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Fitzroy, Robert

Fitzroy, Robert

(b. Ampton Hall, Suffolk, England, 5 July 1805; d. Upper Norwood, London, England, 30 April 1865)

hydrography, meteorology.

Fitzroy was the second son, by a second marriage, of Lord Charles Fitzroy; his paternal grandfather was Augustus Henry, third duke of Grafton, and his maternal grandfather was the first marquis of Londonderry. As a member of an aristocratic family noted for its association with seafaring, he entered the Royal Naval College at Portsmouth in 1819. He achieved the rank of lieutenant in 1824 and sailed on British naval vessels plying Mediterranean and South American waters.

Fitzroy received his first full command of a ship in 1828, when he was placed in charge of the Beagle. Under the command of Captain Philip Parker King, the Beagle and the Adventure had left England in 1826 with orders to survey the southern coasts of South America. Upon the death of the Beagle’s original commander, Pringle Stokes, Fitzroy was asked to complete the hydrographical tasks assigned to the ship. This first Beagle voyage to South America ended in the fall of 1830 with the expedition’s return to England. During the summer of 1831, the Beagle was readied for her second surveying voyage to South America. Fitzroy, as the expedition’s commander, chose the young Charles Darwin to accompany him on what was to be one of the most famous scientific expeditions in history. Fitzroy was promoted to captain in July 1835. Upon completion of the work in South America, the expedition returned to England in 1836 and Fitzroy married Mary Henrietta O’Brien.

After publishing the narrative of the two South American expeditions with which he was associated, Fitzroy sought a seat in Parliament and was elected a member for Durham in 1841. His short political career, marked by a violent public quarrel with his chief rival, was interrupted by Fitzroy’s appointment to the governorship of New Zealand (1843). The New Zealand interlude proved disastrous for Fitzroy, even though he cannot be held personally accountable for all the troubles that arose during his term of office. By 1845 he had returned home, and in 1848 he was named superintendent of the dockyard at Woolwich. Before his retirement from active naval service in 1850, Fitzroy commanded the navy’s first screwdriven steamship, the Arrogant, during her initial trial runs. Thus ended Fitzroy’s active naval career, but he continued to rise in rank by reason of his seniority—becoming rear admiral in 1857 and vice admiral in 1863.

In the years of his retirement, Fitzroy turned his attention to the emerging science of meteorology and devoted all of his energies to the advancement of its practical aspects. His total absorption in his meteorological work—and his extreme sensitivity to criticisms of it—may have contributed to the mental illness that ended in his suicide.

Fitzroy deserves to be noted in the history of nineteenth-century science because of his association with Charles Darwin and because of his contributions to the fields of hydrography and meteorology.

Darwin, in his Autobiography, wrote: “The voyage of the Beagle has been by far the most important event in my life and has determined my whole career” (The Autobiography of Charles Darwin, Nora Barlow, ed. [New York, 1959], p. 76). Fitzroy, who was more concerned with science than were many naval officers of his day, made it possible for Darwin to visit tropical lands and study their flora, fauna, and geology. The two men shared the same cabin and Fitzroy was attentive to the scientific needs and interests of the young Darwin. Fitzroy’s violent temper and his conservative opinions on religion and slavery were responsible for some disagreements between them, but Fitzroy and Darwin remained on friendly terms. So close was their relationship that on the journey home they sent a joint letter to a South African newspaper defending English missionary activity in the South Pacific.

Later in life Fitzroy became worried about the deleterious effect of scientific advances upon religious beliefs. As a result, he joined the opposition to Darwin’s Origin of Species. At the famous Oxford meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (1860), when Darwinism was the issue in a hot vocal debate, Fitzroy took a public stand against organic evolution. He told the audience he regretted Darwin’s publications of the Origin and announced his refusal to accept the book as a logical arrangement of the facts of natural history. Darwin, who was not personally involved in the debate, preferred to remember his earlier, happier association with Fitzroy and always spoke kindly of his Beagle companion.

While Darwin made his observations in South America and collected his specimens, Fitzroy surveyed the southern coast of that continent. The years of the second Beagle voyage marked the beginning of a half-century of supremacy of British hydrography. In the period 1829–1855 Britain’s Hydrographic Department was directed by her greatest hydrographer, Sir Francis Beaufort, who sent out some 170 major surveying expeditions. Through these expeditions the Admiralty was able to assemble a collection of accurate charts covering most of the earth’s coastlines (with the exclusion of northeast Asia and Japan).

Beaufort ordered Fitzroy to continue the South American charting program begun by King in 1826. Fitzroy and his staff of surveyors furnished the Admiralty with eighty-two coastal sheets, eighty plans of harbors, and forty views covering portions of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, Chile, and Peru.

In addition to its surveying equipment, the Beagle was supplied with twenty-two chronometers. Utilizing these instruments, Fitzroy established a chain of meridian distances through the Pacific, Indian, and Atlantic oceans. That is, relying upon the accuracy of his chronometers and the celestial observations he made on the voyage, Fitzroy was able to make precise determinations of longitude at a series of positions around the globe.

