On a square-rigger voyage across the Atlantic with heirs of the protagonists from the legendary HMS Beagle—Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy and naturalist Charles Darwin—the real and the surreal are barely distinguishable. From our September 2012 issue.
My plane touched down in Santiago, in Cape Verde, in the middle of the night. Hours earlier, I’d taken flight from frantic Charles de Gaulle Airport in Paris and now emerged into a humid, pulsing, Conradian darkness. A taxi drove me to the extremity of a decrepit industrial container port where I found, as if transported by time machine, the eye-popping, three-masted square-rigger Stad Amsterdam moored at the end of a concrete quay.
A young Dutch crewman met me at the gangplank and showed me below to my cabin. A man was sleeping in the bunk opposite mine, but the light was on, and he woke up immediately. I thought I recognized him but couldn’t quite place him.
“Oh, hi there. Michael FitzRoy,” he said, sitting up and sticking out his hand. “I loved your book about the old boy,” he continued, referring to Evolution’s Captain, my story about the skipper of HMS Beagle, a fanatical Christian called Royal Navy Lieutenant Robert FitzRoy, and his complicated friendship with Charles Darwin, Beagle’s probing young naturalist.
I shook his hand. “So you’re his . . .”
Five months earlier, I’d received an email from Henk Bas, a producer for the Dutch equivalent of PBS. To commemorate the 200th year since Darwin’s birth and the 150th anniversary of his publication of On the Origin of Species, the network was preparing a 41-part television documentary series on Darwin’s Beagle voyage.