Halley writes from Bermuda

The Paramore anchored in St George’s Harbour, Bermuda, on Friday 21 June 1700 and Halley and his crew remained there for nearly three weeks. They were busy during that time, the crew careening the ship in order to clean her, and Halley taking the latitude and longitude of the island, observing the tides and coastal dangers, and buying a new stream anchor to replace the one they had lost at Barbados.


Bermuda, C17 (Wikimedia Commons)

Before leaving the island on 11 July, Halley wrote an informative letter to the Admiralty in London, describing his progress during the last few months:

(Halley to ?Burchett, dated 8 July 1700 from “Bermudas”, National Archives ADM 1/1871 (not autograph))

Honourd Sr

My last from St: Hellena, gave your Honour an Account of my Southern cruise, wherin I endeavoured to see the bounds of this Ocean on that side, but in Lattd. of 52°½ was intercepted with Ice cold and foggs Scarce credible at that time of the Year. haveing spent a Month to the Southwards of 40 degrees, and Winter comeing on, I stood to the Norwards Again and fell with the three Islands of Tristan da Cunha which yeilding us noe hope of refreshment, I went to St: Helena, where the continued rains, made the water soe thick with a brackish mudd, that when it settled it was scarce fitt to be drunke; all other necesarys that Island furnishes a Bundantley. at Trinidad we found excellent good water, but nothing else. Soe here I changed as much of my St Hellena water as I could, and proceeded to Fernambouc in Brassile, being desirous to hear if all were at peace in Europe, haveing had noe sort of Advice for near eight months, here one Mr. Hardwyck that calls himselfe English consull, shewed himselfe very desirous to make prize of me, as a pyrate and kept me under a guard in his house, whilst he went A Board to examine, notwithstanding I shewed him both my commisions and the smallness of my force for such a purpose, from hence in sixteen days I arrived at Barbados on the 21st of May, where I found the Island afflicted with a Severe pestilentiall dissease, which scarce spares any one and had it been as mortall as common would in a great measure have Depeopled the Island, I staied theire but three days, yet my selfe and many of my men were seazed with it, and tho it used me gently and I was soon up again yet it cost me my skin, my ships company by the extraordenary care of my Doctor all did well of it, and at present we are a very healthy ship: to morrow I goe from hence to coast alongst the North America and hope to waite on their Lordsps: my selfe within a month after the arrivall of this, being in great hopes, that the account I bring them of the variations and other matters may appear soe much for the publick benefitt as to give their Lordsps. intire satisfaction:

I am Your Hon:rs most

Obed:t Servant:

Edmond Halley

We’ve looked before at Halley’s encounter with icebergs, his stay on St Helena and his visit to Trinidad (modern Trindade), and read how Halley himself described being environed by “Islands of Ice” in the South Atlantic, but we can look now at some additional information concerning his arrest at Pernambuco and his illness at Barbados.

During his stay at Pernambuco Halley recorded In his logbook that:

Mr. Hardwick…desired me to call on him at his house this afternoon, where instead of Business he caused me to be Arrested, and a Portuguese Guard Sett over me … and I was given to understand that Mr. Hardwick had Acted in my Affair wth.out Authority being only impower’d to Act for the Affrican Company, and the Owners of the Shipp Hanniball wch. had been seized there as a Pirate and had no Commission of Consul

This “Mr. Hardwick” was one Joseph Hardwick who held the title of vice-consul in the city of Lisbon, from where the British envoy extraordinary, Paul Methuen, had given him authority to sail to Pernambuco “in Order to the takeing posession and remitting hither whatsoever remains there belonging to the ships Hanniball and Eagle which were Seized there last year [1697] by the Governours Order”. [1]

I haven’t had time to uncover the full story of the seizure of these ships but I noticed that Hardwick was specifically warned not to exceed his written authority, and so unless that authority had been extended in the two intervening years, I think that Halley was right to object that “Mr. Hardwick had Acted in my Affair wth.out Authority”.

The pestilential disease contracted by Halley and some of his crew at Barbados has not been identified, but a gastro-intestinal illness, yellow fever, and typhoid fever have all been proposed, the latter suggested by Halley’s remark in this letter that it “cost me my skin”. It’s interesting that he says that “it used me gently and I was soon up again”, because his log entries show that he was ill for quite some time, falling ill on 24 May and remarking that his strength was returning “but Slowly” on 5 June, which sounds like a lengthy illness to me. [2]

His doctor on both voyages was George Alfrey, whom Halley seems to have known before the first voyage as he specifically requested that the Admiralty warrant Alfrey to be his “Chirurgeon”, observing that Alfrey had “served in severall of his Ma:ties shipps for some years last past.” [3] And though not a fellow of the Royal Society himself, Alfrey apparently knew some of the fellows as he was in communication (as we shall see) with Hans Sloane and James Petiver. It’s possible that Alfrey died less than three years after this voyage ended, as there’s a George Alfrey, “Chirurgeon of Woolwich”, who died in 1703. I’m not sure it’s the same man, but two surgeons named George Alfrey in a maritime location seems fairly unlikely. [4]

In any event, Halley’s belief in Alfrey’s abilities seems to have been well-judged and it’s pleasing to read that “we are a very healthy ship” as Halley and his crew prepare for the homeward passage to England.


[1] Instructions to Joseph Hardwick, dated Lisbon 7 Feb 1698, National Archives, SP 89/17 Part 2, ff273r-27v.

[2] Norman Thrower mistranscribes this as “tho it used me greatly”, but the word is definitely “gently”. See Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore 1698-1701, (Hakluyt Society: London, 1980) p 308.

[3] Halley to the Lords of the Admiralty, 21 Sept 1698, National Archives, ADM 106/519/365.

[4] The contents of the will of the George Alfrey who died in 1703 (NA PROB 11/471/222) don’t settle whether he was/was not Halley’s doctor and I have some slight doubt that it’s the same man as this one may only have been 22 at the start of Halley’s first voyage, which seems rather young for a surgeon who had served for “some years last past”.

Halley’s maritime experience, part 2: his diving bell

In my last post we looked at the maritime experience that Halley had accumulated as a passenger, surveyor, and diver before receiving his commission as Paramore’s master and commander, and in this post we’ll examine his diving career more closely and take a look at my favourite thing about Halley - his diving suit!

Halley first wrote about a method for working underwater in 1689, proposing a mobile bell built upon four wheels. He discussed the effect that the weight and pressure of water had on a diver, and how water would compress air inside a bell, and rise higher as the bell descended. He suggested that if a way could be found to send air down to the bell, this would drive out the water and allow the diver - if wearing fishermen’s boots - to remain safe and dry inside. [1]

Robert Hooke was unimpressed, declaring Halley’s paper “the Same wth what I Shewed ye Society 25 years Since”, but diving and diving equipment have had a long and interesting history and probably neither Halley nor Hooke was quite as original as each believed himself to be, though Halley does deserve great credit for being one of the few designers who went on to build a bell – and even to go down in it. [2]

His opportunity came during his involvement in the salvage operation on the “Guynie Friggott”, a Royal African Company ship which foundered on the south coast near Pagham around 1 April 1691, and from May of that year Halley was delivering regular reports of his activities to the Royal Society with escalating enthusiasm.

At the meeting on 26 August, he read a paper describing the bell he had built in detail:

The Diving tub [a truncate cone] was made 5 foot at Bottom where it was open, 3 foot at top and 5 foot deep… and under the bell by three ropes I fastned a stage about 2½ foot below to stand on… Within the bell I placed a bench about a foot from the bottom for the men below to sitt on when they should be cold and where a man might sett with all his clouths at any depth drie. I made likewise in the top of the bell a window to let in the light which was very thick and strong but as clear glass as could be gotten, and I placed a small Cock in the same crown of the bell to let out the hot & effete air unfitt for further respiration. [3]

Halley reported that the deeper the bell sank, the higher the water rose within it, which he countered by his “principall invention” of adapting cask to be sent down filled with air, having a bunghole underneath through which water would enter, and a cock at the top (later a flexible tube) to release the compressed air when the cask was drawn into the bell and raised above water, thereby replenishing the bell’s air and lowering the level of the water.

By this means I have kept 3 men 1¾ [hours] under water and in ten fathoms deep without any the least inconvenience and in as perfect freedom to act as if they had been above.

That sounds fantastic, but four weeks later Halley read another paper to the Society and this time he was so excited by his creation that he “desire[d] to conserve to my self the right of priority of Invention”: this was Edmond’s diving suit. [4] But before we read his description, let’s pause to examine a nineteenth-century illustration of his apparatus, which appeared in Rees’s Cyclopædia and is shown with the permission of the Science Museum:


Halley’s Diving Bell (© Science Museum/Science & Society Picture Library, Image 10569667)

There are several depictions of Halley’s diving bell on the internet but this is the closest to Halley’s description. You can see it’s a truncate cone built of wood with a weighted stage beneath, attached by three strong ropes to the bell. Inside is a bench with a man sat “drie” in his “clouths”, and in the roof on the right is a cock to release the “effete air unfitt for further respiration”. To the right is a cask, delivering fresh air to the bell, and to the left is the diver, wearing a not entirely convincing version of Halley’s diving attire, topped off with… but let’s hear the description of that contrivance from Halley:

A Man having a suite of Leather fitted to his body, with a cap of Maintenance… cappable to hold 5 or 6 gallons [of air]… must have a pipe coming from the Diving bell to his Capp, to bring him Air, which will be returned by another pipe, which must go from the cap of Maintenance, to a small [receptacle] of Air ?placed above the Diver into which it is to return the air, that has been breathed; whilest the other brings it to the man… [5]

Well that’s splendid, but what precisely did this cap of maintenance look like? Halley describes it as a “small vessell on the head of the diver which from its shape and use I call a capp of maintenance”, which is a little puzzling as caps of maintenance sit on top of the head but this presumably fitted over the head and was akin to a small bell, as imagined in the illustration above. [6] In which case, the device seems unlikely to pass any health and safety assessment, as when the diver bent down to retrieve something or if he tripped, the cap would presumably have tilted and flooded with water!

But that’s a trifling objection and Halley was rightly undaunted, describing his own triumphant descent in the same paper:

Having fortified my self against cold by a double or triple flannel or knit woolen westcoat and excluded the water by a well liquored leather suit made fitt and close to the body, I make my self considerably heavier than water by adding a girdle of ledon shott… with this the diver can descend easily to the Diving tubb… [7]

I love that detail about the waistcoat. It’s a rare evocation of Edmond’s physical presence and it summons his wife Mary to mind. Did she knit the waistcoat? Did she help with the design and fit of his suit? Alas, we know nothing of Mary’s role or her view of his projects, but we do know more of the liquored suit as Halley later described the recipe for his waterproofing oil to the Royal Society. Here’s the relevant minute:

Halley’s Liquor for his Leather Suites was said by him to consist of equall parts Bees wax, Tallow, Turpentine, and as much Train oyle [whale oil] as all the rest, dipping therein, when all is scalding hott. [8]

Notice it’s now “Leather Suites”, plural, and I’m assuming that’s because he’s producing them for other divers engaged in the operation, rather than enlarging his private collection of niche-interest leatherwear. The suits seem to have been effective at keeping the divers dry and toasty as Halley – for one – was happy “to continu[e] there as long as I pleased”, while the glass window at the top admitted so much light into the bell that “I could see perfectly well to Write or Read” and “by the return of the Air-Barrels, I often sent up Orders, written with an Iron Pen on small Plates of Lead, directing how to move us from Place to Place as occasion required.” [9]

That was typical of Halley: when a subject caught his attention he explored it obsessively, and at Royal Society meetings throughout this period we find him reporting not just on improvements to his bell and attendant devices, but on the appearance of light below water, the strength of currents in streams, his experience of aural barotrauma (alleviated by “Oyle of Sweet Almonds”), and his idea for an instrument to measure the depth to which a diver had descended.

