James Phipps and Charles Darwin

Charles Darwin set sail on his well-known voyage to the Galapagos Islands onboard HMS Beagle in 1831. The ship did not return until 1836. One source refers to a James Phipps among those who set sail on that voyage.

Phipps was, however, the subject of disciplinary action. He was noted as having been responsible for “breaking leave, drunkenness,” and “insolence.” As a result, he was the recipient of 44 lashes. (See also here.)

The Beagle set sail from Plymouth Sound, which may possibly provide some leads as to the identity of this James Phipps. An online transcription of Darwin’s own journal appears to refer to “Phipps” as one of the ship’s “main top-men.”

The “top” refers to the platform at the top of a mast. An old sailing ship would have had several tops, such as the foretop and maintop. James Phipps would have been at the top of one of these masts. He would have climbed up ropes to get to the top of the mast.

Various sources refer to Syms Covington as Darwin’s assistant on the voyage. A certain John Phipps is referred to as Covington’s “preacher friend.” Who was he, and was he related to James Phipps? John Phipps appears to have been a voice standing for the creation story, while Darwin came to believe that his interpretations refuted it.

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