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Creation 40(1):14–17, January 2017

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The remarkable Captain Robert FitzRoy


Pioneer of weather forecasting


Robert FitzRoy (1805–1865) was the captain of HMS Beagle, which sailed around the world with Charles Darwin on board. FitzRoy is often remembered as the grim argumentative man who was vulnerable to fits of temper and depression, and eventually took his life. But he was also acknowledged by Darwin in his Autobiography to be of noble character, “devoted to his duty, generous to a fault, bold, determined, indomitably energetic, and an ardent friend to all under his sway”.1

Acknowledging achievements

There is also much evidence, as a comprehensive 2004 biography2 emphasizes, that he was a devoted husband and father. And more recently, many have acknowledged FitzRoy’s achievements as a first class surveyor and a pioneer in meteorology. He was also a supporter of the rights of indigenous people.

FitzRoy came from an aristocratic family; though untitled, he was a great-grandson of King Charles II. “He insisted on the capital R in his surname to indicate royal (if unofficial) descent.”3

FitzRoy joined the Royal Navy at age 13, and was sent to the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth where he received a wide-ranging education.4 In addition to the classics (including Latin and Greek), the curriculum included geography, history, geometry, French, fencing, drawing, and dancing, as well as navigation, hydrostatics, mechanics, astronomy, and “the motions of heavenly bodies” (this included the writings of Isaac Newton, such as on calculus).5 In 1828, at only age 23, FitzRoy was given his first commission, as captain of HMS Beagle.6 He proved himself a very capable seaman.

Ships’ captains in those days had to be very ‘hands-on’. Considerable skill was required to navigate the 28 m, 214 ton Beagle, with its twin masts and square-rigged sails. Originally rigged as a brig, it had been re-rigged as a barque. These types of ships were known at the time as ‘coffin ships’, as they were notorious for ‘turning turtle’ when buffeted by waves and strong winds.7 By comparison, Captain Cook’s famous Endeavour, which arrived in Australia’s Botany Bay in 1770, was three-masted, and at 32 m long and 335 ton, much sturdier and safer.8

The task of those aboard the Beagle was to complete a survey of the southern coast of South America, started on the ship’s first voyage under another captain. It was also to make astronomical observations, as well as carry out a complete circle of longitudinal measurements using 22 very accurate chronometers, which FitzRoy had paid for and kept in his tiny cabin.9

Scientific recognition

In 1830, Captain FitzRoy took the Beagle around Cape Horn, then still uncharted. He surveyed the area, creating the first charts, still used by ships to navigate those waters in the post-WWII period.10 These achievements were recognized by the Royal Geographic Society in 1837, which awarded him the Society’s Gold Medal.

In December 1831, FitzRoy set out on the now famous voyage, taking a young 22-year-old Charles Darwin with him. Captains at sea lived very lonely and secluded lives. While FitzRoy was to concern himself mainly with surveying and hydrography, he wanted a friend and companion who could also make scientific observations about the flora and fauna of the places they would visit. Darwin, who liked to hunt (he was known to like shooting almost everything that moved), was also an able naturalist. He was an expert on beetles and had studied geology under the renowned geologist Adam Sedgwick.

Darwin was recommended to Captain FitzRoy by the Professor of Botany at Cambridge, John Henslow.11 FitzRoy met Darwin soon thereafter, and liked what he saw. The two were to spend more than five years together on the Beagle as it sailed around the world.

FitzRoy on the Bible

FitzRoy was a committed Christian. His writings suggest that at the onset of the voyage, he had had some doubts about aspects of Genesis, including the universality of the Deluge. But this vanished due to his observations during the voyage, especially of geology.12 In addition, his very close reading of the Bible and his observations on human migration and astronomy further convinced him that the book of Genesis was trustworthy, historically accurate and literally true.13,14 FitzRoy, who understood the days of creation in Genesis 1 as literal 24-hour days, regarded nature and the Bible to be united as one voice. He did not hold the Baconian view, popular in the universities of the time, that they were two separate ‘books’.

