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Dr Nigel Erskine, Curator, Australian National Maritime Museum

Hi, I’m Dr Nigel Erskine and I am the curator for this Darwin exhibition here at the Australian National Maritime Museum. One of the most important objects that we’ve had created for this exhibition is this stunning model of HMS Beagle.

If it wasn’t for Darwin we wouldn’t have been considered it to have been a very important vessel. It’s one of over a hundred vessels of this type built for the Royal Navy and basically they were quite small and relatively unimportant vessels. They were called ten-gun brigs and you’ll see along the side of the vessel there are these black gun ports, and there are ten on either side. The Beagle is only about 27 metres on deck, it’s about 7 1/2 metres wide and under the waterline it drew about 3 1/2 metres.

So on the deck here, you’ll see under the poop deck here we´ve got further accommodation and this is where Darwin lived. Darwin at this time was a young man, he was 22 years old. And that was probably just as well because these were very cramped conditions indeed to live on for 5 years.

He lived in a cabin where he couldn’t stand up, Darwin, we know was about 1.8 metres tall, and he didn’t have full standing headroom within that cabin. What’s more, he also shared that cabin with two others, he shared it with the midshipman Phillip Gidley King and during the day there would also be another midshipman in there, John Lort Stokes, who was the assistant surveyor on this voyage.

One of the main features in the cabin was a large table, and it was on that table that the charts were spread out, and they would carry out their normal surveying work. We’ve recreated this mock-up of Darwin’s cabin on board the Beagle just to simply give people an idea of just how cramped the lifestyle was. Darwin was about 1.8 metres tall, a bit taller than me, and you can see here that he wouldn’t have been able to stand up, underneath the deck out here. Underneath the main skylight he would have had head room there. So you have to consider that this is where he slept, where he worked, he had his library here, in fact the whole ship’s library was here, so he had to cram his own books in with those of the other officers on board, and he had to share this table space here with the surveyors. This was a survey ship, and the real work of the ship was surveying, creating the charts, etc, and Darwin would have to fight for his little bit of space over here.

In the background here you can see his hammock, so he had to sleep in this are as well. There was also a midshipman in here, Phillip Gidley King, he also slept in here at night, and during the day another midshipman, John Lort Stokes, would be working in the cabin.

Some of the props here we’ve recreated — Darwin throughout the voyage, he sent packages of specimens back to his Professor at Cambridge, John Henslow, and it was Henslow who would decide who was the expert on the particular species, of the botanical specimens, of the fish etc., and send them out to those people to have them describe, so that by the time Darwin got back to Britain in 1836, he was already known as a naturalist.

If you can imagine being in this environment for five years, being terribly seasick, you can see that he suffered a lot and it’s not surprising at all that he never went back to sea after this voyage. In fact, in 1843 when he bought Down House, abut 25 kilometres south of London, he never really ventured very far from that base, it became a stable base where his family was, and he was entirely happy just to be there and to work in that environment.

So we hope that people enjoy this.