Wednesday, 1 September 2010

This Thing of Darkness

Captain Robert FitzRoy was a man who you may not have heard about but made a lasting contribution to the world as we know it but yet did not live to see the benefit it has brought.

He was a brilliant seaman who was the first to pass Naval exams with 100%. This ability allowed him to captain HMS Beagle in two voyages in and around Cape Horn where a lesser captain might have lost the ship and the people on board. On the Beagle was Charles Darwin who used the geological and biological evidence he saw to propose the theory of evolution. As a committed and devout Christian he could not bring himself to believe the theory and could not be reconciled to his part in the theories origin.

As an MP he had laws on who could and could not skipper a ship passed saving thousands of lives but was not asked to stand down as his beaten rival was causing too much negative publicity.

As governor of New Zealand he was left in a difficult position as European settlers had been sold more land than existing in the whole of New Zealand. The money was not forth coming to buy the land from the Maori and with less than 100 soldiers he could not take it by force. He also refused to blame the Maori in the Wairau Affair started by colonists. He was replaced after three years when people who had not profited from the expected land sales forced him out.

His years of weather observation including pressure allowed him to make valid forecasts of the weather and by using the telegraph machine and bases in Canada, USA and other areas he made weather forecasts allowing harbour masters to signal to vessels if a storm was imminent. His system was disbanded as it was costing fishing fleet owners money to have them in port when a storm was predicted.

The weather observations were restored after pressure form the sailors who found them invaluable but after he committed suicide. He was found to be in debt having spent £6000 (£400 000) of his own money on government projects.

You can read about his life in the book A Thing of Darkness but a paragraph from close to the end sums up his contribution Concentrated on the Beagle were

No less than five of the Beagle's officers were destined to reach the rank of admiral; two became captains of the Beagle, two, eventual Fellows of the Royal Society. They also included Governor Generals of New Zealand and Queensland, a Member of Parliament, future Heads of the Board of Trade and the Meteorological Office, two artists who achieved considerable renown, Secretaries of the Geological Society and the Royal Geographical Society, an Inspector of Coastguards, Australian property magnate, the founding father of the British colony in the Falkland Islands, 6 professional surveyors, five world class botanists, one of the founders of the science of meteorology and author of Origin of Species

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