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Previously unrecorded marine chronometer from Darwin's HMS Beagle voyage for sale at Bonhams
Only privately-owned example to have been present during the formulation of Darwin's theory of evolution. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- A second previously unrecorded marine chronometer used on the 2nd and 3rd voyages of HMS Beagle will be offered in the Fine Clocks Sale on December 10th at Bonhams New Bond Street salerooms, carrying a pre-sale estimate of 30,000-50,000.

It is the only known marine chronometer in private hands that was present on board HMS Beagle when Charles Darwin visited the Galapagos Islands in 1835, when he recorded and collected specimens of the flora and fauna that would lead to his momentous theory of evolution by natural selection, published in his seminal work 'The Origin of Species' in 1859.

HMS Beagle was an Admiralty survey ship sent on three major expeditions. The first (1826–1830) was to survey the coast of South America, accompanying HMS Adventure. The second expedition (1831–1836) was to build on the work of the first in South America, and then to go onward to establish a chain of linked reference points encircling the globe. The third expedition (1837–1843) surveyed the coast of Australia.

When HMS Beagle left Plymouth for her second voyage in December 1831, the ship carried a young naturalist, Charles Darwin. He had been recruited with the responsibility of “collecting, observing, and noting, anything worthy to be noted in Natural History”. Aside from Darwin’s particular remit, the voyage was tasked with completing the work of the previous journey, in surveying the southern coast of South America, and recording the latitude and longitude of each port of call. For this purpose, the Beagle carried 22 chronometers on board, including the present lot- which is one of only 11 that completed the seven year voyage on board the Beagle.

By the time the Beagle returned to England in October 1836, Darwin had sailed 40,000 miles around the world and collected more than 5,000 specimens. His notes show that he already understood how his experiences and finds were likely to challenge the established view of the unchanging nature of species.

This chronometer was again on board when the Beagle undertook its third and final voyage in 1837, surveying large parts of the uncharted Australian coast. The expedition identified the Adelaide and Victoria rivers and surveyed the Torres Strait and the Gulf of Carpentaria, before exploring northern and north-west Australia, the Bass Strait and Tasmania.

Chronometers were widely used by ships at sea for the accurate determination of longitude. First built in the 18th century, they were utilised extensively by mariners through to the early 20th century. These timepieces needed to remain accurate while subjected to the motions of a ship at sea and through extreme changes in temperature.

First carried on a survey ship by James Cook on his second voyage in 1772, from 1818 it became standard for the Admiralty to issue chronometers to naval ships. Three chronometers was the minimum necessary to be able to identify whether one had become unacceptably inaccurate. By the time of the Beagle voyages, the use of marine chronometers had become routine and, as mentioned, the ship carried 22 on the second voyage, to allow for mechanical failure over the lengthy journey.

This chronometer was one of six owned personally by Captain Robert FitzRoy, commander of the Beagle during Darwin’s voyage. It performed so well that the Admiralty decided to purchase it from FitzRoy in 1837. The government continued to employ the chronometer on various ships, the last being of particular interest.

The date of transfer is not mentioned in the ledgers, but the final entry reads that the timepiece was 'Lost in "Irresistible" 1916 July 3'. This refers to the sinking of HMS Irresistible (a 'Formidable' class battleship) off the coast of Turkey. Originally commissioned in 1902, with the outbreak of World War I the Irresistible was sent to serve in the Dardanelles campaign, bombarding Turkish coastal forts. However in March 1915 she struck a mine which killed about 150 of her crew. Badly damaged, the Irresistible was abandoned by the survivors and left to drift, and eventually sink.

The manufacturer of the chronometer, Robert Molyneux, was a highly respected clock and chronometer maker based in London. He also made four other timepieces used on the voyage, one of which he sent on his own account. This is the only known surviving example by him from the voyage.

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