“I have stated…that it was in consequence of a wish expressed by Captain Fitz Roy, of having some scientific person on board, accompanied by an offer from him of giving up part of his own accommodations, that I volunteered my services…As I feel that the opportunities which I enjoyed of studying the Natural History of the different countries we visited have been wholly due to Captain Fitz Roy, I hope I may here be permitted to repeat my expression of gratitude to him; and to add that, during the five years we were together, I received from him the most cordial friendship and steady assistance.”
Preface, The Voyage of the Beagle
Traitor! Blasphemer! Satan! The perverse, the twisted theses that have flowed from his pen! Species that bow and change to Nature’s whim. A hapless planet wherein solid mountains testify to confusion and upheaval. How can any learned man believe it? Yet they do. Darwin, Darwin, his name is everywhere as they rush to debate his falsehoods and acclaim his genius. And to think that I, Vice Admiral Robert Fitz-Roy, once captain of His Majesty’s ship Beagle, furnished the opportunity for this wickedness.
What irony to recall that Darwin almost did not come! Three others before him were given preference for the naturalist’s post; for considerations of family or business, each in turn declined. So young Darwin was recommended to me and a meeting arranged. Though I maintained a cordial manner, I at once felt deep misgivings. It was his nose that gave me pause. By a thorough study of Lavater’s principles of physiognomy, I knew this shape of nose was incompatible with the energy and determination required to withstand hardship. Indeed, Darwin’s career until now had consisted of a carefree life at Cambridge where he paid less heed to his books than to frivolous pursuits with friends. How could this unseasoned and naive young man endure the rigors of a long sea voyage?
“Our quarters are small,” said I. “Our fare will be poor, only plain dinners and no wine. You must sleep in a hammock amidst the constant roll of the ship. In the savage lands to which we are bound are humans less civilized than many beasts. Can you bear bitter cold and tropical heat and swarms of biting insects?” I told him all the worst, having no wish to be companioned with a messmate who lay abed complaining of his miseries.
But Darwin panted to go. “Captain Fitz-Roy,” he declared, “ever since my youth I have been the most avid of collectors, delighting in the abundance and variety of species. It is my burning desire to add but the most humble contribution to the noble structure of natural science.”
So zealous was he that I put aside my doubts and after a second interview gave way and accepted him. I confess to some selfishness. Yes, I wanted a scientific person on board. During my first surveying voyage to South America I had felt keenly the lack of a qualified individual to record and interpret the abundant flora and fauna of this rugged land. But I also wanted a friend, a companion of my own age and gentlemanly upbringing to provide intellectual stimulation and fellowship on the voyage. At twenty-two, Darwin was only four years younger than myself, and his lineage was a suitable match to my descent from royal forebears. I thought happily of the long talks we should have, the joy of shared discoveries so far away from home.
Yet the first ten days of our voyage seemed to prove Lavater correct. Darwin was violently sea-sick, unable to stomach food or drink. I pitied him his illness. The month was December 1831, the seas were stormy, the North Atlantic wind was wet and raw. Watching Darwin retch, day after day, over the Beagle’s side, it seemed only too likely he would request to be put ashore at our first stop. But by the time we reached the Cape Verde Islands he had mastered his stomach and stoutly declared his willingness to go on. The Beagle had gained a hardy scientist, and I had gained a friend.
From the beginning, I had felt an extreme confidence about this voyage, and the next few months lived up to my expectations. Though small, the Beagle was well provisioned and outfitted for her mission, my crew trustworthy and alert. We were headed to a coast I had already explored. With all the anticipation of a proud host, I could scarcely wait to show it to Darwin.
“If only I could picture for you the magnificent scenery you soon shall behold,” I said, as we stood together on the tossing deck, gazing eagerly across the wild sea. “Mountains dazzling with snow, their cloud-capped heads rearing to the heavens. The darkness of the water, so many fathoms deep we skimmed the cliffs and still found no bottom for our anchor. The sweetness of the flowers, the strangeness of the animals…” My voice trailed off as my heart swelled with the memories.
Darwin’s eyes shone. “Surely these coasts will yield the most remarkable specimens a naturalist could hope to find.”
