Robert FitzRoy (Ampton, 1805 - Norwood, 1865) was a commander of the
British Royal Navy, part of the generation of men who mapped the globe
with ships, kept watch over the seas, and made Great Britain the
hegemonic power of the nineteenth century. He was principally active in
the South Atlantic, but he also had an important role in the politics
and debates about the future of the Empire.
Born into a family of the British political elite, among his uncles was
a duke (Grafton) and a marquis (Londonderry). The latter was one of the
most important politicians in the 1810 and 1820s, Lord Castlereagh,
Secretary of State of War and Colonies and representative of the United
Kingdom at the Congress of Vienna.
FitzRoy was admitted to the British Royal Naval College in Portsmouth in
1818 and made a lieutenant in 1824. Soon afterwards he was commissioned
for missions in the Mediterranean and in 1827 was transferred to the
South Atlantic squadron. In the following years he became captain of
HMS Beagle. He commanded this expeditionary ship until 1830 and on its
following voyage, between 1831 and 1836.
As an agent of the British Empire he participated in an immense
knowledge enterprise, producing maps and nautical charts. The sending of
HMS Beagle and dozens of other vessels on expeditions to the South
Atlantic in those years demonstrated an alteration in the place occupied
by the region in the first decades of the nineteenth century. Previously
it had been closed to foreigners by the Iberian crowns but after their
independences the new states opened to foreigners, especially the
British and their investments.
During HMS Beagle's first voyage, FitzRoy captured and brought to
Britain four natives from Tierra del Fuego to be catechized, 'civilized'
by Anglican pastors. This action, a reinterpretation of the old Catholic
evangelizing strategies, dialogued with the strength conquered by the
movement for the abolition of slavery and the rise of the religious and
moral discourse associated with it: the humanitarianism.
FitzRoy acted on the Court and the Admiralty for a new expedition by HMS
Beagle to bring back to Tierra del Fuego one of the 'civilized' natives,
baptized as Jemmy Button, accompanied by an Anglican missionary. This
was the historic voyage on which the naturalist Charles Darwin was
Shortly after landing, the indigenous man abandoned the missionary. The
failure of this mission is interesting to understand the efforts made to
create a new type of conversion of Amerindian peoples, the difficulties
in relations between Europeans and indigenous peoples, and the
resistance strategies adopted. It was a clear and direct refusal of a
type of relationship which assumed a moral, religious, civilizational,
and knowledge superiority. It refused also the reinforcement of
political, economic, and social hierarchies which replaced Spanish with
British, little different to the indigenous peoples.
However, Robert FitzRoy's role in the establishment of bridges and
connections between Great Britain and Latin America was not limited to
this failed attempt. Nor should he be seen only as the captain who
sailed with Charles Darwin. The naturalist was just one - and certainly
at that moment not the most important - man embarked on that ship.
FitzRoy was always linked to politics and spent more than two years
writing "Narrative of the Surveying Voyages of H.M.S. Adventure and
Beagle", published in 1839. The book presented the reports of the
Beagle's two voyages, including the writings of previous commanders
(Phillip Parker King and Pringle Stokes).
His work circulated widely at the time and is marked by his place of
enunciation, showing his Western European, British, Anglican, and
nobility filters. Following the model of travel accounts of that time he
described the nature and societies visited, offering interpretations and
constructing narratives. He established comparisons between what he
described as the incapacity of Iberian Catholic colonization, with the
possibilities and duties of a new British and Anglican colonization in
the unexplored Oceania.
In describing Brazil, his criticisms centered on slavery, bringing into
his narrative the discourse of the political and religious group to
which he was linked. His writings were part of a new generation of
accounts, no longer only centered on the exuberance of nature and its
economic possibilities, but also on the incapacity of local elites to
manage their natural resources, as they were morally inferior.
In the case of Argentina, his criticisms were aimed at the political
instability, disputes between the local elites, and the exploitation of
indigenous peoples. In the effort to reinforce the new place of Great
Britain in the post-Napoleonic world, he drew on a series of stereotypes
about Spain to narrate its old colonies, describing them as marked by
backwardness, religiosity, ignorance, and mysticism.
He was a typical man of the Empire, narrating to his countrymen and
contemporaries, using the account of his journeys for domestic and
international political purposes. He constructed a narrative of South
America in which he presented little interest and disposition to learn
from the peoples visited, but made much effort to reinforce and
legitimate the new place of Great Britain in the world and defend the
expansion of the Empire.
In producing what were considered for practically a century the most
precise nautical charts of the extreme south of the continent, he
ignored the indigenous knowledge and names of places and baptized them
with references to Britain and his own family. The Beagle Channel, Mount
Darwin, the Londonderry islands, and Cape Castlereagh reinforce today
the memory of his passage, as well as FitzRoy Peak, baptized by the
Argentinean Francisco 'Perito' Moreno in 1877 in honor and recognition
of the mapping made by him in the region.
Charles Darwin named a species of conifer Fitzroya patagonica and a
cetacean as Delphinus fitzroyi. However, the publication of "On the
origin of species" in 1859 demarcated a rupture between both, since the
naval commander was extremely religious. The burden of having invited
the naturalist on the expedition is alleged to have been one of the
central motives for his suicide in 1865.
FitzRoy was a British man of his time. He reached high rank in the Navy,
becoming vice-admiral, was governor of the colony of New Zealand, and
was one of the most important men behind the British occupation of that
archipelago. His account of the voyages of HMS Beagle allowed him become
a member of the Royal Society, a key figure in the innovations of
naval techniques at the time, and to be one of the greatest references
about voyages circumnavigating the globe, with examples of his book
being found in the libraries of European and American navies.
He was one of many men from the Empire to circulate in Latin America in
the nineteenth century and to become a reference in different areas. His
writings encouraged many others to visit and become active in the
region, despite the recurrent discourse about political instability,
economic instability, and general inefficiency.