Halley writes a difficult letter

We’ve seen from Halley’s tweets of his logbook how he was forced to abandon his voyage because of the behaviour of some of his officers, especially that of his lieutenant, Edward Harrison.

Now he’s arrived back in English waters, he must write to the Admiralty to inform them of his early return and the reasons for it – and in this letter, he tells us rather more about his difficulties with Harrison than he put down in his logbook.

(Halley to Burchett, dated 23 June 1699 from “Plimouth”, National Archives ADM 1/1871)

Honoured Sr

I this day arrived here with his Ma:ties Pink the Paramore in 6 weeks from the West Indies, having buried no man during the whole Voiage, and the Shipp being in a very good condition. I doubt not but their Lopps will be surprized at my so speedy return, but I hope my reasons for it will be to their satisfaction. For as, this time, it was too late in the year for me to go far to the Southwards, I feared that if I went down to Jamaica, and so to Virginia &c. the same inconvenience of being late might attend me in case their Lopps, as I humbly hope, do please that I proceed again for I find it will be absolutely necessary for me to be clear of the Channell by the end of August or at farthest by the middle of September. But a further motive to hasten my return was the unreasonable carriage of my Mate and Lieutenent, who, because perhaps I have not the whole Sea Dictionary so perfect as he, has for a long time made it his business to represent me, to the whole Shipps company, as a person wholy unqualified for the command their Lopps have given me, and declaring that he was sent on board here, because their Lopps knew my insufficiency. Your Honour knows that my dislike of my Warrant Officers made me Petition their Lopps, that my Mate might have the Commission of Lieutenent, therby the better to keep them in obedience, but with a quite contrary effect it has only served to animate him to attempt upon my Authority, and in order therto to side with the said officers against me. On the fifth of this month he was pleased so grossly to affront me, as to tell me before my Officers and Seamen on Deck, and afterwards owned it under his hand that I was not only uncapable to take charge of the Pink, but even of a Longboat; upon which I desired him to keep his Cabbin for that night, and for the future I would take charge of the Shipp my self, to show him his mistake: and accordingly I have watcht in his steed ever since, and brought the Shipp well home from near the banks of New found Land, without the least assistence from him. The many abuses of this nature I have received from him, has very sensibly toucht me, and made my voiage very displeasing and uneasy to me, nor can I imagine the cause of it, having endeavoured all I could to oblige him, but in vain. I take it that he envys me my command and conveniencies on bord, disdaining to be under one that has not served in the fleet as long as himself, but however it be I am sure their Lopps will think this intollerable usage, from one who ought to be as my right hand, and by his example my Warrant Officers have not used me much Better; so that if I may hope to proceed again I must entreat their Lopps to give me others in their rooms.

Notwithstanding that I have been defeated in my main design of discovery, yet I have found out such circonstances in relation to the Variation of the Compass, and the method of observing the Longitude at Sea, (which I have severall times practised on board with good success) that I hope to present their Lopps with something on those articles worthy of their Patronage. I humbly entreat yr Honour to expedite my orders into the Downs, and if it be their Lopps pleasure, that the Shipp continue there for some time, they please to give me leave to come up to waite upon them to give them a fuller account.

I am

Their Lordshipps and Your Honours most obedient servt

Edm. Halley

Poor Halley! I can just imagine him full of enthusiasm at the start of his voyage for everything he intends to achieve but then realising almost immediately that he will be thwarted by his recalcitrant lieutenant.

That “very displeasing and uneasy to me” speaks of much anxiety for Halley – and he’s still unaware that Harrison has a particular grudge against him, though it won’t be too long now before he learns of it.


4 thoughts on “Halley writes a difficult letter

    • Thank you! Yes, I have to say I find that letter rather upsetting. I think he must have been very unhappy during the voyage but he would have set out with such high hopes.

    • It’s a great letter, isn’t it? (Albeit an upsetting one.) As there seems to be so little personal stuff from Halley (no diary etc), I love these letters that give a glimpse of his personality – there’s another one coming up next week.

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