Nelson & His World

The Loneliness of Command - Robert FitzRoy
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Author:  agamemnon [ Thu Oct 30, 2008 1:44 pm ]
Post subject:  The Loneliness of Command - Robert FitzRoy

The Loneliness of Command

I have recently read the excellent “FitzRoy” by John and Mary Gribbin, about the Captain of the Beagle who was also the inventor of the weather forecast. It was sad to note that he obtained command of this ship following the death of Captain Pringle Stokes, who shot himself in a fit of depression. There is quite a lot of comment about the isolation of a Captain, not only of course his ultimate and sole responsibility for his ship, but socially. Apart from the Surgeon, and not always then, there was seldom anyone with whom the Captain could just relax, interact, discuss his thoughts and possibly concerns. It must have been a very lonely existence. FitzRoy was so anxious about this, after having experienced it a little and in light of his predecessor and other cases, that it was a major reason for him seeking a suitable travelling companion for his long surveying voyage. For Darwin, of course, it was a life changing experience and much of his system for note-taking and observation has been credited to watching the log keeping of FitzRoy. It is particularly tragic that at the age of 60, FitzRoy did in fact commit suicide at home by cutting his throat.

It is interesting to consider the cases of Collingwood, who tended to be rather insular and who relied upon the ever-faithful Bounce for company, and Nelson, who made a point of being in contact with his fellow commanders and officers regularly. It is another facet of his personality that made him able to survive such long periods at sea, when perhaps others might have succumbed to greater fits of depression. Of course we know that Nelson did have his moods, but they do not seem to have lasted long enough to be seriously debilitating.

If you have not read the book about FitzRoy, I recommend it not only for the fascinating details of a life at sea, but also because FitzRoy was a very early Governor of the colony of New Zealand and of course more or less founded the Met Office. It is fitting that a sea area has now been named after him.

Author:  agamemnon [ Thu Oct 30, 2008 9:32 pm ]
Post subject:  Robert FitzRoy

Sorry - slip of the finger - should of course be Robert FitzRoy

Must be my age!!! :wink:

Author:  tycho [ Thu Oct 30, 2008 9:38 pm ]
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All OK, now, Agamemnon!

How comforting that other people make typos. I edit each post about six times before the grammar/spelling/punctuation are all coherent.

We never had this problem when we used quill pens. :lol:

Author:  tycho [ Fri Oct 31, 2008 10:01 am ]
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Many thanks for that recommendation.

I recall several newspaper articles about Fitzroy at the time of the changeover in the shipping forecast from Finisterre to Fitzroy - this was before my Nelsonian enthusiasm was kindled; but I do remember reading that he committed suicide.

I wonder if anyone has made a study of suicide among captains. Certainly, the loneliness of command would be a factor. I wonder, too, about the after effects of battle - or even the consequences of disgrace. Nelson's protegé, Captain Layman, eventually committed suicide but only some years after he was found guilty at his court martial.

If anyone has any information or comments, perhaps we could start a new thread 'Suicides'.

Author:  Devenish [ Fri Oct 31, 2008 12:08 pm ]
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Agamemnon, Tycho,

I have not read the book, but I'm not sure that the 'loneliness of command' would have been that much of a factor in whether a captain would have committed suicide. It may have had some impact, but there are usually other things going on aboard a ship, tensions amongst a ship's officers or company, dislikes, their own personal make-up, etc. which ultimately pushed them over the edge.

The 'loc' factor has always been present in a captain in command of a ship probably from the year dot, it goes with the territory, so it is not entirely unexpected. I can think of Columbus, Drake, and of course Nelson, as just a few examples of men who have come up against this, but they learnt to deal with it. In the RN the captain has traditionally been isolated to some extent as the man in ultimate command. He was and is also, I believe, only on invitation to the wardroom at the sufferance of the other officers. I was on a sail training ship once, commanded by an ex RN Lieut. Commander, who took all his meals solitarily in his cabin. This was not, however, because he was aloof from the ship or her crew, far from it, but because it was what he was used to.

Fitzroy and Darwin didn't get on particularly well during the 'Beagle' voyage, but although Darwin went on to receive general world fame Fitroy had recognition in his own sphere. He was particularly interested in meteorology and was, as has been mentioned, instrumental in helping to set up the Meteorological Office, invented a type of barometer, was an advocate in using the newly introduced electric telegraph as a means of giving storm warnings and instigated a system of weather recording at sea. Besides that he was also later a member of Parliament (often fighting for improvement of life at sea) and Secretary of the Lifeboat Institution, so he had quite a busy life.

We do not know of course what actually made Fitzroy commit suicide, but apparently it was said (presumably at the time) that he did so because of an incorrect forecast!


Author:  tycho [ Fri Oct 31, 2008 2:54 pm ]
Post subject: 

I wonder if any figures were kept in naval records of deaths by suicide. It would be interesting to know whether such deaths were more widespread in the navy than they were ashore.

As you say, so many causes can be adduced - and the closed society of the ship might well have exacerbated the problems of personality and/or circumstance that lead to suicide.

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