Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of FitzRoy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast

by John and Mary Gribbin

(Yale University Press, 352 pages, $35.00, September, 2004)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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In the history of exploration, few voyages are more famous than that of the British naval vessel Beagle between 1831 and 1836. Its accomplishments were undeniable: unmatched detail in its surveys and near-perfect measurement of longitude (its chronometers were in error by only 37 seconds after a round-the-world trip of five years). The ship's captain, Robert FitzRoy, won acclaim from his peers for these accomplishments and praise from his crew for his leadership.

Yet today, when people speak of the voyage of the Beagle, the name they know is not FitzRoy but Charles Darwin, who was, in effect, a paying passenger. FitzRoy had asked permission from the navy's chief hydrographer, Admiral Francis Beaufort (after whom the most commonly used wind scale is named), to bring on board a companion. He wanted an intellectual and social equal who also might serve as naturalist. The budget did not allow for another crew member, so the person selected had to be a gentleman with means to pay for his own meals. Beaufort, through his connections, recommended Darwin, and the rest is history.

That history portrays Darwin as a meticulous record-keeper and collector of samples, who pored over his trove from that voyage for 23 years before publishing his Origin of the Species in 1859. That characterization of Darwin's work is accurate, but as John and Mary Gribbin note in Fitzroy: The Remarkable Story of Darwin's Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast , Darwin did not keep detailed records before the voyage. He learned the value of detail from FitzRoy.

The Gribbins share that appreciation for detail, but some readers may not -- especially when it comes to complex British genealogy and aristocratic connections. Those readers may skim such sections, although they risk missing delicious tidbits like the French-derived meaning of FitzRoy's name, "son of the king." A direct ancestor born in 1663, sailor and soldier Henry Fitzroy, the first Duke of Grafton, was an acknowledged illegitimate son of King Charles II.

But readers will have little trouble following the strong story line. The narrative traces FitzRoy's life through two marriages (he was widowed) and successful fatherhood, from command of the Beagle at age 23 to a largely unsuccessful stint as governor of New Zealand in mid-life, and to his final eleven years in the Meteorological Office. There, he gathered data and developed a system of storm warnings and the first weather forecasts.

As is still true today, not everyone appreciated the forecasts' value above their inevitable inaccuracies. Some of the criticism proved to be more than FitzRoy could take. He had also been distressed for years by the conclusions in his erstwhile friend Darwin's book, which, as a fundamentalist Christian, he considered heretical and a personal betrayal. All his life, he had been beset with what today would be considered manic depression. On April 30, 1865, Robert FitzRoy slit his throat. In the many official obituaries and remembrances that followed, Charles Darwin was among those who praised FitzRoy's remarkable life.

Fred Bortz is the author of numerous children's science books, including Dr. Fred's Weather Watch.