‘A floating library’

Some of the books Darwin had with him on HMS Beagle. Darwin Library, Cambridge University Library

There may have been as many as 300 books on board the Beagle. The captain and officers pooled their collections to form a single ‘library’ that all could share. Among Darwin’s own books were travel writings, scientific textbooks such as Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, and a Spanish dictionary. He acquired more as the voyage progressed. Darwin kept many of his ‘Beagle’ books for the rest of his life and they are now in the Darwin Library collection in Cambridge.

Of all the books that Darwin took with him on the voyage, a set of Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative arguably influenced him the most. It was this ‘gentleman-traveller’s’ account of the natural history of Central and South America that fuelled Darwin’s grand ambitions and encouraged him to pursue a scientific voyage in the first place. In 1839 Darwin sent a copy of his Journal of Researches, his popular account of the Beagle voyage, to Humboldt and was deeply moved to receive a long and enthusiastic letter in reply. Humboldt wrote (the original is in French): ‘Considering the importance of your work, Sir, this may be the greatest success that my humble work could bring. Works are of value only if they give rise to better ones.