I live about forty blocks from a street named FitzRoy. A lot of streets, places and geographical elements in Argentina are named after old Robert, as well as his boat (called the Beagle) and passenger (some guy named Darwin). It’s not particularly surprising, considering that all three made their names in large part because of the time they spent exploring the waters around Argentina and Chile.
Most people will assume that Charles Darwin was the most interesting character on those particular voyages, and perhaps they are correct–he’s certainly the one whose effect on popular culture (not to mention religious controversy) has been most pronounced…
And yet, the critically acclaimed novel This Thing of Darkness, by the late Harry Thompson, makes a compelling case for the naval officer Robert FitzRoy as the most interesting man aboard. Certainly, he comes off as a man whose honor could never be besmirched, and a modern man in some regards.
Of course, in other ways, he is also portrayed as a man of his times (the first half of the 19th century), especially in certain inflexibility and in his religious outlook. Nevertheless, his character in this book makes one question the silly postmodern conviction that being an officer and a gentleman is somehow a bad thing. If there’s one thing the modern world could use more of it’s people like Robert FitzRoy.
Apart from casting FitzRoy in the role of the Hero–deservedly so–the book is notable for making a six-year-long voyage of hardship and unspeakable tedium read like an action/adventure romp. While Thompson probably took large liberties with the characters of the men involved (and delved into their minds with unbridled imagination), he also created a page-turning novelization.
Does he commit the crime of superposing his modern views on some of the characters and events? Sadly, yes (judging the actions of the past by the standards of today is, of course, imbecilic) but he does TRY to avoid it, even if he’s not completely successful. As a result of this effort, we gain a picture of this time as a moment in history in which scientific observation was in a life-and-death struggle with the philosophical status quo that had guided man through the enlightenment… and that means that Thompson succeeds where so many other modern writers failed.
This is a good book. It will make you yearn for the age of exploration and seethe at the injustice of the colonial system, but most of all, it will keep you reading. Also, it will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t remember about Darwin’s voyage.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine novelist and short story writer who also explores historical times. His novel The Malakiad is a romp set in ancient Greece which… well, let’s just say it isn’t exactly based on facts. You can check it out here.