NUS News

Darwin’s nautical library goes virtual

An NUS science historian has now reconstructed electronically, and made freely available in its entirety, the library that accompanied Charles Darwin on his landmark round-the-world expedition in the 1830s on board HMS Beagle.

“The Beagle library reveals the sources and inspirations that Darwin read day after day as he swung in his hammock during long sea crossings, or as he worked on his specimens at the chart table or under the microscope. For a long time this was lost to us, but this reconstructed library gives us an unprecedented insight into the journey that changed science and our understanding of the world,” said Dr John van Wyhe, NUS Senior Lecturer from the Biological Sciences and History departments who led the project.

The science historian has published nine books and many articles on Darwin, Alfred Russel Wallace and the history of science. The voyage of the Beagle between 1831 and 1836 was one of the most important scientific expeditions in history. On board was the young Darwin, whose explorations and investigations would later lead to his groundbreaking work in evolutionary biology that changed science and the world forever.


The Beagle may not have had the Internet, but the vessel had a stunning, and what was then state-of-the-art library. Housed in the same cabin where he worked and slept for five years, the library played a major part in Darwin’s research on board the ship, serving as reference and inspiration for the voracious reader and inquisitive naturalist.

Much of the Beagle library was devoted to books about earlier voyages and natural history, but it also included books on geology, history, literature as well as atlases and nautical maps. At least a third of the reconstructed library is in foreign languages such as French, Spanish, German, Latin and Greek.

Earlier efforts had identified 132 works that were likely to have been part of the ship’s library even though the ship’s captain, Robert FitzRoy, estimated that there were 400 volumes. The reconstructed online library consists of 404 volumes amounting to more than 195,000 pages containing more than 5,000 illustrations. It is part of the Darwin Online website, of which Dr van Wyhe is the founder and Director.

Reconstructing the Beagle library took two years of meticulous work. There was originally a catalogue aboard the ship but this has been lost. The library was also dispersed at the end of the voyage. Identifying the books required some historical sleuthing to piece together disparate clues and information from Darwin’s notes, annotations in his surviving books and the writings of other members of the crew. Some clues were also found from the Beagle field notebooks—a series of small notebooks that Darwin used on his shore excursions during the Beagle voyage that Dr van Wyhe has edited. To reconstruct the library, Dr van Wyhe and his assistant Dr Kees Rookmaaker sourced scans of the books online or had them scanned. These scanned copies were then specially transcribed to be searchable on the Darwin Online website. The team strived to use the same editions that Darwin had, or the closest editions available. The reconstructed library also includes works that have been digitised for the first time.

The Beagle library is available here.