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Evolution's Captain: The Story of the Kidnapping That Led to Charles Darwin's Voyage Aboard the Beagle Paperback – June 29, 2004

4.3 out of 5 stars 22 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Readers familiar with how Darwin developed his theory of evolution will recognize the HMS Beagle as the ship that took him on his research expedition, but that's probably the extent of their knowledge of the vessel. Nichols (A Voyage for Madmen, etc.) fills in the gaps with this biography of Robert FitzRoy, the Beagle's second captain. In 1828, FitzRoy took command after the first captain went mad and killed himself. Picking up where his predecessor left off charting the waters off South America, FitzRoy captured several natives and brought them back to England so they could be taught the ways of Western civilization. Complications required their immediate return, and it was FitzRoy's request for a traveling companion of equal social status on this hastily planned journey that resulted in Darwin's coming aboard. Nichols, who has taught creative writing at Georgetown and NYU, picks his narrative details well, fleshing out FitzRoy's personality and his shifting relationship with Darwin (though initially friendly, the captain came to violently reject his traveling companion's scientific conclusions). The bulk of the story is devoted to FitzRoy's two missions for the Royal Navy, both of which made him a well-known figure in England. The final chapters trace his eventual downfall, though emphasizing the "dark fate" in the subtitle is rather misleading. Though the author's enthusiasm for his subject can lead to hyperbole, it'll prove hard not to share his fascination with how FitzRoy's naval career inadvertently set off a scientific controversy still flaring to this day. 8 illus.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

HMS Beagle set off in 1831 under the command of a promising young aristocrat, Robert Fitzroy. The expedition to map parts of the South American coast would last years, and Fitzroy eagerly desired an educated companion to help stave off the boredom and isolation that drove Fitzroy's previous captain to suicide in Tierra del Fuego. The companion chosen was an aimless student named Charles Darwin. Of course, Fitzroy's work and career were ultimately eclipsed by those of Darwin, who, at the time, represented little more than an afterthought. Nichols details Fitzroy's previous voyage to South America and presents a complicated web of cause and effect that led to the Beagle's next expedition and Darwin's participation in it, yet the book is supposed to be more a biography of the captain forgotten by history. It goes on to describe his post-Beagle career and his opposition to Darwin's developing ideas. Fitzroy's story is interesting reading, but even Nichols seems inclined to pay more attention to Darwin. Regardless, this historical account is definitely worth reading. Gavin Quinn
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Harper Perennial; Reprint edition (June 29, 2004)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0060088788
  • ISBN-13: 978-0060088781
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (22 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #397,745 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By Bruce Loveitt on October 7, 2003
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Poor Robert Fitzroy has been relegated to the footnotes section of history....oh yes, wasn't he the captain of "The Beagle"? Yes he was, but he was much more. He was also a member of Parliament, a governor of New Zealand, and he founded the British government's Meteorological Office. The downside of Peter Nichols' book is he gives rather short shrift to these generally unknown aspects of Fitzroy's career. But, when Mr. Nichols is on his home turf (the ocean, if that isn't a non sequitur!), he sparkles. He is clearly most happy when discussing Fitzroy the "boy wonder" captain and surveyor. (Fitzroy was in his mid-twenties when he squired young Mr. Darwin around the world.) We can feel the ocean spray and smell the salt air. Not only that, but we really feel that we get to know Fitzroy. He was an excellent and brave captain. He cared about his men. He was also intelligent and charming. On the less pleasant side, he had a very thin skin, a bad temper, and was subject to bouts of depression. During five long years at sea Darwin got to see every facet of Fitzroy. Mr. Nichols is also fascinating when he writes about the four Fuegians that Fitzroy brought back to England...hoping to "civilize" them and bring them back to further spread British culture along the southern tip of South America. The second voyage of "The Beagle" with Fitzroy as captain was the voyage where Fitzroy brought the natives back home, and it was also the voyage with Darwin on board as naturalist. Fitzroy was a strong believer in phrenology, and initially had doubts about Darwin because of Darwin's "hooded brow and large, spatulate nose." Fortunately for science, Fitzroy was won over by Darwin's intelligence and genial personality.Read more ›
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Format: Hardcover
Charting a path through the Americas, Captain Robert FitzRoy crosses paths with a young Charles Darwin, an event that affects the direction of scientific study. In 1829, Capt. FitzRoy, of the HMS Beagle, sails with Capt. Phillip Parker, of the HMS Adventure, on a survey that will enable Great Britain's complete dominance of world trade. FitzRoy has his first sighting of natives in Tierra del Fuego; he finds their primitive appearance repulsive. On their return home, FitzRoy carries four natives back to England, his specimens. It is his intention to "save" the savages, baptize them as Christians and expose them to the advantages a civilization defined by its Godliness.
By 1831, the savages are the source of constant embarrassment and it is necessary to return them to Tierra de Fuego. Finagling a commission, ostensibly to finish the survey of the Americas, FitzRoy releases the natives to their homeland. This new commission involves an extended voyage navigating the globe and FitzRoy is concerned about the years of isolation, not one to mix with those of lesser rank. The prospect of such solitude is daunting to the young captain, haunted by the history of insanity in his family.
Charles Darwin is a naturalist, the perfect choice as FitzRoy's companion. Both possess astute minds and spend hours discoursing on scientific principles. While FitzRoy surveys the rugged coastline of Tierra del Fuego, Darwin roams the countryside, gathering specimens. The trip almost flounders when the overstressed FitzRoy loses his focus, but he rallies, able to continue. By the time they reach the Falklands, Darwin is writing voluminous notes on the aberrations observed on various islands, particularly the Galapagos Islands.
Returning home, the two scientists prepare for publication.
Read more ›
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
When I was a kid I lived in the city of Punta Arenas (Chile), in a neighbourhood known as Fitzroy. I didn't know much about this name until I read "The voyage of the Beagle" by Darwin a few years ago, and truth is the book really made an impression on me. But I was eager also to know more about captain Robert Fitzroy and especially the years he spent in the southest part of my country, surveying all the islands and having contact with the natives of this zone, either Yaghan, Ona or Alacalufe.

The life of Robert Fitzroy is so interesting and fascinating. In his first voyage he took three natives back to England and they spent two years there until the second voyage, where these natives were brought back to their "countries" and also was the moment for Darwin to accompany Fitzroy as a naturalist. The story of these yaghans, the descriptions of its life and customs, the time spent in England and how they were put back with his people make this story worthy of admiration, worthy for a PBS/BBC documentary. One of these indians lived in Navarino Island, a place my mother lived in the 1960s, in the little Chilean city of Puerto Williams -- another reason for reading this book. I can only recommend all the readers to travel to the south of Chile, you can go to Punta Arenas and from there to know the Magellan Strait, cross to Tierra del Fuego and even go to Navarine island and to know the Beagle Channel ... those are just captivating and precious landscapes., you won't be regretted.

In my opinion, Fitzroy should be known more in my country, he is part of it, and this book or another biography is for sure a pleasant reading. This book is precious, commendable for lovers of exploration and the reading is fluid. I wish I could take a course in "creative writing" with this author.
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