“And adventures,” I promised, laughing. “Why, once we went ashore surveying and climbed high into the mountains. On our return we found the going so slippery we kept losing our footing on the slopes. There was nothing else for it—we sat down on our breeches with our instruments in our laps and slid down like schoolboys!”
We laughed heartily. “But you must be careful,” I cautioned, recalling my responsibility as captain for the safety of all aboard my ship. “The dangers of which I warned you before our departure are only too real. Illness and scarce rations, unknown channels and fierce storms. And be ever on your guard against the natives.”
Darwin nodded. Already he was somewhat familiar with the Fuegian people, for we carried three aboard the Beagle. These were two young men, named by us York Minster and Jemmy Button, and a girl of about ten whom we called Fuegia. I had brought them from Tierra del Fuego to England on my previous voyage. Unlike their wild brethren, these three had now had the advantage of a year’s residence among civilized people, including tutoring and proper clothing, much of it at my expense. I hoped this education would make them leaders of their tribes and secure for future ships a hospitable reception and open trade.
We reached Brazil in February 1832, and Darwin fairly bounded ashore. How comical he looked, this tall young man, his pack bulging with specimen bottles, books and tools. There was nothing that did not interest him, from the tiniest insect to the loftiest geological formation. He would return from his expeditions and scribble half the night away recording his discoveries.
“Listen and tell me what you think,” he would beg, then read from his journal a detailed account of some bush or bird. His eye was always accurate, his passion burst from each page. “My only problem, Fitz-Roy, is that in England any person fond of natural history will always find in his walks something to attract his attention. But in these fertile climates, teeming with life, the attractions are so numerous I am scarcely able to walk at all!”
“That is it exactly,” I agreed. “And every sight, every rock and specimen attests to the glory of Him who created it.”
“Him who created it,” Darwin mused. “Yes, certainly a tremendous creative force has been at work in all this.”
“Why who can doubt it?” I glanced contentedly to the Bible on my cabin shelf.
But to my last comment, Darwin said nothing, only a quiet “h’mm” that faded into the night.
How often has that “h’mm” returned to haunt me. Was he starting to form his accursed theories even then? Was it there in Brazil his wretched ideas began to simmer? During our long voyage southward through the Atlantic he had read constantly from Lyell’s Principles of Geology. I had some familiarity with and distaste for this book. It proposed the earth was not a single creation, as we know to be true from Genesis, but an evolving structure in which inanimate objects such as rocks and rivers undergo constant change. Though few men of intelligence took such matter seriously, Darwin seemed quite taken with it. Had I suspected the drift of his mind, I would have set him ashore there and then. But I was much too occupied, for now we sailed into new waters, channels and bays not ventured on the Beagle’s previous voyage, and all my time and energy were directed to the fulfillment of our mission: mapping, surveying, taking meteorological observations. My journal bulged with fresh discoveries, information that would benefit many a ship in years to come. I anticipated a warm welcome for the volume when it was published on our return.
There was also the matter of restoring the three Fuegians to their tribes, an event that would bring to fruition all my hopes for them. How well I remembered my first encounter with these savage people. It was in April 1829, only six months after I had taken command of the Beagle. What a picture of human degeneration the Fuegians presented! They were below middle size, of crouching posture, wrapped in rough skins, their tangled black hair hanging down like thatch. Their skin was smeared over with oil and so dirty one could scarce determine its true color. Of their features, nothing good could be said. Their foreheads were very small and ill-shaped, the upper lip long and protruding. They had retreating chins and ill-formed mouths. Lavater’s physiognomy proclaimed them to be cunning and indolent, of deficient intellect and energy. And so they proved, for though the Fuegians sometimes acted fair, they would threaten us if we were outnumbered and steal at every opportunity. Later we learned they practiced cannibalism.
Now it was my responsibility to see York Minster, Jemmy Button and Fuegia safely home. Darwin accompanied us on the shore party and all went well. We left the Fuegians with gifts of clothing, seed and tools. During their time in England they had received instruction in agriculture as well as English and Christianity, and though they had been slow to learn, it gladdened my heart to see how far above their original savage state they had risen. We sailed on, intending to return shortly to observe their progress.