But it’s his diving suit that captured my own imagination: is it too fanciful to picture him donning his three waistcoats, his oiled leather suit, his fishermen’s boots, and his cap of maintenance, then lumbering downstairs to display himself to Mary, his servants and two young daughters? He must have been an impressive sight. Well, a sight, anyway.


[1] Royal Society, Halley Papers, Cl.P/21/28.

[2] Hooke, Diary, 6 March 1689, British Library, Sloane MS 4024. You can read a short history of diving here and here – or, if you simply want to see a picture of Alexander the Great in a diving tub, enlarge the second image shown here.

[3] RS, Cl.P/21/38.

[4] RS, Cl.P/21/39.

[5] Ibid.

[6] RS, Cl.P/21/40.

[7] Ibid.

[8] RS Minutes, 9 June 1692, JBO/9 p88.

[9] Halley, ‘The Art of Living under Water…’, Phil Trans (1714) Vol 29 pp 492-499. Well worth a read!

Halley’s maritime experience, part 1: Hally a Sayling

We looked at how Halley came to be given command of a Royal Navy ship during his first voyage and I said we’d examine the experience he had for that commission during his second, which we’ll do now in the first post of a two-part special.

In fact he had minimal maritime experience, though perhaps rather more than your average seventeenth-century natural philosopher, but the experience he did have was of 3 types: as a passenger, as a surveyor, and as a diver.

Halley was a passenger on three voyages as a young man, the first, as we have seen, when he abandoned his degree in 1676 to sail to St Helena to map the southern stars. The two-way voyage on an East Indiaman would have taken about 5 months, and as Halley seems to have had a life-long interest in maritime matters, it seems reasonable to assume he took the opportunity to observe how the ship was sailed, how the crew operated, and to pick up a smattering of nautical terminology.

One year after his return from St Helena, he was at sea again en route to visit the great astronomer, Johannes Hevelius, at Dantzick (Gdańsk) on the Baltic coast, and at the end of the following year, 1680, he crossed from Dover to Calais (and was apparently seasick) to begin his Grand Tour, returning to England from Holland in January 1682. [1] Again, it seems fair to expect that he paid at least some attention to the handling of the ships.

At the end of the decade, Halley progressed from maritime passenger to coastal surveyor, although his work as a surveyor is rather obscure, being largely inferred from his presentation of two charts to the Royal Society, the first of which appeared in the minutes for 3 July 1689:

Halley produced his Sea-draught of the Mouth of the River of Thames, wherein he saith, that He hath corrected severall very great, and considerable faults in all our Sea-Carts [sic] hitherto published. [2]

It isn’t known for sure when he undertook his survey of the Thames approaches but Robert Hooke recorded two entries in his diary – “Hally a Sayling” on 22 March 1689, and “Hally Returnd” on 3 April – which may relate to his surveying, although the previous summer Halley had made several references to towns near the Thames estuary which may indicate he had been surveying in the area at that time. [3]

His second survey, “of the West coast of Sussex between Selsey and Arundell”, was presented to the Society on 15 November 1693, [4] and this time we have rather more idea about the circumstances behind its production, as this chart was linked to his diving activities.

Halley first wrote about diving in a paper of 6 March 1689, perhaps prompted by his work on the Thames survey undertaken around that time. [5] Halley proposed a mobile diving bell built on four wheels, and while he didn’t build that particular bell, he did build another as part of his salvage work on the wreck of the Guynie frigate.

The Guynie was owned by the Royal African Company (RAC) and in early 1691 she returned from Africa to English waters, having collected “Bees Wax & Elephants Teeth” from Gambia and “Elephants Teeth & Redwood” from “Sereleon” (Sierra Leone). [6] On 23 February her commander, William Chantrell, wrote to the RAC from Falmouth requesting a convoy to accompany him back to London. The RAC instructed three of their most senior officers to “waite on the Lords of the Admiralty to gett a Man of Warr to Convoy the Guynie Friggott up from Falmouth”, which might seem a little excessive for beeswax and ivory, but the Guynie was carrying something much more valuable on board. [7]

Captain Chantrell had undertaken to deliver a large quantity of gold on behalf of the Portuguese in Africa, and it was on this account (presumably) that a convoy ship had been requested. [8] The Guynie sailed from Falmouth on 26 March, but on 4 April Captain Chantrell wrote from Chichester to advise the RAC that the ship had foundered. [9] It isn’t clear what happened to the ship, but there’s no mention of any lost men and the gold seems to have been saved as on 8 April the RAC ordered that “a Guard of Tenn Soldjers & an Officer be sent from hence to fetch the Gold (saved out of that Shipp) from Chichester”. [10]

The ivory, however, went down with the ship, and it’s in this regard that Halley now appears in the affair. The Deputy Governor of the RAC was Royal Society fellow, Abraham Hill, and it may have been he who brought Halley in to try to salvage the elephants’ tusks. Halley’s initial plan was certainly ambitious as on 13 May 1691 the Royal Society minutes record that “Halley shewed the Method he intended to use in raising the Ship”, but this plan was evidently modified as on 12 August, he was relating “the Success of his Experiments of going under water in his diving bell”.

Halley believed his diving bell had limitless possibilities, and on 15 September a government warrant was issued to prepare a bill granting Halley and three partners “sole use of their invention of a new engine never yet known”, and Letters Patent were issued on 15 October. On 17 November, the four patent-holders formed a joint-stock company with two other men, John Carter and Thomas Jett, who was a friend of Halley’s. [11]

Halley's signature on the agreement forming the joint-stock company (© National Archives, C 111/192)

Halley’s signature on the agreement forming the joint-stock company (© National Archives, C 111/192)

Thomas Jett, incidentally, is interesting because he is the “Jed” in Hooke’s Diary entry for 24 March 1693, “Hally & Jed Spys”, which offers a hint (there are one or two others) that Halley may have undertaken coastal surveys on behalf of the government. [12]

Halley and Jett appear periodically in the RAC minutes until about spring 1694, though their level of success in salvaging the tusks is unclear – and by that time Halley had become involved in the scheme with Benjamin Middleton to obtain a ship to sail around the world, which, when a scaled-down version finally got underway in late 1698, would see Halley drawing on all his modest maritime experience to serve as the Paramore‘s commander.

