July 4, 1831 (a Monday)

HMS Beagle

On this date, the HMS Beagle, which would later make history as the ship that carried Charles Darwin around the world, was commissioned under the command of Captain Robert FitzRoy, with Lieutenants John Clements Wickham and Bartholomew James Sulivan.

FitzRoy was all too aware of the stress and loneliness of command on the high seas in that era. During the Beagle’s previous voyage, its captain, Pringle Stokes, became depressed and shot himself. FitzRoy feared he might be similarly predisposed, since his own uncle Viscount Castlereagh had committed suicide under stress of overwork. So he made inquiries to find a gentleman companion who shared his scientific interests and could dine with him as an equal (unlike his subordinates, lest it weaken his command), thereby enabling him to maintain a degree of normal life free from the pressures of the expedition.

Having captured four Fuegian savages on the previous Beagle voyage, FitzRoy had thought it only right to take them back to England to civilize them. His plan was to return them eventually to their homeland, where he hoped some of their newly acquired manners would rub off on the locals. FitzRoy soon regretted his ill-conceived plan, which brought criticism from his superiors, but he saw it as a matter of honor to return the three surviving Fuegians as promised (the fourth Fuegian had died in England). Returning the Fuegians was the main reason for FitzRoy’s seeking command of Beagle on her second voyage. His sense of honor and uncompromising morals were driving forces throughout FitzRoy’s life.

Ironically, FitzRoy committed suicide on April 30, 1865.

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