The Tragic Life of Charles Darwin’s Captain

Chiefly remembered as Darwin’s captain on HMS Beagle, Robert FitzRoy’s life was eventful – and ultimately tragic.

Robert Fitzroy, lithograph, 1835. Wellcome Collection. Public Domain.

Robert FitzRoy, the superb sailor and founding father of the Met Office, is often remembered merely as Charles Darwin’s taciturn captain on HMS Beagle. Jon Amiel’s 2009 film Creation encapsulates this view – it pictures him bedecked in his naval uniform, his great cocked hat arching into a grim South American sky as he struts along a wind-blasted beach in Tierra del Fuego. The significance of Beagle’s second voyage, realised with the publication of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species in 1859, ensures that this is the FitzRoy that we are left with. He is the man who sailed Darwin around the world, as the young naturalist formulated his paradigm-shattering ideas about the past. But this vision obscures the richness and importance of FitzRoy’s life beyond the Beagle. He was also a politician, a governor, a scientist and a civil servant who counted as friends not just Darwin but also Sir Francis Beaufort, Sir John Herschel and the chemist John Hall Gladstone.

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