Maritime detectives trace Darwin's ship

THE 130-year mystery of what happened to the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed the globe and developed his theory of evolution may have been solved.Using radar technology, a team of maritime historians believe they have located the legendary vessel entombed deep in mud - beneath the Essex marshes.

THE 130-year mystery of what happened to the ship on which Charles Darwin sailed the globe and developed his theory of evolution may have been solved.

Using radar technology, a team of maritime historians believe they have located the legendary vessel entombed deep in mud - beneath the Essex marshes.

The findings of the four-year research by the team from the University of St Andrews, are to be screened in a BBC documentary this weekend.

Professor Colin Pillinger, the space scientist whose own Mars Lander probe Beagle 2, named in homage to Darwin's ship, also met a mysterious fate, collaborated in the project.

It was onboard the humble 10-gun brig that Darwin, during his voyages between 1831 and 1836 to Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands, developed his ideas on the story of life.

Upon returning from his travels, the naturalist published his revolutionary text On the Origin of Species, which shook the scientific world.

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Meanwhile, the Beagle lived a modest existence as a coastguard watch vessel around Southend where she was used to combat brandy, lace and tobacco smugglers.

The ship was later sold by the Admiralty and towed to a nearby backwater, which the maritime detectives believe lies deep in the Essex marshes.

The researchers unearthed tantalising clues from old maps, forgotten anchor surveys, and censuses which led them to a secret site in the area, near Potton Island.

Following a remote sensing survey, they are convinced they have finally located the ship's final resting place - buried 18-feet deep in mud.

Team leader Dr Robert Prescott said: "We can see the outline of a dock for the ship and can make out wood and metal, which is highly suggestive that there is indeed something substantial down there, most probably the bottom of the Beagle."

They believe that fragments of Victorian pottery and a children's toy tea set found at the site belonged to the families of crew who lived on board.

The Beagle operated as a coastguard vessel from 1845 in the area in Essex from Leigh-on-Sea to the River Blackwater.

But the size of the 90-feet 235-ton ship made her a nuisance to local oyster fishermen and so from 1850 she was berthed for 20 years by the River Roach.

With smuggling, and the ageing Beagle, in decline, she was sold for the bargain price of £525, prompting one MP to grill the First Lord of the Admiralty about squandering state assets.

Dr Prescott, who founded the Scottish Institute of Maritime Studies at St Andrews, said: "It seems a pair of local likely lads may have purchased the ship, breaking her up where she sat or possibly towing her to a nearby site."

Dr Prescott added: "After the marvels of Patagonia and the Galapagos Islands, it seems the ship that helped spark off a scientific revolution led a humdrum life in a backwater of England before falling asleep on a muddy riverbank where time seems to have stood still for centuries.

"Darwin himself seems to have had no idea that his former ship ended her days so close to his home in Kent."

Although it was Darwin who made the ship famous, there were other reasons for tracking her down - the ship's captain during the naturalist's voyage, Robert Fitzroy, went on to establish the Meteorological Office.

The Hunt for Darwin's Beagle is to be screened this Saturdayat 8.10pm.

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