Tag Archives: John Murray

The Challenger Expedition; 1872-1876

12 Sep

George Nares (by now Vice Admiral ), was chosen as commander of the Challenger Expedition because of his long experience of navigation and his scientific approach to surveying and exploration. His ship’s complement was two hundred – his officers were all naval surveyors, in addition, there was a team of civilian scientists, led by Charles Wyville[i] Thomson, the Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist..

Nares was not with Challenger for her entire tour –  he ceased his command in November 1874, when thevesselreached Hong Kong, having received orders to leave his ship in order to take command of a similar, but more arduous expedition – The British Arctic Expedition – an expedition that attempted to reach the North Pole.  Nares’ successor as Captain on Challenger was Frank Tourle Thomson.

His successful leadership was due to his wide experience in navigation and his calm and sure approach  – potential fallouts between scientists and naval officers were avoided.  Charles Wyville Thomson as chief scientist, had control of the scientific programme, but Nares was in overall command, setting what was possible with regard to scientific operations, whilst  always having due regard for the  safety and security of the ship and its personnel.  This was a model that was not always followed– when Sir Clements Markham organized the Discovery Expedition in the late 1900s; there was a vitriolic conflict between the scientists of the Royal Society and representatives of the Royal Geographic Society as to who should be in command. The Royal Society wanted to be in total control, a proposal vehemently  opposed  by the Royal Geographic Society which would never allow naval personnel to be directed by scientists.

Many people have never heard of the Challenger Expedition but modern oceanography undoubtedly began here. Until this expedition, knowledge of the world was limited to its coastlines and shallow depths.  Oceans were thought to be deep in parts, but almost nothing was known of the submarine landscapes or submarine life. Challenger was the first ship ever that was organized specifically to gather information on ocean temperatures, sea water chemistry, currents, marine life, and the geology of the seabed.  Apart from Charles Wyville Thompson, the famous naturalist John Murray, the father of modern oceanography, was on board. Discoveries were made that revolutionized oceanography.(When Challenger was safely back in England  John Murray, wrote that the expedition was “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the celebrated discoveries of the 15th and 16th Centuries”), 

                       The crew of Challenger

 Challenger was probably the first official expedition to carry a

                      photographer as well as an artist

With Nares in command, Challenger set sail on  Saturday 7 December 1872. The voyage involved numerous port stops – too many to list, but in summary Nares first headed for Lisbon and the Canary Islands then crossed the Atlantic arriving at the Virgin Islands in February 1873. He made a tour of islands  (Bermuda, The Azores), before arriving in South America Bahia (now Salvador), in September 1873

                         MAP OF VOYAGE – Nares left in 1874

In December 1873 he set a S/E track, visiting Tristan da Cunha before reaching the Cape of Good Hope. He visited the Kerguelen Islands and from there sailed directly south crossing the 60° S, parallel (i.e. approaching the Antarctic) and by 1874, Challenger was actually in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle (66°S),- see map –  here the scenery changed dramatically – it was was immensely new and exciting. Documents from this time show the interest and enthusiasm shown by the crew as they marveled at pack ice, ice bergs, whales and strange varieties of birds.

Nares did not explore Antarctica.  He turned N/E  and after a  very rough crossing of the Southern Ocean reached Australia, calling at Melbourne and Sydney in March 1874. This was followed in June by a visit to New Zealand.  He sailed between the North and South Islands and then, in the Pacific Ocean, he sailed north to Fiji and Tonga along longitude 180° where surveying continued in July and August. From September till November Challenger sailed due west, passing above the tip of Queensland and calling at New Guinea and the Philippines before reaching Hong Kong in November 1874.

The voyage resulted eventually in the haul of nearly 5,000 specimens, many from the time of Nares captaincy.   The yield demonstrated, for the first time, the richness of marine life on the sea bed:  “Stations” were made (a difficult navigation procedure, controlled by the captain, during which the ship had to be to be stationary for hours, so as to obtain specimens at known intervals from the sea- bed  to the sea surface).  Findings from the thousands of specimens these stations’ yielded provided  completely new information about the oceans when they were analyzed in the ship’s on-board laboratory, for example: depth of the ocean, marine chemistry, creatures of the deep – sea snails from the Azores; squid from waters around Japan, shark teeth, crabs, sea pigs, snakes, eels). Air tight bottles, and little boxes were used  to keep specimens of butterflies and insects, mosses and plants, Meteorological records were regularly made, the surface current was measured.

By the end of the tour (and two years after Nares had left Challenger ), fifty volumes (nearly three thousand pages), were needed to record the scientific findings. the photographs (including images of native people) and the paintings. These were records that Nares had facilitated and contributed to, so ably.

The measure of Nares successful leadership was recognized. His wide experience of difficult and varied conditions made him the preferred commander to lead the British Arctic Expedition an expedition that aimed to reach the Arctic Pole and he was recalled to fulfill this important role.

To be continued by telling the story of this venture.

