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  The Silent Landscape

Chapter 1. Threshold of the Deep

Portsmouth, England, 20 December 1872, 50o 48'N, 1o 05'W

The Abyss of Time

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 with warships...


(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)

... 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 were fourfold:

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 deposits.

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 ventilated.

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 boilers.

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 of self-betterment.

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.

Now click here to enter Chapter 2. The Desert under the Sea...

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Richard Corfield 2003 in association with pedalo.co.uk