Robert FitzRoy

From Academic Kids

Missing image
Robert FitzRoy

Vice Admiral Robert FitzRoy (July 5, 1805 - April 30, 1865) achieved lasting fame as the captain of HMS Beagle and a pioneering meteorologist who invented weather forecasts, also proving an able surveyor and hydrographer as well as a Governor of New Zealand.



Robert FitzRoy was born at Ampton Hall, Suffolk, England into the upper echelons of the British aristocracy and a tradition of public service. Through his father, Lord Charles FitzRoy, Robert was a fourth-great grandson of Charles II of England and his grandfather was Augustus Henry Fitzroy, 3rd Duke of Grafton. His mother was the daughter of the first Marquis of Londonderry and the half-sister of Viscount Castlereagh who became Home Secretary. From the age of four Robert FitzRoy lived at Wakefield Lodge in Northamptonshire, the Palladian mansion of the Grafton family.

In February 1818, still 12 years old, he entered the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth, and in the following year he entered the Royal Navy. He completed his course with distinction and was promoted lieutenant on 7 September 1824 having passed the examination with 'full numbers', a result not achieved previously. After serving on HMS Thetis, in 1828 he was appointed flag lieutenant to Rear Admiral Sir Robert Otway, commander in chief of the South American station aboard HMS Ganges.

At that time HMS Beagle under Captain Pringle Stokes was carrying out a hydrographic survey of Tierra del Fuego, under the overall command of captain Philip Parker King in HMS Adventure. Pringle Stokes became depressed and shot himself, and the ship under Lieutenant Skyring sailed to Rio de Janeiro, where Otway made FitzRoy (temporary) Captain of the Beagle on 15 December 1828. By the ship's return on October 14 1830 FitzRoy had established his reputation as a surveyor and commander.

During the survey some of his men were camping onshore when a group of Fuegian natives made off with their boat. His ship gave chase and after a scuffle the culprit's families were brought on board as hostages. Eventually FitzRoy held a boy, a girl and two men. As it was not possible to put them ashore conveniently he decided to civilise the savages, teaching them "English..the plainer truths of Christianity..and the use of common tools" before returning them as missionaries. They were given names, the boy being called Jemmy Button. FizRoy brought them back to England where one man died of a smallpox vaccination. The others were minded by the trainee missionary Richard Matthews and became civilised enough to be presented at court in the summer of 1831.

HMS Beagle's Second Voyage

Early in May 1831 FitzRoy stood as Tory candidate for Ipswich in the General Election, but was defeated. He was considering chartering a ship at his own expense to return the Fuegians with Matthews when a "kind uncle" interceded at the Admiralty and on June 25 1831 he was re-appointed as commander of the Beagle. He spared no expense in fitting out the ship. Very conscious of the stressful loneliness of command and of the suicide both of Captain King and of his own uncle Viscount Castlereagh who had cut his own throat in 1822 while in government office, he offered a place on the ship to a gentleman who would provide companionship as well as making use of the opportunities the expedition presented to a naturalist. While those first approached turned the opportunity down, eventually he approved Charles Darwin for the position. The two got on well together during the voyage which stretched over five years, though on one occasion Darwin's insistence on contradicting FitzRoy's justification of slavery led to the captain losing his temper and banishing Darwin from his table for several days. Darwin described FitzRoy as a man of considerable charm with liberal views (meaning open minded).

see the Voyage of the Beagle for information on the expedition.

Following the Beagle's return on October 2, 1836, FitzRoy was awarded a gold medal by the Royal Geographical Society in 1837.

FitzRoy then wrote his account of the voyage, including editing the notes of the previous captain of the Beagle, which was completed and published in May 1839 as the Narrative of the surveying voyages of H.M.S. Adventure and Beagle in four volumes including Darwin's Journal and Remarks, 1832—1836 as the third volume. FitzRoy's account includes a section of Remarks with reference to the Deluge in which he admits that having read works "by geologists who contradict, by implication, if not in plain terms, the authenticity of the Scriptures" and "while led away by sceptical ideas" he had remarked to a friend that the vast plain of sedimentary material they were crossing "could never have been effected by a forty days' flood" indicating that in his "turn of mind and ignorance of scripture" he was willing to disbelieve the Biblical account. Concerned that such ideas might "reach the eyes of young sailors" he earnestly explains in great detail his renewed commitment to a literal reading of the Bible, with arguments that rock layers high in the mountains containing sea shells are actually proof of Noah's Flood and that the six days of creation could not have extended over aeons because the grass, herbs and trees would have died out during the long nights. FitzRoy was clearly dissociating himself from Darwin's account which embraced the new ideas of Charles Lyell, and asserting his commitment to the doctrine of the established Church of England which he, as a Tory, could be expected to uphold.

Fitzroy was elected the Tory Member of Parliament for Durham in 1841, and Conservator for Merseyside in 1842.

Governor of New Zealand

The first Governor of New Zealand, William Hobson, died in late 1842 and the Church Missionary Society, which had a strong New Zealand presence, suggested FitzRoy as his successor. He took up his new task in April 1843.

It was probably an impossible job. His instructions were to maintain order, protect the Maori and yet to satisfy the land hunger of the settlers pouring into the country. He was given very few military resources and very little revenue, mainly from customs duties.

One of his first tasks was to enquire into the circumstances surrounding the Wairau Massacre. He found the actions of the Colonists to have been illegal and wisely declined to take any action against Te Rauparaha, wisely because he didn't have the troops to meet him on anything like equal terms. However this left the New Zealand Company and the Settlers feeling betrayed and angry. One outcome though was to appoint a Government Superintendent for the area and establish a ruling presence. He also insisted that the piratical New Zealand Company pay the Maori a realistic price for the land they claimed to have purchased. Naturally these moves made him very unpopular.

Land sales were a continuing vexatious issue. The Maori wanted to sell land and the settlers wanted to buy land but according to the Treaty of Waitangi this could only happen with the Government as an intermediary and this proved to be very slow. FitzRoy changed the rules to allow the direct purchase of Maori land subject to a duty of ten shillings per acre, $2.50 per hectare.

However land sales proved slower than expected. To meet the financial shortfall FitzRoy raised the customs duties then he abolished them and instituted a property and income tax. However nothing really worked and quite soon the Colony was faced with bankruptcy and FitzRoy was forced to begin issuing promissory notes, paper money without backing.

Meanwhile the Maori in the Far North, the Bay of Islands, who had been one of the driving forces in the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi, were feeling increasingly sidelined and resentful of the changes that had taken place in New Zealand. To signal their resentment Hone Heke cut down the flagpole at Kororareka. Rather than address the problems FitzRoy had the flagpole re-erected. Hone Heke cut it down again, four times altogether by which time the First New Zealand War, or Flagstaff War, was well underway.

It soon became apparent that FitzRoy did not have the resources to bring about a quick end to the war. Meanwhile the spokesmen for the New Zealand Company were active back in Great Britain and FitzRoy's Governorship was presented to the House of Commons in a very poor light. As a result of this he was dismissed and replaced by George Grey then Governor of South Australia. Grey was also given the backing and support that FitzRoy had needed but was denied.


However FitzRoy was not disgraced. He returned to England and in September 1848 was made superintendent of the Royal Naval Dockyards at Woolwich and then in March 1849 was given his final sea command, the screw frigate HMS Arrogant. In 1851 he retired from active service, partly due to ill health, and in that year was elected to the Royal Society with the support of 13 fellows including Charles Darwin.

As the protegé of Francis Beaufort, he was in 1854 appointed, on the recommendation of the President of the Royal Society, as chief of a new department to deal with the collection of weather data at sea, with the title of Meteorological Statist to the Board of Trade and a staff of three. This was the forerunner of the modern Meteorological Office. He arranged for captains of ships to provide information, with tested instruments being loaned for this purpose, and for computation of the data collected. FitzRoy was responsible for the design and distribution of a type of barometer which on his recommendation was fixed at every port to be consulted by crews before setting to sea: stone housings for such barometers are still visible at many fishing harbours. The invention of several different types of barometers was attributed to him, and these became popular and continued in production into the 20th century, characteristically engraved with Admiral FitzRoy's special remarks on interpretation, such as "When rising: In winter the rise of the barometer presages frost".

A terrible storm in 1859 which caused the loss of HMS Royal Charter inspired FitzRoy to develop charts to allow predictions to be made, which he called "forecasting the weather". Fifteen land stations were established to use the new telegraph to transmit to him daily reports of weather at set times. The first daily weather forecasts were published in The Times in 1860, and in the following year a system was introduced of hoisting storm warning cones at the principal ports when a gale was expected. The "Weather Book" which he published in 1863 was far in advance of the scientific opinion of the time.

The Origin of Species

When The Origin of Species was published FitzRoy apparently felt betrayed, and guilty for his part in the theory's development. Unfortunately he was in Oxford on June 30 1860 to present a paper on Storms and attended the meeting of the British Association for the Advancement of Science at which 'Soapy Sam' Wilberforce attacked Darwin's theory. During the debate FitzRoy, seen as "a grey haired Roman nosed elderly gentleman", stood in the centre of the audience and "lifting an immense Bible first with both and afterwards with one hand over his head, solemnly implored the audience to believe God rather than man". As he admitted that the Origin of Species had given him "acutest pain" the crowd shouted him down.

He retired in 1863, by then promoted by seniority to Vice Admiral. He suffered from depression and died by suicide two years later using a razor in a sad echo of his uncle. He is buried in the graveyard of All Saints Church, Upper Norwood, South London.


Mount Fitz Roy (Argentina-Chile, at the extreme south of the continent) was named after him by the Argentine scientist and explorer Francisco Moreno. It is 3.440 m high, an important tourist attraction and the aboriginals call it Chaltén.

Fitzroy River, in northern Western Australia, was named after him by Lieut. John Lort Stokes who, at the time, commanded the HMS "Beagle" (previously by FitzRoy).

The impressive South American conifer Fitzroya cupressoides is named after him.

On 4 February 2002, the shipping forecast sea area formerly called 'Finisterre' by the UK's Meteorological Office was renamed 'Fitzroy' to avoid possible confusion with the Spanish sea area also called Finisterre.

External links

Preceded by:
Captain William Hobson
Governors of New Zealand Succeeded by:
Sir George Grey
de:Robert FitzRoy

Academic Kids Menu

  • Art and Cultures
    • Art (
    • Architecture (
    • Cultures (
    • Music (
    • Musical Instruments (
  • Biographies (
  • Clipart (
  • Geography (
    • Countries of the World (
    • Maps (
    • Flags (
    • Continents (
  • History (
    • Ancient Civilizations (
    • Industrial Revolution (
    • Middle Ages (
    • Prehistory (
    • Renaissance (
    • Timelines (
    • United States (
    • Wars (
    • World History (
  • Human Body (
  • Mathematics (
  • Reference (
  • Science (
    • Animals (
    • Aviation (
    • Dinosaurs (
    • Earth (
    • Inventions (
    • Physical Science (
    • Plants (
    • Scientists (
  • Social Studies (
    • Anthropology (
    • Economics (
    • Government (
    • Religion (
    • Holidays (
  • Space and Astronomy
    • Solar System (
    • Planets (
  • Sports (
  • Timelines (
  • Weather (
  • US States (


  • Home Page (
  • Contact Us (

  • Clip Art (
Personal tools