In part 2 of this post about Halley’s nautical experience, we’ll take a much closer look at his diving bell – and at my favourite thing about him!


[1] Hooke to Halley, 1 March 1681, Royal Society, EL/H3/62; Hooke, Diary, 24 Jan 1682, London Metropolitan Archives.

[2] Royal Society, Journal Book Original, JBO/8 p 268.

[3] Hooke, Diary, 22 March 1689 and 3 April 1689, British Library, Sloane MS 4024; references to towns in RS, JBO/8.

[4] RS, JBO/9 p 141.

[5] For a fair copy of Halley’s paper, see RS, RBO/7/24.

[6] RAC Instructions to Captains, National Archives, T 70/61 ff87r-88v.

[7] RAC Minutes, NA, T 70/83.

[8] RAC Black Book, NA, T 70/1433 p 104.

[9] NA, T 70/83 f8r.

[10] Ibid.

[11] CSP, D, 1690-91; NA C111/192.

[12] BL, Sloane MS 4024. Many thanks to Hooke’s editor Dr Felicity Henderson for confirming this entry as it has hitherto appeared mistranscribed.

Halley falls ill

800px-Isaac_Sailmaker_-_The_Island_of_Barbados_-_Google_Art_Project - Version 2

The Island of Barbados by Isaac Sailmaker, c1694 (Wikimedia Commons)

On 21 May 1700, the Paramore arrives at “Barbadoes” and anchors in Carlisle Bay, but this will be no island paradise for Halley as disease is rampant and the governor, Ralph Grey, advises Edmond to leave quickly and prevent his men from going ashore – though as these log extracts show, that advice is already too late for Halley:

[21 May 1700, extract] Yesterday about 5h in the afternoone wee raised the Island of Barbadoes, the midle of it bearing West halfe South by Compass 10 Leagues off. Wee Stood in wth. it till midnight, then wee Stood off and on till day… About noon wee ankor’d in Carlisle Bay in 5 fathome Water. Here I found his Majesties Shipp the Speedwell under Sail for England.

[22 May 1700, extract] I went up into the Country to Wait on the Governour the hon.able Ralph Grey Esqr. who advised me to make no more Stay than was absolutely Necessary by reason the Island had not been knowne so Sickly as at present, the Bridge Towne Especially, and for that reason to take care to keep my Men on board.

[24 May 1700, extract] I weighed from Barbadoes this Morning and whilst busey getting under Sail I found my Selfe Seized wth the Barbadoes desease, wch in a litle time made me So weake I was forced to take [to] my Cabbin. I order’d my Mate to shape his Course for St. Cristophers.

This is one of the few occasions that Halley is known to have fallen ill. There is a reference to a “quotidian Ague wch held me for some time indisposed” in a 1696 letter, and elsewhere we learn that when “attacked with a slight fever on catching cold, he used to take…half an ounce of Jesuit’s bark in water-gruel, which he called his chocolate, and by which he was always relieved.” [1] “quotidian Ague”? “slight fever”? Clearly Halley was not the type to suffer that most alarming of ailments, the life-threatening ‘man-flu’.

Aside from the “Barbadoes desease”, his only known serious illness was a “paralytic disorder” he suffered about a year after his wife’s death, which left him with a paralysis in his right hand (he and Mary had been married for 54 years when she died in 1736). [2] Otherwise, he enjoyed good health and “preserved his memory and judgment to the last, as he did also that particular chearfulness [sic] of spirit for which he was remarkable.” [3] However, in his final year he was “wholly supported by such cordials as were ordered by his Physician [Richard Mead], till being tired with these he asked for a glass of wine, and having drank it presently expired as he sat in his chair without a groan” about three months after his 85th birthday. [4]

But what was the “Barbadoes desease” that Edmond fell prey to in May 1700? Norman Thrower sought the opinions of several specialists in tropical diseases during the preparation of his edition of Halley’s voyages, and their conjectures included a gastro-intestinal illness, yellow fever (endemic in the Caribbean), and typhoid fever (because of a remark Halley will make in his next letter about his skin). [5]

It seems unlikely the disease can now be diagnosed with certainty, given the near-absence of information from Halley regarding his symptoms, but if the conditions experienced by an earlier traveller to Barbados still obtained, then an infection spread via contaminated food and water seems highly probable.

In his 1657 work, A True & Exact History Of the Island of Barbadoes, Richard Ligon wrote that when he arrived at Barbados (1647) “the sickness raign’d so extreamly as the living could hardly bury the dead; and…they threw dead carcases into the bog, which infected so the water, as divers that drunk of it were absolutely poysoned, and dyed in a few hours after”, and later he noted that the Barbadians washed themselves and their linen in the pond water they used “to boyl their meat, to make their drink”, which he found “a little loathsome” and so took his own water from a nearby rivulet. [6]

We must hope that Halley too has refilled his cask from a less deadly source…


[1] Halley to ?Sloane, from Chester, Nov 1696, Royal Society EL/H3/51; Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2516, note bbbb.

[2] Biographia Britannica, Vol IV (1757) p 2516.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid. Halley died on 14 January 1741/2.

[5] NJW Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore, 1698-1701 (Hakluyt Society: London, 1981) p 46, note 3.

[6] R Ligon, A True & Exact History Of the Island of Barbadoes (London, 1657; 2nd edn, 1673) pp 25 and 28.

Halley arrested!

