The skipper of the HMS Beagle gets his own book at last.
Nichols (A Voyage for Madmen, 2001, etc.) picks up Robert Fitzroy in 1828, at age 23, as he’s taking command of the Beagle after its captain’s suicide. A handsome aristocrat with a scientific mind, Fitzroy was dispatched to chart the Straits of Magellan, a tough but potentially rewarding assignment. Events set him on a new course when natives of Tierra del Fuego stole one of his boats; in retaliation, Fitzroy took four hostages. When the thieves failed to restore the boat, Fitzroy decided to bring the captives to England to be civilized and Christianized, then sent home to convert their compatriots. For this return voyage in 1831, Darwin joined the ship as onboard naturalist and companion to Fitzroy, whose family history of mental illness made him fear for his sanity in the stressful environment of Cape Horn. Their relationship was stormy, but in the end the Beagle circumnavigated the globe and gave Darwin the data for his theory of evolution. Back in England, the fortunes of the two men diverged. Lauded at first for his accurate charts, Fitzroy was also tagged by the Admiralty as difficult; he soon found himself with few prospects, while Darwin's reputation was made. Appointed governor of New Zealand, Fitzroy pleased no one in his efforts to soothe tense native-settler relations and was fired. Finally, as head of the British government’s Meteorological Office, he designed weather stations and charts that made available for the first time the raw material for weather forecasting. It appears to have been the London Times’ decision to stop publishing his forecasts that led him in 1865 to succumb at last to the family malady and cut his own throat.
A detailed and generally fair-minded portrait of a man whose talents should have earned him a higher place in history, but whose shortcomings reduced him a footnote.