This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson

On a blasted shore at the ends of the earth, ship’s captain Pringle Stokes blows his brains out as a final act of desperation.

An icy wind shouldered its way into the Straits of Magellan from the West, pummeling the cliff walls and scouring the rocks as it passed … Darting and jinking as it hunted for a target, it picked out the solitary figure of Captain Pringle Stokes where he knelt. It buffeted him and tore at his clothes. It tugged at his thinning forelock in mock deference. It cut through the sodden wool of his coat, turning his skin to gooseflesh and congealing the blood in his veins.

So opens This Thing of Darkness by Harry Thompson.

This Thing of Darkness

This Thing of Darkness tells the tale of the Beagle on its voyage of discovery and investigation around the New World. Famous for being the voyage on which Charles Darwin developed his theories of natural selection, the mission was in fact much more involved.

The crew of the Beagle also investigated fossils, new animals, plants and peoples. They even captured some of the inhabitants and brought them back to London where they were invited to meet King William IV, much to ‘Silly Billy’s’ delight.

The voyage went on for years, and indeed, this book is also extremely long. Having read it on the Kindle and never having seen the physical version, I can only assume that it is the size of The Lord of the Rings. Like its main character, Captain Robert FitzRoy, the novel takes a while to get to know, but it’s worth the effort.

The friendship and antagonism between FitzRoy and Darwin is the fulcrum of the book. Darwin is a modern man, prepared to question the scriptures in his quest to uncover the secret of life on earth. He is a Whig, a sort of progressive aristocrat, whereas FitzRoy is a Tory scion of the aristocracy, a true believer in noblesse oblige.

To the modern reader, Darwin should be the hero but he often comes across as smug and self-centred. He is also unnecessarily cruel:

The most common denizen of Chatham Island was a fat, sluggish, sooty-coloured iguana, some three feet in length, clumsy of movement, with a horny mane, long webbed claws and a slack pouch hanging beneath its slack mouth … By way of an experiment, Darwin grasped one of the beasts by the tail, whirled it around his head and flung it into a tidal pool

By contrast, FitzRoy is kind, compassionate and dedicated to his belief that the indigenous peoples of South America should be treated with the respect that their common humanity deserves. His willingness to defend them in the face of aggressive colonisation is extraordinarily brave. FitzRoy is one of the few people willing to stand in their defence in the face of a projected genocide in New Zealand:

‘for final victory must soon be ours. The time is not far distant when the rising generation of Anglo-Saxons will want neither the nerve nor the skill to hold their own against the savage, and will take ample and just vengeance for the opposition we are now encountering. The savages shall be crushed like wasps in the iron gauntlet of armed civilization’

FitzRoy and Darwin frequently argue about natural selection or ‘transmutation’. These sections are sometimes rather tedious, although what is most fascinating is not the evidence that Darwin uses to prove natural selection. Rather it’s FitzRoy’s muddled logic for why the events of the Bible, such as the Flood, should be taken as absolute truth. Each man uses the evidence that they encounter on the voyage to prove their claim.

For FitzRoy is both a fervent Christian and a scientist. Not only he is renowned as the captain of the Beagle, but he was also an early proponent of meteorology. He was the subject of intense mockery for most of his life due to his insistence that it is possible to forecast the weather.

This Thing of Darkness is a vast, thoughtful and sometimes thrilling adventure story. Its characters are deep and real: they change in many surprising ways over the decades that are covered in the novel. Some sections are overdrawn and the book could have been improved by a bit of deft cutting (e.g. note the repetition of slack in the iguana description above) and there are almost no female characters at all. Those that do appear are basically ‘loose women’ encountered by the sailors, or their mute, disinterested wives.

One thing that is not elaborated on in the novel is the meaning of the title (a quotation from Shakespeare). It’s probable that This Thing of Darkness refers to the depression which led to the suicide of Captain Stokes and which dogs FitzRoy throughout his life. This profile of mental suffering adds a further level of complexity to a rich, wide-ranging novel.