Our first great wretch

by Steve Braunias / 31 January, 2004
Two new biographies draw completely different portraits of Robert FitzRoy - captain of the Beagle on Darwin's famous voyage, and Governor of New Zealand immediately after the Treaty of Waitangi signing, who committed suicide at the end of a career marked by failure, depression and good intentions.

FITZROY: The remarkable story of Darwin's captain and the invention of the weather forecast, by John and Mary Gribbin (Review, $59.99); EVOLUTION'S CAPTAIN: The dark fate of the man who sailed Charles Darwin around the world, by Peter Nichols (Harper Collins, $34.99).

In the last few days of his life, Robert FitzRoy slept badly, played a few hands of whist with his wife, fretted at the growing pile of unanswered letters, took his daughters for a walk, babbled incoherently, said that he felt weak, and read his prayer book. He was exhausted. He had had enough. Finally, on a Sunday morning - April 30, 1865 - he got out of bed, bolted the door of his dressing room, and, without any particular warning, although clearly he had badly suffered from manic depression since childhood, slit his throat with a razor. He was 59.

His portrait hangs in a hallway of Wellington's Government House. He looks like a nice man. The eyes are sad, the smile is gentle. He also looks like a soft touch. A pushover, but the kind who is more likely to be toppled by himself than anyone else; and there is something not merely due to the fact of his suicide that instantly hints at lunacy. It's a face that might fall apart at any moment. Look again. Knowing, this time, the fact of his suicide, and also the facts of his long, awful collapse - the nervous breakdowns, the sackings, the humiliations, the disappointments, the uselessness, rather than practical assistance, of his religious mania - and FitzRoy comes into view as an important character in New Zealand history: our first great wretch.

FitzRoy was Governor of New Zealand from December 1843 to January 1846. Only two years; but at a crucial time in our early colonial history, in the immediate aftermath of the Treaty of Waitangi, when Wakefield's New Zealand Company settlers were anxious for land, and when some of the greatest of all Maori chiefs - Te Rauparaha, Te Rangihaeata, Heke, Kawiti - took up arms in resistance. At a time, too, when Bishop Williams and the early missionaries had vast influence on the philosophy of how to build New Zealand, of how to treat the "natives". FitzRoy was on their side. He was their man. He stood up for Maori, said that settlers were "bad men".

Keith Sinclair, in his 1960 History of New Zealand: "FitzRoy found himself in an impossible situation and succeeded in making it worse." He was removed from his post, sent back home - in his own words, "deeply and irreparably injured". There had been fools, vagabonds, rogues, complete bastards and a great many English twits running around New Zealand before FitzRoy arrived. But none held such power or authority. He was our first failure of any importance.

New Zealand was not the ruining of FitzRoy. He did that to himself. But he was never really allowed to recover after his unfortunate experiment of running the country; the British Navy, his former employer, washed their hands of him, and although he ended up in what could have been a quiet, nicely salaried position as the first director of the meteorological service, he faced ridicule and was driven to a final and terrible crisis.

Most famously, FitzRoy had been the captain of the Beagle on Charles Darwin's five-year voyage. Once again, he was in the wrong place at the wrong time for a person of his convictions. Darwin came back from the voyage and began to tinker away at the theory of evolution; FitzRoy came back and almost immediately became a fundamentalist Christian, desperate to tell the world that all he had seen confirmed the biblical myth of a young Earth shaped by the Flood. Darwin's response: "It is a pity that he did not add his theory to the extinction of the Mastodon from the door of the Ark being made too small." More ridicule; and more failure - Darwin's journal of his Beagle voyage was a huge bestseller, while FitzRoy's account sank with, as they say, barely a murmur.

FitzRoy lived to become a has-been and not a hell of a lot more than a nobody. History, too, has relegated him to a bit-part - a supporting role in Darwin's drama, a cameo appearance in the story of New Zealand. Keith Sinclair rests his short case against FitzRoy by quoting W P Morrell: "He was totally lacking in the essential qualities of cool judgment, resolution, and consistency of purpose." "Scrupulous but not brilliant" is how James Belich gets rid of him in Making Peoples (and adds of FitzRoy's successor, Governor George Grey: "brilliant but not scrupulous"); Michael King's recent Penguin History of New Zealand features a careful analysis of Grey, and only refers to FitzRoy personally as Grey's "ineffectual predecessor". By strange coincidence, two new biographies appear at the same time, and drag him out for fresh and closer inspection.

