Historians Are Looking for Images of the HMS Beagle’s Anchors

Researchers are hoping to confirm that they have discovered an anchor from the ship that carried Darwin stuck in the mud of an Australian river

HMS Beagle
Wikimedia Commons/Public Domain

The HMS Beagle is best known as the vessel that took Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands, giving him a world-class education in nature’s diversity. But the converted gun sloop, originally launched in 1820, continued its adventures long after Darwin debarked. It’s a trip Down Under to survey important stretches of the Australian coast that’s put the Beagle back in the news now. Archaeologists in the Northern Territories believe they’ve found one of the storied ship's anchors lost in the Victoria River, and they’re turning to the public for help confirming the find.

Lucy Todman at the Shropshire Star reports that the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory is asking people living in the Shropshire area of England to comb through their collections and look in their attics for depictions of the Beagle. The hope is to unearth a drawing of the ship and its anchors to confirm that the artifact they hope to pry from the muck later this year is, indeed, from the famous ship. So far, curators have only been able to find one image of the Beagle that depicts the anchors.

Todman reports that as part of the ship's third voyage of discovery, it mapped the Australian coast between 1837 and 1843. At one point, the Beagle also attempted to survey the Victoria River. But the crew changed its mind after encountering swarms of mosquitoes, storms, crocodiles and plenty of dysentery. Deciding it wasn’t worth the risk, they decided to head back to the coast. When they tried to raise the anchors to turn around, however, they found they were stuck. To break free, the sailors cut the anchors loose, abandoning them in the river.

In his diary, John Lort Stokes, who served on the crew with Darwin and continued on the Australia wrote, “Perhaps in some future generations, when this part of the world has undergone the changes that seem destined for it, the archaeologist of the Victoria River may in vain puzzle his wits with speculation concerning the Beagle’s anchors.”

But Stokes underestimated what archaeologists would be capable of. One of the anchors was, in fact, located in the muck of the Victoria River last year after at least three previous failed attempts. Last November, an expedition spent two weeks using sonar and maps from the Beagle's day to explore the specific area, known as the Holdfast Reach, where the ship turned around. The river is still so wild that the team could only search for a couple of hours each day. “It’s a dangerous, huge thing, one or 2 kilometers wide in some points, extreme currents, tough conditions — I’ve never seen anything like it,” expedition leader John Canaris tells Taelor Pelusey at the Busselton Dunsborough Times.

All the same, eventually, sonar did ping on what the expedition team is confident is one of the lost anchors. Canaris and crew plan to return to the site and recover the anchor and search for the other one sometime later this year. The museum is planning to display the anchor as one of its prize artifacts and wants to have everything ship shape before the anchor is brought up from over 30 feet of murky water.

Surprisingly, though the Beagle is important for both Darwin’s voyage and its surveys of the Australian coast, it did not merit much consideration after its final trip to Australia. Historian Sean Munger explains that in 1845 the ship was tasked with patrolling the River Roach Tidal System looking for smugglers. But the job didn’t involve much patrolling; the ship was, essentially, moored to one pier for years and even lost its name, becoming a spot on the map marked W.V. No.7.

When oyster fishermen complained the ship was blocking their way in 1850, the Beagle was moved ashore. In 1870, it was sold to a scrapper, who likely dismantled and sold off the superstructure and sunk the hull in the marsh.

In 2000, the BBC reports a group of historians and researchers decided to track down what remained of the ship. Using old maps and ground penetrating radar, they discovered what is believed to be the hull of the ship, along with an anchor. Other anchors located in nearby villages are believed to have been scavenged from the vessel as well. Munger, the historian, writes that timbers from a nearby demolished farmhouse built in 1871 also appears to be constructed from the wood taken from the Beagle.

If and when the anchor is raised, it will be one of the few remaining artifacts from the ship’s glory days at sea. A chronometer, used to help the Beagle find its way at sea, is currently held by the British Museum, one of the only confirmed artifacts left from the little ship that made such a big mark on the world.