Robert FitzRoy was born at Ampton Hall, Suffolk, England, on 5 July 1805. Through both parents he was connected with the upper echelons of the aristocracy. His father, Lord Charles FitzRoy, was a son of Augustus Henry, the third duke of Grafton, a great-grandchild of Charles II and Barbara Villiers. His mother, Lady Frances Anne Stewart, was the eldest daughter of the first Marquis of Londonderry, and the half-sister of the second marquis, known earlier as Viscount Castlereagh. His half-brother, Sir Charles Augustus FitzRoy, was governor of New South Wales from 1846 to 1855. Such connections, however accompanied by privilege and exalted rank, brought traditions of service and achievement, and as the third son of a second son, FitzRoy had his way to make.
From the age of four, FitzRoy lived at Wakefield Lodge, the Palladian-style mansion of the Grafton family in Northamptonshire. In February 1818, when he was almost 13, he entered the Royal Naval College, Portsmouth. He entered the Royal Navy in 1819, moved through the ranks of college volunteer and midshipman and was promoted lieutenant on 7 September 1824. At the naval college he had completed a 20 month course, which included mathematics, Classics, history, geography, English, French, drawing, navigation, fencing and dancing, with great distinction. On leaving the naval college, he had been awarded first medal, and in 1824 passed his examination for promotion to lieutenant with 'full numbers', a result that had not been achieved before.
From his first ship, the Thetis, FitzRoy was appointed in August 1828 to the Ganges as flag lieutenant to Rear Admiral Sir Robert Otway, commander in chief of the South American station. Three months later FitzRoy was given his first command, the Beagle, which was carrying out the survey of the coasts of Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego and the Straits of Magellan. After returning to London in 1830, the Beagle was assigned to continue this survey and left England in December 1831, carrying the young Charles Darwin. On this second voyage FitzRoy visited the Bay of Islands in New Zealand in the last days of 1835. He reported favourably on the work of the Church Missionary Society and suggested the regular presence of a naval vessel. The voyages of the Beagle established FitzRoy as an excellent navigator, a sound surveyor and a man of science. He was the first to record much of the language of the Fuegians and was partly responsible for the establishment of the first, unsuccessful, Fuegian mission. He had formed and expressed views on the government of native peoples.
The Beagle returned to England in October 1836. In 1839 the three volume Narrative of the surveying voyages of His Majesty's ships Adventure and Beagle between the years 1826 and 1836 was published, FitzRoy being largely responsible as editor and author for the first two volumes, Darwin for the third. In 1837 FitzRoy was awarded a gold medal, known as the Premium medal, by the Royal Geographical Society.
Probably on 8 December 1836 Robert FitzRoy married Mary Henrietta O'Brien, daughter of Major General Edward James O'Brien; they had three daughters and one son. On 22 April 1854 in London, after the death of his first wife, Robert FitzRoy married Maria Isabella Smyth, daughter of a FitzRoy cousin who had married J. H. Smyth, a Yorkshire landowner; they had one daughter.
FitzRoy began a brief parliamentary career in 1841, as the Tory member for Durham. But on 7 April 1843 he was appointed governor of New Zealand, to succeed William Hobson, who had died the previous September. Dandeson Coates, of the Church Missionary Society, had been commending FitzRoy to the Colonial Office since FitzRoy had given evidence on the condition of New Zealand to the 1838 House of Lords select committee. Strangely, in view of their later attitude, the directors of the New Zealand Company also welcomed the appointment of such an outstanding man to the post.
After sailing in the Bangalore to Sydney and thence to Auckland, FitzRoy, his wife and three young children, and his father-in-law, arrived in Auckland on 23 December 1843. New Zealand was bankrupt, had experienced its first inter-racial conflict, on the Wairau Plains, and was on the verge of more serious conflict in the Bay of Islands. The New Zealand Company settlers, who formed the bulk of the European population, possessed organised leadership, the most influential newspapers, powerful friends in the political arena in London and a determination to acquire land. The government in England was not prepared to provide funds, troops or a warship, or to give the governor any liberty of action. All that FitzRoy was given was his commission, all that he had was his integrity, training, ability to work, and determination to succeed to the satisfaction of both races.
The settlers about Cook Strait had been waiting for the new governor to avenge the deaths of 22 Europeans at the Wairau, where Nelson settlers had attempted to enforce a land sale, against the opposition of both Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata. FitzRoy decided his course of action on the twin precepts of justice and expediency: there was no evidence that the land had been sold; it would be impossible to protect out-settlers against hostile Māori. His decision on the Wairau, although winning the approbation of the Colonial Office, earned FitzRoy the permanent hostility of the New Zealand Company, officials and settlers alike. The earlier impression that he was singularly fitted for office would never have been challenged, wrote the Nelson Examiner, had he not unfortunately been called to fill it. FitzRoy confirmed settler antagonism by treating land claims as if there were Māori legal rights, and Crown grants for land in Wellington and Nelson, on a much lesser scale than demanded by the company, were issued only on the payment of more money. FitzRoy's actions, judicious and firm, sparked off attempts by the New Zealand Company officials to have him replaced. Settlers could not perceive that FitzRoy was acting in their best long-term interests.
Lack of money became an insuperable problem. Not only was there no cash to meet the day-to-day costs of administration, but there was no money for the purchase of Māori land. For settlers, with little fresh land for selection, the price of available land remained high. And with no sales there was no revenue. At the domestic level, with no specie, barter was becoming commonplace. The single bank in New Zealand would advance very little, and that at 12 to 15 per cent interest. Depression in New South Wales had spilled over and there was a large drop in revenue from trade and customs levies. Hobson and Willoughby Shortland had financed land sales by issuing promissory notes, the redemption of which became an added burden for FitzRoy. He set out the fiscal problems quite clearly in dispatches, and although they did not provoke actual disapprobation, they elicited no succour. FitzRoy, following the example of other hard-pressed colonial administrators, issued debentures in April 1844. Altogether, by November 1845, he had issued debentures with a total face value of £37,000, a paltry enough sum when backed by the future prosperity of the colony or when compared with the resources given to his successor, George Grey.
To remedy his economic plight and to placate hostile Māori opinion, FitzRoy, on 26 March 1844, waived his government's pre-emption right over Māori land, provided a tax of 10s. an acre was paid on lands so bought. On 10 October 1844, after representations that government was making more money from the sale of lands than the Māori owners, he reduced the tax to 1d. an acre. Customs duties, first increased to raise revenue, were lifted from Kororāreka (Russell) in September 1844 and from the colony as a whole in October. In August 1844 FitzRoy quashed the award of the land commissioner, William Spain, to the New Zealand Company of 60,000 acres of Taranaki land, reassuring the Māori chiefs but stiffening the enmity of the company.
FitzRoy was then called on to deal with New Zealand's first racial war, sparked off by the Bay of Islands chief Hōne Heke. Its causes were not of FitzRoy's making, arising rather from economic failure and the diminished importance of the Far North after the removal of the government to Auckland. The first overt act of significance was the cutting down of the flagstaff on Maiki Hill above Kororāreka on 8 July 1844. The war that followed was between Heke and his followers and the government, and between Heke and other Ngāpuhi, of whom Wāka Nene and Patuone were the most important. The military engagements spread over 18 months and were concluded by FitzRoy's successor, Grey, on 23 January 1846. FitzRoy, with insufficient funds to pay a militia, and whose first call for troops from New South Wales was regarded as totally unjustifiable by the Colonial Office, maintained the credibility of his government (outside New Zealand Company settlements). No leader of importance, except Kawiti in the north and Te Rauparaha and Te Rangihaeata in the Wellington area, acted against him. It was a major achievement, of which his successor was to reap the reward.
Before peace was concluded in the north, hostilities had broken out at Wellington. FitzRoy had upheld Commissioner Spain's revision of the New Zealand Company claim there and his stipulation that pā sites and actual cultivations were excluded. The clash at the Wairau had exacerbated the situation. FitzRoy was determined that the settlers would not be permitted to use any of his limited military force to dispossess Māori claimants. After Heke had erupted in the north, FitzRoy came to a carefully considered decision that the north would have priority. He left the Wellington troubles to his subordinates – in the event, to his successor. For FitzRoy was relieved of his commission as governor by a dispatch dated 30 April and received on 1 October 1845: the announcement had been made in the Commons on 5 May 1845, and FitzRoy had unofficially heard in September.
