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