by lyle e davis
A few weeks ago, we told you the story of Challenger, a sailing ship of 136 years ago, with an assignment to go round the world and take scientific measurements. In researching the article we came across a series of letters that fascinated us . . . that allowed us to relive those dangerous times from the comfort of our favorite reading chair. We thought you would enjoy this reliving of history as well. Thus today’s cover story.
Challenger left Portsmouth with 269 persons aboard: 23 naval officers under the command of Captain George Strong Nares, the scientific team of six, led by Professor Wyville Thomson, and a crew of 240. Only a few of the "bluejackets,' or crew, are known to us now, most notably, by virtue of his letters, Ship's Steward's Assistant Joseph Matkin, who brings Challenger's tale to life with these excerpts from his letters.
December 19, 1874
...the greatest alteration of the lot happened a few days ago when Captain Nares received a Telegram from England to say that he was appointed to the command of the new Arctic Expedition that leaves England next April, and was to proceed home at once....The Captain would have preferred remaining in this ship until the cruise was finished and then going up the Arctic, but he could not refuse it. Professor Thompson was in a great way about it, and talked of throwing up the whole affair and coming home, but the captain persuaded him not; however he will go home before we get back. The officers gave a grand farewell dinnner and made the Captain a handsome present. The Captain made a short speech and said how sorry he was to go and how he should often be thinking of his old ship mates and that he hoped to be back from the Arctic almost as soon as we get back....
I don't think Captain Nares is quite strong enough for such a voyage, he suffered from "Rheumatics" on the Antarctic trip, and he is rather a timid man I think--not enterprise enough for such a command. He was up in the "Arctic" 16 years ago, in the "Resolute", and another ship, in search of Sir John Franklin: he was a Lieut at that time. The "Resolute" was frozen in so hard that they had to abandon her and make their way in sledges over the ice until they reached a settlement.
January 6th, 1873
The English mail does not go for a fortnight so I think I had better do as a great many are doing, put a 6d stamp on the letter & send it overland & write again by the mail in a fortnight's time after I have been on shore--I am going tonight. We shall leave Gibraltar about the 25th Jany for Madeira. Hoping Father is better & with best love to all.
P.S. I wish I had some of this foreign note paper. I have to get some at New York. I hope this will not be over weight. Whenever you write, enclose one stamp for we can't always get them. JM
P.P.S. A Liverpool steamer is just going to start and will take our mail.
We came into this ship on Monday morning, 175 all told, including 19 privates & one Sergeant of Marines, and the same evening one of the Marines was drowned, walked right over the Ship's Gangway into the Dock Basin which is 27 feet deep, and was drowned in sight of several of his shipmates. It was about seven o' clock at night and pitch dark, and there was no light to direct any one walking...
We left Sheerness last Saturday week, and had awful weather round, having to put back three times, once into Deal on the Monday, into Folkestone on Tuesday, and into Dungeness on the Wednesday, arriving here on Thursday; the distance is 105 miles and we were 109 hours steaming fullspeed all the way. The wind was dead against us, and it commenced to increase as soon as we had passed Dover on the Saturday night, in the morning it had increased to a gale, and we found ourselves close into the coast of France. At 10 o'clock on Sunday the Captain gave orders to put back for the Downs, but the wind arose to a hurricane and we could make no head way against it. At Midnight the ship passed through a Cyclone, which caused the sea to come right over her and go down into the Engine room, through the hatchways, nearly putting out the fires; the Life boat cutter was smashed to atoms, and the Jib boom carried away with all the Head Sails, so that the ship drifted along under a single storm stay sail. She rolled fearfully all night, I was pitched out of my Hammock two or three times, and think it was the most fearful night I ever passed in my life. Several ships were wrecked close to us, and it was considered the roughest night on the Southern coast for the last eight years.
We reached Deal on the Monday and waited until the storm abated, there were hundreds of vessels of all nations at anchor in the Downs. Directly we dropped ours the Scientific blokes made a rush for the railway station, and came on to Portsmouth by train, arriving two days before us. They lay about sea sick during the gale and the sailors did make game of them.
We expect to sail on Saturday next for Lisbon, and if we make haste shall most likely be there fore Christmas.
We had a miserable X.mas as far as the weather was concerned for the ship was pitching & rolling awfully & we had to hang on to our crockery ware like grim death, several of the messes lost all their crockery but we only lost a few cups & a pot of jam & a bottle of Pickles that broke & got mixed together. Our mess fared as well as any on X.mas day--for we had Ham for Breakfast & a good meat Pie & Plum Pudding for dinner; we made our pudding on X.mas eve; everyone did something towards it.
