Evolution's Captain: The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World

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When HMS Beagle's first captain committed suicide in the bleak waters of Tierra del Fuego in 1828, he was replaced by a young naval officer of a new mould. Robert FitzRoy was the most brilliant and scientific sea captain of his age. He used the Beagle, a survey vessel, as a laboratory for the new field of the natural sciences. But his plan to bring four 'savages' home to England to civilize them as Christian gentlefolk backfired when scandal loomed over their sexual misbehaviour at the Walthamstow Infants School....
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When HMS Beagle's first captain committed suicide in the bleak waters of Tierra del Fuego in 1828, he was replaced by a young naval officer of a new mould. Robert FitzRoy was the most brilliant and scientific sea captain of his age. He used the Beagle, a survey vessel, as a laboratory for the new field of the natural sciences. But his plan to bring four 'savages' home to England to civilize them as Christian gentlefolk backfired when scandal loomed over their sexual misbehaviour at the Walthamstow Infants School. FitzRoy needed to get them out of England fast, and thus was born the second, and most famous voyage of the Beagle.

FitzRoy feared the loneliness of another long voyage - with madness in his own family, he was haunted by the fate of his predecessor - so for company he took with him a young amateur naturalist, Charles Darwin. Like FitzRoy, Darwin believed, at the beginning of the voyage, in the absolute word of the Bible. The two men spent five years circling the globe together, but by the end of their voyage, they had reached startlingly different conclusions about the origins of the natural world.

In naval terms, the voyage was a stunning scientific success. But FitzRoy, a passionate Christian, was horrified by Darwin's heretical theories. As these began to influence the profoundest levels of religious and scientific thinking in the nineteenth century, FitzRoy's knowledge that he had provided the young naturalist with the vehicle for his sacrilegious ideas propelled him down an irrevocable path to suicide.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times
Throughout this meaty book, Nichols, whose previous work includes A Voyage for Madmen, quotes extensively and judiciously from a solid range of sources, notably logbooks and the official narrative of the Adventure and Beagle, of which the third volume was Darwin's Journal of Researches, later renamed The Voyage of the Beagle. He works hard at establishing the context in which events unfolded, and he has a finely tuned sense of history. — Sara Wheeler
Publishers Weekly
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. Agent, Sloan Harris. (Oct.) Forecast: Although Nichols's book covers a specific slice of history, it could appeal to science readers with a fondness for travel/adventure yarns. The author plans an eight-city tour. Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The skipper of the HMS Beagle gets his own book at last. Nichols (A Voyage for Madmen, 2001, etc.) picks up Robert Fitzroy in 1828, at age 23, as he’s taking command of the Beagle after its captain’s suicide. A handsome aristocrat with a scientific mind, Fitzroy was dispatched to chart the Straits of Magellan, a tough but potentially rewarding assignment. Events set him on a new course when natives of Tierra del Fuego stole one of his boats; in retaliation, Fitzroy took four hostages. When the thieves failed to restore the boat, Fitzroy decided to bring the captives to England to be civilized and Christianized, then sent home to convert their compatriots. For this return voyage in 1831, Darwin joined the ship as onboard naturalist and companion to Fitzroy, whose family history of mental illness made him fear for his sanity in the stressful environment of Cape Horn. Their relationship was stormy, but in the end the Beagle circumnavigated the globe and gave Darwin the data for his theory of evolution. Back in England, the fortunes of the two men diverged. Lauded at first for his accurate charts, Fitzroy was also tagged by the Admiralty as difficult; he soon found himself with few prospects, while Darwin's reputation was made. Appointed governor of New Zealand, Fitzroy pleased no one in his efforts to soothe tense native-settler relations and was fired. Finally, as head of the British government’s Meteorological Office, he designed weather stations and charts that made available for the first time the raw material for weather forecasting. It appears to have been the London Times’ decision to stop publishing his forecasts that led him in 1865 to succumb at last to the family malady and cuthis own throat. A detailed and generally fair-minded portrait of a man whose talents should have earned him a higher place in history, but whose shortcomings reduced him a footnote. Agent: Sloan Harris/ICM
Washington Post
“Nichols delivers a dramatic, highly colored narrative about the head-on collision between two worldviews.”
Seattle Times
“A well-written and lively tale, filled with insightful analysis and telling details.”
Edmonton Sun
“A fascinating account.”
Atlanta Journal-Constitution
“A fascinating account ... a finely researched, engaging book.”
Sunday Telegraph
“This engrossing account of Fitzroy’s life reads like the finest historical fiction.”
New York Times Book Review
“A powerful story played out against a beguiling landscape.”
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780641625688
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 10/7/2003
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 6.50 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.23 (d)

Meet the Author

Peter Nichols is the author of the national bestseller A Voyage for Madmen and two other books, Sea Change: Alone Across the Atlantic in a Wooden Boat, a memoir, and the novel Voyage to the North Star. He has taught creative writing at NYU in Paris and Georgetown University, and presently teaches at Bowdoin College. He is lives in Maine with his wife and son.

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First Chapter

Evolution's Captain
The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World

Chapter One

Port Famine, Strait of Magellan, August 2, 1828. It is mid-winter at the bottom of the world. Snow drives at gale force across the small vessel at anchor. Daylight comes as a few gloomy hours of crepuscular dimness, and the afternoon is already growing dark. Four years later in this same anchorage, in this same vessel even, a young man of unusually sunny temperament -- the twenty-four-year-old Charles Darwin -- will write in his journal: "I never saw a more cheerless prospect; the dusky woods, piebald with snow, were only indistinctly to be seen through an atmosphere composed of two thirds rain & one of fog; the rest, as an Irishman would say, was very cold unpleasant air."

