by Peter Nichols Profile Books, hb, pp336, 16.99 [pounds sterling]
Anyone who's read Peter Nichols' earlier books will know that he is a writer of fierce, even overpowering, emotional intensity--last year's Sea Change may seem to be about a sinking boat in the Atlantic, but it's really about a man desperately trying to get to grips with his emotions as he looks back over his lamentable and masochistic marriage to an emotionally unavailable manic depressive. He's a writer who can and does dig around in what Wordsworth called "thoughts that lie too deep for tears."
Similarly, Nichols' latest book appears to be a straightforward piece of historical biography about one Robert FitzRoy, captain of HMS Beagle, the ship that was to propel Charles Darwin to fame, fortune and scientific acclaim. But there's a lot more to FitzRoy than skippering the Beagle, and there's more to Nichols' handling of the story than simply unravelling a convoluted and unlikely narrative.
History remembers FitzRoy as a highly successful sea captain who went on to become governor of New Zealand and the weather 'prophesier' who founded the Met Office. But what history is quiet about is his time as a social experimenter, capturing 'savages' in Tierra del Fuego and bringing them back to England to be raised as 'Christian gentlefolk'. The idea was to turn them into educated, God-fearing, English-speaking robots and then send them home to act as missionaries among their own people.
The experiment fails when the Fuegians start having sex with each other (the girl 'Fuega Basket' was 14 years the junior of the man 'York Minster' who was only 24 himself). Morally devastated, and critically aware that he would lose both his reputation and his job if this ever went public, FitzRoy hotfoots it back to sea to return his charges ASAP. On board HMS Beagle is a young supernumerary by the name or Charles Darwin. In the end, FitzRoy, almost mad with horror at the heresy of his former friend's publication On the Origin of Species (among a few other devils), cuts his own throat with a razor.
Nichols clearly relishes this 'stranger than fiction' tale and can't suppress his natural gusto as he steers you through the madness, the human traffic, the fornicating savages, the suicides, the tormented souls ... Nichols has a gift for getting inside people's heads and this is a terrific book--you can bet that academic critics will give it a raspberry (no footnotes, no index, etc), but sometimes you just want an uninterrupted good old fashioned tale told by one of the best sea writers since Patrick O'Brian.
* Geographical has five copies of Evolution's Captain to give away. To claim one, send your name and address on a postcard marked 'FitzRoy' to the address on page six by 1 October 2003