1902 Encyclopedia > Robert Fitzroy

Robert Fitzroy
English naval officer, hydrographer and meteorologist

ROBERT FITZROY, (1805-1865), a vice-admiral in the English navy, distinguished as a hydrographer and meteor-ologist, was born at Ampton Hall, Suffolk, July 5, 1805, being a grandson, on the father's side, of the third duke of Grafton, and on the mother's, of the first marquis of Londonderry. He entered the navy from the Royal Naval College, then a school for cadets, on the 19th October 1819, and on the 7th September 1824 was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. After serving in the " Thetis " frigate in the Mediterranean and on the coast of South America, under the command of Sir John Phillimore and Captain Bingham, he was in August 1828 appointed to the " Ganges," as flag-lieutenant to Rear-Admiral Sir Robert Otway, the commander-in-chief on the South American station; and on the melancholy death of Commander Stokes of the "Beagle," 13th November 1828, was promoted to the vacant command. The " Beagle," a small brig of about 240 tons, was then, and had been for the two previous years, employed on the survey of the coasts of Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, under the orders of Commander King in the " Adventure," and, together with the " Adventure," returned to England in the autumn of 1830. Fitzroy had brought home with him four Fuegians, one of whom died of small-pox a few weeks after arriving in England; to the others he endeavoured, with but slight success, to impart a rudimentary knowledge of religion and of some useful handicrafts ; and, as he had pledged himself to restore them to their native country, he was making preparations in the summer of the following year to carry them back in a merchant ship bound to Valparaiso, when he received his reappointment to the " Beagle," to continue the survey of the same wild coasts. The " Beagle" sailed from Plymouth on the 27th December 1831, carrying as a supernumerary Mr Charles Darwin, to whose experience, then gained, the study of natural history has been so deeply indebted. After an absence of nearly five years, and having, in addition to the survey of the Straits of Magellan and a great part of the coast of South America, run a chronometric line round the world, thus fixing the longitude of many secondary meridians with sufficient exactness for all the purposes of ordinary navigation, the " Beagle" anchored at Falmouth on the 2d October 1836. In 1834 Fitzroy had been advanced to the rank of captain, and was now for the next few years principally employed in reducing and discussing his numerous observations, In 1837 he was awarded the gold medal of the Boyal Geographical Society; and in 1839 he published, in two thick 8vo volumes, the narrative of the voyage of the " Adventure " and " Beagle," 1826-30, and of the " Beagle," 1831-36, with a third volume by Mr Darwin—a book familiarly known as a record of scientific travel. Of Fitzroy's work as a surveyor it is superfluous to speak. Though carried on under circumstances of great difficulty, with scanty means, and with an outfit that was semi-officially denounced as <: shabby," the results have long been before the world stamped with the approval of the nautical profession, and more especially of Sir Francis Beaufort, the Hydrographer to the Admiralty, who, in a report to the House of Commons, 10th Feburary 1848, wrote that "from the equator to Cape Horn, and from thence round to the river Plata on the eastern side of America, all that is immediately wanted has been already achieved by the splendid survey of Captain Robert Fitzroy."

In 1841 Fitzroy unsuccessfully contested the borough of Ipswich, and in the following year was returned to parlia-ment as member for Durham. About the same time he accepted the post of conservator of the Mersey, and in his double capacity obtained leave to bring in a bill for im-proving the condition and efficiency of officers in the mercantile marine. This wa3 not proceeded with at the time, but gave rise to the " voluntary certificate " instituted by the Board of Trade in 1845, and furnished some im-portant clauses to the Mercantile Marine Act of 1850.

Early in 1843 Fitzroy was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of New Zealand, then recently esta-blished as a colony. He arrived in his government in December, whilst the excitement about the Wairau massacre was still fresh, and the questions relating to the purchase of land from the natives were in a very unsatis-factory state. The early settlers were greedy and un-scrupulous ; Fitzroy, on the other hand, had made no secret of his partiality for the aborigines. Between such discordant elements agreement was impossible : the settlers insulted the governor; the governor did not conciliate the settlers, who denounced his policy as adverse to their interests, as unjust and illegal; colonial feeling against him ran very high ; petition after petition for his recall was sent home, and the Government was compelled to yield to the pressure brought to bear on it. Fitzroy was relieved by Sir George Grey in November 1845.

In September 1848 he was appointed acting superin-tendent of the dockyard at Woolwich, and in the following March to the command of the " Arrogant," one of the early screw frigates which had been fitted out under his super-vision, and with which it was desired to carry out a series of experiments and trials. When these were finished he applied to be superseded, on account at once of his health and of his private affairs. In February 1850 he was accordingly placed on half-pay ; nor did he ever serve again, although advanced in due course by seniority to the ranks of rear and vice-admiral on the retired list (1857, 1863). In 1851 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in 1854 after serving for a few months as private secretary to his uncle, Lord Hardinge, the commander-in-chief of the army, he was appointed to the meteorological department of the Board of Trade, with, in the first instance, the peculiar title of " Meteorological Statist."

From the date of his joining the " Beagle " in 1828 he had paid very great attention to the different phenomena foreboding or accompanying change of weather, and his narratives of the voyages of the "Adventure" and "Beagle" are full of interesting and valuable details concerning these. Accordingly, when in 1854 Lord Wrottesley, the president of the Royal Society, was asked by the Board of Trade to recommend a chief for its newly forming meteorological department, he, almost without hesitation, nominated Fitzroy, whose name and career became from that time identified with the progress of practical meteorology. His Weather Book, published in 1863, embodies in broad out-line his views, far in advance of those then generally held; and though, in the rapid march of modern science, this book must be considered as now in some measure obsolete, it is still worthy of careful attention and exact study, not only from the professed meteorologist, but from any one who wishes to have an intelligent appreciation of that question of everyday interest, the weather. His storm warnings, in their origin, indeed, liable to a charge of empiricism, were gradually developed on a more scientific basis, and gave a high percentage of correct results. They were continued for eighteen months after his death by the assistants he had trained, and though stopped when the department was trans-ferred to the management of a committee of the Boyal Society, they were resumed a few months afterwards. But though it is perhaps by these storm warnings that Fitzroy's name has been most generally known, seafaring men owe him a deeper debt of gratitude, not only for his labours in reducing to a more practical form the somewhat complicated wind charts of Captain Maury, but also for his great exer-tions in connexion with the life-boat association. Into this work, in its many ramifications, he threw himself with the energy of an excitable temperament, already, it may be feared, strained by his long and anxious service in the Straits of Magellan. His last years were fully and to an excessive degree occupied by it; his health, both bodily and mental, threatened to give way; but he refused to take the rest that was prescribed. In a fit of mental aberration he put an end to his existence on the 30th April 1865.

Besides his works already named mention may be made of Remarks on New Zealand (1846); Sailing Directions for South America (184S); his official reports to the Board of Trade 1,1857-65); and occasional papers in the journal of the Royal Geographical Society and of the Royal United Service Institution. (J. K. L.)


This was written 30 years ago, before steam ships nearly 400 feet long made the Straits of Magellan a high road to the Pacific. The survey that was sufficient then is very far from sufficient now.

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries