During August 1831 Charles Darwin, recently graduated from the University of Cambridge, was stuck at home on exactly the same principle, he complained, as a person would choose to remain in a debtors’ prison. At age 22, Darwin was fascinated by the natural world and inspired by the adventure stories of the German naturalist Alexander von Humboldt, whose travels across Central and South America in the early 1800s was the basis of a series of extensive travelogues. Darwin was desperate to undertake a similar scientific odyssey. An attempt to organize an expedition to Tenerife in the Canary Islands off the coast of northwest Africa, had fallen through.
The awful necessity of earning his own living, probably as the vicar of a country parish, seemed inescapable. And then a letter arrived offering Darwin an amazing opportunity. The writer was one of Darwin’s former teachers, John Stevens Henslow, professor of botany at Cambridge. Henslow informed Darwin that he had recommended him to accompany Captain Robert FitzRoy on an expedition aboard the H.M.S. Beagle. He wrote: “I state this not on the supposition of yr. being a finished Naturalist, but as amply qualified for collecting, observing, & noting any thing worthy . . . in Natural History.”
Robert FitzRoy was an aristocratic but mercurial naval captain. In 1826 he had set off as a crew member on the Beagle to carry out a survey of South America. In the course of the voyage, he was placed in command of the expedition, from which he returned in 1830. The letter from Henslow to Darwin was written as FitzRoy was under instructions from the Admiralty to mount a second survey expedition to Tierra del Fuego, an archipelago at the tip of South America. The primary motive of the voyage was to chart the coast of South America. A secondary motive was scientific exploration. FitzRoy wanted a naturalist aboard, both to carry out scientific work and to keep him company.