We had a short service in the morning, the Captain officiates for we are not allowed a Chaplain, only Ships carrying 295 men & upwards are allowed a chaplain & we have only 242 on board. In the evening the Captain gave every one of the Ships company one third of a pint of Sherry & very good wine it was. If the 3 or 4 ensuing X.mas's which we are to spend in the "Challenger" are no worse, we shan't hurt.
(This image is from a postcard of Portsmouth dated 1906. Although 34 years after Challenger departed on her epic voyage the essential features of this crucial naval port have not changed)
January 8th, 1873
The town except in the principal streets is very dirty & ill-paved, it smells beastly of Garlic--so do the people; the town is well lighted with gas & there are omnibus's & cabs, drawn chiefly by mules--as big as horses, drays & heavy carts are drawn by oxen. The Cathedral & several of the churches are beautiful buildings all built of white stone, & the Bells are very good ones...the Cathedral is something like St. Pauls in London--with the dome & towers but of course not as large, there is a ball & cross on the top & being of white stone it looks cleaner than St. Pauls especially when the sun shines on it.
Sighted the coast of Spain this morning but are still 150 miles from Lisbon. At 10 o'clock this morning the first cast of the dredge was made & bottom obtained at 1500 fathoms but in hauling up the dredge 100 fathoms of line was lost over board. The dredge was again cast but came up bottom upwards but on another attempt being made they succeeded in bringing up mud and several species of Fish from a bottom of 1125 fathoms, or nearly 1 1/2 miles; on the mud being analysed numerous insects were found in it--the fish are preserved in bottles. The Dredge is of Iron & not unlike a pig trough with a net over it & weighs with the weights attached several hundred weight. The strain on the line is very great as it reaches the bottom & to ease it, several gutta percha ropes are spliced to it which will stretch when strained. The Dredging line is about the thickness of a man's two fingers. When dredging the Ship is hove to, & the Dredge is let down from the main yard & hauled up by a small steam engine & the line coiled away on the upper deck to dry; 1200 fathoms of line will take one hour in reaching the bottom & 3 hours in hauling up.
Sunday, January 12
We left Lisbon at 4pm for Gibralter & left no mail behind, so I shall have to post this at the rock. It has been a beautuful summer's day & the city looked splendid as we steamed down the river. I don't suppose I shall ever see Lisbon again...but it certainly is a beautiful place and has a splendid climate.
January 13th & 14th, off the Spanish coast
The progress has been very slow as we have been sounding & dredging all day & only made sail at night with a very light wind. we shall not reach Gibraltar this week at this rate. When the dredge came up this morning full of mud & shell fish it was laughable to see the scientific gents with their sleeves rolled up overthauling the mud for Fish & insects &c. The Captain's son Mastr. Willie Nares, aged 9, was also very busy amongst the mud--I don't know whether I told you before that he was on board but he is going with us all the commission.
We sighted the coast of Africa on Tuesday night (the 17th) at the entrance to the Straits, and during the night we passed right through into the Mediterranean sea, where we hove to until Saturday morning early, then steamed into the Bay of Gibralter.
The rock looks very grand and imposing from the sea, it is 1500 feet high, and has 1873 guns mounted, varying from 9 pounders to 18 and 25 ton guns (which command the straits!) The small guns protect it from the Spanish side, and there is one for each year, the one for 1873 is now being mounted--a 25-ton gun.
From the top of the rock I had a walk into Spain, past the line of British pickets across the 500 yards of neutral territory, past the Spanish pickets and into the adjoining towns. The Spanish soldiers are worse than the Portuguese, they wear blue coats, green trousers, and cocked hats, and look about as fierce as maggots.
There are two towns, English town, and Spanish town both under the English governor. There was plenty of gambling going on yesterday morning among the Spaniards.
Challenger left Gibraltar, the familiarity of Europe, yet a stone's throw from the north coast of Africa, on January 23, 1873, and headed west. The transect of the Atlantic described in their charter now began in earnest, since temperature readings and water sampling were required every 120 miles from the Canary Islands all the way across the Atlantic Ocean to the Virgin Islands at the edge of the Caribbean Sea. They would stop at many islands; the first of these was Madeira, a Portuguese possession. Here there was some scientific testing, some celebrating, and an encounter with some unexpcted people. Matkin wrote to his mother:
Last Sunday afternoon, at this time, we were leaving Gibraltar, & this Sunday afternoon we are just about to drop anchor at Madeira, distant from there 700 miles, so that we have averaged 100 miles a day & have been dredging fishing & sounding every day for 7 or 8 hours. The deepest bottom yet obtained was at 6 o'clock this morning just as we sighted the Desert Islands, 2,700 fathoms was the depth, or rather more than 3 miles. We could not get in to Tangier it was blowing too hard.
