Thursday, July 28, 2011

Darwin’s captain: Robert FitzRoy

Robert FitzRoy (1805–65) entered the Royal Navy at age thirteen and, after passing exams with full marks, moved quickly up the ranks. In 1828, he became temporary captain of the Beagle, returning the ship to England in October 1830. The following May, FitzRoy stood unsuccessfully as Tory candidate for Ipswich. A few weeks later, the Beagle and her captain were commissioned for a second South American Survey.

Fitzroy knew that he was prone to bouts of morbid depression and was haunted by two recent suicides. The first was that of his uncle Viscount Castlereagh, a brilliant but controversial politician who, as Foreign Secretary, had helped bring peace to Europe in the wake of the Napoleonic Wars (Shelley damns him in his brilliant Masque of Anarchy). In 1822, Castlereagh fell victim to a real or imagined gay sex scandal, claiming to the king that he was being blackmailed. His mind unhinged, three days later he slit his own throat with a letter opener.

The second incident occurred a few years later, during the Beagle’s first survey of the southern hemisphere under the command of Captain Pringle Stokes. In August 1828, during the gloomy southern winter, Stokes locked the door to his cabin, shot himself in the head, and then took an agonizing twelve days to die.

Mindful of these dangerous precedents, FitzRoy took Darwin along as his gentleman companion and changed the course of history. Nonetheless, FitzRoy did succumb to despair part way through the second Beagle journey, resigning his captaincy for a short while before being persuaded to resume command.

But FitzRoy was more than just a bit player in Darwin’s story. In the 1840s, he served as the Tory MP for Durham before serving disastrously as the second Governor of New Zealand – during his term, the colony almost became bankrupt and a new war broke out.

However, FitzRoy is justly celebrated for his pioneering contributions to meteorology: he invented the storm glass (a device for predicting the weather), developed new and improved barometers and invented weather forecasts and gale warnings for fisherman.

FitzRoy retired in 1863 with the rank of Vice-Admiral. But, at the age of sixty, the depression he had so feared aboard the Beagle finally caught up with him – one morning, FitzRoy got out of bed, went to his washroom and, echoing his uncle’s demise, slit his own throat with a razor.