26 December 1831 - to - 27 February 1832

Crossing the Atlantic Ocean:

H.M.S. Beagle leaves Plymouth Harbor
A tour of the Madeira and Canary islands
Landfall at the Cape Verde islands

The weather was now quite fine and the Beagle was ready to set sail on 26 December. Unfortunately, the opportunity was lost due to the entire crew being either missing or drunk from the festivities of the night before (for Christmas).

On the morning of 27 December 1831, H.M.S. Beagle, with a crew of seventy-three men, sailed out of Plymouth harbor under a calm easterly wind and drizzly rain. Darwin became seasick almost immediately and started to have second thoughts about the voyage.

Capt. FitzRoy had a more optimistic view on things:

"Never, I believe, did a vessel leave England better provided, or fitted for the service she was destined to perform, and for the health and comfort of her crew, than the Beagle. If we did want any thing which could have been carried, it was our own fault; for all that was asked for, from the Dockyard, Victualling Department, Navy Board, or Admiralty, was granted."
-- Capt. Robert FitzRoy [9]

The Beagle arrived near Madeira Island, its first port-of-call, on 4 January 1832. Unfortunately a westerly squall prevented the ship from making port. Darwin took little notice of this turn of events, as he was too ill to even leave his cabin.

Two days later the Beagle arrived at the port of Santa Cruz at Tenerife Island (where Darwin had formally planned to visit with his friend Ramsay). Just as they released anchor, a small boat from the Health Office came out to meet the Beagle and an officer informed Capt. FitzRoy that they were prevented from going ashore due to a cholera outbreak in England. The crew of the Beagle would have to wait out a quarantine period of twelve days.

Capt. FitzRoy, eager that no time would be lost on their primary mission, gave orders for the ship to proceed to the Cape Verde Islands. Darwin was devastated at missing the chance to see the island of his dreams, and watched Tenerife fade off into the horizon.

"This was a great disappointment to Mr. Darwin, who had cherished a hope of visiting the Peak. To see it -- to anchor and be on the point of landing, yet be obliged to turn away without the slightest prospect of beholding Teneriffe again -- was indeed to him a real calamity."
-- Capt. Robert FitzRoy [10]

H.M.S. Beagle arrived at the Cape Verde Islands on 16 January and anchored at Porto Praya, on the island of Santiago (spelled St. Jago, in Darwin's narrative). Darwin went ashore with two officers and rode to the village of Ribeira Grande, a few miles east of Porto Praya, to visit some Spanish ruins there, and returned to Porto Praya the next morning. On another day Darwin headed for St. Domingo, but became lost along the way and ended up at the village of Fuentes before heading back to the Beagle.

Darwin made detailed observations of a cuttle-fish that populated the tide pools around the island, and was fascinated by their ability to change colors. He wrote with much excitement to Revd. Henslow about his discovery of a strange animal that could change colors at will (later Darwin learned that this was already known to natural science).

Darwin's Discovery:

It was on Santiago that Darwin made his first curious discovery. He found a horizontal white band of shells within a cliff face along the shoreline of Porto Praya. The fact that this layer was forty-five feet above sea level raised some interesting questions for Darwin.

- It was obvious that this layer of shells was at one time under the ocean. How did it end up forty-five feet above sea level?

- Was it possible that small upward movements of the land raised the shell layer? More violent movements of the earth would have otherwise broken up the nearly horizontal line of shells.

The arrangement of the shell layer appeared to support Lyell's theory of a world slowly changing over great periods of time, a novel concept in Darwin's day. This observation, and many others like it, would later lead Darwin to develop his own theory of raising continents and sinking ocean floors.

The Beagle left Santiago on 7 February and sailed towards Brazil, stopping for one day St. Paul's rocks. The rocks were a hazard to passing ships and Capt. FitzRoy wanted to get an accurate chronometric reading on their location, so two boats were sent to examine the rocks amid the shark infested waters. Darwin went onshore and described the rocks as standing just 50 feet above the ocean, and covered with bird dung. Two species of birds inhabited the rocks, the booby (a kind of gannet), and the noddy (a kind of tern). Apparently, the birds were so tame that one could walk up to them and hit them with a stick.

The Beagle crossed the equator on 16 February and arrived four days later at the island of Fernando de Noronha where they stayed only a few hours. Darwin described the island as being about 1,000 feet in height and volcanic in nature, with dry leafless wooded areas and curious obelisk-like columns of volcanic rock scattered about.

[9] Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty's Ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836, Volume 2, page 43. FitzRoy, Capt. Robert. New York: AMS Press, 1966. (a reprint of the 1839 edition, by Henry Colburn Publishers, London)

[10] ibid, page 49.