FitzRoy’s stormy reputation

Darwin’s nose
It was his nose that led Charles Darwin to the Galapagos Islands on the second voyage of HMS Beagle, a survey ship captained by Robert FitzRoy. FitzRoy was a well-respected naval officer with a surname to match – George V considered it for the British royal family when changing the name from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha in 1917.

FitzRoy believed facial features echoed a person’s characteristics, and thought Darwin’s nose let him down. He came close to barring the naturalist from the 1831 voyage, a trip that would further conceive Darwin’s thoughts on evolution.

The voyage saw Beagle brush past the islands of West Africa before circumnavigating almost the entire South American landmass across the stormy southern oceans. Darwin was only 22 as he scurried about the South American coastline dissecting earthworms and barnacles. At the same time, FitzRoy and his crew were busy recording hydrographical information for the Admiralty back in London, making measurements and taking samples along the way.

A stop-off in New Zealand
The ship’s return trip to England saw it crossing the Pacific Ocean to New Zealand. Beagle harboured in New Zealand’s Bay of Islands for 10 days. FitzRoy and Darwin went ashore at Paihia, now the Bay of Islands’ main tourist town. After so long away from home Darwin was pleased to find English flowers around the town, but soon found the countryside irritatingly impracticable for exploration. Much of the native vegetation of ferns has since been cleared. The rocky outcrops, waterways and hills that annoyed Darwin so much are now a major pull for tourists, as is the continued Englishness of Paihia. My lunch when there was a portion of fish and chips so fresh I burnt my mouth numerous times.

Paihia, New Zealand

Beagle continued to Sydney and on to Cape Town, before returning home. But New Zealand would feature further in FitzRoy’s career. He was appointed the second governor of the islands from December 1843 until 1845, juggling Maori and European demands in the aftermath of the Treaty of Waitangi signed three years earlier. Waitangi is a pleasant 30 minute walk from Paihia, where FitzRoy had landed with Beagle. The path leads north along the coastal road and over the wooden Waitangi River bridge. Beyond a shipwreck museum-cum-coffee shop are the Waitangi National Trust grounds. As well as the Treaty House, the grounds contain the centennial celebration whare runanga (meeting house), and the 35 metre long ngatokimatawhaorua waka. The war canoe is launched annually to mark the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, the foundation document of New Zealand statehood.

Waitangi Treaty House, Waitangi, New Zealand

Inventing the weather
Returning to Britain in 1845 FitzRoy’s difficult governorship of the islands didn’t prevent him taking up several further senior positions within the British establishment. It was then that FitzRoy founded the forerunner to today’s Meteorological Office and instigated the first weather forecasting system.

Despite his varying successes FitzRoy’s story ends less than happily. FitzRoy committed suicide, having spent his entire fortune, much of it on philanthropic activities. While Darwin was buried in Westminster Abbey beside Isaac Newton, FitzRoy was interned in the grounds of All Saints Church, Upper Norwood, South London.

I had rather hoped for a stormy day when I visited FitzRoy’s grave so I could liken it to the weather he would have encountered on the tip of South American continent with Beagle. Instead, all I could muster up was some heavy on-off drizzle that managed to soak me. The grave lies opposite an ugly block of flats, seemingly forgotten by everyone except the Meteorological Office. The organisation renovated his grave in 1981, attaching the following quote from the book of Ecclesiastes at its foot:

“The wind goeth toward the south, and turneth about into the north, it turneth about continually, and the wind returneth again, according to his circuits.”

It’s almost a metaphor for FitzRoy’s life itself.

FitzRoy’s grave, south London, 2012
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