1. Threshold of the Deep
England, 20 December 1872, 50o 48'N, 1o 05'W
The Abyss of
If you could stand on the brow of the hill
behind the English town of Portsmouth in late December of
the year 1872, you would see below you a harbor crowded
(This image is from
a postcard of Portsmouth dated 1906. Although 34 years after
departed on her epic voyage the essential features of this
crucial naval port have not changed)
... to the left—the Portsea Island
side—are the men o' war; the three-decked iron steamers
of Her Majesty's navy's new dreadnoughts and destroyers,
as well as frigates and other, older, square-rigged Men
o' War little changed since the time of Nelson. These are
the ships that show the flag in the farthest-flung corners
of empire. It is invigorating to see these potent symbols
of dominion ready to put to sea at an hour's notice, able
to bring the might of the world's greatest empire to any
situation that might need it. To the right—the Gosport
side—are the government offices, dry docks, cranes,
piers, and jetties. On this side, too, are the troop transports
and official yachts. In the middle the open water of the
fairway is crowded with pinnaces, jolly-boats, cutters,
and pleasure steamers. The total effect is of controlled
bustle and purpose in this nerve center of the Victorian
navy, the clearinghouse for the most potent military symbol
in the world.
But what's that in the corner? Almost hidden
by the gunmetal-gray flanks of the dreadnoughts and destroyers
are the three small masts of an unremarkable corvette, a
ship tiny in comparison with the hulking leviathans around
it, but one that is about to change the face of science
forever: HMS Challenger.
This sudden naval interest in the seafloor
was a direct consequence of the enthusiasm and activities
of two scientists: Charles Wyville Thomson and William Carpenter.
The objectives of the voyage, as finally agreed
upon by the circumnavigation committee of the Royal Society
1. To investigate the physical conditions
of the deep sea in the great ocean basins (as far as the
neighborhood of the Great Southern Ice Barrier) in regard
to depth, temperature, circulation, specific gravity, and
penetration of light.
2. To determine the chemical composition of
seawater at various depths from the surface to the bottom,
the organic matter in solution and the particles in suspension.
3. To ascertain the physical and chemical
character of deep-sea deposits and the sources of these
4. To investigate the distribution of organic
life at different depths and on the deep seafloor.
But, was the real
brief of the Challenger expedition nothing
less than a last chance to choose between God and Science?
If it was, perhaps that explains why to the Victorians the
Challenger expedition was every bit as
important as the Apollo moon landings would be
to another great nation a century later.
HMS Challenger was built in the Royal
Naval Shipyards at Woolwich and launched on February 13,
1858. She was a spar-decked, three-masted corvette with
a modestly powered auxiliary steam engine that engaged with
a twin-bladed propeller assembly, which could be disconnected
and hoisted clear of the water when the ship was under sail.
Technologically she was a hybrid that straddled the eras
of sail and steam.
Even by the standards of the day, Challenger
was not large, displacing only 2,300 tons and being only
200 feet long. But this was, as Wyville Thomson commented,
an advantage, because she had all the extra space and amenities
of a frigate combined with the maneuverability and draught
of a corvette. All but two of her original 17 guns were
removed to make room for laboratories and storage cupboards,
the cabins for the scientists, and the miles and miles of
hemp dredging rope and steel piano wire that were to be
used for sounding. The funnel dominated the ship. Fully
10 feet in circumference, it was the exhaust for the relatively
small and very inefficient 1,234-horsepower steam engine.
Amidships on the upper deck was the dredging platform itself,
flanked by zinc specimen boxes and with a small steam donkey
engine to one side to pull up the dredge with its precious
cargo of samples.
This engine drove an axle that ran clear across
the ship. For'ard were berths for three small boats, the
gigs for additional sampling, going ashore, or rendezvousing
with other vessels at sea. Below was the cramped main deck
with an enormous cooking range that dominated the center
of the ship. Around an open central area were arranged the
cabins for the senior officers and the scientific team with
the captain's and principal scientist's berths situated
aft near a main laboratory that was dedicated to drawing,
describing, cataloging, and preserving specimens. This main
deck was dimly illuminated, lit only by three small skylights
during the day or by oil lamps at night. Below the main
deck was the lower deck with cabins for the junior officers
and the berths and messes for the ship's company—the
bluejackets and marines—even darker and more poorly
With a total crew complement of 270, Challenger
was very cramped—even the junior officers had to share
cabins—and it is not surprising that in the course
of that four-year voyage fully a quarter of the seamen aboard
deserted, especially when tempted by such exotic locales
as South Africa and Australia. Below the lower deck was
the hold, with storage room for food and coal, additional
dredging and sounding rope, and the engine and its four
To Boldly Go...
Challenger was commanded by Captain
George S. Nares, one of the greatest surveyors in the navy,
who in later years became famous as an Arctic explorer.
He commanded 20 naval officers and a crew of about 200 ratings
and able seamen. Wyville Thomson was the chief scientist,
assisted by a scientific staff of five. One of these was
John Murray, a fiery and outspoken Canadian who was to become
the most famous of all Challenger scientists as
the lead author of the massive 50-volume tome that eventually
“summarized” their findings.
