This is the story of the man without whom the name Charles Darwin might be unknown to us today. That man was Captain Robert FitzRoy, who invited the 22-year-old Darwin to be his companion on board the Beagle .
This is the remarkable story of how a misguided decision by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle , precipitated his employment of a young naturalist named Charles Darwin, and how the clash between FitzRoy’s fundamentalist views and Darwin’s discoveries led to FitzRoy’s descent into the abyss.
One of the great ironies of history is that the famous journey—wherein Charles Darwin consolidated the earth-rattling ‘origin of the species’ discoveries—was conceived by another man: Robert FitzRoy. It was FitzRoy who chose Darwin for the journey—not because of Darwin’s scientific expertise, but because he seemed a suitable companion to help FitzRoy fight back the mental illness that had plagued his family for generations. Darwin did not give FitzRoy solace; indeed, the clash between the two men’s opposing views, together with the ramifications of Darwin’s revelations, provided FitzRoy with the final unendurable torment that forced him to end his own life.
Readers familiar with how Darwin developed his theory of evolution will recognize the HMS Beagle as the ship that took him on his research expedition, but that's probably the extent of their knowledge of the vessel. Nichols (A Voyage for Madmen, etc.) fills in the gaps with this biography of Robert FitzRoy, the Beagle's second captain. In 1828, FitzRoy took command after the first captain went mad and killed himself. Picking up where his predecessor left off charting the waters off South America, FitzRoy captured several natives and brought them back to England so they could be taught the ways of Western civilization. Complications required their immediate return, and it was FitzRoy's request for a traveling companion of equal social status on this hastily planned journey that resulted in Darwin's coming aboard. Nichols, who has taught creative writing at Georgetown and NYU, picks his narrative details well, fleshing out FitzRoy's personality and his shifting relationship with Darwin (though initially friendly, the captain came to violently reject his traveling companion's scientific conclusions). The bulk of the story is devoted to FitzRoy's two missions for the Royal Navy, both of which made him a well-known figure in England. The final chapters trace his eventual downfall, though emphasizing the "dark fate" in the subtitle is rather misleading. Though the author's enthusiasm for his subject can lead to hyperbole, it'll prove hard not to share his fascination with how FitzRoy's naval career inadvertently set off a scientific controversy still flaring to this day. 8 illus.
This book is an insightful look into Darwin’s journey through the lens of his captain.