Tuesday, October 14, 2008

The Beagles: Voyages, Death and Re-Birth

Here is a modified early draft of a box that appears, much shortened, in the Rough Guide to Evolution...

The Beagles: Voyages, Death and Re-Birth
HMS Beagle, the ship that took Darwin around the world in the 1830s, must rate as one of the most famous naval vessels of all time. Darwin wrote up his experiences in a work commonly called “The Voyage of the Beagle” (although he never used that title; he called it the Journal of Researches, but there are several other alternative names). However, in fact there were several voyages and there have been several Beagles.

Darwin’s Beagle was launched in May 1820 as a ten-gun brig (a vessel with two square-rigged masts). A few months later, she took part in the coronation celebrations for George VI, before being taken out of service for five years. In September 1825, in preparation for her use as a survey vessel, she was fitted out with an extra mast (thus becoming a barque) and lost four of her guns. Her first voyage took place from 1825-1830, when she surveyed the southern regions of South America. She set sail under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes. However, in 1828, when faced with the desolate Straits of Magellan, Stokes became suicidal and shot himself in the head. By a sad twist of fate, it took him twelve days to die, alone in his cabin. He was replaced first by a Lieutenant Skyring, but then a few months later by Robert Fitzroy, who captained the Beagle on its second and most famous voyage from 1831-1836.

The Beagle made a third voyage as a survey vessel from 1837 to 1843, mapping the coastline of Australia. During that trip, surveyor John Lort Stokes (no relation to Pringle), who had accompanied Darwin on the second voyage, named an Australian harbour “Port Darwin” (now the City of Darwin, capital of the Northern Territory), after his former shipmate.

In 1845, the Beagle took on a new life as a coastguard vessel, guarding the Essex marshes while deployed in the River Roach, near the village of Paglesham. She served as home to coastguards and their families for many years, but then disappeared from the historical record. However, recent investigations by Robert Prescott of the University of St. Andrews, have confirmed that the Beagle survived intact until 1870, when parts of her timbers were sold to two local men, William Murray and Thomas Rainer. It is thought that the timbers were used to build a new farmhouse and boat house. However, the hull probably just sank into the mire, where in 2003, Prescott found traces matching the expected profile of the hull using an approach known as atomic dielectric resonance. All that remains of one of the most important vessels in history lies “full fathom five” below the Essex mud!

But Darwin’s ship was actually just the third of nine Royal Navy vessels to bear the name HMS Beagle. The first was constructed around 1766 by the Bombay Marine, the navy of the East India Company, while the last, a survey ship equipped with motorboats called FitzRoy and Darwin, was sold off, re-named and re-fitted in 2002. Several of the Beagle ships saw combat: the second (1804-14) in the Napoleonic wars, the fourth (1854-62) in the Crimean War, the seventh (1909-21) at Gallipoli and the eighth (1930-45) in the Second World War. The fifth Beagle (1872-83) is remembered as the site of the controversial extra-judicial hanging of a South Sea islander.

Beagle 2, named by British scientist Colin Pillinger after Darwin’s vessel, was an ill-fated British spacecraft that formed part of the 2003 Mars Express mission, but was unfortunately lost on Christmas Day 2003. Plans are now afoot for a successor, tentatively named Beagle 2 Evolution, that could fly in 2009.

Also in or shortly after 2009, Darwin’s ship is scheduled to rise again, in the form of a £3.5 million replica of HMS Beagle, built in the Welsh port of Milford Haven. The Beagle Project was initiated by David Lort-Phillips, a Welsh farmer and distant relative of John Lort Stokes, and Peter McGrath, a writer and yachtsman. The re-built Beagle will celebrate the Darwin bicentenary by visiting sites of significance to the original ship and subsequently be used in cutting-edge molecular and metagenomics surveys of plant animal and bacterial biodiversity. Sign up to the Beagle Project Blog to learn more.

Further reading

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