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The Silent Landscape
Chapter Eleven. The Groaning Planet
Cape York, Australia, September 8, 1874, 10o56'S, 142o 40'E to Yokahama, Japan, June 16, 1875, 35o28'N, 139o 38'E

The Ring of Fire

Challenger arrived at the most northerly point of Australia, Cape York on September 1, 1874, and anchored off the small community of Somerset. Joseph Matkin was unimpressed with the area, describing it as having a “flat sterile appearance” with “not a hill over 600 feet high.”

What did impress him, however, was the contrast between the flat monotony of the northern Australian scrubland and the huge mountains, some more than 13,000 feet high, that loomed only 120 miles away, across the Torres Straits, on the island of Papua New Guinea. Not only did those mountains fascinate him, but he knew exactly what they were, describing them as part of a "[M]ountain system [that] may be traced across the Pacific from the Rocky Mountains in North America. It rises in the Sandwich Islands over 13,000 feet, again in Japan higher still, still higher in New Guinea. It does not touch the continent of Australia but stretches more to the east; it appears moderately high at the New Hebrides and Fiji Islands and extends through the New Zealand islands rising over 13000 feet on the South Island… Everywhere along its course earthquakes are prevalent and owning to its near vicinity they have occasional shocks here that are felt in no other part of Australia."

Joe Matkin knew what he was looking at all right: one of the biggest and most extraordinary marvels that Challenger would encounter in all her epic voyage, the most westerly point of the ring of volcanoes that rim the Pacific Ocean, the so called Ring of Fire.

Twilight of an Empire

On September 8, 1874, Challenger weighed anchor and moved gently out into the Torres Straits. They were heading north into the Arafura Sea, a broad shallow pocket of water bounded by New Guinea to the east and Timor to the west. Beyond Timor another arc of volcanic islands, barely glimpsed from their current position, curved gracefully northwest. This chain incorporated Sunda, Sumatra, and Java. Between Sumatra and Java, in that year of 1874, lay an island that within a decade would become infamous across the world by blowing its top with a vengeance and causing spectacular sunsets for years to come: Krakatoa.

Yet as the Australian coast receded into the southern haze, Challenger sailed toward the vestiges of one of the greatest of the European empires, the Dutch East Indies. The heart of this trading enterprise was a group of islands known as the Moluccas. Even in Challenger's time they were famous across the world as the Spice Islands because of the variety and quality of the spices to be found there. The ship approached Banda, the heart of the Spice Islands, having lingered in the Aru and Ki islands off the west coast of New Guinea, toward the end of September 1874.

Challenger was now in the heart of the Dutch East Indies and for days all aboard had felt the presence of a colonial power that was not their own...

...In this far-flung outpost of the world it was a reminder that the British were not alone in their imperial ambition. Joe Matkin wrote “Our men o'war seldom go this way… this route to China is called the Molucca passage and is little frequented by any but Dutch ships, so here they reign supreme and have their own way...”

Banda Island lies just to the south of the island of Ceram (Seram as it was in those days) and was well liked by Challenger's men despite its use by the Dutch colonial administration as a convict settlement, for it was beautiful...But it was the volcano that impressed them most, rising 2,200 feet above the tranquil scene, the vast secret bulk of “ever burning” volcano, Gounong-Api.

Challenger departed Banda and its vast nutmeg plantations on October 2, arriving in the Spice Island capital, Amboyna, two days later. There they stayed until the 10th, when they moved on for the island of Ternate to the north. On either side, striding to the north like lines of volcanic sentinels, were grim reminders of the fiery temperament of this part of the world.

They made their way through the Molucca passage, past the islands of Obi and Batchian where the clove trees grew in glorious abundance, then past Makian, the old volcano that had exploded in 1646, splitting the peak in two and destroying villages wholesale. On the 15th they passed between the great symmetrical volcanoes that dominated the islands of Ternate and Tidore, and anchored off the town of Ternate in the evening.

Despite the looming presence of the gently smoking peak of Ternate, Campbell's enthusiasm for yet another earthly paradise fairly bubbled over...

However, earnest Henry Moseley's scientific interests were not so easily derailed by earthly paradise. He was determined to climb the peak despite the danger...

Hong Kong

They arrived in Hong Kong on the 16th November 1874 where a tremendous shock awaited the ship's company: Captain Nares had been ordered back to England to take command of the forthcoming Arctic Expedition. Accompanying him from Challenger would be Lieutenant Pelham Aldrich. It was a bitter blow for Scientifics, officers, and crew, but especially for Wyville Thomson.

Captain Frank Thurle Thomson of H.M.S. Modesty, and Lieutenant Carpenter of H.M.S. Iron Duke, both frigates on the China station, were to be their replacements. Thomson was due to arrive within days from Shanghai and his arrival was viewed by some aboard with a trepidation succinctly summed up by Matkin, who wrote, “He bears a bad name for tyranny on this station.”

They stayed in Hong Kong for more than two months and on January 6, 1875, headed south again toward the Philippines. South of Mindanao they turned east for Humboldt Bay on the coast of New Guinea. Finding the natives hostile they elected not to prolong their visit. Instead they pushed on for the Admiralty Islands where, arriving on March 3rd, they found a friendlier reception as well as some of the most exquisite native artwork that they had yet encountered.

Swire noted the tedium, too, and also wrote of its consequence: that tempers were frayed and faces sullen in the wardroom. However, as they approached the Mariana Islands of the western Pacific, he was just about to encounter the one incident on his long journey around the world that would in future years afford him the greatest pleasure. On March 23, 1875, 13 days after leaving Nares Harbor, soundings indicated a depth of 4,475 fathoms or about 27,000 feet. This staggering abyss, now known to be almost 7 miles deep, was by far the deepest part of the seafloor that Challenger encountered. To honor both the occasion and the popular young sub-lieutenant, the Scientifics named it Swire Deep (although sadly the name was later changed to Challenger Deep).

Within a hundred years, this extraordinary place would be visited by two of the most enterprising Americans ever using Bubbles in the Deep...

The House of the Rising Sun

It was not until they were almost in sight of Japan on April 11, that the wind picked up and they then made good time up the Gulf of Yedo toward Yokahama, accompanied by sharks, porpoises, and dolphins that had come out to greet the ship.

...Below decks Joe Matkin reveled in the complexity and richness of this alien culture even as he wrestled with his grief...

"I am thankful to think that Father lived long enough to see us all provided for and properly educated. Few children in our station of life have had so much spent on their education and start in life… By the time you get this we shall be 'Homeward bound' and you will be able to count the months instead of years as they fly past. I have fully determined to leave the Navy when I get back; there will be nothing to hinder me; I shall have a little money and what is better a good character! and I hope we shall all be settled down in England and have many happy years yet in the old home."

As they left Japan, Campbell summarized the feelings of all on board when he wrote, “Let me advise all those who wish to travel and find real novelty of scene, combined with comfort and cleanliness, to visit Japan.”

Now click here to enter Chapter 12. Dreams of Big Science...

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk