The HMS Beagle Curse

When the 235-ton sailing ship that would be christened the H.M.S. Beagle was first constructed in 1819 at the shipyards in Woolwich, England, no one had any idea of that small ship's strange destiny.  Or the tragedy that would later strike two of its most famous captains.

In 1825, the Beagle was selected to be part of an ambitious long-term voyage of exploration. Along with a larger ship, the H.M.S. Adventure under the command of Captain Philip Parker King, the Beagle would carry out the in-depth charting of the southern coast of South America.  In addition to the relatively routine mapping, the ships would also explore the complex channel and island geography around Tierra del Fuego at South 300px-PSM_V57_D097_Hms_beagle_in_the_straits_of_magellan[1]America’s southernmost tip. Considering the length of time both ships would be at least (more than two years), the captain and crew of both ships needed to be carefully selected to avoid the kind of personality issues that might contribute to poor morale and the failure of the voyage.

From the perspective of Captain King and the other Royal Navy commanders who commissioned the voyage, there was already an ideal candidate available to serve as the Beagle’s captain. Though relatively young to serve as captain (he was 32 when given the commission), Commander Pringle Stokes had a stellar reputation as an able seaman and had been part of the Royal Navy since he was twelve years old.    

Having already traveled on long voyages to West Africa and South America as well as being promoted to Commander through his work combating the slave trade, Stokes seemed well suited for the task.   While he was not trained as a professional scientist (the main point of the voyage),  he had arranged for his own educational upgrading in Edinburgh to prepare for what lay ahead.   Along with Stokes, the Beagle's crew also had its own share of scientists including Robert Fitzroy who acted as the ship's meteorologist.

The Beagle and the Adventure left Plymouth, England on November 19, 1826 with Montevideo, Uruguay as their first port of call.   The careful charting of the South American coastline was an ambitious task considering the uncertain weather conditions around the tip of South America and the shortage of available ports at the time.   The ship also encountered many native tribes, often for the first time ever, and Stokes seemed up to the task as the months dragged on.    In the extensive logs which he kept during his voyage, Stokes described his encounters with some of the native, including commenting on the primitive conditions he found in Tierra del Fuego and Patagonia.

The ships also faced enormous changes in weather ranging from terrible storms to unfavourable winds that left them unable to proceed at times.   The weather was often overcast as well which made astronomical and meteorological observations impossible at times.  There were also various crises along the way including having to rescue the crew of a sealing ship, the Prince of Saxe Cobourg.   Captain Stokes personally took part in that rescue.  Despite the best efforts of both captains, there were also deaths along the way.   Not only were both ships facing unknown dangers but the crew were left exposed to various tropical diseases with little in the way of medicine except what the ship's doctors had available.

By 1828, the Beagle had been at sea for more than two years and the rigours of the long voyage began having a negative effect on the entire crew, especially the ship's captain.   Though Stokes had been on long voyages before,  his naturally gloomy disposition had been badly affected by the voyage and knowing that it would be a long time before he could ever return to England.   In his journal of the voyage, Captain King reported that one of the Beagle's crew told him that Captain Stokes had been confined to his cabin because of illness.   On visiting Stokes, he found him "looking very ill and, in low spirits.  He expressed himself much distressed by the hardships the officers and crew under him had suffered, and I was alarmed at the desponding tone of his conversation."    Though Captain King's visit appeared to rally him somewhat, the worst was yet to come.

By mid-July, Stokes mental state was at an all-time low and he was largely confined to his cabin while his second-in-command, Lieutenant William Skyring, effectively took over the ship.   On August 1, Captain Pringle Stokes shot himself in the head with his own revolver.   The wound was not immediately fatal but medical doctors from the Adventure could do little to keep him alive since gangrene had already set in.    Over the next four days, Captain Stokes was often delirious and raved at length about the Beagle's voyage and all the dangers that they had faced.   Although he recovered from this delirium and managed to be somewhat lucid,  nobody had any real hope of his survival.   He died in extreme agony on the morning of August 12th. 

As Captain King noted in his journal: 

Thus shockingly and prematurely perished an active, intelligent, and most energetic officer, in the prime of life. The severe hardships of the cruize, the dreadful weather experienced, and the dangerous situations in which they were so constantly exposed—caused, as I was afterwards informed, such intense anxiety in his excitable mind, that it became at times so disordered, as to cause the greatest apprehension for the consequences. On the return of the Beagle he got better; and the officers were so sanguine in hoping for his complete restoration to health, on account of his progressive recovery, that nothing which had transpired was communicated to me until after his decease.

The log which Captain Stokes had been keeping faithfully up until his death provides the best evidence of the mental deterioration that he underwent in the final weeks of his life.   In one memorable passage that he wrote in June, he commented on the tedium of the voyage.   "Nothing can be more dreary than the scene around us.  The lofty, bleak, and barren heights that surround the inhospitable shores of this inlet, were covered, even low down their sides, with dense clouds, upon which the fierce squalls that assailed us beat, without causing any change..."   More ominously, he ended the log entry by saying that "The weather was that in which... "the soul of man dies in him."  

After Stokes' suicide, William Skyrigg commanded the ship until it returned to Montevideo for repairs.   While there, the Commander-in-Chief, Sir Robert Otway decided that Lieutenant Robert Fitzroy should be the Beagle's new captain.   Fitzroy took over command of the Beagle on December 15, 1828 and completed the rest of the mapping mission before returning to Great Britain in 1830.    As for Pringle Stokes, his body was buried in the "English cemetary" in Puerto del Hambre (Port Famine) and his gravestone is now on display at a nearby museum.    Captain King used his log of the voyage up to the time of the suicide to prepare the official report of the voyage although the circumstances of his death were largely ignored.

Except by Robert Fitzroy...

Bothered by his predecessor's suicide and worried about the possibility of hereditary suicide in his own family (his uncle Viscount Castlereagh had committed suicide some time previously), Fitzroy decided to take special precautions in preparing for the Beagle's second voyage.    Along with extensively refitting the ship (and moving his own captain's cabin as far away from Stokes' cabin as possible), he also requested that a full-time scientific gentleman would be allowed to accompany him on the voyage.   The idea would be that the companion would share his own scientific ideas, provide intellectual companionship, and generally keep him from falling into the same depression that had doomed Captain Stokes.   After several other candidates turned down the position, Fitzroy eventually settled on a young naturalist named Charles Darwin.   Fitzroy had early misgivings about Darwin since, according to his ideas about physiognomy, the shape of Darwin's nose suggested he had "insuffiicient energy and determination".   Darwin was eventually able to persuade him, though.

It was that second voyage of the Beagle which lasted from 1831 to 1834 that would eventually transform biology as we know it.  Based on his naturalistic observations during the voyage, Charles Darwin would eventually publish On The Origin of Species in 1859.   The book, which outlined his groundbreaking theory of evolution, would face tremendous controversy.   Ironically, one of his most ardent critics would be Robert Fitzroy himself who, as a staunch creationist, would publicly admit his own guilt at the role he had inadvertently played in the development of evolution.   That guilt, along with his own fears of becoming insane would eventually lead to his graphic suicide in 1865.

But that's another story.



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