The Desert Islands belong, with Porto Santo, to Madeira, & the whole group belong to Portugal. They are situated to the North East of Africa & are distant from Lisbon 540 miles. They have an area of 330 square miles & the population is 120,000. The greater portion of the islands is immense mountains 6,200 ft. high or nearly 5 times as high as Gibraltar. The productions of the Islands are grown at the foot of these mountains, & consist of Sugar, Coffee, arrowroot, oranges, grapes, pomegranates, plantains &c, the fine is the chief product & the principal export is the Wine the Island gives name to, Madeira. Funchal is the principal city & here all the British Merchants reside & there are also a great many invalids here from England for the winter season.
Matkin expounds upon the food, not for the first time:
As soon as we dropped anchor there were scores of Boats round, some to take passengers, & others loaded with Oranges, Nuts, Bananas, Sweet Potatoes, Appes, Figs, & a lot more fruit, some boats had Fish & Turtle, all alive, for sale & in one boat there were several naked boys who commenced diving for money, they would dive right to the bottom, 30 ft, after a penny.
Funchal is built at the slope of the mountains & is a beautiful place to look at, something like Gibraltar, but more like Lisbon...A great many of our men went on shore yesterday afternoon & came off staggering, the Madeira didn't agree with them they said. They say it is a beautiful country on shore, the sugar canes look very nice, some of them took Horses & Donkeys & had long rides into the country & up the mountains, one fellow did nothing all the time, but hired 2 men to carry him about in one of their mountain carriages, a sort of Hammock on 2 poles, & you can lay back in it & smoke as this man did. He says he tired 4 men out carrying him about & it cost him 4/7. They all came off at 8 oclock & had to fall in for inspection, some of them did look comical & slept on deck all night. One man kept trying to say "Dismiss" , without any s's. I did not get on shore myself, but shall try & go this afternoon
The Mayor & Mayoress of Edinburgh are on board now with Professor Thompson--they are staying here for the winter. I hope to have a nice walk when I get on shore for I don't get any exercise in the ship. I have not got such a fine Issuing Room & Office as I had in the "Audacious" for this place in this ship is below the water & all my writing has to be done by candlelight, & I have to stand up all day as there is no room for a seat. The Stew'd does his writing up in the Paymaster's Office.
I hope this will find Father a good deal better, I wish he could winter here like the Mayor of Edinburgh.
I had a fine run on shore at Madeira, walked nearly to the top of the island and drank some of the wine as well.
We coaled on the Monday and sailed on Tuesday at 3 o'clock. As soon as we got clear of the island, we picked up a splendid breeze,the fires were put out, and every stitch of Canvas set, driving the ship 12 miles an hour. The Canary islands are distant from Madeira 250 miles, and we sighted the Peak of Tenerife, at 3 PM yesterday, exactly 24 hours from Madeira. We remained out sounding all night and came into Santa Cruz early this morning. Being so misty we are unable to see the Peak today, but I think some of the Scientifics are going to try and reach the summit before we leave, it is 12,300 feet high, or nearly 2 1/2 miles, and on the top, is at present covered with snow, although here at the bottom it is quite hot & sultry.
Tenerife is not such a pretty island as Madeira, and Santa Cruz is not to be compared with Funchal for cleanliness. Its population is 300,000 and it has an area of 878 sq. miles. Palmas one of the other Canaries is nearly as large. They all belong to the Spaniards, and one of their gunboats is at anchor close to. The productions are the same as at Madeira, with the exception of Cocineal, but I think the Bananas are finer. Santa Cruz is very strongly defended, and there are a great many Spanish soldiers here. It is famous as being the only place Nelson was unable to take, but he failed in consequence of the great surf which runs here capsizing the Boats before the men could land. He lost his right eye and a great many men here. An Ironclad of the present day could knock the place into ashes in about 2 minutes.
We steamed around Palmas, Fuerita Ventura, and two or three smaller ones, and were away four days. The soundings varied considerably, in one place it was only 75 fathoms, a little farther on it was 1,900, then 2,500 and so on, showing the bottom to be as varied in depth as the islands in height. The dredge brought up a sort of petrified cinders, which had every appearance of being thrown up from volcanoes ages ago.
Off the island of S. Christopher, we fell in with a Spanish fishing boat, and bought all the fish they had for 3 dollars. There were 3 large baskets full, and they were of the most wonderful color I ever saw, being gold and silver, green, violet, blue, and every shade you could mention, I never thought the sea contained such beautiful creatures.
The day after we returned we took in all the coal there was in Santa Cruz, 25 tons, and got ready for sea; the same evening one of the Boys fell from the main yard into the sea, but was immediately picked up by one of the seamen who jumped overboard after him, he was stunned at first, but soon recovered, the distance was 37 feet from the main yard.