FitzRoy’s literal acceptance of the Bible was later encouraged by his wife Mary, also a committed Christian.

Darwin’s world-shaking Beagle voyage


Ironically, it was FitzRoy himself who had presented Darwin with a copy of Charles Lyell’s Principles of Geology, a decision he came to greatly regret. Its rejection of the Flood and promotion of what is now called ‘deep time’ provided Darwin with just what he needed for his emerging anti-biblical hypothesis.


2009 was the year of the Darwin bicentennial, and CMI raised funds globally to produce a very high quality documentary on the Beagle’s journey, The Voyage that Shook the World.

Movieguide.org called it “one of the best-produced documentaries ever made”. In addition to dramatic reconstructions of aspects of Darwin’s life and famous voyage, superb on-site photography shows scientists re-examining, in the light of modern knowledge, the geological sites and animals that helped persuade Darwin. This is a gentle yet powerful way to prise open closed minds on creation/evolution! Available as DVD, Blu-Ray or video download at creation.com/store, also bulk prices for giveaways.

More recognition

Robert FitzRoy became a fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in 1851, with Darwin’s support. In his own Narrative of the voyage, FitzRoy reasoned from his observations of the compressed nature of the shells in Patagonia that the depth of the water “was so great as to squeeze or mash the earth and shells by its enormous pressure” and that this great force that led to the “cohesion” of the sediments was “the universal deluge”.15

In observing the appearance of the South American “aborigines” he reasoned correctly that “every variety of hair and colour might be produced from two originals only”.16 FitzRoy considered as “absurd” the idea that man rose from a primitive state, with animal ancestors.

When Darwin published Origin of Species 20 years later in 1859, FitzRoy strenuously opposed his friend’s rejection of Genesis in favour of his theory that natural selection was responsible for the design and diversity of all life.

FitzRoy was present at the famous (and much misrepresented)17 1860 debate between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Huxley, and while reportedly holding his Bible “aloft”, stated that he “regretted the publication of Mr Darwin’s book and denied Prof. Huxley’s statement that it was a logical arrangement of facts”.18

Depression, suicide, and forgiveness

FitzRoy struggled throughout his life with bouts of depression, which tragically led to him taking his own life at the age of 59. While there can never be certainty about the causes of a particular person’s mental health struggles, especially when removed in time, today we know that genetics,1 environment, and lifestyle can all play a role. Some might wonder whether a true Christian would ever take his life; does FitzRoy’s suicide invalidate his claim to have followed Christ? While suicide is a grave sin, it is not an unforgiveable sin. FitzRoy’s track record of biblical faith suggests believers can look forward to seeing him one day, when there will no longer be “mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4)

  1. E.g. bipolar disorder, which a number of scholars have claimed for FitzRoy (see e.g. Jones, S., View from the lab: journeys of the mind, telegraph.co.uk, 17 August 2005). His uncle also suicided; twin studies have shown it is among the most heritable of medical conditions, and much in his history of recurring depression (as for the great preacher Spurgeon) indicates this as a real possibility, at least.

Promotion and justice

In 1843 FitzRoy gave up voyaging and was appointed as the Governor of New Zealand. Whilst there he became known for dealing justly concerning the rights of Maori people, including their right to maximum benefit from the sale of their land if they so desired. Not surprisingly, this earned him enemies.19,20,21

When he returned home, FitzRoy was appointed head of the Meteorological Office. As a sailor, he had gained an appreciation of weather forecasting as a means of saving lives at sea. FitzRoy drew on his experience and observations of gales around Cape Horn to design a reliable barometer, and wrote the Weather Book (first published in 1858)—a manual for forecasting changes in the weather.22

Emerging from the shadows

FitzRoy suffered considerable disappointments in his life. A major source of regret seemed to be the unintended way in which his captaincy of the Beagle had contributed to the development of Darwin’s ideology—something that clearly would (and then did) rob huge numbers of their faith in the God of the Bible.