Alone in his cabin beneath the poop, the vessel's commander, a man still in his twenties, is in the last stage of despair. For him time has lost its swift flow; it has flattened into an unending, intolerable stasis. He sees no relief. He has been in these desolate waters for two years: years more stretch ahead. Home -- England, a place as distant as Earth from this cold Pluto -- is beyond imagining, beyond regaining.

He raises to his head a small pocket pistol. He is certain of this now, eager for it, and his finger at last tugs with resolve on the trigger.

But there is still too much time: in the long second that stretches between the release of the hammer, the spark of flint, the flash of powder, and the explosion that sends the ball on its path, his hand wavers, crucially.

He was Captain Pringle Stokes;the vessel, HMS Beagle. It lay at anchor in Port Famine with a larger ship, HMS Adventure. The two ships, under the overall command of Captain Phillip Parker King, had been dispatched by the British Admiralty in May 1826 to survey the southern coasts of South America, from Montevideo on the Atlantic to Chiloé Island in the Pacific. They were particularly instructed to map what they could of the still largely unknown seacoast of Tierra del Fuego, the desolate, tortuously labyrinthine southernmost tip of the drowned Andes.

The first passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific had been discovered by the Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan, in 1520. He was looking, as was Columbus, as were they all, for that still elusive western route to the spice islands of the Indies. Columbus died in 1506, never knowing he had not found them. It was the Spaniard Vasco Núñez de Balboa who, on September 26, 1513, scaled a hilltop on the isthmus of Darien, in what is now Panama, and first saw the South Sea stretching away in limitless distance beyond Columbus's mistaken Orient. This information expanded the known circumference of the world by more than a third. Seven years later, Magellan, seeking access to that South Sea, found a wide, navigable passage between the bottom of the Americas and, below that to the south, a bleak Terra Incognita. His chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed with him, recorded the discovery with an exultant pride:

We found by a miracle, a strait which we call the strait of the Eleven Thousand Virgins; this strait is a hundred and ten leagues long which are four hundred and forty miles, and almost as wide as less than half a league, and it issues into another sea which is called the Peaceful Sea; it is surrounded by very great and high mountains covered with snow. I think there is not in the world a more beautiful country, or a better strait than this one.

Magellan's strait is actually 310 miles long from Atlantic to Pacific; but in the weeks they took to pass through it, Magellan and the four ships in his small fleet probably sailed five times that distance. To port, to the south as they tacked endlessly against westerly winds, they saw signs of natives in the dim fires and smoke on the shores of Terra Incognita. Much later, back in Spain, in accounts of the voyage, the land on this southern shore of the strait became known as Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire.

The only other route from the Atlantic into the Pacific, the open sea passage around a rock mistaken for the southerly cape of Tierra del Fuego, discovered in 1616 by the Dutch captain Willem Schouten of Hoorn, was an exposed and awful place. There, icy winds blast at hurricane force down the glaciers of the Andes, and freak waves driven by westerly winds unimpeded around the bottom of the globe meet off Schouten's false cape in a nightmare maelstrom that was and remains a desperate place for any vessel. Seeking a fast passage to Tahiti in 1788, William Bligh tried to force his ship, HMS Bounty, past this Cape Horn. He spent over a month tacking back and forth, making only a handful of miles to westward in all that time. He, and more especially his crew, became so demoralized that he turned around and sailed the other way to Tahiti, eastward around a good part of the world, just to have the winds at his back.

Bligh knew too little about the twisting Strait of Magellan immediately to his north to force his ship through it with a fractious crew. Forty years later, blizzard-bound on its northern shore, the Adventure and the Beagle were attempting to chart a safe passage through the strait, to find a less forbidding route for ships passing between the Atlantic and the Pacific.

◊ ◊ ◊

Though neither their commanders nor the lords of the Admiralty who had penned their orders saw them as such, the two ships anchored in Port Famine were part of the grandest design of history -- so audacious that not until it was in place was it truly seen by those who had made it. In this year of 1828, the British East India Company had been flourishing for two centuries ...

Evolution's Captain
The Dark Fate of the Man Who Sailed Charles Darwin Around the World
. Copyright © by Peter Nichols. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.
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Reading Group Guide

Book Description
Charles Darwin's famous journey aboard the Beagle, where he made his earth-shattering discoveries about evolution, was a journey planned for an entirely different purpose. In fact, Darwin wasn't even brought aboard for his scientific expertise. He was there as a companion to Robert FitzRoy, the captain of the Beagle, whose intent was to return natives he'd abducted the year before after failing to "civilize" them, to Terra del Fuego. FitzRoy believed that Darwin's presence during the long and difficult journey might help stave off the mental illness that had plagued his family for generations.

But neither Darwin nor his revolution provided solace or comfort to FitzRoy; indeed the clash between his fundamentalist views of creation and the ramifications of Darwin's revelations provided for FitzRoy the final, unendurable torment, forcing him to end his own life.

Topics for Discussion

  1. Do today's scientists encounter similar dangers to those faced by the captain and passengers of the Beagle?
  2. FitzRoy's idea to "civilize" the natives of Tierra del Fuego seems almost barbaric today -- but does the Western world still struggle with similar situations at times?
  3. Charles Darwin was a somewhat indifferent student who many feared would amount to nothing. What do you think his future might have been if he'd never boarded the HMS Beagle?
  4. Although the voyage on the Beagle brought both fortune and fame to FitzRoy, it also resulted in terrible tragedy. If you had the opportunity to make a great discovery, but with personal risk involved, would you take the chance?

About theAuthor:
Peter Nichols is the author of Sea Change, a memoir, Voyage to the North Star, a novel, and A Voyage for Madmen, the best-selling nonfiction account of the Golden Globe race that has been sold in eight foreign languages. He divides his time between the U.S. and Europe, and has taught creative writing at Georgetown and NYU.

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