Plant specimens collected by Charles Darwin during the Beagle voyage have been unearthed in an archive at Cambridge University.

The rare specimens, which have been stored in the Cambridge University herbarium archive for nearly 200 years, were given by Darwin to his teacher and friend Prof. John Stevens Henslow, founder of the Cambridge University Botanic Garden.

These specimens will be presented to the public for the first time in a documentary by the British Channel 5 television channel exploring the relationship between Darwin and Henslow.

"Henslow was the pioneer of botany teaching and Darwin's great mentor," said Dr. Edwin Rose, a Cambridge historian of science, adding that Darwin, who studied theology, took Henslow's botany course three times.

Henslow, a local priest, taught what was then called natural theology. 

"It was all about collecting examples of natural creation so that they could understand the wisdom of the divine creator and how God created the world," Rose said. "This was one of the great impulses for the study of the natural world in the early 19th century."

When Robert Fitzroy, the aristocratic captain of the Beagle, was looking for a naturalist to accompany him on his voyage in 1831, it was Henslow who recommended the 22-year-old Darwin for the position after he had turned it down.

Darwin then sent the plant samples back to his former teacher. Henslow's responses praising Darwin's work but complaining about the packaging were preserved for posterity in the Cambridge University library.

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"Anything that Darwin could collect and send to Henslow was seen as an asset because Henslow was actively building up the Cambridge botanical museum collection at the time," Rose said.

This was envisioned as a "tremendous" teaching resource that would facilitate Henslow's pedagogical program, which sought to understand the "design of the Creator" and the infinite scale of God's creation.

As a result, at least 1,000 specimens collected by Darwin are kept in the herbarium, which was established in 1761 and now consists of about 1.1 million plant specimens from all over the world, including the original "type species" used to identify 50,000 new species.

"Almost all of the plants Darwin collected that are now in the herbarium are type specimens," Rose said. "He had a great talent for identifying species that were new to European science at the time. Almost everything he collected had never been seen by anyone in England before."

Although the herbarium collection has been accessible to Cambridge scientists since its inception, it has never been open to the public, and Rose said some specimens collected by Darwin were never properly examined.