Halley Redux

I recently completed my MA at Birkbeck, after submitting my (delayed) dissertation on Halley’s maritime science. The dissertation looked at Halley’s work on oceanography and meteorology, navigation and cartography, and diving and salvage, as well as his legacy and reputation in maritime affairs. One of the things I concluded was that while Halley’s maritime activities were well known in the eighteenth century, they became lost from sight in the nineteenth, when the dispute between Newton and Halley (on the one side) and Flamsteed (on the other) dominated the history of science. There was renewed interest among academics during the twentieth century – in his cartography and geomagnetic theories in particular – but these studies were not aimed at the general reader, and so his voyages and important cartographic work remain largely unknown.

This seems regrettable, given that Halley’s voyages have a strong claim to being the first government-funded expeditions for purely scientific purposes, and that they predated the ever-popular Cook voyages by almost 70 years (and Cook’s first voyage was prompted by a paper of Halley’s!). So I’ve decided to continue my own attempts to raise awareness of Halley’s voyages with a repeat run of his logbooks on Twitter.

As on the first run, Halley will tweet his ship’s journals from his account @HalleysLog around 9.00pm London time (though he doesn’t make an entry every day). If you’re not on Twitter, you can still follow the logs via the Twitter widget on the Home page of this blog, and he’ll weigh from Deptford on 20 October (1698). During the first run (2012-2015), I published posts on the blog to elucidate events in the logbooks and these will remain visible throughout the repeat run, but I will set each entry as a featured post on the Home page as it arises in the narrative and Halley will tweet a link to it from his account. I don’t intend to make many changes to the posts, but I will probably revise one or two.

I’m due to start a PhD on Halley in January 2017 (on his social and cultural world), and I’m preparing a new blog to run in tandem with that – but I’ll say more about that project next year. In the meantime, thank you for your interest in Edmond Halley and for reading this blog!

'...Being a Relation of their Perils and Dangers, and of the extraordinary Hazards they undergo in their noble Adventures...' (© National Library of Scotland-Crawford 1399, EBBA ID 33925)

‘Neptune’s Raging Fury’, a broadside ballad about mariners dating from the mid-1690s, ‘Being a Relation of their Perils and Dangers, and of the extraordinary Hazards they undergo in their noble Adventures…’ (© National Library of Scotland-Crawford 1399, EBBA ID 33925)

Halley’s third logbook

I said at the start of this Channel voyage that I wouldn’t be live-tweeting the logbook as I’d done for Halley’s two Atlantic voyages, as I felt the high proportion of technical data would be of little interest to the general reader. That was a pity as the third logbook is the only one handwritten by Halley, and so from that point of view it’s an interesting document.

In fact I did tweet a few entries at the start of the voyage and I’m doing so again now at the end as these entries contain more general information – but to give you a flavour of the main substance of the log, here’s a typical entry in which Halley records soundings and the times and lunar positions of the tides:

[Sat, June 21] about 9h in the Morn I weighd and stood off to Sea, with a gentle gale of ENE wind, and about One after noon came to an anker in 18 fath. the Ness Light baring NNW; and Calis cliff ENE. here the westward tide was done at 5h.35′, or three hours and half before the Moons Southing. whence I concluded the course of the Tides here the same as at the Ness. viz that a II½ Moon ends the Eastern Tide. at 6h I weighd and stood to the eastward with a small gale of SSW wind, and about 9h fell with the West end of the Riprapps which is a narrow rigd of soft sand. I crost it severall times in 9, 8 and 7 fath and the Eastern tide being near done, I came to an anker in that depth the Ness light baring WNW and that of the South Foreland NbE p[er] Compass. here I rode two tides and found the Eastern tide done on a SW or NE Moon nearest. that it flowed about three fath. that it runs half tide here as by the Shore and that the Sett of the Stream is nearest NE and SW.

We’ll consider the purpose of this data when we look at the results of the voyage, but in this post I want to focus on what I like to call The Mystery of Halley’s Clerks.

Now that remark may excite expectations that this post will struggle to satisfy for this is not a tale of clerks going to sea and mysteriously disappearing, but rather a puzzle about what exactly the clerks did on the voyages – why, for example, was the third logbook written up by Halley and not by his clerk?

The clerk on the third voyage was one Richard Pinfold, who was the only person besides Halley to sail on all three voyages. On the two Atlantic voyages Pinfold was listed as captain’s servant, but on the third voyage he was said to have been captain’s clerk, and so I wondered whether he might have been a servant in Halley’s own household and been promoted to clerk as a ‘reward’ for going on the first two voyages, with Halley effectively covering the job himself. However, the manuscript pay and muster books show that Pinfold was actually entered as gunner’s mate and that the post of captain’s clerk was later interposed in the pay book beneath gunner’s mate. Pinfold was paid a salary as both gunner’s mate (£5 8s 6d) and captain’s clerk (£1 12s 11d), and the small wage paid to him as clerk suggests he performed that job for only a short time, and we know he wrote neither the logbook nor Halley’s letters.