In the following weeks, Darwin made many excursions ashore, sometimes with a surveying party, often alone. In many ways this was the most treacherous part of our voyage, and I think now how often all might still have ended well. Once, for example, we went ashore to find water. After climbing until we were exhausted, it seemed the expedition must end in failure, but Darwin volunteered to go on.
“I have become so accustomed to my long rambles, my legs could carry me quite a way yet,” he laughed, as if pleased to prove himself more hardy than my sailors and me. “Stay here and rest until I return.”
He disappeared up a mountainside, and we sat down gratefully to wait. Hours later Darwin reappeared, disheartened to report no success. We trudged back to the Beagle and soon recovered from our fatigue, save Darwin who had overexerted himself after all. He fell dangerously ill, and I worried he might not survive. Would that he had died of his foolhardiness, his greed to show off! Or that he had slipped on a precipice and tumbled to his death. Or been ambushed by the natives or become lost in the snow. How many times, on how many occasions a wrong step might have cost him his life—and did not. My only consolation is that throughout our long voyage the bugs, the damnable insects, did their bloodthirsty work. Their innumerable bites poisoned his system, and he has been plagued with illness ever since our return. They say he is no better than an invalid. May he suffer eternally!
After two months of surveying, the Beagle returned to the site where we had left our three Fuegians. How great was my disappointment to see the change that short space of time had wrought! The place was deserted, the garden trampled. Our gifts of tools and clothing had vanished. At last we found the younger of the two men, Jemmy Button, clothed in dirty skins, half a savage once more. He told us York Minster had robbed him of everything and gone away with Fuegia. Meanwhile, Jemmy’s efforts to reestablish himself with his people and bring them the benefits of civilization had met with little progress. Jemmy himself seemed to be slipping, retreating from his year in England as if from a dream that on waking had seemed most vivid and real but was now fading into a hazy memory. That night I lay morosely in my hammock.
“What is it, Fitz-Roy?” Darwin turned from the small table at which he worked and regarded me. Spread before him was an array of rocks and animal bones. Beside his candle, in a bottle of spirits, floated a pale fish.
I shrugged, disinclined to talk, and for a moment my thoughts shifted to my friend’s mounting collection of specimens. South America had proved fruitful for him—he called it “the great workshop of nature”—and often the crew smiled among themselves to see our young naturalist return to the Beagle lugging his odd cargoes. “Rubbish,” one of my officers whispered to me, but I silenced him and made room in our cramped quarters for more bottles and crates. I believed Darwin’s collections could only confirm the utter truth of the creation in seven days and the great Flood. How could I have foreseen his shameful twisting of the evidence to support his monstrous lies? Why, in recognition of his contributions I had already named for him an immense mountain and a newly explored sound.
“Fitz-Roy? Are you unwell?”
“Rather say I am dispirited,” I sighed, my mind returning to the Fuegians. “How can it be that all my interest and care has produced so little result? Why, from the first, York, Jemmy and Fuegia were treated with the utmost kindness. I had them vaccinated against the smallpox, I supervised their education and took them visiting. Do you know I even arranged for them to be presented to the king? How could that have failed to impress them and make them yearn to better themselves?”
“You cannot blame yourself,” said Darwin. “You fulfilled every obligation to them and more. But tell me, how can one explain the degenerate state of these people to begin?”
“Why, they are the descendants of Noah, who in their long wanderings after the Flood sank to a primitive condition.”
“And all these animals, now extinct.” He pointed to his pile of bones. “How did they come to their end?”
“Why, in the Great Deluge as well. Not all species could be carried in the Ark. Many failed to get aboard and thus were doomed to extinction.”
“Yet these rocks…” Darwin turned away from me, frowning, and began to finger a grayish specimen. “Their age, the layers.” He prodded at the spine of Lyell’s Geology, much worn from his constant reading.
“You work too hard.” I rose from my hammock and walked over to pat his shoulder. “Take some rest and trust in this for your answers.” I pointed to my Bible. “Once you have all the evidence before you, this great puzzle will make perfect sense.”
Darwin nodded, seeming to agree. “H’mm,” he said.
“A shore fit for Pandemonium.” That is how I described the Galapagos Islands in my journal for September 1835. Studded in eerie isolation in the vast Pacific, they were real underfoot yet not quite of this world. The landscape varied: one island small and rugged, covered with sunburnt brushwood and bounded by a bold, rocky shore; another low, black and dismal-looking, heaped with broken lava. Aside from the great tortoises for which the islands were named, the fauna consisted of birds, crabs and the hideous iguanas, than which there are few animals uglier. A few years before, Ecuador had designated the Galapagos as a place of banishment, and at the time of our arrival the settlement there consisted of some eighty small houses and nearly two hundred souls, mostly convicts.
But neither iguanas nor criminals nor the forbidding terrain now strike me as the most sinister aspect of that place. I believe the Devil was at work there, spreading his evil, and Darwin gave him a willing ear. How busy our young naturalist was, ever probing, ever exploring, ever scribbling in his journal. And to think he and I spoke almost the same language, to such different ends.
“This place is a little world unto itself,” he cried. “Fitz-Roy, I am in a transport of delight! The birds alone present so many variations. Already I have counted over a dozen new species, and my tally is sure to rise. And every creature, lizard or tortoise, uniquely adapted to its home.”
“Yes,” I agreed, though on my guard, for lately his musings had begun to disturb me. “For example, have you noticed the short beaks, so thick at the base, of all the small birds? It is a marvelous adaptation for picking up insects or seeds on the hard lava of this place. A slight, delicate beak would never do the job. How else could this have been effected but by God’s infinite wisdom in creating each thing to suit its intended environment?”
“Each species adapted to its surroundings, you mean.”
“Yes, by divine creation.”
Darwin opened his mouth to speak, then let the matter drop. A prickle of fear ran up my spine. He was keeping his thoughts from me, his countenance hard to read, and I realized suddenly that in the four years since we had left England his face had changed markedly, maturing from the visage of a carefree youth to the sober features of a thoughtful man. But the shape of his nose had not altered—lack of energy and determination were stamped there still—and though his zeal for collecting had not diminished, perhaps little result would come of it. Besides, what more could I say? As a host, I was bound to respect my guest. As a gentleman, I must hold my tongue. Yet from that time a breach grew between us.
We stayed a month in the Galapagos, and while I busied myself with charting and meteorological studies, our small cabin became ever more crowded with Darwin’s specimens. I thought one night of secretly dumping them overboard, one here, one there, so that he would not notice, but chided myself for my concern. What harm in his foolish collection? How could a few fossils destroy the truth? Let him air his half-formed theories on our return. The learned men and the astute public would quickly set him straight, and sheepishly, but in good humor, he would withdraw his incorrect views. The evidence he brought from the Galapagos could but support the Bible in every word.
So on we sailed, to Tahiti, New Zealand, Australia. We began to yearn for home.
“I miss the small luxuries,” Darwin sighed, “and especially I miss music.”
“I long for a good rest,” I replied, “and room to stretch and move about.”
“What will you do on your return?” he asked. “Take up another ship?”
“No. I shall set to work on my notes, for publication. And you?”
“I, too, will publish. Think of it, Fitz-Roy, we shall be authors together!”
England at last! At first all seemed well. I was acclaimed for my contributions to navigation, surveying, chart making. The Royal Geographic Society awarded me its gold medal, and my narrative of the voyage was published and well received. As a precaution, I had added to this volume some brief arguments in evidence of the Flood, but in a kindly tone not seeking to provoke debate. Published, too, was Darwin’s journal, and it was highly praised and widely read, more so than my account. This irked me, that his fulsome ramblings should be so well regarded. But as yet he spouted no damaging theories. His story struck most readers as an amusing travelogue, replete with the detailed observations of a dedicated naturalist. But I saw clearly the embedded speculations and the subtle way his mind was moving. Then I began to dislike him in earnest.
Years passed, and I rose in my career, as MP for Durham and Governor of New Zealand, as superintendent of the naval dockyard at Woolwich. I was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society, an honor they had accorded Darwin almost immediately after the voyage, and in 1854 became chief of the new meteorological department of the Board of Trade. Here again I proved my worth. I developed wind star charts and a reliable method for forecasting storms. I set up weather stations, produced synoptic charts, and devised a system of weather cones. I invented a new type of barometer, named in my honor.
From time to time, I heard of Darwin. They said he was sick, and I rejoiced. They reported him at work on his specimens from the voyage, and I feared. On occasion our paths crossed, and we observed the social courtesies. But still no great revelations came from his pen, and I prayed his store of energy was expended, that he was betrayed at last by the shape of his nose.
Then, some twenty-three years after the Beagle docked, he published his damnable book.
First, it was not even well written. It was dry and wordy—how could anyone have taken pleasure in reading it? Second, he gave no credit to those who had espoused similar wrongheaded theories before him. One of those was his own grandfather, Erasmus Darwin, a noted writer though few took seriously his claims on evolution. And there were others: Buffon, Lamarck, Wells, Matthew. But no, to read On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection you would think the theory of evolution sprang solely from the brain of Charles Darwin.
The evil in that book! My hatred mounted with every page. Could any sane person believe that animals evolved from lower species in response to some random principle of natural selection? And if so for animals, how then for man? Though Darwin avoided any mention of the human species, it was only too clear what conclusion he wished readers to draw. No! With my dying breath I will deny it! All logic takes my side. For man to have been first created in an infant or savage state is impossible, for if an infant, who nursed, fed, protected him? And if savage, how could he have survived in such a helpless form? The only idea that can reconcile to reason is this: man was created perfect in body and mind and all the great diversity of this planet is due entirely to the first creation and the Flood.
The time to speak out had come. In meetings and in public I defended the true word. I had allies, not only church men but many scientists as well. When cartoons appeared deriding Darwin, I applauded. But every time a writer or scientist fell victim to his deceits and wrote in his favor, I countered with a blast of my pen. Darwin, they said, had evidence, a quantity and quality of specimens to at last support the early evolutionists’ claims. Yes, evidence, and I gave it to him, but the interpretation was maddeningly wrong.
In my fervent struggle against these heresies my health began to pay the price. I proclaimed my beliefs loudly, clearly, but reasonably, as befits a gentleman, and all the while I seethed in torment as Darwin’s ideas were embraced. At last the strain broke forth. At a meeting in Oxford of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, my rage overwhelmed me and I shook my Bible above my head.
“This volume,” I cried, “this volume alone is the source of all truth!”
But Darwin’s repute grew, and at last, near exhaustion, I saw I must not throw away my career in an attempt to overthrow his. I was still chief meteorologist for the Board of Trade and in addition to my many responsibilities I was at work on a new volume I intended to be the most comprehensive weather guide ever written. Into it I poured my lifetime of meteorological knowledge and my studies of forecasting by barometer readings. I awaited the publication with the utmost anticipation and felt great vindication at the book’s success.
But no joy is ever permanent, no happiness complete. My Weather Book appeared in 1862, and even amidst that success I suffered personal and professional attacks. Derisory remarks cast doubt on my forecasting system. No matter how hard I worked to prove myself, others found fault. And everywhere I turned, there was Darwin. Like a knife his name leaped out to stab me, overheard in conversations, heralded in scientific journals. To my horror, they believed.
Traitor! Or was I the traitor? The thought smote me one morning as, razor in hand, I prepared for my shave. I stared at my countenance in the mirror, the haggard lines betraying another fitful night. Where was the physiognomy that should have alerted me to my villainy? Where was the flaw in forehead, cheekbones, chin? I alone let Darwin aboard the Beagle and by so doing brought about this havoc and ruin. I cried to think that had I followed my first instinct and rejected him I would have saved God and myself—all for the shape of his nose.
When I looked again in the mirror I saw that in my despair I had cut my throat with the sharp blade. I hardly felt it, and the trail of blood oozed peacefully down my neck. Darwin never denied the existence of a creator, but he would strip God of all power and make of man a hapless being who survived only by chance. No! Whence came this great civilization of ours, this music, this art, this humanity? We are God’s own creatures, fashioned in his image, and to live in a world that denies the truth of his word cannot be borne. Traitor! I raised the razor to my throat. With my dying breath, I swear by the divinity of man!
(Copyright©Arliss Ryan, 1993)