The Fate of the Beagle

V. Marshall Law

The author gives an improbable account of the fate of HMS Beagle years after its famous voyage. See HMS Beagle, Ship's company … for further details.

On the 27th of December, 1831, his Majesty's ship Beagle, a ten-gun brig, under the command of Captain Fitz Roy, R. N., sailed from Devonport, England, on an expedition the purpose of which was to complete a survey of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego that had been begun under Captain King (1826-'30); to survey the shores of Chile and Peru, and of some islands in the Pacific; and to carry a chain of chronometrical measurements round the world. The voyage was one of the most memorable ones in the annals of scientific exploration, for, besides the direct results, which, in the condition of geography and natural history at the time, constituted very important additions to knowledge, it carried Charles Darwin, then young and full of the enthusiasm for study that never left him. Mr. Darwin accompanied the expedition on the invitation of its commander, Captain Fitz Roy, and with the special sanction of the Lords of the Admiralty, and, as it turned out, next to the captain of the vessel was perhaps the most important member of it. He made it his special business to inquire into the character and method and the reason of all the natural objects and phenomena he saw, examining what was in the sea while they were upon it, and, when they landed, going ashore and studying the geography and geology and life of the region as thoroughly as the time of stay would permit, and collecting no end of notes and specimens as material for future study.

Besides his elaborate work giving the full story of the expedition and the details of its scientific results—a book which has ever since been a standard authority, and still keeps students in active discussion and investigation—the voyage of the Beagle has to be credited with having supplied the occasion for the composition of the briefer and more popular account which has become one of the classics of English literature.

More than this, and vastly transcending it in the importance of its bearing on the future of science, it was while going round the world and observing on the Beagle that those fundamental facts were gathered and stored in Mr. Darwin's mind which, worked over and developed in after years and compared and combined with subsequently accumulated facts, bore fruit in the Origin of Species and the transformation of science that resulted upon the enunciation of Mr. Darwin's theory of descent.

We all regard the association of any object with great events or with those in which we have great interest as making it precious. We endow ships with a kind of personality, regard them affectionately, and often speak of them fondly, as if they were real living beings in whom we had an interest. Such feelings we might legitimately entertain with regard to the Beagle, so closely associated with the history we have referred to. Few associations deserve, in fact, to be more highly valued than that of this brig, the Beagle, with Mr. Darwin's books and his theory. It is therefore a matter of legitimate concern to inquire into what was the fate of the famous vessel.

The inquiry has been made, and is answered by the Rev. V. Marshall Law, of Oakland, Cal., whose account follows:

“I was lying in my room, in Tsukiji, as I had been day after day, in 1890, watching the lazy roll of the school-ship in the Imperial Naval Academy, just a little to the south, when a caller and an old resident, Mr. Arthur Morris, said to me, ‘I see you have Darwin's old ship, the Beagle, in plain sight out there.’

“ ‘Is that the Beagle?’ I asked in great surprise.

“He assured me that it was, and somehow after he had gone it impressed itself more strongly on my mind the more I thought of it. I lay ill, and part of the time in delirium, for ten days. When I at last got up, the Beagle was gone. I sent inquiries to the Naval Academy, but no one seemed to know anything about her. As soon as I was able to go out, I lost no time in setting on foot inquiries of the whereabouts of the missing ship. I finally learned that she had probably gone to the Imperial Navy Yard in Yokosuka, about thirty miles from Tokio. As soon as I was able to travel we started to go to Yokosuka in search of the missing vessel. Before this, however, I had taken the precaution to put on the track the Englishman, Mr. F. W. Hammond, who taught the young Japanese gunnery in the Imperial Naval Academy at Tokio, and he promised to do all in his power—which in this instance was very great—to help me in my search for the Beagle. To aid him, I gave him the following list of questions, to which he sent me the answers given below months afterward. My questions had gone through the regular naval channels. The answers show how methodical the Japanese are, even if they are slow. In these answers I use their language:

“ ‘Question. How did the Japanese Government happen to get the Beagle?’

“ ‘Answer. The details of getting are not plainly known, but the Prince of Kagoshima procured it on seventy-five thousand dollars, at the 23d of July, first year of Genzi (1860), afterward he offered it to the Government at the June of the third year of Genzi.’

“ ‘Q. Are there any good photographs of her as she was when a war ship?’

“ ‘A. No, we have no one.’

“ ‘Q. Where is the Beagle now?’

“ ‘A. After out of use, she was applied as a Chastising Place for seamen at the Yokosuka station, and then was auctioned at the March, twenty-second year of Genzi.’

“ ‘Q. What was the date of her arrival in Japan?’

“ ‘A. She was received by the Prince of Kagoshima, at Nagasaki, July, the first year of Genzi.’

“ ‘Q. What is her present name? When was her name changed?’

“ ‘A. At the present this ship has no name in the consequence of out of use, but after procured by the Kagoshima Prince the name of Beagle was changed into Kenko Kan.’

“ ‘Q. Do you know how old this ship is, and what she was used for by the British Government before the Japanese got her?’

“ ‘A. She was actually used during twenty-three years, after which she was put out of use, having been constructed at Liverpool, and we can not know what she was applied for before got by Japan, but she remained more or less than one year in England.’ (Darwin made his famous voyage in her from 1831 to 1836.)

“ ‘Q. What is the name of the captain who had charge of her after she became the property of the Japanese Government?’

“ ‘A. Commander Sadakumi Shiba was appointed the acting captain February, 2d year of Genzi; Commander S. Hamataki,from December, 5th year of Genzi; Commander M. Omura, from November, 10th year of Genzi; Commander Sadakumi Shiba, from December, llth year of Genzi; then the last was dismissed on the September, in the 14th year of Genzi.’

“ ‘Q. In what capacity did the Japanese Government use her from the time she arrived up to the time she was dismantled?’

“ ‘A. She was rated as the fifth class at the November, 4th year of Genzi, then the fourth class May the 8th year.

“We found Yokosuka, and our party were shown every courtesy by the Japanese naval officials; so at last we ran down the Beagle, lying on the shore and showing not a vestige of her proud, historic self. She was being torn to pieces, and the parts were sold for ‘old junk.’

“I reflected, as I stood among her spars and chains, her anchors and her capstan, of the significance of the career of the famous vessel, and of her associations with the man whose investigations revolutionized scientific thought and spread consternation for a time in the pulpits of the world. The attitude of these pulpits has been modified by reason of those researches, and the blessings of the world and of the Church now follow the author of them for having shown the way to a juster and more rational conception of the power and purposes of the Creator.”

The fourth HMS Beagle, sold to the Japanese Prince of Kagoshima in 1860.