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Robert FitzRoy (1805 - 1865)

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Divine intervention would have been hard-pushed to have given Robert FitzRoy a better start in life, and his star shone brightly from the start. An Englishman no less, and fourth-great grandson of Charles II, he was born into Suffolk aristocracy on 5 July, 1805. His schooling was nothing short of excellent and, aged 14, he graduated with great distinction from the Royal Naval College in Portsmouth. By September 1824, he was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy.

FitzRoy of The Beagle

Whether by luck, fate, or divine intervention, by 1830 FitzRoy was in command of HMS Beagle, a hydrographic survey vessel, after the ship's former skipper, Captain Pringle-Stockes, had shot himself out of loneliness.

In 1830, on his return to England from his first trip in command (operating at and charting the southernmost extremities of the continent of South America) FitzRoy brought with him four Fuegian natives to whom he was determined to provide an education, based upon the premise that:

...if these 'Indians' resided some years among 'the civilised', they would, upon their return, transfer to their relatives the rudiments of civilisation.

Despite being well looked-after, one of the Fuegians died of smallpox and, being a decent man at heart, Robert FitzRoy determined as soon as possible to return the remainder to their native Tierra del Fuego.

The Darwin Encounter

With no naval contract to back such an expedition, FitzRoy elected in 1831 to meet the expense of this project from his own pocket. To some extent it was the generous act of a man of stature, the mark of a gentleman who instinctively knew or was being guided along the path of the righteous, although it is arguable that FitzRoy shouldn't have been so arrogant as to take the Fuegian natives hostage in the first place. Again however, the fickle hand of fate intervened and the admiralty did indeed grant him command of a second surveying mission to Patagonia and the Straits of Magellan; he would leave Devonport on the 27 December, 1831, in command of the same ship on which he had returned with his aboriginal Fuegian cargo in the previous year. The Captain was overjoyed. Whilst ostensibly employed by the Royal Navy to carry out survey and chronological experimentation, he hoped to use this voyage to find scientific proof that the biblical Book of Genesis was literally true, thereby substantiating his esteemed holy book, which itself was coming under some fire at the time.

At his own request, FitzRoy was to share the duration of the voyage (four years, nine months and two days) with one Mr Charles Darwin, a 22-year old Cambridge divinity graduate, a man as deeply religious as himself, or perhaps more so insofar as he was intent in fact on taking Holy Orders in the Church of England. Darwin, whose selection for the voyage owed at least something to the shape of his own nose, which FitzRoy believed betokened depth of character, was not FitzRoy's first choice, but he stood in when FitzRoy's preferred candidate dropped out. In confined quarters, the voyage was punctuated with lively debate on all matters upon Mother's earth and under Father's sky, which Darwin later described as quarrels sometimes 'bordering on insanity'. However, when Darwin had fallen seriously ill at Valparaiso in Chile, Captain FitzRoy prayed solidly that his companion should be spared. That his prayers were answered and Charles was restored to health simply assured the FitzRoy that his God was all-powerful, all-knowing and above all, merciful, as he firmly held. And Darwin, on discovering a new species of dolphin, dutifully named it delphinius fitzroyi in honour of his Captain. It is clear that the relationship between the two young men (Darwin aged 22, FitzRoy, 23) was uncertain throughout the voyage, and whilst Darwin's gentle but persistent tug away from Biblical Creation in which FitzRoy so fervently believed could have aggravated the Captain, it could also be argued that FitzRoy demonstrated a quirky unknowability that would surely annoy anyone. After making shore at Falmouth in 1836 on completion of the voyage, for example, FitzRoy almost at once married a young woman to whom he had long been betrothed. In five years in Darwin's company, Darwin reports that FitzRoy had not once so much as hinted at any such attachment.

Political Career

In 1841, Robert FitzRoy, a Tory, became the Rt Honorable Member for Durham, taking his seat in the House of Commons (a chamber of the British Parliament). At around the same time, he also accepted the Conservancy of the Mersey, and in his double capacity took the opportunity to try to improve maritime safety and obtained permission to introduce a bill for the improvement of conditions in Mercantile Marine. Although his measure was not accepted, it was the means of bringing about the introduction of the voluntary certificate of the Board of Trade in 1845, and formed the groundwork of some important clauses in the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850.

