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Home/Stories and articles/Recovery
February 2006  

Bicentennial of Robert Fitz-Roy
A tribute to a unique sailor

New conmemorative plaques in Puerto Williams, Cabo de Hornos and the Wulaia pier will remember from now on the explorations, registries and extraordinary experiences of this unique sailor, whose hydrographic studies have been vital for the better understanding of our Southern coasts.

Fitz-Roy (1805-1865) made a remarkable contribution to our country with his decission to bring here naturalist Charles Darwin, and this has been just one of the initiative highlighted during the celebrations of the 200 years of this British sailor's death.

New commemorative plaques were presented during official ceremonies organized by the Chilean Society of History and Geography, and the Historical Commemoration Institute, with the sponsoring of several entities close to the Navy's heritage, as well as the maritime transport company Terra Australis. The plaques were received by DIBAM's director Clara Budnik, and the Navy's Commander in Chief, Rodolfo Codina.

During the ceremony at Cabo de Hornos, the president of the Chilean Society of History and Geography, Sergio Martínez, spoke about the contributions that FitzRoy made to our country both in the scientific and the naval fields. Among them, he highlighted the "remarkable hydrographic constructions at the Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Cabo de Hornos archipelago. Those are valuable medals for our nation's both physical and spiritual patrimony".

British mission
The independence of Southamerican colonnies, during 19th century's first decades, opened bigger horizons for Europe's commercial trade with new nations. This was an opportunity that England wanted to take advantage of, thanks to its large shipping and mercantile capacity. In the search for safer routes for coastal navegation, from the South border of Rio de la Plata (Argentina) all the way to Chiloe (Chile), a first expedition was sent in 1826, led by captain Philip Parker King. The group was ordered to make hydrographic and geographic maps of these coasts. The young and noble sailor Robert Fitz-Roy was also part of this mission, all upboard the Beagle ship. The man was later named its commander, in 1828.

In 1830 they reached the edge of Cabo de Hornos where, as it was his way, Fitz-Roy left a small testimony of his presence. This was a stone monolith and a ceramic vase full of regular daily use things, which were found by Chilean Navy's officers in 1989.

Exiled yaganes
It was in 1830 when Fitz-Roy's biography went through one of its most hard-to-believe passages. The british sailor was then working on hidrographic constructions at the Ladrones harbour and the Ballenero channel, when a group of yaganes stole one of the Beagle boats. As a punishment, the commander took one girl and three boys as hostages, and baptized them with English names. He later decided to send them to a town near London where they had to study English and British culture. One of the boys soon died because of smallpox, but the other three stayed there and were maintained by Fitz-Roy himself, taking care of their expenses and education. The boys were sent back to Tierra del Fuego two years later, after meeting with king William IV. Fitz-Roy went to visit them again in 1834, and saw that they had completely immersed themselves again in their original culture.

Sailing to the Evolution theory
In 1831, Fitz-Roy made another trip to America, this time in charge of the whole Beagle. For this journey he took care of improving the ship's equipment and tools, and specially hired a surgeon, an experienced sketcher and naturalist Charles Darwin, who was supposed to investigate Chile's nature and geography. Darwin's discoveries were crucial for his writing of what we now know as the Species Evolution theory, which caused a big revolution in the scientific world of that time.

This expedition travelled for more than three years through the Chilean coasts and continued its explorations in the Pacific's islands for two more years, not going back to England until 1836.

The following year, Fitz-Roy was given in London the Royal Geographical Society gold medal. He later got involved in Parliament activities, and was named gobernor to New Zealand in 1843. He decided to quit that position when he realized that the claims that the Maori indians were making were totally justified.

He left his active life in 1850, and was then chosen as a member of the British Royal Society. Three years later he was designated as head of the British Meteorological Department, and became a true pioneer in weather forecasts, through a special column he had in a newspaper. In 1863, he was promoted to the position of vice-admiral. Unfortunately, and during a very deep depression, he commited suicide in April 30, 1865.

Invaluable document
The discoveries of the two long expeditions Fitz-Roy made during that decade were published in 1839 under the title "Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's ships Adventure and Beagle, between the years 1826 and 1836". The whole work was more than 1,800 pages long, which were divided in three diferent volumes. It is still considered to be an invaluable document about Chile's Southern islands and their first inhabitants, now extinct.

The first volume talks about the first expedition, commanded by captain Philip Parker King between the years 1826 and 1830; and includes sixteen prints and three maps. The second one tells about the exploration that went around the world from 1831 till 1836, and which was in charge of Fitz-Roy and the Beagle ship. This volume contains 25 prints and two maps. The third volume includes two maps and was originally titled "Journal and remarks", but was later re-issued as "Journey of a naturalist around the world".

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