania”, “Bismarck” , :”Hood”). Apparently if it sinks the damage is quickly done, and the wreck can last for a long time before it collapses due to currents and undersea activities.

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