In outline, they tell much the same narrative. The early promise, the long decline. Five years with Darwin, two years in New Zealand. His depressions, his appointment with a cutthroat razor. But the books are wildly different in character and in motive. John and Mary Gribbin are resolutely sympathetic in their FitzRoy; they champion him, rightly, for his seamanship, and his pioneering work as a weatherman; they excuse his New Zealand experience as a matter of bad timing and lack of support. Peter Nichols, in Evolution's Captain, sets out another barrow. His portrait never gives the sucker an even break. One disaster, one blunder, one mad leap follows another.

The two books present a choice. FitzRoy was either a poor devil, or a complete ass. Both books, though, spell a sentence of death on FitzRoy: both look back and see that he was doomed.

Nichols crafts his dramatic, nearly contemptuous version of FitzRoy's life around a single event - his capture of a man, a boy and a girl from Tierra del Fuego, during his first command of the Beagle, and his attempts to "civilise" them, teach them manners, give them a soul. At the very least, this was an act of folly. Nichols goes rather further. It was the crucial step that led to extinction - of FitzRoy, and of most of the Fuegian people. Actually, he makes a pretty good case for asserting the latter, but relies too heavily on speculation to prove it had much to do with FitzRoy's death.

Instead, suggest John and Mary Gribbin in their biography - ploddingly told, but assiduously researched - the end came at the beginning. Meaning, his childhood was marked by two things: the desperate need to impress his father, and the knowledge that his uncle had committed suicide.

His very name was a curse. FitzRoy, the Gribbin's helpfully point out, literally means "royal bastard". The family line began with the illegitimate son of Charles II and his mistress, Barbara Villiers. But it elevated the FitzRoy clan to the aristocracy. Robert FitzRoy was born to wealth in 1805. When his father died in 1830, he wrote to his sister: "I have been working hard, Fanny, and have run many risks during the last two years, & through it all, I have been influenced by the thought that it would give him satisfaction. His approbation I looked to as the true reward of any hard times I might pass, and I thought little of any other person's." The authors comment, "He worshipped a distant father and felt he could never be good enough for that father's approval." Much later, when Fitz-Roy slogs away as a weatherman, they claim, "It was almost as if he was still trying to please his long-dead father." Almost? How almost?

But his fear that mental illness might run in the family, and visit upon his own state of mind, sounds real enough, in both books. FitzRoy also had to labour under the knowledge that Pringle Stokes, his predecessor as captain of the Beagle, had killed himself, at sea. Mind you, FitzRoy was cool about it in the language he used to write to Fanny of his sudden promotion: "A death vacancy has occurred." By that time, FitzRoy's seafaring excellence was recognised; a brilliant career was his for the taking. Already, too, he knew how susceptible he was to dark moods. "What a life this is - the pains are far greater than the pleasures - and yet people set such a value upon existence ..."

Which is why he asked Charles Darwin to accompany him on the Beagle's historic voyage from 1831-36. He needed the company. FitzRoy was 26, Darwin 22. With obvious delight, the Gribbins seize on Darwin's first impressions of FitzRoy: "He is a very extraordinary person ... I feel convinced nothing is too great or too high for him ... His many good qualities are great ... Altogether he is the strongest marked character I ever fell in with."

The authors stop only a little short of falling in with Darwin. FitzRoy, they proclaim, was "a very British hero", blessed with "strength of character", and they fret much that he never gained a knighthood, which "he so richly deserved". They grieve, too, that he was never made an admiral. Their advocacy is sometimes of a high nuttiness - "It is hardly FitzRoy's fault that he was born too late to discover Australia", "If it had not been for Robert FitzRoy, the name Charles Darwin would be remembered, if at all, as that of a country parson with an interest in natural history. But if Charles Darwin had never lived, the name of Robert FitzRoy might be widely held in higher esteem." And if Te Rauparaha had never lived, or New Zealand never discovered, etc.

The occasional use of exclamation marks further reduces the Gribbins to cheerleaders. After quoting a long, ponderous excerpt from FitzRoy's Narrative, his published journal of the Beagle, they hurrah: "Anyone who thinks FitzRoy can't write has surely never read the Narrative!" Defensive and encouraging at every turn, they never-theless turn up some intriguing evidence in FitzRoy's favour. On board the Beagle, for instance, it was FitzRoy who gave Darwin a copy of Charles Lyell's Principles of Geography - proving that FitzRoy did, at least for a while, keep an open mind about the scientific investigation of a slowly evolved Earth.

