19-May-1832: The untimely death of ‘Poor little Musters’

Charles Musters didn’t have much of a life. As a Volunteer First Class aboard HMS Beagle, and coming as he did from a wealthy, albeit broken, home, he might have gone far. Musters was only about 12 when Beagle set sail from England. He was a great favourite with the officers and crew. Charles Darwin seems to have had something of a soft spot for him too: when the ship reached South America, he took young Musters on a number of exploratory excursions.

But then disaster struck. Captain FitzRoy takes up the story:

It was while the interior of the Beagle was being painted, and no duty going on except at the little observatory on Villegagnon Island, that those officers who could be spared made this excursion to various parts of the harbour [of Rio]. Among other places they were in the river Macacu, and passed a night there. No effect was visible at the time; the party returned in apparent health, and in high spirits; but two days had not elapsed when the seaman, named Morgan, complained of headache and fever.

The boy Jones and Mr. Musters were taken ill, soon afterwards, in a similar manner; but no serious consequences were then apprehended, and it was thought that a change of air would restore them to health. Vain idea! they gradually became worse; the boy died the day after our arrival in Bahia; and, on the 19th of May, my poor little friend Charles Musters, who had been entrusted by his father to my care, and was a favourite with every one, ended his short career.

Musters and his shipmates almost certainly died of malaria. We now know malaria is caused by the protozoan Plasmodium, which is carried by mosquitos, but, in those days, it was though to be caused by bad air—hence the French name: mal-aria. Which is presumably why Fitzroy had believed a change of air would restore them to health.

Darwin was equally distraught by young Musters’ untimely death:

1832

June 4th

I also found King, who had arrived late the evening before in the Beagle. — He brought the calamitous news of the death of three of our ship-mates. — They were the three of the Macacu party who were ill with fever when the Beagle sailed from Rio. — 1st Morgan, an extraordinary powerful man & excellent seaman; he was a very brave man & had performed some curious feats, he put a whole party of Portugeese to flight, who had molested the party; he pitched an armed sentinel into the sea at St Jago; & formerly he was one of the boarders in that most gallant action against the Slaver the Black Joke. — 2d Boy Jones one of the most promising boys in the ship & had been promised but the day before his illness, promotion. — These were the only two of the sailors who were with the Cutter, & picked for their excellence. — And lastly, poor little Musters; who three days before his illness heard of his Mothers death.

Charles Musters was buried in Bahía. He had barely reached his teens. When some of his former shipmates visited his grave on Beagle’s third and final voyage, they discovered it didn’t even have a grave stone.

Poor little Musters, indeed.

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