Nonetheless, it is good to be reminded of the evidence for his nobility of character, as well as his considerable achievements, which tend to be overlooked due to focusing solely on his role as captain of Darwin’s famous voyage.

Pioneering system

For instance, having recorded weather patterns in the North Atlantic, FitzRoy developed a storm warning system using visual signals that were hoisted from a mast or pole on shore, visible from ships at a distance. His system used lights inside triangles or squares, cones and cylinders to warn ships of dangerous winds or gales. Soon afterwards, the new system was adopted by France and then other countries.

From what is known of this kind and generous man, Robert FitzRoy would doubtless have been delighted that many lives were saved as a result.23

References and notes

  1. Barlow, N. (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Collins, London, 1958, p. 72. Return to text
  2. Gribbin, J. and Gribbin, M., FitzRoy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin’s Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast, Headline Book Publishing 2004, p. 290. Return to text
  3. Thomas, L., My World of Islands, Kindle Edition, 2011. Return to text
  4. MacQuarrie, K., Life and Death in the Andes, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015, p.346. Return to text
  5. Ref. 2, pp. 21–23. Return to text
  6. Ref. 4, pp. 346–347. Return to text
  7. Ref. 2, pp. 48–49. Return to text
  8. See captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/endeavour, accessed 24 March 2017. Return to text
  9. Ref. 2, pp. 53, 84–85. Return to text
  10. Ref. 2, p. 62. Return to text
  11. Ref. 2, pp. 96–97, Return to text
  12. Sibley, A., FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, Fierce Critic of Darwinism, Acts & Facts 34(11), 2005, www.icr.org Return to text
  13. Ref. 2, pp. 189–190. Return to text
  14. Herbert, Sandra, Charles Darwin: Geologist, Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 190–192. Return to text
  15. Fitzroy, R., King, P., and Darwin, C., Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle Between the Years 1826 and 1836: Describing Their Examination of the Southern Shores of South America, and the Beagle’s Circumnavigation of the Globe, 1839. This was a three volume work; Fitzroy was principal author and editor of the first two volumes, accessible online at archive.org. See also ref. 14, p. 191. Return to text
  16. Ref. 15, pp. 641–645, accessed 25 March 2017. Return to text
  17. See creation.com/wilberforce-huxley. Return to text
  18. The report was in the magazine Athenaeum, quoted in Ref. 14, p. 192. Return to text
  19. Ref. 2, p. 208. Return to text
  20. See nzhistory.govt.nz/people/robert-fitzroy Return to text
  21. Harris, P and de Cogan, D. (eds), Studies in the History of Tax Law, Vol. 7, p. 323. Return to text
  22. Ref. 2, pp. 256–258. Return to text
  23. Ref. 2, pp. 263–265. Return to text

Readers’ comments

Neil G.
I wish more about FitzRoy was included in The Voyage That Shook The World. I really appreciate all the CMI video and film content, but I feel that given the grossly dishonest and catastrophically uniformed approach from atheists that comprehensively dominates all media and even schools (words fail me) Christians need to be as hard hitting as possible. This is not about being inoffensive. This is (or should be) an intellectual debate where protagonists dispense with kindness (although it’s not kind to avoid the truth) and agree to relinquish all protections in the (supposedly) joint fight to the death of all falsehood and deception.
John Cowart C.
Dear CMI,

My question concerns depression (I checked the Q & A section, and did not find material directly addressing it). I know someone who has suffered from it for years, and I know there are many attributed causes (e.g., genetics, nutrition, environment, ‘sin’), and there are many treatments. Does
CMI have a position on the matter?
Any insight is much appreciated!


