Book review: ‘HMS Beagle: The ship that changed the course of history’ by Keith S Thomson

A biography of one of the most important ships in history.

HMS BeagleI picked up this out-of-print 1995 book in my favourite Top Secret second-hand bookshop in the Yorkshire Dales early in 2008. But, thanks presumably to the Darwin bicentennial celebrations, it is now back in print—which is great news, because it is a very good book indeed.

Keith Thomson has effectively written a biography of HMS Beagle, from her launch at Woolwich Naval Dockyard on 11th May, 1820, through her three great voyages, to her ignominious end as a static coast guard vessel in the Kent marshes.

It's one hell of a story. Beagle's first and third voyages (to South America and Australia respectively) are usually, and understandably, overshadowed by her legendary second voyage with the young Charles Darwin on board, but Thomson gives all three voyages due coverage. Beagle sailed in an era in which, having dispatched the combined might of the French and Spanish navies at Trafalgar a couple of decades earlier, Britain really did rule the waves. Much effort was expended producing accurate naval maps, and establishing new colonies, particularly in Australia. Beagle played an important role in those endeavours.

The story of HMS Beagle is a story of exploration, adventure, science, discovery, diplomacy, bravery, death, accidental shootings, suicide, friendship, attacks by hostile natives, earthquakes, volcanos, and alien abductions. But, unlike many other tales of nautical derring-do, it also happens to be a completely true story. Even the alien abductions. Why would anyone want to read novels, when real history is so much more exciting?

This book is a must for all Darwin and naval history groupies. It is excellently researched, and very well written. My only minor complaint is that it could have done with a short glossary to explain some of the nautical terms to landlubbers like me.

See also: HMS Beagle: Survey Ship Extraordinary

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