One of the world's most enduring naval mysteries -- the fate of HMS Beagle, the ship that carried Charles Darwin round the world and led him to develop his theory of natural selection -- may finally have been solved.
Advanced ground-penetrating radar could have located the ship, which disappeared more than a century ago, near Potton Island in Essex, on the east coast of England. The discovery has been made by one of the world's leading marine archaeologists, Robert Prescott of St Andrews University, a founder of the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies and who set up the Beagle Ship Research Group three years ago.
The discovery suggests that the bulk of the ship is intact and could be raised and restored.
Launched in 1820 at Woolwich Royal Dockyard on the Thames, the Beagle was one of the commonest class of warships built by the Navy. After several years' service, it was refitted as a hydrographic survey vessel and subsequently placed under the command of Robert Fitzroy.
The Beagle set off on its great journey, with Darwin on board, in 1831 and for five years carried out detailed surveying of the tip of South America and in the Galapagos islands. The young biologist, who later described the voyage as "the most important event in my life," noted local variations among the birds and animals he encountered.
From these observations, which he recorded in his tiny cabin on the Beagle, he developed his theory of natural selection, published in On the Origin of Species in 1859.
But the fate of the ship that was instrumental in the theory's development has been lost for more than a century. All that was known was that after its historic journey the Beagle passed into the service of the UK Customs and Excise and was used as an anti-smuggling patrol vessel along the Essex coast.
But detailed detective work by Prescott has since revealed that for many years the Beagle was moored in mid-stream on the River Roach, where it was perfectly placed to intercept smugglers.
Then, in 1870, records show that the Beagle was auctioned to local scrap merchants Murray and Trainer. After that, no records remain. But detailed archaeological studies have shown that on the north bank of the Roach, a small dock had been built around this time and this has been the focus of efforts by the St Andrews team.
"Essentially, we have found the outline of a dock that was long ago abandoned and filled in," Prescott said. "We think the Beagle, stripped of its superstructure, ended up in there."
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