25-Dec-1833: The HMS Beagle Olympics

The good people of Much Wenlock in Shropshire can be rightly proud that their modern version of the Olympic Games, founded in 1850, inspired Baron Pierre de Coubertin to create what was to become the world's greatest sporting event: the Olympic Games.

Yet Much Wenlock was not the only nineteenth-century community to celebrate its own local ‘Olympic Games’. The City of Liverpool (the world's greatest, in my rather biased opinion) held an annual ‘Grand Olympic Festival’ from 1862–67. Far more importantly, however, the crew of HMS Beagle held their own ‘Olympic Games’ at Port Desire, Patagonia, on Christmas Day 1833. Charles Darwin takes up the story in his Beagle Diary:

25th [December 1833]

Christmas After dining in the Gun-room, the officers & almost every man in the ship went on shore. — The Captain distributed prizes to the best runners, leapers, wrestlers. — These Olympic games were very amusing; it was quite delightful to see with what school-boy eagerness the seamen enjoyed them: old men with long beards & young men without any were playing like so many children. — certainly a much better way of passing Christmas day than the usual one, of every seaman getting as drunk as he possibly can. —

The HMS Beagle Olympics might not have had the wall-to-wall television and internet coverage enjoyed by modern sports fans (and endured by the rest of us), but fortunately the ship's artist, Conrad Martens, was on hand to record the event for posterity:

Slinging the Monkey
‘Slinging the Monkey, Port Desire’, by Conrad Martens (1833).
Image: Cambridge Digital Library. Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 3.0 Unported Licence (CC BY-NC 3.0)

Shown here is Slinging the monkey, Port Desire, the original of which now resides in Cambridge University Library. The sketch depicts HMS Beagle (L) and the Adventure (R) at anchor. In the foreground, six sailors play the naval game Swinging the Monkey, which involved hanging one of their number upside down until he was able to beat one of his taunting colleagues with a stick, after which, the two men swapped places.

Darwin was right to worry about Beagle's crew getting drunk on Christmas Day. At the very start of the voyage, two years earlier, the ship having been stuck in Devonport for weeks, waiting for a change in the weather, Darwin recorded in his diary:

Monday 26th [December 1831]

A beautiful day, & an excellent one for sailing, — the opportunity has been lost owing to the drunkedness & absence of nearly the whole crew. — The ship has been all day in state of anarchy. One days holiday has caused all this mischief; such a scene proves how absolutely necessary strict discipline is amongst such thoughtless beings as Sailors are.- Several have paid the penalty for insolence, by sitting for eight or nine hours in heavy chains. — Whilst in this state, their conduct was like children, abusing every body & thing but themselves, & the next moment nearly crying. — It is an unfortunate beginning, being obliged so early to punish so many of our best men there was however no choice left as to the necessity of doing it.

History does not record which of the Beagle's crew won the most medals at the Beagle Olympics, nor whether they would have put much store in the motto of the modern Olympic Games: Citius, Altius, Fortius [Faster, Higher, Stronger]—although it does have a certain Darwinian ring to it.

Richard Carter, FCD

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks

2 comments

  1. Yet another interesting tidbit from the annals of Darwin's life. A fine read on this rainy christmas morning here in Canada. Thanks.

  2. Yes I read of this account with interest as my 3rd great Grandfather, James Richards, joined the Beagle as Boy 1st on the 19th August 1832 after leaving the Druid, presumably to fill the space left by the death of Boy Jones.
    He sailed with the Beagle until 20th September 1834 and then transferred to HMS Samarang. A peculiar time to leave and it has got me wondering whether perhaps he was part of the crew of the Adventure. This vessel being sold by Fitzroy and leaving several Adventure/Beagle crew without ship. Fitzroy being denied entering 20 men onto the Beagle's books by the admiralty.
    When I look at this particular watercolour of Martens I can't help but visualise James participating.
    Thank you for a marvellous insite into the lives of all of those aboard the Beagle.

Leave a Reply to Russell Musgrove Cancel reply

Your email address will not be published.