Great book. I could stop there, that's a good review...but not very informative (not that anyone's waiting on MY review to decide for or against reading this.)
I've seen this book published in three volumes (in paperback); this review is of the single, nearly 800-page MacAdam/Cage hardcover edition pictured below, in which I noticed only a single editorial mistake (a single word with transposed letters).
To people in contemporary times, the (original) HMS Beagle conjures up mostly images of 'Darwin the Naturalist', but in terms of her primary missions (surveying the southernmost regions of the South American coastline in the 1830s), Darwin was an afterthought, included at the will of her Captain, Robert Fitzroy. Royal Naval etiquette dictated commanding officers maintain a degree of detachment from their subordinates, and Fitzroy needed an intellectual equal and companion on what he knew from previous experience would be a long and arduous journey. Darwin was suggested, and accepted, and history was made. It's fitting that Fitzroy enjoys the position of predominance in this book (about a 2/3 share, I'd say). Darwin's achievements were sensational in their time, but for my money, Fitzroy is definitely the more compelling of the two men. The book begins with the Beagle prior to Fitzroy assuming command, continues through its original surveying mission under his leadership (his first command), through the much longer subsequent mission with Darwin, and then follows the two men's increasingly divergent paths through Fitzroy's death in 1865.
The author took pains to recreate events in as historically accurate a manner as possible, using fictional dialog to detail the relationship between the subjects and illuminate events. From both the narrative itself- depicting seamanship, politics, sociology, personal relationships, scientific endeavors and philosophical debates, among other things- and the ridiculously extensive bibliography, it's clear the author knew the subject matter cold.
Written in basically plain, unremarkable language, it's probably safe to say that Thompson wasn't trying to dazzle the reader with vocabulary or create something "artful". It was a good choice, as the subject matter didn't need embellishment to hold the reader's interest. I doubt there will be another examination of both Fitzroy and Darwin that does more justice to either of them individually.
Fitzroy and Darwin were both remarkable characters. They and the remainder of the Beagle's crews boast a list of accomplishments that's frankly overwhelming. This book could have been twice as long exploring all of them, but the author wisely focused his efforts on those of the two central figures: their convergence, relationship, and ultimate divergence, parallel stories examining devotion to duty, the advancement of science, and competing philosophies in a world on the brink of (often much needed!) change, by two very different men.
You won't read this book in one sitting, and that's a good thing.
I couldn't resist including some pictures I dug up; click on any of them to view them original size (most of the originals are larger).
Cover of the edition I read:
The same Raymond Massey painting, probably truer to the real painting's colors:
Cutaway of the Beagle. Amazing what men accomplished on vessels this small:
Fitzroy, drawn as a young man:
Darwin, painted as a young man:
The Beagle crew, carrying out a 'crossing the equator' ritual:
HMS Beagle, painted in the Galapagos Islands:
HMS Beagle, painted in Sydney Harbour:
Fitzroy older, photographed:
Darwin older, photographed:
More info & reviews at amazon.com
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