7 September 2007

When Darwin met Fitzroy

On 5 September 1831 one of the most significant and tense relationships in modern history began. Charles Darwin met his 'beau ideal' of a captain, Robert Fitzroy. Fitzroy's initial reservations about Darwin's nose shape were overcome and Darwin was offered the berth. Darwin was Fitzroy's guest, there to take care of the science ashore and be a gentleman companion at the captain's table.

The two famously argued about slavery, and Fitzroy was both quick to anger and magnanimous in apology. By the time Darwin left Beagle in 1836, relations were still cordial. Then Darwin's drafts of the Voyage of The Beagle reached Fitzroy, who blew a gasket at Darwin's perceived ingratitude to Beagle and her crew, something Darwin rectified before publication.

Their respective careers developed and diverged. Darwin became a scientist, one of the most eminent of his (or any) age. Fitzroy (an outstanding seaman and meteorologist, and no mean geologist and natural historian himself) struggled for preferment in the Royal Navy, was sent to New Zealand as governor, and on his return to Britain founded what became the Meteorological Office. His later life was marked by regrets over his role in allowing Darwin to conceive his theory of natural selection, a deterioration in his mental health and eventual suicide.

Yet without the invitation to sail, the 5th September meeting between the Beau Idea of a captain and the man he would call Philos, history might have been very different.

Hat tip The Red Notebook, also covered at the Dispersal of Darwin. And in a neat bit of something that ends in -ity (serendipity?) the Dispersal of Darwin author thanks the Red Notebook's author for some Darwin memorabilia here.

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