John C.
Jonathan Sarfati
CMI can’t give medical or psychiatric advice, sorry. But we do have some articles that can be found via our search button on the top right of pages, by typing in words such as depression, suicide, black dog. For example, in the article Darwin, Spurgeon and the ‘black dog’, note 1 says:

It is just as risky to claim that ‘all depression has a spiritual cause’ as it is to ignore the spiritual dimension. Some types of depression may indeed have more to do with physiological than psychological/spiritual issues. Spurgeon and Luther are just two of the spiritual giants to have suffered severe depressive episodes. Since the Fall, mutational defects have accumulated in the human race, and there is no reason to suppose that the brain would be the only organ unaffected. This may explain why predisposition to certain types of depression follows inherited patterns. Thus, for some situations, medication may in fact be the most appropriate treatment.
Michael S.
David B, I think you misrepresented Dr Sarfati when you asked “does this mean I can commit this sin and not repent of them” in regards to suicide. (I paraphrase). I think you heavily imply he was suggesting that.

I think it is obvious that many people, genuine Christians in the past, have sinned then died without repenting because of an accident or whatever. It would seem rather absurd to believe they are in hell simply because they didn’t get the chance to repent of that particular sin when the Bible says Christ paid for our sins at Calvary, so those who accept salvation are covered by the Lamb’s blood.

It’s also disingenuous to ask a Christian if he is condoning sin because we are forgiven, as though we are saying that forgiveness is a “ticket to sin so just go out and sin hard and have fun then repent.” I don’t think it’s as simple as a false dichotomy of “either you can enjoy your sin and go to heaven, or must repent of every sin or go to hell.” And I think that is a simplistic portrayaI of the bible your message tends to give.

Obviously he is not saying we should go and commit suicide, simply because we will still go to heaven. That would be like saying we should eat 50 chocolate bars a day because we don’t have the diabetes gene.
Anthony B.
The achievements of Capt FitzRoy are impressive; however he was a supporter of slavery, unlike the evil Darwin who campaigned against the practice. Origins chapter 21 describes a row they had on the subject.
Jonathan Sarfati
The title is Origin not Origins, short for On the origin of species by means of natural selection, or the preservation of favoured races in the struggle for life. And it can't have been chapter 21, because this has only 14 chapters (a new ch. 7 was added to the 6th Edn, bringing the total to 15). You presumably meant his much earlier book, Journal of researches into the geology and natural history of the various countries visited by H.M.S. Beagle (1839), commonly called The Voyage of the Beagle. This indeed had 21 chapters, and in the last one Darwin indeed condemned slavery in no uncertain terms, as he had done in various earlier parts of the book. This would not be surprising, because the grandfather of both Darwin and his wife, the pottery magnate Josiah Wedgewood, was a fervent abolitionist. We have noted before that Darwin opposed human slavery (see Darwin, slavery, and abolition).

It is true that they quarrelled once over slavery, but it’s not explicitly mentioned in that book. Darwin merely alludes to it with:
I will not even allude to the many heart-sickening atrocities which I authentically heard of;—nor would I have mentioned the above revolting details, had I not met with several people, so blinded by the constitutional gaiety of the negro, as to speak of slavery as a tolerable evil. Such people have generally visited at the houses of the upper classes, where the domestic slaves are usually well treated; and they have not, like myself, lived amongst the lower classes. Such enquirers will ask slaves about their condition; they forget that the slave must indeed be dull, who does not calculate on the chance of his answer reaching his master’s ears.

FitzRoy was one such enquirer of a slave in the presence of the master, and Darwin directly pointed out that the slave would have feared repercussions had he denounced slavery. This led to the quarrel, after which the subject was never brought up.