Then, in 1843, he was 'promoted' to the position of Governor of New Zealand. But after only two unhappy years in the post, he was recalled to the Empire's bosom in London, labelled as weak and ineffectual, whereas perhaps in truth it had been his principled defence of the Maori in the face of unscrupulous immigrant settlers that had upset the imperial apple-cart. Indeed, it was FitzRoy's decisiveness, independence of action, rigid discipline and unbending sense of personal honour that gave his political adversaries the excuse they needed to have him recalled to England and replaced with a less independent representative.

Whither The Weather?

After two years operating as superintendent of the dockyard at Woolwich, he retired from active duty in 1850. In 1854, he was appointed Meterological Statistician by the Board of Trade, and over the next few years founded what would eventually evolve into the Meteorological Office. Its initial mandate was to compile statistics on wind in order to assist the efficiency of navigation. Robert FitzRoy enlarged on that role promoting weather observations, establishing barometer stations, and even inventing a new meteorological device 'the Admiral FitzRoy Domestic Barometer'. In fact, he is associated with the invention of several different types of barometers. During his time at the fledgling Met Office, FitzRoy made use of the new-fangled electric telegraph to rapidly gather data to issue a viable weather forecast. In 1861, the first storm warnings were being issued, which FitzRoy soon extended to routine weather forecasts, these being published in The Times newspaper, and culminating in 1863 of his Weather Book, a seminal meteorological text way ahead of its time. He was however to be thwarted; his forecasts often transpired to be flawed, for which he (unfairly) received resounding and over-enthusiastic criticism.

The Origin of Species

Until 1857, FitzRoy had continued to visit Darwin at his home, Down House. However, in 1859, the publication of his erstwhile friend's Origin of Species led the former Captain, now a Rear-Admiral, to believe that he had not only been betrayed but, moreover, that by allowing Darwin to board his vessel, so he had himself betrayed his own Holy Father. For four years, nine months and two days, as the balance of his own faith in the idea of God the Creator had subtly shifted, Charles Darwin had been using Captain Robert FitzRoy as a sounding post, a stone on which to hone the theories that he would one day publish, an unwitting devil's advocate perhaps. But it was the Rear-Admiral who now believed that Darwin may well have been Satan himself.

In his own eyes, and perhaps in 'His' own eyes, FitzRoy had failed; that had been made clear to him when disrespectful students had barracked him into silence during a meeting of the British Association at Oxford University in June of 1860, where Professor Thomas Henry Huxley was attempting to champion Darwin's theories in a debate with the Bishop of Oxford, Samuel Wilberforce, an great opponent of evolution theory. FitzRoy himself was only there by coincidence (or fate) to deliver a talk on storms in his capacity as a meterologist, but in the process got diverted into heckling Huxley, brandishing The Bible and shouting 'Here is the truth - in here!' As a result he was escorted from the building, humiliated.

Viking Cromarty Forth et al

Whether it was his apparent failure as a weatherman, persistent ill-health (including the onset of deafness), or the fact that he'd essentially aided and abetted Darwin's anti-Creationist heresy that cost Robert FitzRoy his life will never be known for sure. But on 30 April, 1865, Robert FitzRoy - now promoted to Vice Admiral - got up early without waking his wife, kissed his daughter, locked himself in his dressing room of his home in Upper Norwood, and cut his throat with a razor. He was no stranger to suicide; his uncle, Lord Viscount Castlereigh had taken his own life in 1822, and his first command, of the Beagle, had been as a result Pringle-Stockes' self-inflicted demise.

However, what is known is that FitzRoy was a good man, an achiever, and perhaps even a visionary, but whose life has always been overshadowed by that of his cabin-mate aboard the Beagle. Indeed, it was FitzRoy's utter competence as master-mariner and navigator that enabled the Beagle's safe passage home after months of intense surveying in the murderous weather that brutalises the southernmost tip of South America, where a less rigorous seaman might very easily have sailed Darwin into a watery grave. That FitzRoy was an extremely able surveyor, considering, the rudimentary equipment with which he worked, is evident from the remarks of Sir Francis Beaufort, then Hydrographer to the Navy, who in an 1848 report to the House of Commons wrote that:

from the Equator to Cape Horn and from thence round to the River Plate on the eastern side of South America, all that is immediately wanted has been already achieved by the splendid survey of Captain Robert FitzRoy.

His legacy, then, is not to be ignored, and thankfully Robert FitzRoy's life will not be forgotten. First of all, he can be regarded as the father of weather-forecasting. And in recognition of this, since 2002, with the passing of Finisterre, his name is now announced daily on UK's BBC Radio 4, as part of the Shipping Forecast, representing a region of sea between Trafalgar, Biscay and Sole.

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