Archive for February, 2008


Charles Darwin is a popular enough person after the publication of his book “The Origin of Species’, after completing his expedition around the Straits of Tierra del Fuego abroad the HMS Beagle. However, not much has been said about Robert Fitzroy, the captain of the surveying brig.

I bought a book a few years ago from Borders called ‘This Thing of Darkness’ by Harry Thompson. The book was a part fictional account of this Captain Fitzroy, Charles Darwin and also the crew of HMS Beagle. I find it a very interesting read, especially the focus on Robert Fitzroy, how he became captain and his later achievements. In the book, Fitzroy wasn’t afraid of challenges and he also had a sincere wish to save the lives of his fellow sailors through weather forecasting, spending much of his personal fortune in his meteorology projects.


Robert was born to aristocratic parents and was the 4th great-grandson of Charles II of England. At just 13 years old, he entered the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth and graduated with ‘full-numbers’ a year later and entered the Royal Navy.

He quickly proved himself an able seaman and at just 23, Admiral Otway made him commander of the HMS Beagle, after the previous Captain Stokes committed suicide by shooting himself in the head. The book gave a rather disturbing account on this, with Captain Philip Parker King remarking that Stokes shot half his brains away but failed to die, suffering in agony for the next 12 days.

Captain Fitzroy’s first expedition was a success. Despite a few mishaps and storms around the Straits, he was able to lead his men safely through with minimal loss of life. The ship’s return to England cause a bit of a stir as on board were 4 Fuegian native hostages, Fuegia Basket, Jemmy button, York Minster and Boat Memory. Fitzroy decided to take them under his care and educate them, making them suitable for civilised company. He believed that ‘all men are created equal’ thus saw no reason why these natives would not be able to learn proper manners. He wanted to prove that the natives are in no way inferior to ‘white people’ and are perfectly able to be introduced into ‘genteel society’ (they had tea with the King and Queen of England). He hoped that by educating these few natives, they would be able to serve as missionaries when returned to their homeland on his next expedition. He foresaw friendly relationships between the English and the natives of Tierra del Fuego being established once the natives were ‘enlightened’.

The education of the natives in overall was a success. All 3 of them (Boat Memory did not survived a small pox vaccination) were able to read, write and speak in English. They were taught proper manners and necessary skills. Fitzroy then sought to return them to their homeland soon. However, this proved difficult as the Admiralty has since stopped all surveying expeditions to Tierra del Fuego and Fitzroy was unable to fulfil his promise to them. He persevered however, as he had given them his promise ‘as a gentleman’ to return them home. Only after intervention from his uncle, the Duke of Grafton, was he able to secure a second surveying voyage for the HMS Beagle to Patagonia and the Straits of Magellan.

Fitzroy spared no expenses in fitting out the ship, reaching into his own pocket to supplement the Admiralty’s funds. It was on this voyage that he met Charles Darwin, who was to be the ship’s naturalist and also, as he requested, a companion to him. He hoped that by having someone that he was able to converse ‘as an equal’, Fitzroy would thus be able to avoid any bouts of depression that sometimes overcame him during the first voyage. Their relationship got on well enough since they were of similar age. However, it suffered under their different views as Darwin, collecting and observing his surroundings whenever on land, started to question the Bible and the role of God in the world’s creation. Fitzroy believed firmly in his God and the Biblical Flood. This led to bouts of quarrel among these two until a truce was made and they were careful to avoid any more subjects that were sensitive to the other.

Things did not turn out too well for the natives who were returned to their homeland. The English missionary who accompanied them was found a few days later to be alone and without his supplies, all which have been looted by the natives. The 3 ‘civilised’ Fuegians have reverted to their old ways and refused to go back to England or carry on their missionary work. Fitzroy was very much disappointed with this failure.

Upon his return to England, Fitzroy immediately married and settle down with his wife. He completed and published his account of the voyage in the Beagle and turned his attention to perfecting the weather forecasting system. In this area, Fitzroy again had to deal with resistance as many fishing merchants were unhappy with his forecasts of storms that caused fishing boat to remain in dock instead of going out to see. They did not care that more lives were saved this way being more interested in their profits. Again, Fitzroy funded most of his projects from his own pocket.

Fitzroy was appointed a few posts after his voyage, notably chief of the Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade and also Governor of New Zealand (he was removed after 2 years). No matter what responsibilities he was given, Fitzroy made sure that he carried it out to the best of his abilities.

Finally, in 1865, at the age of 56, Robert Fitzroy succumbed and committed suicide one morning.

I do admire Fitzroy for being a fighter. He was given the daunting task of surveying the straits, which he accomplished perfectly. Despite the lack of interest in his meteorology department, he truly believed that accurate weather reports would be able to save many lives and worked tirelessly to make it accessible to as many docks as possible. It was really a pity that the authorities did not recognise nor appreciate his efforts.

Other sites of interest:





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I am of course referring to Winnie the Pooh. Whether it is the Disney version which we are seeing so often nowadays or the classic bear with no red t-shirt, they are both still the same adorable bear that values friendship. I have a small collection of Pooh merchandise at home and I love every single one of them. Unfortunately, I have yet to own the complete works of A. A. Milne. I hope to one day be able to get a complete volume of Winnie the Pooh. For those who might not be familiar with how the bear came about, here is a short history.

