Diagram of the HMS Beagle (1832), with the library at the top right above the "Captain's Store room" (courtesy Complete Work of Charles Darwin Online)

Diagram of the HMS Beagle (1832), with the library at the top right above the “Captain’s Store room” (all images courtesy Darwin Online)

For the five years Charles Darwin spent sailing on the HMS Beagle — a journey intended to last just two years — the budding naturalist had around 404 books for company (along with the crew of over 70). The collection mostly belong to Captain FitzRoy, who had taken over after the previous captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide. After the ship returned to England on October 2, 1836, the books were dispersed, only now reassembled in a digital form.

Launched today, the Darwin Online Beagle Library brings together the titles through careful research into Darwin’s references in his notebooks, crew member letters, and the surviving volumes. The 195,000 pages include 5,000 illustrations, with books ranging from scientific texts like Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, to tales from other nautical explorers like James Cook, and literary fare like Milton’s Paradise Lost.

John van Wyhe, a science historian at the National University of Singapore and the leader of the research team, told the Guardian, “Darwin literally lived in the library for five years. […] The science of his day was already quite sophisticated. All these geology books and all these books on fossils. Darwin could build on what was already known and what had come before.”

There wasn’t much else to do on the long stretches between the Galápagos, Tahiti, Australia, and other lands (except of course, keep the boat afloat, but that wasn’t his job), so Darwin dove into the notes from previous explorers, perhaps later shocked that animals such as the wide-eyed creatures in Thomas Pennant’s 1793 History of quadrupeds weren’t quite as hallucinatory as promised. However, it all gave a base of knowledge that would later be a foundation for his 1859 On the Origin of Species. Some texts were essential to his research, like Werner’s Colours (1821) that he used to note the distinct colors of fish scales and bird eyes, things that couldn’t be easily collected. Having it all compiled together gives a context for what kind of knowledge Darwin was immersing his brain in, and now you can examine it all yourself without the risk of cabin fever.

Bird dissection illustration from William Swainson’s 1822 “The naturalist’s guide for collecting and preserving all subjects of natural history and botany, intended for the use of students and travellers”

Illustration from Thomas Pennant’s “History of quadrupeds” (1793)

Illustration from Thomas Pennant’s “History of quadrupeds” (1793)

The Marmota Africana (or African Rat) illustrated in Carl Peter Thunberg’s “Travels in Europe, Africa and Asia, performed between the years 1770 and 1779” (1795-96)

“Dangers of the Whale Fishery” illustration from William Scoresby’s 1820 “An account of the Arctic regions, with a history and description of the northern whale-fishery”

“Cavern at Thompson’s point” illustration in Robert Seale’s 1834 “The geognosy of the Island of St. Helena, illustrated in a series of views, plans and sections; accompanied with explanatory remarks and observations”

Illustration from Louis Claude Desaulses de Freycinet, “Voyage aautour du monde entrepris par ordre du Roi, exécuté sur les corvettes de S.M. l’Oranie et la Physicienne pendant les années 1817, 1818, 1819 et 1820”

Find all of the Charles Darwin Beagle library at Darwin Online

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Allison Meier

Allison C. Meier is a former staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Oklahoma, she has been covering visual culture and overlooked history for print...