Note that FitzRoy at the time was a Lyellian, not a biblical creationist. Later, he had learned his lesson, and fought for the rights of the Maori people as the Governor of New Zealand, despite strong opposition from many settlers. FitzRoy was also an admirer of William Paley, famous for his book on intelligent design, Natural Theology: or Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity Collected from the Appearance of Nature (1802), but had previously denounced slavery in The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785).
Tammy S.
This is another well-done article. For me, as with some other responders, the comment regarding suicide stood out. I know that this subject can be super touchy for many, and I can relate because I have had a number of suicidal thoughts at different times in my life. When I think back from my current perspective, I do feel a certain terror at the thought that suicide would have sent me to hell. Not based on being told that, but based on one word that is a striking theme of Christianity: Endure. Over and over again, from the mouth of Jesus and onward in the Bible, Christians are constantly being instructed to endure. And not just to endure, but to endure with patience. Suffering, affliction, persecution, etc are all meant to be endured by the believer. There are far too many references to list here, but doing a search of the word endure” in any New Testament will give a plethora of examples. So I guess my question would be: if “he who endures to the end shall be saved”, what shall be the end of he who does not “endure”? And if there is no need to endure, why are the rest of us continuing to endure? Depression is an affliction suffered by many believers, not the least of whom are in squalid and awful living conditions worldwide. Why should they endure?
Jonathan Sarfati
Expressing your question in a logical schema:
If he endures, then he will be saved.
He didn't endure.
He will not be saved.

This is actually a logical fallacy called denying the antecedent, explained in the Validity section of Logic and Creation.

Lack of endurance is certainly a sin, but it is not stated to be an unforgivable one. All the same, to support the general thrust of your comment, we have the stern warning in 1 John 2:19.
David B.
Thank you, I enjoyed the article. However, in the black box above, you say suicide is a forgivable sin. I was under the impression that sin was forgivable by God when repented of (within the confines of belief in Christ) which Christ stated often Himself. When a person commits suicide he commits murder of himself, and since he’s dead he can’t repent of it. So, are you saying I can commit this sin and other sins as well and not repent of them and still get to heaven? John said, “No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in him: he cannot go on sinning because he is born of God” (1 John 3:9). We are new creations in Christ, the old man is dead. Too many Christians, in our modern age, are not realizing the awfulness and the consequences of sin and continue to dabble in them thinking they will still get into heaven anyway. They have lost the fear of the consequences of sin. I know when people contemplate suicide one thing they worry about is then not getting into heaven and this will often stop them from doing it. I think I have to disagree with your statement about suicide because it will allow a person to think they will still get into heaven making it more likely to kill themselves.
Jonathan Sarfati
However, I would still go by direct propositional teaching of Scripture rather than fallible human reasoning from it. That is, Jesus said:
Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven. (Matthew 12:31)

Thus, suicide cannot be an unforgivable sin. Also, a suicide will not continue to sin, so doesn’t come under 1 John 3:9.

My own view, not necessarily that of CMI corporately, comes from Dr Arnold Fruchtenbaum, founder of Ariel Ministries, that it was not a sin that could be committed by an individual. Rather as I explain in The Genesis Account, p. 416, n. 29:
“Blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 12:31–32, Mark 3:28–30, Luke 12:10) was a national sin of the nation of Israel of Jesus’ generation. This was rejecting Jesus’ Messiahship on the grounds that He was demon-possessed, and indeed possessed by the lead demon Beelzebub. This was despite having experienced the three Messianic miracles they themselves had taught that only the Messiah could do:

  1. Healing a Jewish leper,

  2. Exorcising a demon that caused dumbness,

  3. Giving sight to a man born blind.

The punishment that could not be averted was the AD 70 destruction of Jerusalem, and with it the religious system of the Temple and Levitical Priesthood. But no Jewish Christians were killed because they had obeyed Jesus’ command to flee when the city was surrounded by armies (Luke 21:20–21). Thus “blasphemy against the Holy Spirit” is not a sin that people can commit today.
Alf F.
Thank you for this touching and uplifting article. It is good to learn more about the Captain of the Beagle, and it is especially significant in exemplifying the fact that two educated men can see the same evidence and come to vastly different conclusions, as was pointed out by Linda R.
David R.
Many of us believe in the Flood of Noah. But, not all the assumptions that you bring forth on this site. Many of your explanations do not always fit the geological or historical records. Like I said, I believe in the Flood of Noah. But, I am also willing to look at the evidence with an open mind. Yes, Abraham was linked to the first Adam in Genesis. The Bible is about Abraham and his decedents. Not, the Chinese which has a very very old culture. Your snide remark about Mrs Cain is insulting and uncalled for.
Jonathan Sarfati
If you don’t believe in a globe-covering flood, then you do not really believe in the Flood of Noah, but in something of your own creation. Many of our explanations fit the true geological and historical records when unencumbered by uniformitarian presuppostions.

I presume you meant ‘descendants’, because a decedent is someone who has died (deceased).

The Chinese culture is younger than Babel, and there is good evidence from the earliest Chinese writing to support this.

I never said anything snide or insulting about Mrs Cain; the Bible never condemned her for the marriage.
David R.
Many Christians like Robert FitzRoy question the Universal Flood. Hence, the question where did Cain get his wife and the city of Nod? Which can not be fully explained when looking at past worldwide civilizations. We must remember that the Bible is about the heritage, and generations of Abraham, and his decedents. At the time, the scriptures were given to Moses only, and not given to the other peoples populating the world. Huge civilizations have existed in the past in China, Africa, in the Americas, and even in the Pacific Islands. They were not given the Word, until Jesus Christ.
Jonathan Sarfati
We must remember that the Bible tells us that Abraham didn’t just drop out of the sky, but that he is linked to the first man in the chronogenealogies of Genesis 5 and 11. The Bible also links Jesus, “the last Adam”, with “the first man Adam” (1 Corinthians 15:45)—as part of Paul’s Gospel/Resurrection chapter no less—and Luke 3:23–38 fills in the connection.

Christians like Captain Fitzroy regretted questioning the Universal Flood, because it was the a priori denial by uniformitarian geologists that led to geological evolutionary theory, which was the foundation for Darwin’s biological evolutionary theories. Conversely, if Christians understand the reality of the global Flood, then we don’t need the millions of years, because the Flood would build the rock layers and fossil record quickly—just a normal trade of intensity for time. And of course, millions of years is necessary (but not sufficient) for biological evolution.

Given the reality of the global Flood (c. 2300 BC) and the dispersion from Babel (c. 2200), we know that civilizations such as the Chinese came after that. Indeed, much to the surprise of uniformitarians, many civilizations sprung up suddenly all at once.

And really, trying on the old canard about Mrs Cain as if we have never thought of this before?

Linda R.
Dear Creation staff;
This is such an encouraging article; not only for the fascinating observation that two people looking at the same thing can come to two entirely different interpretations—one led by the Holy Spirit and the other by the enemy—but also for those of
us who struggle with depression. To read about a devout Christian, troubled in mind to the point of suicide, and learn how
much he and his wife loved the Lord and believed the Bible gave my spirit tranquillity.
Lassi P.
Great article! I was especially delighted on the firm, but gentle wording in the box about suicide, for we must, as it was done in this article, always consider suicide as a grievous tragedy, yet we must, as in this article, be clear that the suicide a loved one might have committed doesn’t automatically mean they were in Hell. The “unforgivable sin” mentioned in the Bible isn’t suicide, even though the latter is also a sin (may God help us in avoiding all sin. Including those that cause biological death to someone).

I also loved to read more on captain FizzRoy. Thank you.
David M.
Thank you Nicos—this was very informative and enlightening. It’s true that virtually all mention of FitzRoy is negative where the most common notation is that FitzRoy gave Darwin, Charles Lyell’s book on geology, which is what sparked Darwin to theorize and pursue his thoughts on evolution. Learning this about FitzRoy has given me a much better understanding regarding this mark in history.
Thank you again, David

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