After depositing his “Hoggs” on the island of Trinidad (Trindade), Halley sailed west towards Pernambuco (Recife) and arrived there on 29 April 1700. A local pilot brought Paramore safely into the harbour and Halley then went to call on the Portuguese governor, whom he found “very obligeing” – though an Englishman he also encountered there proved rather less obliging when he had Halley arrested! Here’s how Edmond reported the incident in his logbook:

Edward Teach, a pirate (Wikimedia Commons)

Edward Teach, a pirate (Wikimedia Commons)

[30 Apr 1700] This day one Mr. Hardwick who calls himselfe English Consull begann to show himselfe suspitious that we might be Pirates, and told me the Governour had promised to detain us, till wee had acquitted our Selves to him, wch. my two Commissions and Subsequient orders woud not doe though he had noe objection against them

[1 May 1700, extract] Mr. Harwick took two of my Seamen under Examination a part & wrote downe the Account they gave him wch. he told me did agree wth. what I had told him my selfe, wherefore I supposed him Satisfyed, and gott my Wine & other things on Board intending to Saile the next day.

[2 May 1700] Mr. Hardwick pretending further Jealousie [suspicion], desired me to call on him at his house this afternoon, where instead of Business he caused me to be Arrested, and a Portuguese Guard Sett over me whilest he went and Searched my Shipp, wch. he did without ever acquainting me, but finding no Signes of Piracie on Board he came and discharged me of my Guard begging my pardon and Excusing it that what he had Done was to give Satisfaction To the Portuguese who were Jalous of me, as not comprehending my Business

Edmond Halley, not a pirate (© Royal Society, RS.9284)

Edmond Halley, not a pirate  (© Royal Society, RS.9284)

[3 May 1700] The next day resolving to Saile I found the Pilot wou’d not put us out of the Harbour wth.out the Goverours order, wch. I this day obtained, and I was given to understand that Mr. Hardwick had Acted in my Affair wth.out Authority being only impower’d to Act for the Affrican Company, and the Owners of the Shipp Hanniball wch. had been seized there as a Pirate and had no Commission of Consul

Halley will write a little more about this affair in his next letter to the Admiralty, so we’ll return to the matter then, but for now he’s escaped the attentions of the pirate-fixated rogue-consul and is sailing towards the West Indies.

Halley’s Hoggs

Since leaving St Helena, Halley has sailed westwards in search of the islands of Martin Vaz and Trinidad*, an archipelago roughly 1,200km off the east coast of Brazil. They saw the three islands of Martin Vaz on the morning of 14 April 1700 and they reached the larger island of Trinidad on the 15th, anchoring on its west side.

They went ashore to look for water, which they quickly found, but then staved some of their cask on the rocky shore as they tried to get them back in the boat. The Paramore had drifted and so they stood further out to sea overnight on the 16th, and on the 17th:

This morning wee moored in 18 fathom on the west Side of the Isle, the north part being ENE, the South part SE, and the high Steep Rock like a Nine-pinn ESE.

Map of Trinidad, c1889 (Wikimedia Commons)

Map of Trinidad (Trindade), c1889 (Wikimedia Commons)

If you look at the west side of the map above, you can see the Ninepin rock near Bird Island, and a little further round the coast the word ‘cascade’ where they probably obtained their water. The east and north coasts are dangerously rocky, and while boats can land on the west, it’s not hard to imagine them staving their cask on the rocky shore.

The map derives from a book by Edward Frederick Knight, which details the second of two voyages he made to the island of Trinidad. He undertook the second voyage in 1889 in a ship named the Alerte to search for treasure (!), which he believed to be buried in the South West Bay – you can see his camp marked on the north of the bay. [1]

I haven’t read the whole book but it contains useful information relating to Halley’s voyage, especially regarding this next sentence in Halley’s logbook for April 17:

Whilest the Long Boate brought more Water on Board I went a Shore and put Some Goats and Hoggs on the Island for breed, as also a pair of Guiney Hens I carry’d from St. Helena.

In his book, Knight tells us that the best description of Trinidad he’s encountered is in the novel Frank Mildmay by Captain Marryat and that it is “easy to identify every spot mentioned in that book”. [2] Marryat writes of “the goats [and] wild hogs, with which we found the island abounded” and that on the summit they saw a herd of goats, including one “as large as a pony”. [3]

But Knight himself writes:

We saw no goats or hogs, and I am confident that none are now left alive. We did, however, in the course of our digging discover what appeared to be the bones of a goat. It is well known that these animals once abounded here. Captain Halley, of the ‘Paramore Pink’,… landed on this island April 17, 1700, and put on it some goats and hogs for breeding, as also a pair of guinea-fowl which he carried from St. Helena. [4]

Wild hogs (Steve Hillebrand/Wikimedia Commons)

Wild hogs (Steve Hillebrand/Wikimedia Commons)

He also mentions that an American commander, Amaso Delano, visited the island in 1803 and found plenty of goats and hogs, and then speculates that the “teeming land-crabs” have now “gobbled all these up”. [5]

Knight seems pretty unimpressed by these land crabs (“a loathsome lot of brutes” with a “cynical and diabolic expression”) but Halley doesn’t mention them at all. [6]

Halley’s final remark for April 17 is, however, extremely interesting:

And I tooke possession of the Island in his Majties. name, as knowing it to be granted by the Kings Letters Pattents, leaving the Union Flagg flying

This act of planting the Union Jack on Trinidad prompted a minor diplomatic incident nearly 200 years later. The island seems to have had a more lively history than can be covered here, but it was ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese in the sixteenth-century, visited by Halley in 1700, declared a principality by a self-styled prince in 1893, and then on 24 July 1895, a Times reporter writes from Rio de Janeiro that:

There is growing excitement here about the British occupation of Trinidad Island. The Brazilian Government has sent two notes to the British Legation emphatically protesting against the occupation… [7]

The British wanted it as a convenient station for transatlantic cables and apparently they based their claim on Halley’s visit:

Reuter’s Agency is informed on good authority that the British title to Trinidad Island dates from 1700, when it was taken possession of by Dr. Halley… [8]

Two weeks later The Times gave more detail about Halley’s visit during his “celebrated scientific cruise” in the “strangely named sloop the Paramour Pink” and noted that he was “said to have left some pigs and sheep [sic] behind him, but after an unsuccessful struggle for existence they succumbed to inanition or the land crabs.” [9]

It seems that no public claim of ownership of Trinidad had been made by Brazil since gaining independence from Portugal, but Britain was “ready to discuss in a friendly spirit” any claim that Brazil may wish to assert, and suggested the issue be resolved through arbitration. Portugal acted as arbiter and Britain peacefully accepted her ruling in favour of Brazil. Perhaps the disappearance of Halley’s hogs had made it suddenly seem that much less attractive?

