Historic Brisbane Today©

Click here for the ArchivesVIGNETTES





…and HMS Beagle

Psalm 107: 23 speaks to ‘those who go down to the sea in ships; who do business on great waters’ as having seen the ‘works of the lord and his wonders of the deep’. There is a bond formed amongst messmates and it is never cast asunder.

As the land-lubber and constant sufferer of mal de mare, Charles Darwin was to observe…

A Man’s Friendships are one of the

best measures of his Worth

This, after joining his majesty’s ship Beagle in December 1831 as a gentleman’s companion and geologist by inclination for a circumnavigation of planet earth which took until October 1836 – a voyage of monumental significance that generated a debate which continues to this day.

This afternoon, I would like to set to one side the philosophical deliberations that arose from that voyage and look instead at the composition of the extended ship’s company.

Here the chief protagonists were primarily aged in their twenties and thirties as each prepared to be a part of this grand adventure – the second of just three which HMS Beagle would fulfill. The passion of these men for the job at hand, their daring and absence of fear set them aside as warriors fighting a different kind of battle – the battle against ignorance and for enlightenment.

In latter life, a number of these young men would be drawn to a life in the antipodes, marrying and assuming significant positions within the colony of New South Wales; becoming a salt-encrusted version of what has been called the bunyip aristocracy.


HMS Beagle was launched at Woolwich dockyard on the river Thames on 11 may 1820….one of a 100+ class of Cherokee class brig…showing 10 guns, displacing 235 burthen and costing £7,803 pounds.

HMS Beagle by David Bell

HMS Beagle by David Bell

She would embark on three (3) defining voyages of discovery…and ship mate John Clements Wickham was to be aboard of each occasion, in itself a remarkable feat.

Captain Fitzroy          Commander of HMS Beagle & onetime Gov. of New Zealand

Captain Fitzroy Commander of HMS Beagle & onetime Gov. of New Zealand

The first, undertaken between 1826 and 1830, was a hydrographic survey of Patagonia and that region called Tierra del Feugo, the land of fire and ice in the course of which he made the acquaintance of the artist Conrad Martens who would, years later, visit Wickham in Brisbane in the latter’s capacity as police magistrate and government resident ensconced in Newstead house on the banks of the Brisbane river.

The second voyage; by virtue of the time taken in circumnavigating earth, by virtue of the talent which comprised Beagle’s ships company and by virtue of the way in which the voyage contributed to the global narrative; commenced on 27 December 1831 and concluded on 2 October 1836.

The third voyage from 1837 until 1843 saw Beagle wholly pre-occupied in undertaking a detailed survey of Australia’s northern coastline under the command of first Wickham and then John Lort Stokes.

The 1830’s into the 1840’s was a halcyon time of exploration and survey for a collective of young men whose powers of observation had been honed under the watchful eyes of captain Robert Fitzroy and the naturalist Charles Darwin. It was a veritable who’s who beginning with captain Phillip Parker King, John Lort Stokens, Owen Stanley and Philip Gidley King etc.

And what of the two shipmates who, as a consequence of a momentous odyssey, ensured a place in the antipodean narrative for a little-known English naturalist.

John Clements Wickham was born in November 1798 in Leith, Scotland….the son of Samuel, an officer in the royal navy and mother Ellen. As was the custom of the time, John had six brothers, two having died in infancy. Entering the royal naval college in February 1812, he was a midshipman or snottie by 1815 and is recorded as having passed his lieutenant’s examination in 1819, was commissioned in that rank in 1827. 

His dogged pursuit of a naval career saw him rewarded with a posting to HMS Adventure accompanied by a smaller 10 gun sloop called the Beagle, ships charged with the charting of the coasts of Peru, Chile and Patagonia. This voyage brought Wickham into contact with men like Robert Fitzroy, Conrad Martens, Phillip Parker King and Phillip Gidley King. The surveying work in these southern oceans was treacherous however Susanna Evans in her book on Conrad Martens and the Beagle and in Australia paints a wonderful picture of when the weather was fine and the surveying work done for the day, out would come the sketch books to capture the remains of the day.

On this voyage, the suicide of Beagle’s captain, Pringle Stokes would see the elevation of Robert Fitzroy at age 23 to the post of temporary captain and this, in turn, would assure Wickham’s place in maritime history.

A year after the Beagle’s return to England, Wickham (by now 32 years old) was commissioned first lieutenant – the second most senior position on board a royal naval ship. Robert Fitzroy, born in 1805 and thus 26 years of age and with his link to the English crown was to captain the humble Beagle on this adventure which was expected to last two years.

As a ship’s company of 74 men began to be assembled, work was also underway to redesign the Beagle to ensure best sea-keeping practice. The Cherokee class of ships had the dubious honour of being referred to as coffin brigs and so Beagle was virtually rebuilt and made heavier so that she sat better in the water and the raising of her deck ensured that her decks cleared quicker in high seas preventing capsize. There was just one piece of the puzzle missing…the skipper desired a ‘gentleman companion’ to join him. Enter Charles Darwin!

Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin

In 1831, Darwin was 22 years of age, having been born in 1809 to Robert, a doctor with his mother Susannah, a member of the prominent Wedgwood family. Darwin’s father wanted his son to be a doctor whilst at Cambridge, Charles had been more attuned to geology and botany. That said – and in the light of all that was to transpire – Darwin initially believed that his fall-back position could be one of country parson.

And so it was that after a false start Beagle departed Plymouth sound on 27 remember 1831. A gentleman companion aged 22 years for a commanders 26 years of age with little knowledge of life at sea reflected in constant bouts of mal de mer meant that life aboard Beagle for Charles Darwin was a struggle and he was never happier than when on terra firma collecting all manner of specimens. 

Assisting Darwin in this alien environment was Wickham. In his autobiography, Darwin would describe Wickham as ‘a glorious fellow’…and whilst it was Fitzroy who assisted Darwin with his hammock, it was Wickham who provided compresses for his ship mate’s seasickness, observing of his cabin-mate that he was by far ‘the most conversable person on board. There is not another on the ship worth half of him’.

There would be differences of opinion like when the abundance of samples of wildlife and geological specimens threatened the cabin space available to these two ship mates but it was soon resolved. Beagle’s ships’ company bestowed Darwin with the nickname philos but only Wickham was to call him the fly catcher owing to the numerous insect specimens that littered their cabin…and the first lieutenant was also a willing illustrator augmenting the work of the onboard artist and including a painting of the Beagle.

This second voyage was to see the Beagle in an around destinations with a scientific, geological or political provenance which promoted a sense of wonderment and further re-inforced the idea that Beagle was some kind of a social laboratory. This realisation was confronting to Beagle’s young captain who, far from understanding Darwin’s fervour, perhaps now realised that through the opportunity he afforded to Darwin, a potential parson was now estranged from his flock.

As part of this seminal second voyage of the Beagle, Charles Darwin visited Sydney in January 1836 and Darwin had the opportunity to lunch with Maria and Hannibal MacArthur at the vineyard at Parramatta.

The Vineyard at Parramatta. New South Wales

The Vineyard at Parramatta. New South Wales

Writing on 27 January, Darwin wrote of a ‘large party, I think about 18 in the dining room – it sounded strange in my ears to hear very nice looking young ladies exclaim ‘’oh we are Australian and know nothing about England’.

In due course, many of these nice looking young ladies would become consorts to, or earn the acquaintance of, those aboard the Beagle aka some sort of colonial loveboat.

The Beagle returned to England on 2 October 1836 and whilst Darwin sought out terra firma in all haste, his ship mate John Clements Wickham was handed his own command…the Beagle, on one last voyage before being pensioned off as a static customs inspection post in Essex.

The dividend from this third and final voyage was a better understanding of the coastlines of the northern part of Australia. The names and faces of many undertaking this exhaustive survey read were all too familiar for in addition to j. C. Wickham, there were John Lort Stokens, Benjamin Bynoe, Lieuts. Emery and Eden and Master Alexander Usborne.

Beagle departed Portsmouth on 5 July 1837 and would not return until 1843. During this time Beagle would be commanded by two masters, both linked to earlier voyages aboard this remarkable ship…Wickham who, following a debilitating battle with dystenary, who came ashore in 1841, announcing his engagement to Anna MacArthur, one of those nice looking young ladies that had caught his mentor Darwin’s eye in 1836.

The Newstead House of Captain J. C. Wickham        Circa 1852          State Library of NSW

The Newstead House of Captain J. C. Wickham, Circa 1852, State Library of NSW

His brother in law the scot Patrick Leslie was another drawn to those nice looking young ladies, Anna’s sister Kate; and when it came time for Patrick to dispose of his home Newstead in Brisbane town, nobody should be surprised when John Clements Wickham purchased it!

But wait – as they say on those awful television commercials – there’s more…northern Australia to this day boasts the Van Dieman Gulf (11°49’s, 131°57’e) and, in the course of Beagle’s surveying brief whilst working ashore, Stokes and Forsyth mess mates on a previous voyage aboard Beagle were ‘confronted with a wide bay appearing between two white cliffy heads, and stretching away within to a great distance’.

Twenty years before the conflicting acclaim and disdain which accompanied the publication of On the Origin of Species by means of natural selection in 1859, this site was named Port Darwin – the ultimate compliment to a fellow ship mate.

As to just who made that choice, the community of historians is divided. Was this choice a decision of Wickham or Stokes?

That a member of the crew of the Beagle saw fit to endow a significant part of the Australian coast with the name of a man who would later be mirred in controversy, speaks to the special relationships forged amongst ‘those who go down to the sea in ships’.


©David Gibson