Evolution's Captain: NF abt Capt. FitzRoy & Chas Darwin

Evolution's Captain: NF abt Capt. FitzRoy & Chas Darwin

by Peter Nichols

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This is the story of the man without whom the name Charles Darwin might be unknown to us today. That man was Captain Robert FitzRoy, who invited the 22-year-old Darwin to be his companion on board the Beagle .

This is the remarkable story of how a misguided decision by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle , precipitated his employment of a

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This is the story of the man without whom the name Charles Darwin might be unknown to us today. That man was Captain Robert FitzRoy, who invited the 22-year-old Darwin to be his companion on board the Beagle .

This is the remarkable story of how a misguided decision by Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle , precipitated his employment of a young naturalist named Charles Darwin, and how the clash between FitzRoy’s fundamentalist views and Darwin’s discoveries led to FitzRoy’s descent into the abyss.

One of the great ironies of history is that the famous journey—wherein Charles Darwin consolidated the earth-rattling ‘origin of the species’ discoveries—was conceived by another man: Robert FitzRoy. It was FitzRoy who chose Darwin for the journey—not because of Darwin’s scientific expertise, but because he seemed a suitable companion to help FitzRoy fight back the mental illness that had plagued his family for generations. Darwin did not give FitzRoy solace; indeed, the clash between the two men’s opposing views, together with the ramifications of Darwin’s revelations, provided FitzRoy with the final unendurable torment that forced him to end his own life.

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Editorial Reviews

Washington Post
“Nichols delivers a dramatic, highly colored narrative about the head-on collision between two worldviews.”
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.”
Seattle Times
“A well-written and lively tale, filled with insightful analysis and telling details.”
Edmonton Sun
“A fascinating account.”
Derek Lundy
“Marvelous...a fascinating and expert amalgam of history, science, anthropology and adventure.”

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Evolution's Captain

The Story of the Kidnapping That Led to Charles Darwin's Voyage Aboard the Beagle
By Nicholls, Peter


ISBN: 0060088788

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.

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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 ...


Excerpted from Evolution's Captain by Nicholls, Peter Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Derek Lundy
“Marvelous...a fascinating and expert amalgam of history, science, anthropology and adventure.”

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