* These islands are now known as Arquipélago de Trindade e Martim Vaz and are not to be confused with the West Indies island of Trinidad. Trinidad is the spelling used for Halley’s island in all the original texts cited in this post.


[1] EF Knight, The Cruise of the Alerte (London, 1890), p 185. Chapter IX is actually called ‘Treasure Island At Last’.

[2] Ibid, pp 204 and 209.

[3] F Marryat, The Naval Officer; or, scenes and adventures in the life of Frank Mildmay (London, 1829), pp 209-210.

[4] Knight, The Cruise of the Alerte, p 173.

[5] Ibid, pp 170 and 173.

[6] Ibid, p 165.

[7] The Times, Thurs 25 Jul 1895, p 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Times, Tues 6 Aug 1895, p 7.

Halley writes from St Helena

Before leaving St Helena, Halley sent a letter to the Admiralty – there’s no addressee but it’s presumably the Secretary, Josiah Burchett. He tells Burchett about the great danger they encountered among the “Islands of Ice” and also that he has “noe reason to doubt” that he will be able to derive a general theory of compass variation from his observations that will help mariners find their longitude at sea.

The letter isn’t in Halley’s handwriting, and I’ve made some minor changes to the punctuation and split it into two paragraphs to make it easier to read, but left the spelling as written.

(Halley to ?Burchett, dated 30 March 1700 from St Helena, National Archives ADM 1/1871)

Hono:rd Sr

I must Intreat You to lay before the Lords of the Admty this account of what I have done in execution of the Orders I Received from them. Since my last from St. Iago, which I hope came long since to Your hands, haveing not been able to fetch Madera by reason of the winds shifting upon me, I was Obleged to putt into Ryo Jennero in Brasile to gett some Rumm for my ships company, from whence I wrote you a letter which I suppose will not be in Engl[and] soe soon as this. I left Ryo Jennero on the 29° of December last and stood to the Southward till the 1st of February, when being gotten into my Station Vizt in Lattd: 52°½ and 35° west Longitude from London, we fell in with great Islands of Ice, of soe Incredible a hight and Magnitude, that I scarce dare write my thoughts of it. At first we took it for land with chaulky clifts, and the topp all covered with snow, but we soon found our mistake by standing in with it, and that it was nothing but Ice, though it could not be less then ?200 foot high, and one Island at least 5 mile in front. We could not get ground in 140 fadtham, Yet I conceive it was a ground, Ice being very little lighter then water and not above an Eight part above the Surface when it swims. It was then the hight of Summer, but we had noe other singe of it but long Days; it froze both night and day, whence it may be Understood how these bodies of Ice are generated being allways increased and never thawing.

The next day February the 2d. we were in Imminent Danger to looss our ship and lives, being Invironed with Ice on all sides in a fogg soe thick, that we could not see it till was ready to strike against it, and had it blowne hard it had scarce been possible to escape it: Soe I stood to the Northward to get clear of it, which in the Lattd. of 50° I did, and their Saw the last Ice. In my way hither I Discoverd* the Isles of Tristan da Cunha, and in Eleaven Weeks from Ryo Jennero I arrived at this Island, to fill my Water and refrezen my men, and in this whole course I have found noe reason to doubt of an exact conformity in the variations of the compass to a generall Theory, which I am in great hopes to settle effectually

I am

Honord Sr.

Your most Obedt Servt

Edmond Halley

* “Discoverd” here simply means ‘saw’

Return to St Helena

We last saw Halley encountering a storm as he sailed from Tristan da Cunha towards the Cape of Good Hope. A few days later he found the storm had blown him northwards of the Cape, and as his water supplies were low and he didn’t want to delay his voyage by heading back south, he decided to sail on to St Helena, arriving in Jamestown harbour on 12 March 1700.


Town of St James, Island of St Helena, 1794 (Wikimedia Commons)

Now I’ve mentioned before that one of the most disappointing aspects of Halley’s logbook is that he records very few observations about the places and peoples he encounters, and nowhere is this more frustrating than during his visit to St Helena – for this is not Halley’s first trip to the island, it was here that he acquired a Europe-wide reputation by the young age of 22.

Edmond was a nineteen-year-old undergraduate at Oxford when in July 1676 he sat down to write a reply to the Royal Society’s Secretary, Henry Oldenburg. He and Oldenburg had been corresponding about a paper that would be Edmond’s first appearance in the Philosophical Transactions and after some remarks about his paper, he asks if Oldenburg knows whether a work then in the press at Paris would contain a catalogue of the southern stars because:

if that work be yet undone, I have some thoughts to undertake it my self, and go to St Helena… by the next East Indie fleet, and to carry with me, large and accurate Instruments, sufficient to make a good cataloge of those starrs, and to compleat the Celestiall globe… I will willingly adventure my self, upon this enterprize, if I find the proposition acceptable, and that the East Indie company will cause me to be kindly used there, which is all I desire as to my self, and if I can have any consideracon for one to assist me; this Sr I propose to you desireing your advice as to what inconveniences there may be, and if you think my design may meet with sutable encouragement. [1]

The young and ambitious Halley was concerned that with Flamsteed, Hevelius and Cassini all at work on star catalogues, there would be no room for him to make his mark and so he decided to travel to the southern hemisphere to map the stars not visible from Europe, which had so far received little attention from astronomers.

