When Darwin embarked on his famous voyage on the HMS Beagle, another revolutionary scientist was on board. Alison Lee reveals the life and achievements of Robert FitzRoy
Charles Darwin, founding father of the theory of evolution, is celebrated the world over for radically changing the face of science forever. But few have heard the story of the other scientist on board the HMS Beagle, Vice-Admiral Robert FitzRoy. Despite the fact that FitzRoy made huge strides in the field of meteorology, his legacy was forever left in the shadow of Darwin’s.
Both men lived in an age of scientific, religious, and political turmoil, and both faced these challenges in different ways. It would seem that FitzRoy is just as deserving of acclaim as Darwin, not only as a man of science but also as a man of integrity.
FitzRoy was born into the highest echelons of British aristocracy in 1806 as the great-grandson of King Charles II of England. He entered the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth at the age of twelve and was something of a prodigy, passing the course with the highest result ever achieved – 100 per cent.
At just 20 years old, he was made temporary captain of the HMS Beagle after the previous captain, Pringle Stokes, committed suicide due to depression while surveying the desolate land of Tierra del Fuego.
Despite his youth, FitzRoy proved himself to be an able surveyor and commander and soon became the official ship’s captain. During this voyage, Fuegian natives, three of whom were taken aboard as hostages, attacked the Beagle. FitzRoy, a devoted Christian, decided to take them to England, “civilise” them and send them home as missionaries.
However, this altruistic but misguided plan failed when one of the natives died after receiving a smallpox vaccine in Britain. Feeling responsible for the young boy’s death, FitzRoy refitted the Beagle at his own expense in order to return the remaining Fuegians home.
Mindful of the suicide of the Beagle’s former captain, FitzRoy requested a “gentlemen companion” with a similar mind to be brought along to keep him company. His ideal companion would be someone who shared his scientific tastes and would use the voyage as an opportunity to conduct research on natural history. Such a man materialised in the form of Charles Darwin.
Darwin had dropped out of medical school and just about scraped through his Bachelor of Arts degree in Cambridge, as he much preferred to spend his time collecting insects, learning taxidermy and devoting himself to the study of natural science in general. His friend John Stephen Henslow, an acclaimed botany professor, recommended him as the perfect companion for FitzRoy.
FitzRoy approved Darwin for the position and although Darwin’s father initially objected to what must have seemed like a crazy plan, he eventually gave in and financed his son’s trip.
At first, the two were firm friends but while they occasionally argued violently over issues such as slavery, their fundamental disagreements over religion came to a head much later. During this voyage, FitzRoy studied the geology of the New World and found himself doubting his long-held belief that the vast plains of South America were laid down during just 40 days of the Great Flood mentioned in the Bible.
He impressed these ideas on the young Darwin, giving him a book by Charles Lyell entitled “Principles of Geology” which contradicted the “Noah’s Ark” story still held by many as fact.
FitzRoy’s studies on geology won him a gold medal from the Royal Geographical Society but because of the influence of his religious wife, and his fear of causing dissent against the Church, he began to dissociate himself from such radical new ideas that questioned Creationism.
But it was taboo theories such as these that saw Darwin heralded as a hero by Britain’s scientific elite when he returned to England, bearing a collection of exotic plant and animal specimens and a mind full of new ideas about the “origin of species.”
FitzRoy was then assigned the near-impossible task of governing the colony of New Zealand, with little to no resources from the British government. Caught between his desire to defend the rights of the native Maori and his political obligation to the English settlers, he made himself extremely unpopular.
He ruled that the Maori should be paid a fair price for their lands, which turned his British subjects against him. Meanwhile the Maori, resentful of the foreign incursion into their country, waged a war against the settlers. He was soon recalled to England where he was elected to the Royal Society and began his work on meteorology under the guidance of Francis Beaufort.
During this period, he instigated the practise of weather forecasting, an entirely novel concept at the time. He distributed scientific instruments to ships’ captains and collected meteorological data from all over the globe, also invented different types of barometer and established a telegraph system that allowed the daily delivery of weather reports to his office.
Thanks to his work, the first weather forecasts were published in the Times in 1860 and have been ever since. Setting out to sea when the weather forecast was banned, which saved the lives of countless ordinary fishermen. However, FitzRoy’s good intentions were once again turned against him when owners of large fishing fleets objected to this loss of potential revenue and the ban was lifted.
Perhaps it was disappointments such as these that made FitzRoy turn towards religion and away from forsaking the scientific community. Darwin’s opus magna, “On the Origin of Species”, was published in 1860, to the dismay of the fervently Christian Vice-Admiral.
He attended a debate on the book at the Royal Society and was reported to have stood up wielding a Bible and exhorted the crowd to “believe God rather than a man”. It’s almost impossible to believe that this fundamentalist was once Darwin’s closest friend.
Although FitzRoy’s political career in New Zealand had been something of a disaster, his love of justice made him extremely popular amongst the working classes. He was elected as a Tory MP for Durham where he took his desire to do well to extremes, spending his entire family fortune (the modern equivalent of £400,000) on public works.
This came to light after his tragic death in 1865. Financial pressures, failing health and his lifelong struggle with depression drove Robert FitzRoy to take his own life. His widow and daughter were left destitute but survived thanks to a trust fund established by FitzRoy’s friend, Bartholemew Sullivan, to which Darwin contributed £100.
Although his forays into science were less glamorous and less provocative than Darwin’s, FitzRoy’s meteorological work paved the way for modern weather forecasting. Even in his lifetime, this work saved many sailors and fishermen from death at sea.
Yet tragically his best intentions seemed to all end in catastrophe. Few of his good-hearted notions, from “civilising” South American natives to fighting for the rights of the Maori worked out as planned. It is likely that these failures contributed to feelings of frustration and depression, leading to his eventual suicide.
FitzRoy was indeed a victim of his own good intentions and principles. Although most of us accept Darwin’s theory of evolution over FitzRoy’s deeply held belief in Creationism, we must afford FitzRoy the respect he deserves. Not only was he truly a man of science, he stood by his principles and maintained his integrity. This being no mean feat in a tumultuous world where political, scientific and religious clashes were just as violent as they are today.