Another scientist on board Challenger
was Henry Nottidge Moseley who, like most of the other scientists
and crew, was a young man in his 20s when the expedition
departed. He was born in Wandsworth, London in 1844 and
early on developed a love of natural history that was to
stay with him for the rest of his life. He was a short rather
stoutish young man with a luxuriant black moustache that
hung down to his chin. He was also, as his companions were
soon to discover, immensely kind and sympathetic and had
enormous energy and enthusiasm for the voyage ahead.
There was one lonely young man in particular
who was pleased to meet the likeable Moseley. At 25, Rudolf
von Suhm was the youngest of the “Scientifics”
(as they came to be dubbed by the crew) to be recruited
to the voyage. With no inkling of the tragedy that awaited
him he gleefully accepted this once in a lifetime invitation.
At 29 John Young Buchanan was slightly older
than von Suhm when Challenger departed Portsmouth.
Like von Suhm, he had come to science relatively late, having
started a degree in Glasgow to read arts before discovering
a deep-seated love of chemistry. Like Henry Moseley, Buchanan
was encouraged to establish a well-equipped laboratory on
board, because despite the overarching imperative to find
the proof of Darwin's theory of descent with modification,
the physical sciences were no less regarded than the natural
sciences on the expedition. Consequently, one of the gun
bays on the main deck was converted into a tiny but serviceable
physical and chemical laboratory for Buchanan's use.
But important as the laboratory fitments and
the scientific staff were to the future success of the voyage
there was another, larger, group on board that was arguably
even more crucial. These were the officers and crew (the
latter known as “tars” or “bluejackets”)
who would actually look after the command, navigational,
and housekeeping chores without which the scientific work
would be impossible. Three of the officers published accounts
of their voyage on their return, and one of their books
even made it onto the late Victorian bestseller lists.
From the perspective of the Victorian public,
perhaps the most notable of these literary officers was
the aristocratic Lord George Campbell, youngest son of the
eighth duke of Argyll and a sub-lieutenant on board Challenger.
He was tall and lean with a well-trimmed dark beard and
a sardonic sense of humor. In physical appearance he was
a perfect counterpoint to navigating Sub-lieutenant Herbert
Swire. Swire was unbearded, blond, and some years younger
than Campbell but, like Campbell, had an irreverent sense
of humor. It was Swire who, in his diary, unpublished until
after his death, named Challenger's earnest scientific
staff the “Philosophers.” Swire was particularly
amused by the clothing that the Philosophers chose to wear:
formal gentlemen's garments with waistcoats and watch fobs
that would have looked at home in Pall Mall but that were
anything but suitable for the deck of a small corvette.
But he was an intelligent young man, hard-working, with
a keen eye and an appreciation of the finer things in life,
and it was he who wrote most lyrically about the colors,
sunsets, and lands that they saw on their long voyage.
More practical, but with a flair for detail,
were the writings of Engineering Sub-lieutenant William
Spry, a man who spent much of his time tending Challenger's
temperamental steam engine. It was Spry's book that became
the best-selling account of the voyage when he returned
to England, running into more than 10 editions by the end
of the nineteenth century.
Until very recently we had no record of life
below decks on Challenger. Indeed there was no
expectation of one, because the average tar was hardly noted
for his literary ability. Many of those who shipped below
decks in the service of the empire could not even read,
despite the educational reforms that were even then beginning
to sweep Britain. But incredibly, on board Challenger
there was one seaman who left an account of the voyage in
69 letters to his family and friends at home. Until 1985
there was no hint that these letters existed, but in that
year his granddaughter gave them to the Scripps Institution
of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Joseph Matkin,
a short dark-complexioned lad with dark hair and pale blue
eyes that missed nothing on their long trip around the world,
was the ship's steward's assistant. He was only 18 years
old but had received an excellent education at a good school
near his home in Oakham (a town in the small county of Rutland).
The quality of his education there was vital for his future
literary efforts; so was his upbringing by parents who wanted
their offspring to enjoy all the benefits of the education
that they had not had. So young Joe Matkin was very much
a child of his times, plugged into the new Victorian ethos
By the time he was 12, Matkin had left school
and enrolled, somewhat surprisingly, in the merchant marine.
In that service he sailed for Australia aboard Sussex, returning
the following summer aboard Agamemnon. Not long after that
he sailed for Australia again, this time aboard Essex, remaining
in Melbourne for a year. He was back in England by 1870
and decided to enlist in the Royal Navy, where he served
as ship's steward's boy aboard HMS Invincible and HMS Audacious.
Life in the Royal Navy had improved quite a bit since the
privations suffered by seamen in the 1850s during the Crimean
War—with less risk of being “pressed”
and better controls on the use of punishments employed in
the old canvas-and-tar navy to maintain discipline. However,
life afloat in the Victorian sail-to-steam transitional
navy was still not notably comfortable and Challenger,
with its several laboratories and huge storerooms, was even
less so than Matkin's previous vessels. However, he was
a bright and ambitious boy and it was the promise of advancement—as
well as an all-expenses-paid trip around the world—that
brought him on board three weeks before his nineteenth birthday
on November 12, 1872.
click here to enter Chapter 2. The Desert under