This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

I really can’t say enough good things about this book.

It’s a fictionalised account of the life of Robert Fitzroy, the man who captained The Beagle while Darwin was a passenger. Darwin does appear in a large portion of the book, and there’s a lot about their friendship, but it does cover some of his career before that and up to the end of his life. Not the kind of thing I would usually pick up at all, but a friend from work was reading it and was so enthusiastic I thought it was worth giving it a go, and it’s one of the best books I’ve ever read.

It’s a big book at around 750 pages, and took me almost two weeks to read (though I did read a couple of other books alongside it) – it never takes me more than a few days to read a book so that’s a long time for me – but I loved every minute of it and felt a bit bereft when it was finished.

I know shamefully little about that period in our history but there’s a reassuring bibliography and it appears to be very well researched. There’s an author’s postscript which is just as interesting as the rest of the book outlining what was real, what wasn’t and what happened to the people and places since.

It was fascinating to see the thought processes of both Darwin and Fitzroy (albeit fictionalised versions) as one developed his theory of evolution, and the other made significant, if ignored, advances in things like weather forecasting which. It’s a great inside into the culture and attitudes of Britain at the time and often made me quite angry at how we used to be – the attitude that all land was there to be taken, that the ‘savages’ were less intelligent, less than human and there to be used, that they could be ‘improved’ by teaching them English and saved by converting them to Christianity. Slavery has just been abolished but the culture is a long way from changing. The Old Testament is taken to be the literal truth of how the world was created.

There’s a lot of technical detail about the voyage, but not so much that it’s off putting. The language used by the author seems to be very faithful to the language of the time, but never becomes too heavy or overwhelming.

I’m recommending this to anyone who’ll sit still for long enough to listen at the moment, and if my To Read pile wasn’t so huge I’d already be reading it again.


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