Review: FitzRoy, the Remarkable Story of Darwin’s Captain and the Invention of the Weather Forecast by John and Mary Gribbin (2016) Assessment 3 out of 10

I thought I was going to like this Book more than I did. The paragraphs were over-long. The Book could have been interesting as a study of the relationship of two men, but it purported to be a biography of Fitzroy, which just happens to include part of the life of Darwin, not all of which is about his time with Fitzroy.

The writers may be talented science writers. They are not historians. “The house he was brought up in was previously the hunting lodge of the Grafton family, but don’t imagine this means it was a log cabin…” etc

It was clearly self-published and showed a lack of editing. On page 82 there is a quite undistinguishable untitled image. On page 8 there is a simplified, again untitled, map of the voyage of Fitzroy and Darwin on the Beagle 1831-6. Its simplification is shown from the Map of Darwin’ journeys in South America I was able to download from the Web.

I couldn’t find anywhere a map of Fitzroy’s first Voyage in the Beagle to South America before Darwin joined her, which would have been interesting.

The Royal Navy was the senior service and (for its time) a modernising institution, Fitzroy a man of unusual talent and vision.

Fitzroy’s appointments and offices, Post Captain, MP, First Governor of New Zealand and Admiral are impressive, his achievements greater, mapping and creating sailing directions for the coastline of South America, establishing a route through the Straits of Magellan avoiding Cape Horn, studying languages and geology, commanding the Navy’s first steam powered sailing ship, establishing standards for Masters and Mates in British sailing vessels, creating the world’s first system for storm warnings ( including the storm warning cones still posted at St Helier) and weather forecasting.

He clearly felt his achievements were unrecognised. Enoch Powell wrote, “All Political careers end in failure”. Sometimes I think it is an aphorism that applies to all careers.

 Like his uncle Castlereagh, the eminent Anglo-Irish Secretary of War of the Napoleonic Period, and Foreign Secretary at the Congress of Vienna, Fitzroy died by his own hand.  Castlereagh famously fought a duel with the then Foreign Secretary Canning, Fitzroy and a rival for the Durham Parliamentary seat nominated seconds, but stopped short of duelling.   The authors do not consider the parallels, nor do they deal adequately with the suggestion Fitzroy’s religious conversion under the influence of his first wife may have changed his views, including sympathy for the ideas of Lyell and Darwin.  Again the authors do not comment on any tension between Fitzroy’s supposed religious beliefs and that he took his own life

To like a biography, you have, at least a bit, to like its subject. I am not sure I liked Fitzroy, in part, because of his sympathy for Christian fundamentalist and missionaries (I know I am being anachronistic!), in part, because, as the hero “sans pareil” portrayed in the Book, he comes across as beyond reproach and rather colourless. My views on the Book remain unresolved; was it Fitzroy, as portrayed in the Book, I didn’t find interesting or was Fitzroy let down by the authors, the complexity, friendships and conflicts of his life deserving better biographers with greater historical sensitivity?

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