The logs of the two Atlantic voyages weren’t written up by Halley, so they must’ve been written up by his clerks… well, possibly, but possibly not. There’s no immediate reason to doubt that the log of the first voyage was written by the clerk, Caleb Harmon, but the log of the second voyage is more of a puzzle. Halley wrote all his own letters to the Admiralty on both voyages, except for two on the second, and you might expect these to have been written by the clerk, William Curtiss, but they are in a different hand from that of the logbook. My first thought was that Curtiss perhaps fell ill with the “Barbadoes desease” at the same time as Halley, and so another crew member wrote them – but the two rogue letters (which are in the same hand) were written on 30 March and 8 July, either side of the period of sickness in late May, and the July letter states specifically that “we are a very healthy ship” at present. Why then did someone else write the letters, more than three months apart, and why did that person not receive extra pay as Pinfold did on the third voyage? Or why did Curtiss write the letters but not then the logbook?

The person who wrote the first logbook isn’t straightforward either. From the start of this project I’d been surprised at how neat and uniform the logs were and wondered whether they’d actually been written during the voyage or after the ship’s return to London, but then found that other logbooks were similarly neat and so thought that clerks might make draft notes and then write them up neatly while at anchor or in calm seas.

The idea of draft notes fits with a comment made by Alexander Dalrymple in an advertisement for his 1773 publication of Halley’s two Atlantic logs that

The Journal of Dr. Halley’s first Voyage is written on sundry scraps of paper, and some parts repeated in different places, and so blended that it was a very difficult matter to make it out intelligibly…

Dalrymple, who borrowed (and seemingly failed to return) these “scraps of paper” from the Board of Longitude, doesn’t mention whether the handwriting on the scraps was Halley’s or someone else’s, which is a pity as that might tell us something about how that logbook was compiled. A further curiosity is that Dalrymple seems to have been unaware of the existence of fair copies of the two logbooks (now in the British Library), and his published version of the second log was evidently compiled from another source, as there are discrepancies between the two. So what was the source for the second log used by Dalrymple, and who wrote it? And when were the fair copies of the two journals written?

These “sundry scraps of paper” also suggest a new spin on the warning given to Halley by Josiah Burchett at the end of the second voyage. Burchett wrote to Halley in Deptford, giving him permission to leave his ship to call on their lordships in London, “only lett mee give you this Caution, To have ye Books in readinesse”. Now I’d previously assumed this warning was intended to help Halley overcome the misgivings felt by some of their lordships about his handling of the prematurely-terminated first voyage* by making sure he was properly prepared when he met them, but now I wonder if it instead implies that Halley had previously displeased their lordships by returning from that voyage with only “scraps of paper” for his journal, and only had it written up on his return.

So while I think the mysteries surrounding Halley’s clerks might not rival And Then There Were None for excitement, they certainly seem to form a Problem at Sea.

* If you didn’t follow the first voyage, click on the tag for Edward Harrison to read about Halley’s problems with Lt Harrison and other officers.

Instructions for Halley’s third voyage

In a previous post, we read Halley’s letter to the Lords of the Admiralty proposing a new voyage to make “an exact account of the Course of the Tides on and about the Coast of England”, which he claimed would be “a work of generall Use to all Shipping”. Their lordships quickly approved his proposal, and Halley set sail on his third voyage on 14 June 1701 – but what exactly was he doing? Here’re the Admiralty’s instructions:

Whereas his Maj[es]ties Pink the Paramour, is particularly fitted out and Putt under your Command that you may proceed with her, and observe the Course of the Tydes in the Channell of England, and other things remarkable, You are therefore hereby required and directed to proceed with the Said Vessell, and use your utmost care and Diligence in observing the Course of the Tydes accordingly, as well in the Midsea as on both shores; As alsoe the Precise times of High and Low Water of the Sett and Strength of the Flood and Ebb, and how many feet it flows, in as many, and at such certaine places, as may Suffice to describe the whole. And whereas in many places in the Channell there are Irregular and halfe Tydes you are in a particular Manner to be very carefull in observing them.

And you are alsoe to take the true bearings of the Princip[a]l head Lands on the English Coast one from another, and to continue the Meridian as often as conveniently you can from side to side of the Channell, in ord[e]r to lay downe both Coast truly against one another.

