Posted by: Rob Viens | February 26, 2012

“Coffee Talk” with Captain FitzRoy

February 26th found the Beagle still on route to South America and Darwin still somewhat bored.  Today’s short entry refers to the heat and to another subtle, but unusual difference about being in the southern hemisphere:

“For the first time in my life I saw the sun at noon to the North: yesterday it was very near over our heads & therefore of course we are a little to the South of it. ” (Feb 26)

According to other resources, it is about this time that Darwin picked up the nickname “Philos” (as he was the ship’s philosopher) – bestowed upon him by Captain FitzRoy.  Sounds like the name stuck and was generally how the crew referred to Darwin from then on (he had no naval rank, so he was in a bit of an unusually position).

The story goes that part of the reason Robert FitzRoy asked Darwin to come on the trip was for companionship.  Fitzroy gained command of the Beagle on its first voyage after the previous captain, Pringle Stokes, became depressed and committed suicide.  Knowing that he was also prone to depression, others encouraged FitzRoy to bring someone along who was his equal (in social terms). Protocol required that the captain not befriend anyone below him on the ship, which on a military ship was everyone.  Fitzroy wanted someone on board he could dine with and talk to as an equal – someone to keep him company on a long trip.  Darwin fit that bill. (Though Darwin was not his first choice – a story for another day…)

Captain Robert FitzRoy as a young man in 1835 (Wellcome Library, London):
Robert FitzRoy

It’s worth noting that Robert Fitzroy was born a mere 4 years before Charles Darwin.  That made him 26 years old when the Beagle set sail in 1831. They were still both young men, making a name for themselves – one in the world of surveying (and later meteorology) and the other in geology and biology.  It would have been interesting to hear what they discussed over dinner. As I noted in an earlier post, I think Darwin learned a lot from FitzRoy, but I suspect that it was a two way street. It is amazing how similar their person diaries are during the three weeks they spent in the Cape Verde Islands.  They must have talked a lot and got each other before writing their daily entries.

Darwin had a lot of respect for FitzRoy and a lot of good things to say about him.  But he also notes that the captain had a bit of a temper. In his autobiography Darwin writes:

“Fitz-Roy’s temper was a most unfortunate one. This was shown not only by passion but by fits of long-continued moroseness against those who had offended him. His temper was usually worst in the early morning, and with his eagle eye he could generally detect something amiss about the ship, and was then unsparing in his blame. The junior officers when they relieved each other in the forenoon used to ask “whether much hot coffee had been served out this morning,—” which meant how was the Captain’s temper? ” (Autobiography of Charles Darwin)

According the Darwin biographer Janet Browne, junior officers would sometimes follow the later question by asking “how much sugar went in?”.  It seems Darwin was in the unique position of being able to be fiends with the captain and with the officers.

Darwin was fitting in – obtaining a nickname, making friends, and being privy to inside jokes. That alone should make the next 4 1/2 years a little more pleasant for Charlie. (RJV)


  1. […] like the hot coffee was flowing that morning! (See “Coffee Talk” with Captain FitzRoy). (Ironically, the coffee plantations were one of the places many of the slaves ended […]

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