They also happily pass on the information that FitzRoy popularised the terms "port" and "dinghy". Nichols, in Evolution's Captain, is good enough to acknowledge that FitzRoy was the first person to publish ye olde sayings about the weather in his Barometer Manual ("A red sky in the morning is a sailor's warning;/But a red sky at night is a sailor's delight.") But that's about the extent of his charity.

A great deal of Evolution's Captain entertains itself with lurid imaginings. On FitzRoy's nervous breakdowns at sea: "The captain's cabin on board the Beagle became once again the fraught isolation chamber inside which Pringle Stokes has succumbed to despair." On the Admiralty's attitude to FitzRoy: "They could see he had not surmounted the dark stain in his blood that had driven his uncle to madness and suicide." On FitzRoy attending a famous Oxford debate about Darwin's Origin of the Species, rising to wave the Bible and spout rubbish, and being ignored by the academics: "FitzRoy felt old, passed by ... He felt a dark shift in the world."

There is more of this kind of stuff in the sections dealing with FitzRoy's experiences in Tierra del Fuego. On his first sighting of natives: "His life and unique place in history, and the entire arc of scientific and religious thinking in the nineteenth century, were to turn on the meeting between FitzRoy and these 'savages'." A whaleboat was filched; FitzRoy took chase, and "set off on what would prove to be one of the most eventful pursuits in history". FitzRoy gave English names to the three Fuegians he captured - York Minster, 26; Jemmy Button, 14; and Fuegia Basket, a girl of nine, who he referred to as "a pet on the lower deck". He paraded them around England, then took them back to Tierra del Fuego, and dumped them on a beach. Even before the voyage, Nichols claims that "hulking, brooding" Minster had "fastened his sexual attentions" on the little girl; once left alone, "He probably raped her, repeatedly." Without much to go on, Nichols later casts Basket as a fat prostitute, "hooking on the beach". Button, meanwhile, was implicated in the massacre of missionaries. "Everything to do with Tierra del Fuego had turned sour on FitzRoy."

But he had not learnt his lesson. Determined to do good in the world, he tried to create another New Jerusalem: he came to New Zealand.

Original letters written by FitzRoy, kept at the Turnbull Library, show a lovely, confident inkmanship. Reflecting on New Zealand a year after he was sacked, FitzRoy writes to a friend, "Had Williams [and other missionaries] spoken, even privately, to the natives, in 1839-40 against their consenting to acknowledge British sovereignty, not a foot of ground would have been acquired by our Government except by physical force." He still held the missionary position: a New Zealand shaped by wise Christian counsel, listened to by the silent natives, obedient to God.

FitzRoy had been this way before, with Darwin, in 1835. He was disgusted with the whoring and other assorted debaucheries in Kororareka, and, lip-pursingly, noted that the Wellington beach (presumably Petone) was littered with the broken glass of bottles of grog. But he made contact with the Church Missionary Society, and it was their influence that got him the job as Governor, after Hobson died, worn out, possibly syphillitic, in 1842.

Land was the only game in town. As the country's new supreme commander, but without funds or a decent army, FitzRoy sailed into an "impossible situation", although the typescript of a Nelson Examiner editorial, held at the Turnbull, expressed it somewhat differently. "The arrival of Captain FitzRoy has diffused universal joy throughout this settlement ... Our new Governor possesses the confidence of the entire European population ... In the hands of a man possessing courage and wisdom, the work will be relatively light."

No one expects superb intellectual prowess in a newspaper editorial, but this one reads like the work of a fanatic. Relatively light? As soon as he touched ground, FitzRoy had to deal with the Wairau "massacre", now politely called the Wairau "incident", in which Ngati Toa chiefs Te Rauparaha and his nephew, Te Rangihaeata, incidented 30 Euro-peans. The settlers had been led there by Captain Arthur Wakefield, belligerent in the belief that they could take possession of land bought in a shoddy deal. Ngati Toa burnt a surveyor's hut; the preposterous magistrate Henry Thompson responded with an arrest warrant. Shots were fired - by which party, no one is sure - and battle commenced. Wakefield surrendered. And then slaughter commenced, as Te Rangihaeata persuaded Te Rauparaha to execute the prisoners, including Thompson, "who, typically, tore his hair out in his death agonies", as Philip Temple writes in A Sort of Conscience.

FitzRoy seems to have heard all he wanted to hear by the time he arrived six months later. He was immediately contemptuous of the Acting Governor, William Shortland, who had been in correspondence with Wakefield on his way to Wairau. Shortland resigned, and sent a long, bitching letter to Lord Stanley, the Secretary of Colonial Affairs, and FitzRoy's boss. FitzRoy held Wakefield and Thompson responsible for Wairau, and told Te Rauparaha there would be no retaliation: "The white men were in the wrong."

