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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.
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.
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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
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.
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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.