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
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
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.
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)
- 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.
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
- Barlow, N. (ed.), The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Collins, London, 1958, p. 72. Return to text
- 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
- Thomas, L., My World of Islands, Kindle Edition, 2011. Return to text
- MacQuarrie, K., Life and Death in the Andes, Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2015, p.346. Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 21–23. Return to text
- Ref. 4, pp. 346–347. Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 48–49. Return to text
- See captaincooksociety.com/home/detail/endeavour, accessed 24 March 2017. Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 53, 84–85. Return to text
- Ref. 2, p. 62. Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 96–97, Return to text
- Sibley, A., FitzRoy, Captain of the Beagle, Fierce Critic of Darwinism, Acts & Facts 34(11), 2005, www.icr.org Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 189–190. Return to text
- Herbert, Sandra, Charles Darwin: Geologist, Cornell University Press, 2005, pp. 190–192. Return to text
- 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
- Ref. 15, pp. 641–645, accessed 25 March 2017. Return to text
- See creation.com/wilberforce-huxley. Return to text
- The report was in the magazine Athenaeum, quoted in Ref. 14, p. 192. Return to text
- Ref. 2, p. 208. Return to text
- See nzhistory.govt.nz/people/robert-fitzroy Return to text
- Harris, P and de Cogan, D. (eds), Studies in the History of Tax Law, Vol. 7, p. 323. Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 256–258. Return to text
- Ref. 2, pp. 263–265. Return to text