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The Journal of Syms Covington

Chapter 2

Plymouth, at the Brink

[Portrait of Syms Covington]

Autumn 1831

The ship was incredibly small, barely 100 feet long. She presented a broad forward deck nearly a quarter of her length, but her quarterdeck, where a third fore and aft mast was added for manoeuvrability, waisted to a small square stern. She smelled of pitch and newly hewn wood and the sweat of workmen.

For Syms Covington, eighteen years of age, just arrived from his inland county of Bedfordshire, the fact that he was now walking along an ocean beach was both invigorating and discomforting to him. For in these times, most Englishmen never traveled beyond the next village; and here, in a great ocean Port, he was aware how distant he was from his home and his ties. His landsman's eye would have been drawn to the confusion on deck; perhaps he wondered if the ship would get away at all. After more than a year of refitting, the Beagle was still unfinished. Half the decking remained unplanked and the remainder was a shambles of rigging and gear. From each mastshead gleamed copper lightning conductors, installed by William Snow (Thunder & Lightning) Harris, purveyor of the new (and thoroughly distrusted) science of electricity [Barlow 1967: 49]. The ship's freshly coppered hull and her expensive Lihon rudder sunk under the weight of 2000 extra yards of canvas, shot and powder, provisions, spirits and clothing, spare masts, extra yards and gear, loaded under the eye of the Mate, John Lort Stokes [Thomson 1975: 666].

Captain Fitz Roy sized up Covington and signed him on as a boy and fiddler. The handsome, mannered aristocrat with the hawkish features of his ancestor Charles II, impressed Covington greatly. This was a man of station: erudite, stylish but not to excess and also stern.

Covington arranged his hammock in the single, small bay of crew's quarters, where the only skylight was a dim reflection from a narrow hatchway above. The raising of the decks gave only a little extra head-room below decks; even so he hit his head on the beams before he got into the habit of crouching as he made his way around.

The men were a curious lot, most of them veterans of the earlier voyage South and so full of harrowing stories that one wondered why they would volunteer for a second chance to die. The carpenter, Johnathan May, was a fine fellow, and among his crew was the eldest son of a Portsmouth instrument maker, Stebbings, who would repair the chronometers and barometric instruments. He met an older man, Augustus Earle, an artist of some note. The several bobbing midshipmen were barely into their teens. There was also an affable collegiate, Darwin. Into this mixture three new faces appeared, Indians, well dressed but somehow out of place, in the company of a shepherding missionary named Matthews.

There was talk of a ghost, the phantom of the disconsolate Captain Pringle Stokes(11) whose spirit was committed to the timbers of this ship [Sulivan 1896: 33-4], just as the ghost of Scrooge's partner Moreley, was locked to his chains. How would the new seafarer manage on this journey, where tested hands faltered?

Covington was religious, and a nondrinker. He would have been appalled that so many of his new messmates wasted the Nativity in drunkenness. Even the sentry on watch stumbled below, proclaiming he would (or could) no longer stand guard. This man was flogged till his back was a welt, he and his fellow Yuletide reprobates [Barlow 1933: 18]. The Captain knew it was important to enforce discipline from the start.

The Beagle's first attempts to put to sea, towards the end of November and in early December, brought her lumbering back to port before howling storms. It was of little comfort to Covington in those moments that she was on one of the most modern ships in the British Navy. It was a dangerous journey, and he was beginning to realise that it was only through the skill and grit and valour of her men that she could ever hope to return.

On the front cover of Covington's Journal is a bold note, part of an old sailor's lament. "Banish for ever all thoughts of ever...." It is unfinished, as if the writer realised in midphrase the implication of that black joke. Among Covington's shipmates were some who would never, ever see England again.

In the cold wind that whipped white caps on Barnett Pool of Devonport docks, watching the grey swell disappear over the edge of the earth, Covington was about to be launched like a Dickensian astronaut into an unknown sky. One hundred fifty years later, men would travel around moon and return home in less time than it took the Beagle to make her first landfall in the New World.

The Journal of Syms Covington begins:

(2) Sailed from Plymouth(12) December 27th 1831. The third time of our going to sea, the two former times, we were obliged to put back in consequence of bad weather after leaving the church. We had moderate weather on our voyage.


11 He was unrelated to the Mate.

12 The Beagle was last berthed at Devonport, a short walk from Plymouth [Darwin 1906: 1].

Published by the Australian Science Archives Project on ASAPWeb, 23 August 1995
Comments or corrections to: Bright Sparcs (bsparcs@asap.unimelb.edu.au)
Prepared by: Victoria Young
Updated by: Elissa Tenkate
Date modified: 17 March 1998

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