On a square-rigger voyage across the Atlantic with heirs of the protagonists from the legendary HMS Beagle—Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy and naturalist Charles Darwin—the real and the surreal are barely distinguishable. From our September 2012 issue.
Then we caught a bus back to the port and the ship’s large motor tender carried us out to Amsterdam. She sat at anchor against the deepening glow of nautical twilight looking impossibly gorgeous, more exotic than any tropical island, evocative of every cliché of South Seas romance, every frame of every version of Mutiny on the Bounty. We gazed at her, as we approached, with relief and longing. Her lousy grub notwithstanding, we adored her.
At Salvador, Darwin and FitzRoy had their first real argument—a difference of opinion about slavery, which was still legal in Brazil in 1831—and for about a week, Darwin considered returning to England. History tells us the two men made up. But Darwin wasn’t FitzRoy’s first choice for the unpaid position of the Beagle’s naturalist. A number of eminent savants had been offered the cruise of a lifetime, but the hunting, shooting, and bug-collecting grad from a wealthy family was, in the end, the only one who could get away for such an indefinite period. Though already steeped in the known sciences, FitzRoy himself was only 26 when they sailed, yet he proved to have a profound influence on Darwin. They set off as two young men with a shipload of books and instruments, and the whole world at their disposal. It really was Bob and Charlie’s Excellent Adventure.
|We all grew to adore teh stately Stad Amsterdam, a close replica of a 19th-century tea-clipper design that resembles teh famed British trader Cutty Sark.|
There were no temper tantrums aboard the Amsterdam, although before we reached Salvador, so ravenous were we for dietary change that Michael FitzRoy broached great-great-granddaughter Sarah Darwin’s stash of Marmite hidden away in the galley. She was to join the ship at Salvador but had sent provisions in advance. I think he may have left her a note, something like: “Dear Darwin, Sorry about the Marmite, FitzRoy.” In its own way, it was quite a historic little document.
Michael, Sir James, and I left the ship at Salvador. With the intermingling of intellectual and maritime adventure, as well as historical events examined beneath the gloss of documentary television—all of which unfolded under the towering spars of the fabulous Stad Amsterdam—it had been a voyage to another time, another world. As clichéd as it sounds, it was surely a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
That said, the producers called me a few weeks later and asked me if I’d care to rejoin the ship on its passage through the Strait of Magellan under the terms of the previous leg, with airfare and expenses paid. Incredibly, I didn’t go. I thought I had something better to do. I can’t now imagine what. Now that’s history.
Along with Evolution’s Captain, Peter Nichols is also the author of A Voyage for Madmen, Sea Change, and the novel Voyage to the North Star.