Robert FitzRoy

Robert FitzRoy
Robert FitzRoy

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.

Richard Carter, FCD

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


  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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:
    - 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

  4. 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,


  5. 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.

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. Darwin was about 4 th choice to be Fitzroy's companion on that voyage of the Beagle. A book about their trip was titled " the ............ navigator, I cannot remember the adjective. Can anyone help please?

  9. Fitzroy was clearly a 6-day creationist in 1839, but I cannot find out later views. My suspicion is that other Christians who held such views in the 1830s he started to accept geological time

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