Winnie the Pooh is a fictional character created by Alexander Alan Milne based on a teddy bear that his son owned. The soft toy was a birthday present for his son, Christopher Robin loved to visit a bear called Winnipeg at the London zoo. Winnipeg was the unofficial mascot of the 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade. One of its lieutenant (Harry Colebourn), bought the bear for $20 from a hunter and the bear followed the unit until Britain. A. A. Milne bought a soft toy bear for his son’s birthday. The toy bear that Christopher Robin owned however, was originally called Edward bear. It was later changed to ‘Winnie’, after the bear at the zoo, and ‘Pooh’ after a swan which was in itself a character in ‘When We Were Very Young’. Milne did give an explanation as to why Winnie the Pooh, was often simply called ‘Pooh’.

“But his arms were so stiff … they stayed up straight in the air for more than a week, and whenever a fly came and settled on his nose he had to blow it off. And I think – but I am not sure – that that is why he is always called Pooh.”
1st chapter of Winnie-the-Pooh

I like the cute explanation of Winnie being called Pooh above. =) Well, the other characters of Kanga, Roo, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore are also based on stuffed animals belonging to Christopher Robin. These friends had a series of exciting adventures in the Hundred-Acre-Wood which is based on the Ashdown Forrest near Milne’s country home.

The books of Winnie the Pooh were all illustrated by E. H. Shepard. Milne was at first hesitant about letting him illustrate Pooh but soon changed his mind. I read from Wikipedia that Shepard claimed to have modelled Pooh not on the toy that Christopher ARobin owned but instead on ‘Growler’, the stuffed bear that his son owned. Whichever bear he used as his model, I have to say the results were still very nice.

As usual, some other sites of interest:
http://www.just-pooh.com/history.html – The magical World of Pooh
http://winniethepooh.disney.co.uk/index.jsp – UK’s official site for Pooh
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winnie_the_Pooh – Wikipedia’s entry on the bear


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I happened to read an article in the newspapers a few days ago that one of the largest art thefts in European history has occurred in a private Zurich Museum. The works of Degas, Van Gogh, Monet, and Cezanne were stolen.


Woman at Her Toilette by Morisot
Woman at Her Toilette – Morisot

They were artists who painted in the style of impressionism, a movement that developed in the late 19th to early 20th century. I confess that I have no idea what style this is, so out of curiosity, I decided read a little about it in the internet. Maybe not the most reliable source sometimes, but it is easy to find what you’re looking for every time. Plus, I saw a book in my aunt’s place which was a compilation of Renoir’s works. That also motivated me to do something much more productive than lazy surfing through the net. This is what I found and understood so far.

Apparently, Impressionist artists were radicals of their time. They broke the rules of academic painting, and instead sought to portray reality in a fresh and immediate way. Quick spontaneous brushstrokes of unmixed colours were used to achieve these vivid overall effects, rather than bothering with meticulous details. The artists also tried to capture the momentary effects of sunlight by painting out of doors, as opposed to the usual of painting indoors. The results were of course so much different from what society was used to at that time that most people did not comprehend the works and felt that it was ‘unfinished’.


Boating Party by Renoir
Boating Party – Renoir

Famous artists from that period include Claude Monet, Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Mary Cassat, Edgar Degas, Alfred Sisley, Camille Pissarro, Berthe Morisot and most of them got their inspiration from Eugene Delacroix. These artists worked together closely and shared new techniques hence there are some similarities between their works (actually, for the life, I can’t see it).

I find that how they became an independent group of artists rather interesting. During the middle of the 19th century, the Académie des Beaux-Arts dominated the art scene and demanded that paintings were carefully finished with historical subjects, portraits, or religious themes. The Impressionists, on the other hand, painted still life and landscape, which was a big ‘no-no’ at the time.

The academy held an annual, juried art show at the Salon de Paris where works of artists were displayed. The Impressionists, with their lighter, brighter works, were often rejected by the jury in favour of those that conform to the approved style. This continued for a few years, however, the last straw came when Edouard Manet’s painting Le déjeuner sur l’herbe (The Luncheon on the Grass) was rejected in 1863. The indignation was so high among the artistic population that Napoleon III allowed the opening of the Salon des Refusés (Salon of the Refused). This became their own independent exhibition and they invited artists of similar styles to exhibit there. In 1884, the Salon des Indépendants was organised.

Response from the public were mostly negative, some painters had to endured cruel attacks from critics but most persevered. It was around this time that the term ‘Impressionist’ stuck and became the name which these artists would be known.

After that, from what I can understand, starting from the 1800’s, the once closely knitted group started to disperse as each artist took a different direction in their styles. Some went back to exhibiting their paintings in the Salon in order the gain prestige and commissions.

Only when the Camille Pissarro, the Impressionist patriarch, died in 1903, did people start to agree that this movement was the main 19th century revolution in art. By that time, diluted forms of Impressionist paintings were common in Salon art.


Resources, further reading:

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