Robert FitzRoy’s name will forever be associated with Charles Darwin’s. The poor man has received something of a bad press over the years, and is usually remembered in Darwin’s shadow. He is remembered as a bad-tempered religious fundamentalist who refused to see the self-evident truth of evolution, despite having travelled the world for five years in the company of Charles Darwin. And as the man who marched up and down waving the Bible at the legendary 1860 Oxford evolution debate. And as a man who, when it all became too much, took a razor to his throat.
But FitzRoy deserves to be remembered as more than a tragically misguided figure who fell out with Darwin. He was a fascinating and complex man, whose sense of duty and strong moral values drove him to great feats. They also, more than once, landed him in considerable trouble.
A dyed-in-the-wool Tory (in later years, he would become a Conservative Member of Parliament), FitzRoy found it socially unacceptable to fraternise with men of lower classes and ranks aboard ship. But he was concerned that self-imposed social isolation during a long sea voyage might bring out what he feared was an inherited suicidal trait (his uncle had committed suicide, as, indeed, had the previous captain of Beagle). For these reasons, FitzRoy decided to seek a suitable gentleman companion to accompany him on HMS Beagle’s surveying voyage to South America.
The rest, as they say, is history.
Although they were from very different political backgrounds (Darwin’s family were committed liberals), FitzRoy and Darwin became genuine, close friends during the Beagle voyage. This despite what Darwin described as his friend’s unfortunate temper, which was easily provoked—especially when FitzRoy believed his honour was being brought into question.
His sense of honour and uncompromising morals were driving forces throughout FitzRoy’s life. Having captured four Fuegian ‘savages’ on the previous Beagle voyage, he had thought it only right to take them back to England in an attempt to civilise them. His plan was to return them eventually to their homeland, where he hoped some of their newly acquired manners would rub off on the locals. FitzRoy soon regretted his ill-conceived plan, which brought criticism from his superiors. But he saw it as a matter of honour to return the three surviving Fuegians to their homeland as promised (the fourth Fuegian had died in England). The prospect of returning the Fuegians was a significant factor in FitzRoy’s seeking command of Beagle on her second voyage.
FitzRoy’s strong sense of duty made him something of a perfectionist. The Admiralty’s main order for Beagle’s second voyage was to produce accurate maps of certain sections of the South America coast. FitzRoy’s perfectionism made him a stickler for accuracy. Towards the end of the voyage, to the great consternation of Darwin and the crew, who were eager to be heading home, he made a detour many hundreds of miles back across the South Atlantic to re-check some of his earlier measurements, which he had convinced himself were incorrect. FitzRoy also bought two additional sailing craft during the voyage to enable him to make an even better job of the mapping work. In so doing, he exceeded his authority. The rebuke he received by post from the Admiralty drove him to mental breakdown, and he temporarily relinquished command of the ship.
FitzRoy also, famously, held very strong religious views. These grew even stronger after the second Beagle voyage. To him, the words of the Bible were literally true. But FitzRoy was also a man of science, making his own natural history collections during the voyage—in the case of the famous Galápagos finches, labelling his finds far more accurately than Darwin, the man after whom they were later named.
In later years, in his short-lived role as Governor of New Zealand, FitzRoy’s sense of justice made him a figure of hatred with the white settlers. He was especially reviled after forgiving a Maori chieftain who had massacred nineteen white prisoners during a land dispute. In FitzRoy’s view, the whites had started the trouble. Outraged settlers burnt his effigy in the streets, and he was soon dismissed from his post.
Having returned in disgrace to Britain (and having lost his wife and daughter shortly afterwards), FitzRoy was eventually put in charge of a new government department charged with reducing shipping losses to bad weather. The new department was to become the Meteorological Office. FitzRoy was the perfect choice for the role: a man with impeccable nautical credentials, who knew some science, and who would work tirelessly to save sailors’ lives. The fact that FitzRoy’s new weather forecasts proved hopelessly unreliable is, in retrospect, hardly surprising: modern meteorologists with access to satellite images and super-computers still struggle to get them right. The unreliability of FitzRoy’s forecasts made him a figure of national ridicule in the press.
Ridicule over his weather forecasts might have been one of the motivations behind FitzRoy’s suicide on 30th April 1865. But there were numerous other factors that might also have contributed to his tragic decision: his failed New Zealand governorship; his belief that suicide was a family trait; perhaps even a feeling of guilt at having helped Darwin arrive at his heretical theories.
But looking back on FitzRoy’s life, what do we have?
- an explorer of strange new worlds;
- a man who captained one of the most famous scientific voyages of all time;
- an alien abductor (if Beagle’s Fuegian passengers weren’t alien abductees, what were they?);
- a Tory MP;
- a Governor of New Zealand;
- a man of royal descent (Charles II was a direct ancestor);
- a member of the audience at the legendary 1860 Oxford debate;
- the inventor of the weather forecast;
- a man after whom mountains, rivers, species, barometers and shipping areas are named.
FitzRoy will forever be associated with Charles Darwin, and that is only right. But in no way did he live in Darwin’s shadow.