Remains of Darwin's ship may lie under Essex mud

Monday, February 16, 2004 Posted: 12:50 PM EST (1750 GMT)


LONDON, England (Reuters) -- A group of marine archaeologists may have solved one of the world's most enduring maritime mysteries -- the final resting place of HMS Beagle in which Charles Darwin developed his landmark theory of evolution.

"This vessel is one of the most significant in the history of scientific research," said Robert Prescott of the Beagle Ship Research Group.

So far all that has been seen is a radar image of the outline of a hull under some four meters (12 feet) of mud in the marshes of Essex, east of London, with further research needed to verify that it is indeed the Beagle.

For such a famous ship, the Beagle has been frustratingly hard to find, having disappeared from sight more than a century ago.

But Prescott, who is based at St Andrews University in Scotland, is confident they have found their quarry.

"We have followed a carefully researched trail that has led us to this berth," he said.

It was in the Beagle that Darwin travelled the globe for five years from 1831 carrying out survey work and gradually piecing together his observations of species that would some 20 years later result in his epochal book, the Origin of Species.

The book, which postulated the theory that species evolved to suit their environments, caused an outcry in religious circles that reverberates to this day.

After the voyage, the Beagle -- one of a type of ship that was the workhorse of the Royal Navy -- was attached to Customs and Excise and was used to catch smugglers along the Essex coast.

Prescott's detective work found that for many years the Beagle was moored mid-stream on the River Roach and was home to successive families of coastguards.

Then in 1870, at the age of 50, the ship was sold to a local firm of scrap merchants and the record ceases.

But it is known that the firm had a small dock on the river, and it is at this long-lost dock that the scientists have found the outline of a ship they believe is the Beagle.

The decision now is what to do with what they have found.

"At this stage we are not considering raising the ship and conserving it. In fact once we have verified that it is the Beagle we could just walk away," Prescott said.

"But it would be fascinating to find out what is left in there. Who knows -- there may be coins from Darwin's pocket or even the evidence of insects from his voyage."