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Friday, 14 March 2014

FFB - This Thing of Darkness

This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson is a novel about Robert Fitzroy; it also sheds light on race, religion, science and colonialism of the time. Based upon real events that took place between 1828 and 1865, it includes an account of the voyage of HMS Beagle and naturally involves the friendship and later enmity between Fitzroy and Charles Darwin. It was listed as a contender for the Booker Prize but didn’t win, which is a shame as it’s an excellent book from beginning to end.
It begins with the suicide of the captain of HMS Beagle, Captain Pringle Stokes, following a bout of depression. Being the skipper of a naval vessel can be lonely at the best of times, but considering that the Beagle was at sea for freezing and stormy months on end while the crew was carrying out a hydrographic survey of Tierra del Fuego, depression is not so surprising. Young Fitzroy took over the Beagle in Rio and quickly made the ship his own, impressing his crew with his seamanship and bravery.

On more than one occasion Fitzroy’s seamanship and his reliance on barometers saved his ship and the crew from devastating storms. One winter, he lost two toes through frostbite but never complained. His men would follow him anywhere, it seems. Very early on it was apparent that Fitzroy had an enquiring mind and really believed that weather could be predicted providing enough knowledge of the air currents was available.

To stave off loneliness and ever-hovering depression, Fitzroy offered a place on the ship to a gentleman who would serve as a naturalist. Charles Darwin applied when others had turned down the position. They got on very well most of the time and Darwin admired Fitzroy’s seamanship and leadership.

At some ports, Darwin was put ashore to study the geology and flora. Darwin’s travelled inland across plains and lived with gauchos and climbed mountains, up to a height of 13,000 feet where water boils at a lower temperature. He encountered blood-sucking beetles and vampire bats.

Of course it was during the voyage of the Beagle that Darwin conceived his theory of evolution, which essentially denied the Biblical creation of the world espoused at the time. Fitzroy believed in the truth of the Old Testament and the Flood, even pointing to the evidence of sea-shells and sea-creature fossils in the mountains. On this point they argued vociferously.

Fitzroy suffered severe bouts of depression; indeed, though the ailment wasn’t diagnosed at the time, he was believed to be a manic depressive. Fitzroy’s uncle, Lord Castlereagh, had suffered from depression and killed himself while in office.

Thompson’s description of Fitzroy’s depression is eloquent and haunting: ‘... a shapeless, nameless dread that had removed him to its lair, a place more terrifying than any nightmare he had ever endured...’ The book’s title is from The Tempest and refers to this dark depression.

Yet despite this hovering darkness, he achieved so much and earned the unswerving loyalty of his officers and crew. As Fitzroy said, ‘A gentleman should always place duty and public service ahead of all other things.’
When the Beagle returned to England, Fitzroy carried with him three natives from Tierra del Fuego, intending that they be taught English and a Christian outlook. He promised to return them to their homeland to act as missionaries. The girl was Fuegia Basket, the men were Jemmy Button and York Minster. Their story at times proves very moving.
The voyage lasted five years and Darwin had collected 1,529 specimens preserved in spirits, and 3,907 labelled skins, bones and other dried specimens. The men of the Beagle had produced 202 charts and plans.

Thompson has captured the time and place very well indeed. Some phrases ring bells, too. ‘And the Tories, of course, seem quite incapable of winning an election.’ In 1841 Fitzroy was elected the Tory MP for Durham and earned the enmity of unscrupulous selfish politicians. Income tax was running at a staggering three per cent. The British Isles was considered to be overcrowded, so it was put forward that New Zealand should be populated. Fitzroy took over from the deceased first Governor. But commercial interests succeeded in getting Fitzroy removed from his post for political expediency and the massacre of the Maoris began shortly afterwards.
He was appointed as the chief of a new department that collected weather data at sea, fine-tuning the British Meteorological Register. He even invented the Fitzroy barometer and thousands were mass-produced and distributed, all helping him to build up a weather history. In due course he hoped to use the statistics to foretell the weather, though he was up against ignorant men in power.

Unlike the political pygmies of today, Fitzroy gave selflessly. He never sought glory or riches. Despite his serious illness that could descend without warning, he achieved so much. He believed that sunspot activity affects the weather and, besides inventing the weather forecast, his contribution to nautical history was considerable. His charts were so precise that they continued to be used until recently, finally being usurped by aerial photography. He saved hundreds if not thousands of lives with the forecasts and introduced the system of masters’ certificates for ship’s officers. He pioneered the use of the lightning conductor and the Beaufort scale. He introduced the terms ‘port’ (as opposed to ‘larboard’) and ‘dinghy’ instead of jolly-boat into the Royal Navy.

Fitzroy set an example of honour and sacrifice which greatly influenced men who sailed with him. And in 2002, the shipping area previously known as Finisterre was renamed Fitzroy, the only sea area named after a person.
There are four maps – South America, Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, Galapagos Islands and the Falkland Islands - all of which prove helpful.
An outstanding book about a remarkable man.


Tragically, Thompson died the same year that his book was published, 2005; he was 45. He had never smoked yet died of lung cancer. He was widely regarded as one of the most successful television producers and comedy writers of his generation -


Before we moved to Spain in 2003, we’d lived in Lee-on-the-Solent in Fitzroy Close, which was named after Robert Fitzroy.





Ron Scheer said...

Nicely summed up. Though I knew of Darwin and the Beagle, I did not know of Fitzroy. His struggle with depression, his scientific accomplishments and the character of the man put me in mind of Meriwether Lewis of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

I lived for a time in London and worked on Fitzroy Street. I'm assuming now it was named in honor of the man.

Nik said...

Thanks, Ron. Interesting about Lewis, whose fatal gunshot might have been suicide (?) Fitzroy Street was named after Robert's ancestor, Charles Fitzroy, Baron of Southampton. Interesting links can be found here