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Troubled waters

FitzRoy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast

  • John &
  • Mary Gribbin
Review: 2003. 336 pp. £18.99

Robert FitzRoy was one of the most gifted naval officers of his or any generation, a brilliant seaman, surveyor and commander of men, and a technical innovator who in different circumstances might have been a great scientist. Most of the characters who entered our lives through the voyage of the Beagle, which FitzRoy captained, went on to become part of a great Victorian success story. FitzRoy did not.

Aristocratic, handsome and wealthy, at times he could be carefree and capable of achieving anything he set his mind to. The few surviving letters between him and Charles Darwin from the voyage of the Beagle reveal an almost giddy schoolboy companionship that is hard to connect to his episodes of outrageous behaviour and anger (over slavery, for example). He was also a workaholic, dogged both by his own depressive mental illness and by the knowledge that others in his family had suffered the same way.

His life was full of tragedies, usually generated by his own mercurial temper, sudden black moods and constant brooding unhappiness, compounded by official resistance to his cutting corners and, in his paranoia, the effortless successes of others. After the exciting years on the Beagle, he never attained true greatness, whether as an officer (he never had another proper command), as a member of parliament (for two years), as a brave but unappreciated governor of New Zealand (he was recalled for siding with the Maoris), or as a meteorologist. When all of the pressures overcame him, he copied his uncle Lord Castlereagh, and cut his own throat with a razor.

Somewhere, it is to be hoped, there exist the letters and diaries that will shows us a fuller version of the life of this strangely brilliant man, beyond the stereotypes — a different FitzRoy from the one who seems always to be in Darwin's shadow. At a critical time, FitzRoy must have known Darwin better than anyone else, but after a hundred or more years of the 'Darwin industry', we still do not know what, if anything, was FitzRoy's contribution to Darwin's intellectual development. For example, it is hard to guess how different Darwin's later career would have been if James Sulivan (mate on the Beagle, who was later knighted and made an admiral) had been captain. Nor do we know how the voyage with Darwin influenced FitzRoy's later career. We know only that they shared meals, not a philosophy.

Evolution's Captain: The Tragic Fate of Robert FitzRoy, the Man who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World

  • Peter Nichols
Profile Books: 2003. 352 pp. £16.99 HarperCollins: 2003. 352 pp. $24.95

The Gribbins guess that FitzRoy became a religious fundamentalist as a result of spending long, lonely hours studying the Bible during the later parts of the voyage. But all we know for sure about this is that Darwin was not an evolutionist until after the voyage, and that FitzRoy was not a fundamentalist until his marriage to the religious Mary Henrietta O'Brien in 1836.

To the only previous biography of FitzRoy (FitzRoy of the Beagle by H. E. L. Mellersh; Hart-Davis, 1968), John and Mary Gribbin have added information from the few new letters to come to light. Peter Nichols' book, which has too many irritating errors, diversions into side issues and purple passages, and an absence of either citations or index, is less useful. Both books devote too much space to rehashing the Beagle voyages — something that has been covered so much better elsewhere. It is in FitzRoy's life after the Beagle that his contributions to science and modern life are to be found. FitzRoy the unusually enlightened Victorian public servant, or the man who gave us synoptic weather charts and almost single-handedly invented weather forecasting, is at least as interesting as the one who, as Nichols dismissively puts it, “sailed Darwin around the world”.

The Gribbins develop the idea that FitzRoy, who was probably always a manic-depressive and who unthinkingly gave more of himself and his fortune than was wise, committed suicide in part from guilt at having helped the birth of the darwinism 'heresy'. If that's the case, we would need to have evidence of what FitzRoy thought his contribution had been. He was also depressed about the US Civil War and the situation of Matthew Maury, an exile in Paris who also had a claim to have invented weather forecasting. Almost bankrupt himself, FitzRoy still sent his rival money to live on. And the great 'machine' that supported and promoted Darwin — in this case principally in the form of Francis Galton — never hesitated to stick the knife in.

But there must have been much more to FitzRoy than that. As the Gribbins lament, however, when it comes to FitzRoy we know everything in terms of names, dates and places but very little about the man. FitzRoy was one of the most compelling figures of the darwinian era, but his fate has been to remain hidden. We want to know more and we fervently hope that it might include a little more triumph to go with the tragedy.

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Thomson, K. Troubled waters. Nature 425, 18 (2003).

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