The scientific operations, I believe, have been very favorable, the lowest bottom has been 1900 fathoms, and the greatest depth 3,650 or rather more than 4 miles. Several thousand fathoms of line, and a few dredges have been lost, but of course that counts as nothing. In some places the dredge brought up black coral and beautiful sponges, in others, shell fish, mud, gravel, & c. Various experiments have also been made by the Scientifics, such as telegraphing down to the bottom of the sea, and finding out the strength of the electric fluid at such great depths.
...we got under weigh for S. Thomas, distant 3,100 miles and to-day we are 1300 miles from Tenerife and have 1800 more to go. We have had the Trade winds all the way, and might have been there by this time, if it were not for the sounding and dredging etc. which occupies 8 & 9 hours each day besides the labour of furling, and making sail after it is all over.)
On February 15, Challenger departed for St. Thomas, more than three-thousand miles west across the Atlantic. Joseph Matkin took advantage of the time to write more to his family about the scientific operations undertaken and the results thereof.
Although not generally given to complaining about the relative slowness of the voyage brought on by the endless sounding and dredging, apparently an endless source of frustration to the sailing crew who found it difficult to accept the endless delay on a voyage which to them should have had as its primary goal speed, Matkin does gently bring up the topic from time to time:
The provisions for a long stint at sea are not as pleasant as Matkin assures for his issuing room during periods of time spent near ports, and he describes the monotonous diet of salted and dried provision viable for 30 days at sea in the tropics. And the food thief strikes again.
We entered the Tropics on Sunday last and it is hotter now than in the middle of summer in England. The time slips away though much quicker than with you, and the health of the ship's company is excellent at present, though our living is far from flattering, and I should enjoy some fresh Butter, as from one week's end to another it is Biscuits, Salt Horse, Pork, and Australian Meat, which is very far from gay living. The Officers had their meat safe broken open last night, and everything it contained was eaten before 4 o'clock this morning, so they had a short allowance for breakfast. I expect it was taken and ate up aloft, like the Turkey at X.mas.
We passed a Spanish Schooner called the "Virgin Mary" while we were in Church on Sunday, she was bound to Cuba, and had one Lady on board; great excitement on board the "Challenger" to have a look at her, not having seen one of the fair sex for a month. We have had an enormous Shark following us for the last 1,100 miles, and the men say he won't leave until some one dies, and is thrown overboard.
I received two letters from you at St. Thomas, the day after I wrote you from there, one being addressed to "Madeira", and the other "Tenerife" so that they always manage to reach us finally, and none the less welcome for the delay. I am expecting another or two by the same mail which brings this to you. I read in the papers about the "Northfleet" catastrophe. ....We get most of the newspapers sent out, and a great many magazines. "Good Words" will soon receive accounts of our doings from Professor Thompson. Did you see the picture in the "Graphic" of the King of Portugal in our ship?
We left St. Thomas on the evening of March 24th, under all plain sail, and the dredging & sounding at once commenced, and has continued up to our arrival here. On the 25th we obtained the deepest soundings we have had hitherto, and I believe the deepest on record, 3,875 fathoms, or about 4 1/2 miles. The dredge was hove overboard, and the strain on the line was so great when it reached the bottom, that when they commenced hauling it in it carried away an iron block that was screwed in to the Deck, and had all the strain to bear.
The block as it flew up struck a sailor boy, named Stokes, on the head, and dashed him to the deck with such a terrible force, that his thigh was broken, and spine dreadfully injured. He was carried to the Sick Bay and attended to by the Surgeons, but he was insensible the whole time, and only lived two hours. At 5 pm the next day, the Bell tolled for his funeral, all the Ship's company and the Officers and Scientific gents, attending on the Main deck....The boy came from Deal where his Father is a Channel Pilot. All his clothes and effects were sold, and the money, with his wages, a few Photos, letters, and his Bible will be sent to his friends by this same mail.
We had soundings right across and the average depth was 2,800 fathoms, nothing of importance was brought up in the Dredge. On the evening of the 1st of April they piped "Hands to Bathe" and about 80 of us went overboard and had a fine swim. A Boat was lowered to keep away Sharks& c., the water was over 3 miles in depth.
Within a few days of the tragedy, and burial of William Stokes' body at sea, Challenger finished the transit of the Sargasso Sea and reached Bermuda.
Approaching St. Paul’s Rocks
Challenger visits Bahia
What we know today about oceanography is largely due to the painstaking, sometimes boring, work done by officers, scientists, and sailors of the Challenger.
The virtual exhibit is adapted from the "History of Oceanography: HMS Challenger" exhibit at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps, and the Challenger letters of Joseph Matkin, most of which are held in the archives of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, and only excerpts of which are displayed here. The reader is invited to read in-depth accounts of the voyage and more of Mr. Matkin’s letter here: