Image of the HMS Beagle

Darwin’s dockdown reading list

By Danielle Czerkaszyn, Senior Archives and Library Assistant 

Yes, lockdown 3 is long but imagine being stuck on a boat for years on end with no TV, no internet and definitely no Netflix. Luckily, when Charles Darwin set sail on the HMS Beagle in 1831 he had access to a library of over 400 books on the ship. For Darwin Day, 12th February, we explored some of what Darwin read to help him pass the time…

Image of Young Darwin
Young Darwin by George Richmond, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

As Darwin was following in the footsteps of earlier voyage naturalists, the Beagle library was well stocked with an excellent collection of books chronicling classic expeditions, such as James Cook’s three voyages to the Pacific Ocean (although this book is a later account of Cook’s voyages). Not only did reading about these earlier voyages inspire Darwin to undertake his own, but these accounts gave him insight into life at sea as well as fascinating details of some of the faraway places he was expecting to visit.

James Cook’s voyages

Many of the Beagle library books were beautifully illustrated with woodcuts or engravings of animals. Georges Cuvier’s, The animal kingdom arranged in conformity with its organization… (1827-35) had several volumes full of spectacular images covering mammals, birds, fish, reptiles, fossils, molluscs, crustaceans, arachnids and insects. While Darwin may not have had all 16 volumes with him on the Beagle, as some were published while his voyage was in progress, the numerous volumes Darwin did have access to would have provided a wealth of information and detailed illustrations to aid in species identification.

Using the vivid descriptions and chart in Patrick Syme’s Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours (1814) Darwin was able to identify the colours of the natural world and accurately record the colours of the plants and animals he encountered on his voyage. This beautiful pocket-sized taxonomic guide provided a uniform standard for colours that other naturalists would have understood and was an indispensable tool for Darwin in his scientific observations.

The most important book for Darwin was Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology (1830-33). Darwin was gifted the first volume of the first edition by the Captain of the Beagle, Robert Fitzroy, as a welcoming present for joining the voyage. Darwin received the second and third volumes while in South America. In Principles, Lyell argued the earth is extremely old and the processes that changed the earth in the past are still at work today. Inspired by Lyell’s ‘uniformitarian’ proposal, this theory allowed for the longer time span Darwin believed necessary for evolution to occur.

Reading other books of exploration encouraged Darwin to chronicle his own voyage. His bestseller was published in 1839 as Darwin’s Journal of Researches. A revised 2nd edition was published in 1845 with a dedication to Charles Lyell and his “admirable Principles of Geology.”

To learn more about what Charles Darwin read on board the Beagle:

Nature’s medals

By Sarah Joomun, Documentation officer

In the 1820s a young geologist named Charles Lyell travelled around France studying the landscape and rock formations to try and work out the processes that created them.

In between these field-trips, he met the people who had been studying the geology of France and from these discussions and his observations he created The Principles of Geology, one of the first significant popular science books on the subject and a foundation for the methods of modern geology.


Lyell collected many samples from the rocks he studied, amassing thousands of fossils during his lifetime. The Museum has a collection of some 16,000 of them, around 90 per cent of which are shells, mostly gastropods (snails) and bivalves (clams), many collected during his travels in France.

The reason for this prodigious collection of fossil shells, or testacea as they were then known, was that Lyell believed them to be the most useful clue to understanding the Earth’s history.

The testacea are by far the most important of all classes of organic beings which have left their spoils in the subaqueous deposits : they are the medals which nature has chiefly selected to record the history of the former changes of the globe.

– Lyell’s Principles of Geology, Vol III, 1833.

Fossil shells can show how the animal that lived inside the shell behaved, and whether it lived on the land, in freshwater or in the sea. Species of shelled animals have a wide geographical range and individual species survive for a long time, so they can be compared across time and space.


This allowed Lyell and his colleagues to determine the relative ages of the rock layers that the fossil shells came from. He looked at the proportion of shells that belonged to living species and determined that the rock layers with the lowest proportion of living species were likely to be older than rocks with higher proportions of living species.

And so three main groups of rock layers were found: the Eocene, containing fewer than 4% living species; the Miocene, with fewer than 18% living species; and the Pliocene, with more than a third of living species.

Although what is now known as the Eocene (from 56 to 34 million years ago), Miocene (23 to 5.3 million years ago) and the Pliocene (from 5.3 to 2.6 million years ago) don’t denote exactly the same periods as Lyell described, we still use these terms for some of the youngest geological epochs today.