Admiral Robert FitzRoy

Robert FitzRoy, RN (1805 - 1866)
Captain of HMS

    Captain Robert FitzRoy was a rising officer in the Royal Navy when he was appointed by the Admiralty to conduct a survey of the coast of South America in HMS Beagle. He wanted a naturalist to accompany the voyage, and also somebody who would function as a gentleman's companion for himself. Darwin's professor at Cambridge, John Stevens Henslow, recommended him for the post. Darwin and FitzRoy shared a small cabin at sea for five years. Darwin's nickname aboard ship was "Philosopher." FitzRoy was noted for his qualities as a naval officer and commander, but also for his temper. When coming on watch, the relieving officers were accustomed to ask "If much hot coffee had been served?"

    FitzRoy was an advocate of the civilizing effects of slavery. In one incident, he described to Darwin how the owner of a great plantation had called his slaves around him, and asked if they wished to be free: they replied No. Darwin demanded of FitzRoy ("perhaps with a sneer") if the Captain thought the word of a slave in the presence of his master was worth anything. Affronted, FitzRoy ordered Darwin to leave his cabin, but shortly thereafter invited him back.

    Admiral FitzRoy later achieved prominence by developing the first weather forecasting service for the Royal Navy, but his naval career was hampered by his Tory politics. He became increasingly religious in his later years, and an ardent opponent of the idea of evolution, which he believed ran counter to the Bible. He came to regret his role in the development of Darwin's theory. Meetings between the two men became painful. FitzRoy eventually took his own life. Years after, Darwin wrote, "I never cease wondering at his character, so full of good & generous traits but spoiled by such an unlucky temper. Some part of his brain wants mending: nothing else will account for his manner of viewing things."

Text material © 2020 by Steven M. Carr