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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:

http://www.juliantrubin.com/fitzroy.html

http://royalsociety.org/page.asp?id=3296

http://www.bbc.co.uk/dna/h2g2/A2344736

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_FitzRoy

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