FitzRoy's Bicentenary

This article was published to mark the bicentennial of Robert FitzRoy’s birth on 5th July, 2012.

This year [2005], Britain celebrates the 200th anniversary of Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. But as we mark this decisive moment in our history, and the death of one of our greatest heroes in the hour of his triumph, we should not forget that 2005 also marks the bicentenary of another great British naval figure:

Robert FitzRoy

Robert FitzRoy
(1805–1865)

Two-hundred years ago today, on 5th July 1805, Robert FitRoy was born in Ampton, Suffolk.

FitzRoy’s name is forever associated with—and has been eclipsed by—Darwin’s. The poor man has received something of a bad press over the years. 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. He is remembered as the man who marched up and down waving the Bible at the legendary 1860 Oxford evolution debate. He is remembered as the man who, when it all became a bit too much, took a razor to his throat and ended it all.

But FitzRoy deserves to be remembered as more than the 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—and more than once landed him in trouble.

A dyed-in-the-wool Tory (in later years, he would become a Conservative Member of Parliament), FitzRoy believed it was socially unacceptable for him 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 and close friends during the Beagle voyage. This was despite what Darwin described as his friend’s unfortunate temper, which was easily provoked—especially when FitzRoy believed his honour was being questioned.

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 thought it only right to take them back to England 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 rued 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 as promised (the fourth Fuegian had died in England). Returning the Fuegians was the main reason for FitzRoy’s seeking command of Beagle on her second voyage.

FitRoy’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. On one occasion, he returned many hundreds of miles to re-check some of his earlier readings that he had convinced himself were wrong (to the great consternation of Darwin and the crew, who were eager to be heading home). FitzRoy also bought two additional sailing craft during the voyage to enable him to make an even better job of the mapping work. In doing so, 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. To him, the words of the Bible were literally true. It must sometimes have been difficult for him to share a dining table with a convert to the new (and, to FitzRoy, heretical) geological theories of Charles Lyell. But FitzRoy saw himself as a man of science too, making his own natural history collections during the voyage (and, in the case of the famous Galapagos 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 forgave a Maori chieftain who had massacred nineteen white prisoners during a land dispute, saying the whites had started the trouble. Outraged settlers burnt FitzRoy’s 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 a nautical background, who knew some science, and who would work religiously to save human 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—but it made FitzRoy, once again, a figure of ridicule.

The ridicule over the weather forecasts was probably the last straw that drove FitzRoy to suicide on 30th April, 1865. But there were numerous other factors that might have contributed to his tragic decision: his failed New Zealand governorship; a feeling of guilt at having helped Darwin arrive at his heretical theories; his belief that suicide was a family trait; who knows what else might have helped push him over the edge?

But looking back on FitzRoy’s life, what do we have?

  • a man of royal descent (Charles II was a direct ancestor)
  • an explorer of strange new worlds
  • a man who captained the most famous scientific voyage 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 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 always be associated with Darwin, and that is only right. But in no way did he live in Darwin’s shadow.

Writer and photographer Richard Carter, FCD is the founder of the Friends of Charles Darwin. He lives in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire.WebsiteFacebookTwitterNewsletterBooks

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8 thoughts on “FitzRoy's Bicentenary

  1. Qoheleth

    It should be pointed out that the theory of evolution, however well it may be demonstrated, is not "self-evident". A self-evident statement, as I believe Aristotle pointed out, is one that is proved simply by defining the terms, such as "Rhombuses have four sides"; since the definition of a rhombus is an object with four equal sides, no contrary statement can logically be maintained. On the other hand, the statement "Life-forms change over time owing to random mutation" can still be logically denied (as FitzRoy himself demonstrated) after one has defined "life-form" and "mutation". Ergo, it is not self-evident.

    Reply
  2. Richard Carter, FCD

    I agree entirely that evolution is not self-evident.

    I used the phrase 'self-evident' while parodying the views of those people who see FitzRoy as a bit of a fool.

    The truth of evolution is beyond doubt, but it could hardly be described as self-evident, otherwise everyone would believe in it.

    Reply
  3. Jorge F. Mery

    In Chile we are especially grateful to Robert FitzRoy's memory, for such an illustrious seaman, explorer, hydrographer and meteorologist made a valuable contribution to the knowledge of our seas, shores, and interiors waters in Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and Cape Horn Archipielago.

    At the end of FitzRoy's Bicentenary year (2005), both three commemorative marble plaques have been presented by some Chilean maritime and heritage institutions in homage to FitzRoy, and they shall be, weather permitting, inaugurated forthcoming months in Puerto Williams (Worlds Southernst town, in Navarin Island), in Cape Horn and in Wulaia Bay. The British Ambassador was present in both two of the ceremonies.

    For further information, please visit following links:

    - Chilean Public Libraries & Record Offices Direction:
    - Chilean Navy:
    here
    - British Embassy:
    - The Chilean Heritage:
    Also we shall rend some plentyful of signify tributes to Charles Darwin's memory in his Bicentenary (2009).

    Jorge F. Mery

    Santiago de Chile

    Reply
  4. Caiyin

    Dear Mr. Carter,

    Please add to FitzRoy's biography that he was a remarkable hydrographer and surveyor of Patagonian and Fuegian shores. This is really an important fact.

    Kindest regards,

    Caiyin

    Reply
  5. David Pearson

    When darwin boarded the Beagle he was lent a book on Geology by Fitzroy. It was by Charles Lyell.

    The five years that Darwin spent aboard the Beagle was a tremendous training ground for Darwin who would daily associate with Fitzroy and be challenged by him on all topics. In short thanks to Robert Fitzroy it was Darwin's proving ground and he carried the work habits picked up on the Beagle into the rest of his life.

    Reply
  6. jon

    Fitzroy's contribution to science is remarkable.  More should be made of made of the remarkable stories of both of Fitzroy & Darwin, but sadly is not.  Recently when enquiring about Fitzroy at the National Maritime Museum, I had to explain to staff who Fitzroy was, when I felt it was that (fine) institution that should have been assisting my learning.  I was left with a similar feeling after visiting Down House, which repeatedly presented information regarding Bishop Wilberforce's comments, but did little to explain the voyage of the Beagle and the circumstances that brought it about.

    Reply
  7. Sue Ledger

    I can't find any reference to 'this thing of darkness' a wonderful book about the voyage of the beagle from Fitzroy's point of view. I can highly recommend this to anyone interested. It is by Harry Thompson.

    Reply

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