His design did meet with “sutable encouragement” and through the influence of his patrons, Sir Jonas Moore and Sir Joseph Williamson, a letter was sent from the king to the East India Company requesting that they give free passage to Halley and his friend James Clark (Clarke or Clerke) on their next ship to St Helena, at that time under the Company’s governance.

Halley left Oxford without taking his degree, and he and Clark sailed from England around Edmond’s 20th birthday on board the East Indiaman, Unity, arriving at St Helena by early February 1677. Halley tells us he took a newly-made sextant, a new pendulum clock, an old quadrant, and several telescopes including his 24 footer, and on arrival he and Clark began building a basic observatory from which to deploy them. [2]

But things didn’t then go quite as planned owing to the continually adverse weather, and in November 1677 Halley wrote to Jonas Moore that:

such hath been my ill fortune, that the Horizon of this Island is almost always covered with a Cloud, which sometimes for some weeks together hath hid the Stars from us, and when it is clear, is of so small continuance, that we cannot take any number of Observations at once; so that now, when I expected to be returning, I have not finished above half my intended work; and almost despair to accomplish what you ought to expect from me. [3]

Oh dear, he’s travelled a long way to be thwarted by cloud-cover, but Halley’s not the type to be easily defeated and so to simplify the process and maximise the number of star positions he could observe, he based his own measurements on reference stars from Tycho Brahe’s catalogue, so that if Tycho’s star places (taken before the advent of telescopes) were rendered more accurate in future, his own positions could then be accordingly adjusted.

By the time he and Clark left the island in March 1678 on board the Golden Fleece, Halley had observed 341 stars, as well as a lunar and a solar eclipse, and a transit of Mercury – and by the autumn he’d produced a catalogue of his results, published the following year and the first to feature observations made using telescopic sights. [4] Halley also produced a planisphere in which he outlined a new constellation Robur Carolinum (Charles’s Oak), named to mark the occasion when King Charles had hid in an oak tree after his defeat at the Battle of Worcester.

The right ascensions and declinations of the principal fixed stars in both hemispheres to year 1678

Halley’s planisphere of the southern stars. Robur Carolinum is right of centre below the Centaur’s hooves (© NMM, Image B4225). The work was engraved by James Clark, presumably the friend who accompanied Halley but I haven’t been able to confirm that.

The catalogue and planisphere were well-received, with Flamsteed dubbing Halley “our Southern Tycho”, and Halley was rewarded with an MA by royal mandate, election to the Royal Society, and the esteem of Europe’s foremost astronomers. [5]

* * *

And now Halley is back on St Helena, scene of his youthful ambition. What went through his mind as he sailed into Jamestown harbour? Did he enquire after old acquaintances? Go in search of the observatory built with his friend James Clark over 20 years previously? Did he reflect on the path his life had taken since that first visit? He gives us no hint whatsoever, he tells us only that it rained heavily – plus ça change…

If anyone from St Helena can confirm that Halley’s Mount is pronounced ‘Hawley’, please let me know via the comments. Thanks!


[1] Halley to Oldenburg, 8 July 1676, Royal Society EL/H3/38.

[2] The location of Halley’s observatory isn’t certain but there is a monument set up on what is thought the likely site on a ridge known as Halley’s Mount. You can see the monument here and the wider view here (the walls are probably from a later construction).

[3] Halley to Moore, 22 November 1677, in MacPike, Correspondence and Papers of Edmond Halley (London, 1937), pp 39-41.

[4] Halley, Catalogus Stellarum Australium (London, 1679); it was subtitled (in Latin) Supplement to the Tychonic Catalogue. The transit of Mercury on 28 October 1677 gave Halley the idea (subsequent to James Gregory) that a transit of Venus would be the most useful method of estimating the sun’s distance from the earth, a method he would later vigorously promote to those future astronomers who would be alive to observe the late C18 transits.

[5] Flamsteed, The Doctrine of the Sphere (London, 1680), Preface. How Flamsteed must later have regretted this remark! The context of it was more complex than can be covered here, but we might look at the toxic relationship between Halley and Flamsteed later this year.

Stormy weather

I said I wouldn’t be writing any posts for a few weeks while I completed a couple of essays, but I thought I should put up Halley’s report of a severe storm for those readers who aren’t able to follow his log entries on Twitter.

On 24 February 1700, Halley reported the weather as “squally and uncertain” and on the 26th there’s a moderate gale until 5.00pm, when:

National Maritime Museum (PW8025)

… the Wind came to SbW fresh with much rain but before night we were forced to go under a foresale only; by Midnight we were forced to Scudd before it; the Storm encreasing till daylight with a Terrible high Sea[.] about Six this Morning a greate Sea broke in upon our Starboard quarter, and withall threw us [so] that we had likt to have oversett; the Deck being full of Water, which had a clear passage over the Gunnell, but it pleased God She wrighted again. So we handed our Foretopsaile and Scudded a hull till this day Noon; The Fury of the Storm Seeming to abate, but the Sea running Mountains high…

You’re probably used to Edmond’s plain prose by now and suspect the situation may have been more dramatic than his writing* style conveys – as dramatic, perhaps, as this account by our old friend the Reverend Henry Teonge, who entertained us at Christmas with two excited descriptions of seasonal feasts. Here, in his characteristic breathless manner, Henry writes of a storm his ship encountered off the coast of Portugal in September 1676:

[16 Sept 1676, extract] Raine, and very stormy; and the seas runn very high. At 6 in the afternoone the storm splitt our fore-sayle all into bitts, and very much rent our new maine-sayle. Wee tooke in that, and bent another maine-sayle, which was no sooner spread, but rent; so that wee were forced to lye under a mizon all that cruell night. The wind grew more stronge, and the seas more furiouse… Now wee ship severall seas; our men are all tyred with pumping and bayling. And wee expect every sea to breake our ship in peices.


