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
admired Fitzroy’s seamanship and leadership. Darwin
At some ports,
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. Darwin
Of course it was during the voyage of the Beagle that
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. Darwin
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
The voyage lasted five years and
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
and earned the enmity of unscrupulous selfish politicians. Income tax was
running at a staggering three per cent. The Durham British Isles
was considered to be overcrowded, so it was put forward that 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. New Zealand
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 –
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 - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harry_Thompson
Before we moved to Spain in 2003, we’d lived in Lee-on-the-Solent in Fitzroy Close, which was named after Robert Fitzroy.