The surveys he carried out in South American waters established Fitzroy as a first-rate hydrographer and won for him the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society (1837). Because his marine surveys were accurate to such a high degree they are still used as the foundation for a number of charts of that area.

In 1851 Fitzroy was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London on the strength of his contributions to hydrography and scientific navigation. These events marked his entrance into another field of scientific endeavor: meteorology.

Ever since his Beagle days Fitzroy had shown an interest in the study of the weather. Therefore, when the British government created (1855) the Meteorologic Office, instructed to gather weather information for shipping, it was not surprising that the Royal Society should ask that Fitzroy be placed in charge of it.

While a committee of the Royal Society deliberated about the exact nature of the work to be done by the Meteorologic Office, Fitzroy contacted the ship captains who would make meteorological observations for him. He was not satisfied merely to amass weather information; he wanted to warn sailors and others of approaching weather changes. He began by making available cheap barometers, with accompanying instructions, to coastal fishermen. His next move was to set up a series of stations which would telegraph weather data to the Meteorologic Office in London. Using this data, Fitzroy produced some of the first weather charts and began issuing weather forecasts, a term he helped to popularize. By the end of 1860 the Times was printing daily weather forecasts and Fitzroy was gaining recognition as the man who could predict coming weather conditions. At the height of his career as a pioneer forecaster, Fitzroy published a large, introductory Weather Book (1863) that summarized his meteorological work.

Fitzroy’s position at the Meteorologic Office was clearly defined as “statist”, that is, collector of weather information. Forecasting had carried him somewhat beyond his original instructions, and he soon encountered light criticism from the public when his forecasts failed—as they often did—and heavier criticism from scientists who argued that his whole approach to meteorology was marked by an excessive reliance upon the empirical at the expense of theoretical developments. These critics wanted the general theories of the science of meteorology established before weather predictions were made public. In the midst of this controversy Fitzroy took his own life. At his death the theorists won out, but public demand assured that at least his storm warnings would be continued. In retrospect it is clear that Fitzroy’s difficulties arose more from the state of the new science of meteorology than from some fundamental failing of his own.


1.Original Works. Fitzroy’s account of the two Beagle voyages is to be found in the first two volumes of his Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of His Majesty’s Ships Adventure and Beagle, Between the Years 1826 and 1836, 3 vols. (London, 1839). Vol. III of the Narrative was written by Charles Darwin and has frequently been reprinted as a separate volume. The results of Fitzroy’s hydrographical work in South America were incorporated into a series of Admiralty charts issued by the Hydrographic Department. From the Beagle period there are also the Fitzroy-Darwin letter on missionary activity, “A Letter Containing Remarks on the Moral State of Tahiti, New Zealand, etc.,” in South African Christian Recorder, 2 , no. 4 (Sept. 1836), 221–238; and Fitzroy’s Sailing Directions for South America (London, 1848).

The meteorological contributions of Fitzroy can be studied in publications he wrote for the Board of Trade: Annual Report of the Meteorologic Office (London, 1856–1864) and Barometer and Weather Guide (London, 1858; final ed., 1877). Fitzroy’s The Weather Book: A Manual of Practical Meteorology (London, 1863) was intended for a wider audience.

MSS relating to Fitzroy’s career as meteorologist are located in the Meteorological Office Archives (London Road, Bracknell, Berkshire). They include correspondence, memoranda, and correspondence books. Other Fitzroy MSS can be found in the J.F.W. Herschel Collection of the Royal Society and at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

II. Secondary Literature. H. E. L. Mellersh, Fitzroy of the Beagle (London, 1968), is a recent popular but reliable guide to Fitzroy’s life. Darwin’s remarks on Fitzroy and the Beagle voyage are found in Nora Barlow, ed., The Autobiography of Charles Darwin (New York, 1959), pp. 71–76. Other aspects of the Darwin-Fitzroy relationship can be pursued in the extensive published material dealing with Darwin’s early years.

For Fitzroy as hydrographer see Sir Archibald Day, The Admiralty Hydrographic Service, 1795–1919 (London, 1967), passim; G. S. Ritchie, The Admiralty Chart (London, 1967), pp. 183–190, 203–210, 215–220; and H. P. Douglas, “Fitzroy’s Hydrographic Surveys”, in Nature, 129 , no. 3249 (6 Feb. 1932), 200.

Fitzroy’s meteorological contributions are discussed in Sir David Brunt, “The Centenary of the Meteorological Office: Retrospect and Prospect,”, in Science Progress, 44 , no. 174 (Apr. 1956), 193–195; Sir Napier Shaw, Manual of Meteorology: Volume I. Meteorology in History (Cam bridge, 1932), pp. 149–153, 302–303, 311; and Selected Meteorological Papers (London, 1955), pp. 236–237; and Roger Prouty, The Transformation of the Board of Trade (London, 1957), pp. 52–54.

George Basalla

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