State Library of Victoria/Wikimedia

[17 Sept 1676, extract] About 4 in the morning the seas groe far more outragious, and breake clearly over our quarter deck; drive our hen-cubbs over-board; and washed on[e] of our seaman cleane off the crotchett-yard. A second sea cam[e], and threw downe all our boomes; brake boath pinnace, and longe boat, on the decks. A third cam[e], and flung our anchor off the ship syd, flung the bell out of place, brake off the carving, and pulld 2 planks a sunder in the midst of the ship… Our forecastle was broake all downe longe before. Now the men are all dishartened, and all expect nothing but the losse of ship and life. Our larboard gunnhill all broake up, a whole planke almost out betweene decks; men swimming about in the wa[i]st of the ship; and greate seas often breaking over us. [1]

Happily, Henry’s “tottered ship” made it back to Deptford, where he was relieved to disembark “the rottenest frigot that ever cam to England”.

Halley’s ship didn’t suffer the damage incurred by the Assistance but his rare use of ‘God’ indicates the extremity of their situation. [2] His literary style may be far more measured than Henry’s, but the scene on the Paramore was perhaps similarly dramatic.

* Of course Halley is dictating the text to his clerk.


[1] The Diary of Henry Teonge, Chaplain On Board His Majesty’s Ships Assistance, Bristol, and Royal Oak, Anno 1675 to 1679 (London, 1825).

[2] Halley had a reputation for being irreligious and he only refers to ‘God’ 3 times in his logbooks, all in the second, and all when their lives are imperilled.

Land ahoy?

If you’re unable to follow Halley on Twitter, you’ve missed a bit of excitement over the last few days – here’s what happened:

[1 Feb 1700, extract; Lat 52°24' S] Yesterday in the Afternoon with a fresh Gale at NbW, I steard away ESE, and between 4 and 5 we were fair by three Islands as they then appeard; being all flatt on the Top, and covered with Snow, milk white, with perpendicular Cliffs all round them, they had this appearance, and bearing [*]


The greate hight of them made us conclude them land, but there was no appearance of any tree or green thing on them, but the Cliffs as well as the topps were very white, our people calld A by the Name of Beachy head, which it resembled in form and colour, and the Island B in all respects was very like the land of the Northforeland in Kent, and was as least as high and not less than five Miles in Front, The Cliffs of it were full of Blackish Streaks which seemed like a fleete of Shipps Standing out to us. Wind blowing fresh, and night in hand, and because our vessell is very leewardly, I feard to engage with the Land <or Ice> that night, and haveing Steard in as farr as I durst, I resolved to Stand off and on till day, when weather permitting I would send my boat to see what it was. In the night it proved foggy, and continued so till this day at noon, when by a clear glare of Scarce ¼ of an hour we saw the Island wee calld beachy head very distinctly to be nothing elce but one body of Ice of an incredible hight, whereupon we went about Shipp and Stood to the Northward.

[2 Feb 1700, extract] We Stood to the Norward all day close hald, at night we tackt and Stood to the Southards to spend the dark. [B]etween 11 and 12 this day we were in eminant danger of loosing our Shipp among the Ice, for the fogg was all the morning so thick, that we could not See a furlong about us, when on a Sudden a Mountain of Ice began to appear out of the Fogg…this we made a shift to weather when another appeard more on head with severall peices of loose Ice round about it; this obliged us to Tack, and had we mist Stayes, we had most Certainly been a Shore on it, and we had not beene halfe a quarter of an hour under way when anothr mountain of Ice began to appear…which obliged us to tack again, with the like danger of being on Shore: but the Sea being smooth and the Gale Fresh wee got Clear: God be praised: This danger made my men reflect on the hazzards wee run…and of the inevitable loss of us all, in case we Staved our Shipp which might soe easily happen amongst these mountains of Ice in the Foggs, which are so thick and frequent there.

Gosh, I’m not surprised his crew began to reflect on the dangers of their situation!

We’re witnessing Halley and his crew seeing something – an iceberg – for the first time in their lives and they can’t quite grasp what it is they’re seeing. They initially think it’s land with high chalky cliffs, but then come to realise it’s nothing but ice. In a later letter, Halley says they couldn’t sound ground at 140 fathoms (≈840ft/256m) but, estimating their height at 200 feet [‡] and being aware that “not Above an Eight part” of floating ice appears above the surface, Halley cannot conceive that the ‘islands’ are floating and thinks they must be grounded.

A tabular iceberg (Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikimedia Commons)

A tabular iceberg (Jerzy Strzelecki/Wikimedia Commons)

Now I expect that many of you are like me and have rarely experienced total darkness. Last year I spent a few days on the Kent coast (on the North Foreland in fact) and was surprised by how dark it was looking out to sea when almost all the lights were extinguished. I could only see a few metres in front of the hotel (where there was some lighting), but beyond that, nothing but inky blackness.

This gave me some idea of what it must have been like on a seventeenth century ship in the middle of the ocean, how nothing would have been visible unless there was moonlight, and daytime visibility would have been little better in a thick fog. It must have been quite terrifying for Halley and his crew when these huge, white ‘mountains’ suddenly loomed out of the fog, dwarfing their little ship. It seems to me they were extremely lucky to escape the icebergs – and it’s a horrid thought that had they hit one, they would have all been lost and no-one would ever have known what happened to them.

But Halley’s one of those people who seems to make his own luck and the Paramore, while not yet out of danger, has made it through the worst and is heading now towards warmer climes.

[*] This is an indicative drawing by me of Halley’s original sketch; it is not identical.

[‡] This number is no longer clear in the letter (NA, ADM 1/1871) as the edge is frayed, but Thrower gives it as 200. We’ll take a look at the letter on the relevant date.

PLEASE NOTE: There’ll be a break of a few weeks in blog posts while I focus on writing essays for my course, but I’ll be tweeting Edmond’s log entries every day as usual @HalleysLog.