[1] Sir Charles Wyville Thomson, (1830 –1882)  Scottish natural historian and marine zoologist. Knighted for his work on the Challenge



12 Feb

Why did William Speirs Bruce, the leader of the Scottish Antarctic expedition,(the ‘Scotia’) become a supporter of Scottish independence? ‘Scotland is not a dependent country but an individual nation working hand in hand on at least an equal footing with her partners in the Great British Federation… An independent kingdom she has been, an independent kingdom let her remain’. An unexpected statement from a man born and brought up in London and Norfolk and the son of a successful physician. The transition was not obvious and came slowly.

Bruce planned to follow his father and train as a doctor in University College London, but before starting the training, in 1887 he attended two summer courses in biology in Edinburgh. The late 1880s was a golden period of Scottish academic and scientific life; Edinburgh was a hotbed of scientific activity. Bruce came into contact with scientists of outstanding intellectual ability He became an instant enthusiast and transferred his training to Edinburgh.

At this time the scientific significance of Antarctica had become better understood by many geographical and scientific men and Antarctic committees were set up. Probably the most influential of these was The Joint Antarctic Committee of the Royal Society (RS) and the Royal Geographical Society (RGS), based in London. Sir Clements Markham who masterminded the ‘Discovery’ expedition was Chair

In Scotland, increasing resentment of a ‘dictatorial’ attitude from London probably simmered for years and Bruce would have been aware of this as he worked with the men he so admired. Resentment would have definitely been exacerbated by a letter dated 14/11/89 (signed by the secretary of the RS Sir Michael Fowler, on behalf of his society and the RGS.) turning down, with no explanation, the request of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society to send a representative to the Antarctic Committee. Problems must have simmered again when in 1893, Sir Clements, who as President of the RGS had pitched his presidential address on the importance of Antarctic exploration, was followed fourteen days later, by John Murray, a noted geographer and Bruce’s mentor and friend, who laid a different emphasis on the priorities in Antarctic work. Murray gave a comprehensive history of Antarctic history and emphasised the need for research in all branches of science, but stated that he did not advocate ‘A dash to the South Pole’, nor ‘do I believe that this was what British Science, at the present time desires. It demands rather a steady, continuous, laborious and systematic exploration of the whole southern region’ Markham, a geographer disagreed. These disagreements and Murray’s conviction that the first expedition should be mainly oceanographic, led eventually to Murray resigning from the joint venture and supporting a Scottish expedition.

The personal fracture in relations between Bruce and Sir Clements Markham started in 1899 when Bruce applied to join the ‘Discovery’ expedition. He listed his considerable qualifications for the post (a summer in the Antarctic, three summers and one winter in the Arctic, a year on the summit of Ben Nevis) and he included details of his university training and he added that he would be happy to send a formal application accompanied by testimonials if required. Sir Clements replied that no decisions had been made as to staff but that he would be glad to meet Bruce.

Bruce did not meet Sir Clements in 1899. A message was sent to him a year later saying should apply for an assistant’s place on ‘Discovery’.

Bruce’s repeat application soured relations irreconcilably. He wrote that he had hopes of raising sufficient capital to lead a second British ship to Antarctica. Three days later he wrote to say that funding was assured. He said that the Scottish expedition would complement the British expedition.

It is difficult not to have some sympathy for Sir Clements. He had spent years canvassing, appealing, negotiating, scheming for the British Antarctic venture. He still needed more finance and he thought that Bruce’s monies should have been added to Discovery’s coffers. He felt betrayed, but his prickly, vitriolic response was bound to excite antipathy. ‘Sorry to hear that an attempt is to be made in Edinburgh to divert funds from the Antarctic Expedition in order to get up a rival enterprise’. ‘Such a course will be most prejudicial to the Expedition…I do not understand why this mischievous rivalry should have been started…’ ‘trust you will not connect yourself with it’.

Scottish attitudes hardened. In Bruce they had a scientist and explorer with more experience of Polar research than anyone in Britain. In June 1900, Bruce outlined his plans in the Scottish Geographical Magazine emphasising that the Scottish expedition would go to the Weddell Sea and be complementary to other expeditions (‘Discovery’ went to the Ross Sea).

Further correspondence with Sir Clements corroded any hope of meaningful rapprochement. Bruce could not understand why his expedition was considered a rival to ‘Discovery’. He was also a proud man and Sir Clements’ comments must have insulted him. Sir Clements wrote that Bruce had volunteered to join ‘Discovery’ and that he (Sir Clements), had the right to prior consultation.

Further correspondence did not heal the breach and Bruce developed an implacable life –long antagonist to Sir Clements and a conviction that an English based establishment dominated Scotland. He had good reason to resent Sir Clements and the influence he wielded. Ten years after Bruce had made his impressive expedition to Antarctica on the ‘Scotia’, Sir Clements wrote a remarkable letter in the Royal Geographical Journal saying that the work of the Scottish expedition was of no use as regards Antarctic discovery (the then President responded to Bruce’s protest by writing that views expressed were those of the author and that the society could not turn down a communication from a man of Sir Clements’ stature). Bruce also blamed Sir Clements for the failure of his expedition members to be awarded the prestigious Polar Medal. He considered till his dying day that Sir Clements had caused an estrangement between him and the RGS after the Scotia expedition. He became passionate about the Scottish cause and was convinced by the idea of Scottish independence