Nichols, in Evolution's Captain, only devotes five pages to FitzRoy in New Zealand. As always, he is readable and damning: "He made a hash of it." The Gribbins biography has a chapter on those years - titled, absurdly, "Difficulties Down Under" - and, as always, regard their subject with a sympathetic eye. "For all his virtues FitzRoy was not a political genius." No. Their account is balanced, and they recognise fault, but Temple probably sums up FitzRoy's career as Governor better with these remarks on Wairau: "The manner in which he had administered it was intemperate, arbitrary and almost completely lacking in political nous."

There are definite echoes, too, in the way he handled Wairau, with Cook's response to Maori who killed and ate the crew of the Adventure, in Queen Charlotte Sound, in 1773. Cook blamed his crew - the white men were in the wrong - and took no revenge. Anne Salmond, in The Trial of the Cannibal Dog, argues that Maori were astonished that Cook's men did not exact utu, and so treated Cook with disrespect. Same with FitzRoy. Temple goes further, and writes that Te Rauparaha was disgusted by FitzRoy's pompous manner, and weakness: "He had spoken to them as their master and yet was unable to exact utu." Temple also quotes FitzRoy telling a meeting attended by 2000 Auckland chiefs that he hoped they would "eliminate nakedness and 'the strange contortions of face' that were so offensive, and become more like Europeans". It was Tierra del Fuego all over again.

But there is also something magnificent about FitzRoy's good intentions, and his sympathy for Maori (Sinclair: "The main trouble ... was that he was a fanatical humanitarian"), even though he was so patronising in his speech. To the Nelson Examiner, he wrote, "It appears to me that, if the settlers treat the

Aborigines with justice, kindness and charity, they need not fear a serious collision between the races." The Turnbull holds a letter FitzRoy wrote to Taranaki chiefs. "The Pakeha who really have ill will towards you are a very few bad or foolish men. You should not mind them. They are vexed at having been disappointed about the land which they were told by ignorant men belonged to them. They will soon leave you ... No land shall be taken from you against your consent." Bravo, sir.

He honoured his word. William Spain, the land commissioner, ruled that a ridiculous claim by Wakefield in Taranaki had been fair, and awarded the New Zealand Company settlers 60,000 acres; FitzRoy looked into it, saw it as the sham that it was, and overturned the decision ("Spain has most decidedly made a mistake"), awarding only 3500 acres. Politically, it was a superb exercise in how to lose friends. The minutes of a disputatious meeting that FitzRoy held in New Plymouth record the Governor admonishing his audience - "Beware that we rouse feelings of enmity between the races, which will lead to a war of extermination on one on the other" - and that the settlers, dismissed with a curt "good afternoon", "separated with general dissatisfaction with the proceedings". It sounds similar to a meeting in Nelson, when FitzRoy pronounced, "I am come to dictate and not be dictated to." The flavour of response to that kind of blustering is quite well caught by Alfred Domett, in his satirical verse addressed to "the King of the Cannibal Islands, Prince Fitzgig", with lines such as, "We, impressed your dignity, power, possessions/With headlong prostrations your footshod approach/To acknowledge our manifold sins and transgressions."

Nothing went right. Up north, Hone Heke kept raising his blasted axe against the flagpole, and Kororareka was burned to the ground. There were the famous battles against Heke and Kawiti at -Ohaeawai, Puketutu and Ruapekapeka. Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata, meanwhile, moved to Wellington, where they would fight for land in the Hutt Valley. The country was going to rack and financial ruin. Yes, all very relatively light; stranded, FitzRoy fooled around with promissory notes, customs duties and property tax, but his government was bankrupt. Lord Stanley sacked him, and George Grey was named as Governor.

Once again, the Gribbins reach for their irrelevant ifs. FitzRoy was the right man in the right place - at the wrong time. "If FitzRoy had had the money and resources, there would've been no need for George Grey." But it wouldn't have hurt if FitzRoy also had Grey's brilliance and lack of scruples, and if he was of sound mind, and if he really knew what he was doing.

FitzRoy was correct in his dealings with the land-grab in Taranaki, justified in blaming the killings in Wairau on Thompson. He was the depressive and the wretch who wanted a better New Zealand, without bloodshed and with a fair contract for the sale of land. Humanitarian, wishful, committed to public service, he sounds almost modern. You do have to wonder how different things might be now had FitzRoy got away with his attempt to shape New Zealand. In a noble way, he tried to save us from ourselves; but he could not save himself.

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