As a small island in the North Atlantic, Ireland’s sea-faring tradition and history is significant. One such figure who has played a major role in helping sailors navigated the world’s oceans was Sir Francis Beaufort.
Francis was born in Navan, Co Meath on 27 May 1774. He was descended from French Protestant Huguenots, who fled the French Wars of Religion in the sixteenth century. His parents moved to Ireland from London. His father, Daniel Augustus Beaufort, was a Protestant clergyman and a member of the Royal Irish Academy. His mother Mary was the daughter and co-heiress of William Waller, of Allenstown House.
Beaufort’s childhood was spent between Ireland and Wales until the age of 14, when he left to pursue a life at sea with a merchant ship of the British East India Company. Apparently Beaufort was shipwrecked at 15 because his ship was using incorrect maps. This made him determined to be incredibly accurate in all his mapping work.
Francis Beaufort was far from being the archetypal backroom ‘boffin’. Prior to his development of the ‘Beaufort Scale’ of wind measurement, he was severely wounded in the left arm and chest by sword and blunderbuss during his time in the Royal Navy when leading a boarding party to capture a Spanish ship. Later on, during a mapping expedition in the Mediterranean he was wounded a second time by a musket ball fired by a band of Turks that hit him in the groin and damaged his femur.
At the age of 55, Beaufort was appointed to run the Hydrographic Office, which he transformed from a quiet, dusty backwater, into the greatest collection of hydrographic data in the world. Amazingly some of the charts the office produced are still used to this day, such was the quality and accuracy of their work. The Beaufort Sea in the Article Circle, and Beaufort Island in the Antarctic, are named after Beaufort because of his important contributions to hydrography.
In 1831, Beaufort wrote to his friend Commander Fitzroy of the survey ship HMS Beagle, who was about to return to survey work off the western shores of Patagonia, recommending ‘A Mr. (Charles) Darwin’ – a man ‘full of zeal and enterprise’ – a man whom, without Beaufort’s recommendation, may never have changed the foundation of evolutionary biology.