The reasons given for FitzRoy's recall were that he had issued debentures against instructions, had not raised a militia, and had failed to keep the Colonial Office sufficiently informed. To a government with a scant political majority it must indeed have been embarrassing to have been confronted in the House with information – supplied by the New Zealand Company through Charles Buller – about which they knew nothing. Yet FitzRoy's dispatches were received with so little comprehension of the fix he was in that his reluctance to be explicit and so incur further official opprobrium is understandable.
The decision that FitzRoy's successor, before his identity was certain, was to be given twice the salary of FitzRoy and more than double the parliamentary grant, suggests that it was realised that more was at issue than FitzRoy's supposed incapacity. It is abundantly clear that the Colonial Office had changed its requirements: FitzRoy had been instructed to pursue a policy that ignored the degree of settlement that was taking place and gave lip service to 'moral suasion'. This had been, in effect, a refusal to incur expense or upset military dispositions based on requirements for India. His successor was instructed to put the interests of the settlers above all else, and imperial military arrangements were altered to give New Zealand an adequate establishment.
Robert and Mary FitzRoy, their family grown to four, and Major General O'Brien, left New Zealand in January 1846, having handed over to George Grey on 18 November the previous year. Before leaving, FitzRoy had co-operated generously with Grey and had given him much useful information.
In England there were no honours for FitzRoy. He was, it is true, treated with personal courtesy, and for a year or two Grey's dispatches were referred to him for comment. He was not himself able to concede failure. In a pamphlet remarkable for its judicious tone and absence of rancour he defended his administration and pointed out misapprehensions, if not serious practical errors, in the conduct from London of New Zealand affairs. The consequence, wrote FitzRoy presciently, was that the British government was faced with a problem the solution of which would require more time, more trouble, more men and more money than most people were willing to believe. His views were largely supported by thoughtful contemporaries such as Bishop G. A. Selwyn and Chief Justice William Martin. It is now generally agreed that FitzRoy could not have succeeded within the terms and conditions of his appointment. Proof of this is to be found in the changed instructions and conditions of his successor.
In September 1848 FitzRoy was appointed acting superintendent of the Woolwich dockyard, and in March 1849 was given his final sea command, the screw frigate Arrogant, which he had himself fitted out for sea trials. After retiring from active service in 1850, FitzRoy was briefly, in 1853, private secretary to his uncle by marriage, Lord Hardinge, commander in chief of the army. Probably the event that gave FitzRoy the greatest personal satisfaction was his election as a fellow of the Royal Society in 1851, supported by 13 fellows, including Charles Darwin. By seniority he was promoted rear admiral in 1857, and vice admiral in 1863.
In 1854 FitzRoy had been given the task of meteorological statist within the Board of Trade, in fact heading Britain's first weather office. FitzRoy virtually invented the term 'forecasting' and did much to initiate the wide-ranging processes of a weather bureau, to the great benefit of those on land and sea alike. He invented a cheap and serviceable barometer, named after him. He was undoubtedly overtaxed physically and mentally (his staff numbered but three), and during severe mental depression took his own life on 30 April 1865 at Lyndhurst House, Upper Norwood, Surrey, England.
On his death it was necessary, according to Darwin, for his friends to pay off his debts, many of which had been incurred in service to his country. His widow was given the use of a grace-and-favour residence by Queen Victoria. His achievements were considerable. His command of the Beagle and the excellence of the survey from the Equator to Cape Horn and up the eastern side of South America alone would have assured him a place in history, as would his pioneering work in meteorology. In New Zealand his determination that the Māori should be treated with fairness and justice, while European settlers should discover their new life in peace and harmony, constituted a major contribution to the life of the new colony. That he had less ostensible success as governor was the result of Colonial Office policy rather than of his own shortcomings.