And in case dureing your being employed on this Service, any other Matters may Occur unto you, the observing and Publishing whereof may tend towards the Security of the Navigation of the Subjects of his Maj[es]tie or other Princes tradeing into the Channell you are to be very carefull in the takeing notice thereof: And when you Shall have p[er]formed what Service you can, with relation to the particulars before menc[i]o[n]ed, you are to returne with the Ship you Command into the River of Thames, giving Us from time to time an Account of your Proceedings Dated this 12° June 1701 [1]

These instructions can be summarised as:

  • to make observations of the behaviour of the tides in the Channel and along the English and French coasts
  • to take bearings that will allow the French and English coasts to be correctly situated north-south from one another
  • to take note of anything else that might lead to safer navigation in the Channel for traders

The first two points were copied almost verbatim from a letter of Halley’s dated the previous day (11 June), but the third point was added by the Admiralty, and it’s been suggested that it might represent an order for Halley to gather intelligence from French waters as the two countries slid towards war. [2] That idea has been given ballast by a 1693 diary entry made by Hooke, when Halley and business partner Thomas Jett were engaged in a salvage operation, that “Hally and Jed [were] Spys”. [3]

Now I have to admit that I’m far from indifferent to this notion of Halley as a secret agent but, like Alan Cook, I’m not wholly convinced by the idea in respect to his present voyage: the Admiralty instructions clearly refer to publishing Halley’s information and they express a concern with the safety of traders of all nations operating in the Channel.

A philosophical James Bond? (© Royal Society, ID xxx)

A philosophical James Bond? (© Royal Society, Image ID RS.9284)

That said, Halley’s earlier surveying activities do seem rather surprising, for example, he was apparently surveying the Thames approaches in early 1689, during the politically-sensitive aftermath of the so-called Glorious Revolution. I’ve started to trawl through the government archives to see if I can unearth anything that indicates whether he was ever employed on intelligence work, but I’ve encountered nothing as yet – though I’ll be sure to reveal such state secrets here if I do!

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[1] National Archives, ADM 2/27, pp 131-2.

[2] See Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) pp 285-6, but note that Cook refers to a published mistranscription of Hooke’s remark.

[3] Hooke, Diary, 24 March 1693, British Library, Sloane MS 4024.

Return to sea

Welcome back to Halley’s Log!

We left Captain Halley last September, newly returned to London and working on his Atlantic chart of magnetic variation, which he formally presented to the Royal Society on 4 June 1701.

But while Edmond had quickly resumed his old habits of attending Royal Society meetings and discoursing endlessly in coffeehouses, the sea was never far from his mind, and on 23 April 1701 he sent this proposal to the Lords of the Admiralty (remember “Lopps” is Halley’s abbreviation for “Lordshipps”):

It is humbly proposed

That if their Lopps shall think fitting to have an exact account of the Course of the Tides on and about the Coast of England, so taken as at one View to represent the whole; (which will be a work of generall Use to all Shipping, especially such as have occasion to turn to Windward, and wch is wanting towards the compleating the Art of Navigation) there be provided a small Vessell such as their Lopps shall think proper, with all convenient speed, on board of which such an account of the Tides may be taken, as their Lopps shall direct; for which service their Lopps most obedient servant humbly offers himself.

Edm. Halley [1]

Their Lopps did think it fitting to have the course of the tides around the southern coast of England observed and gave the order for a vessel – yes, the Paramore Pink – to be prepared for Halley’s third expedition.

So Captain Halley expects to put back to sea very very soon – there’s just the one small matter of a crew to recruit…

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[1] Halley to the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, 23 April 1701, TNA, ADM 1/1872

The end of Halley’s second voyage

Halley arrived back in Deptford from his second voyage on 10 September 1700 and he’ll return to sea for his third voyage in June 1701 (June 2015 by the life of this blog), so I thought I’d close this phase of my project by looking at some of the things that Edmond will be doing in the intervening months.

As we’ve seen (here and here), he began preparing his chart of magnetic variation as soon as he returned to London and there are periodic entries in the Royal Society minutes of his showing (what are assumed to be) manuscript drafts of his chart at their meetings. He presented a copy formally to the Society on 4 June 1701, when the minutes record:

Mr Halley presented the Society with a Map of his late Voiage to the South. He was thanked for it, & it was order’d to be hung in the Meeting room. [1]

The exact publication date of the chart isn’t known but is assumed to have been during the second quarter of 1701 (given its presentation date to the RS), and it occurs to me that a letter dated 6 May 1701 from the Admiralty to the Navy Board, awarding a bonus of £200 to Halley on the order of the king, may have been prompted by the publication of his chart:

In obedience to his Mats. [Majesty’s] Commands signified to this Board, Wee do hereby desire and direct you to cause to be paid unto Captn. Edward [sic] Halley, out of the Money in the hands of the Trea[sure]r of the Navy upon Acct. of the Tenths of Prizes the sum of two Hundred Pounds, in consideration of his great Paines and care in a late Voyage he made for the discovering the Variation of the Needle. [2]

Halley resumed his attendance at Royal Society meetings when they reconvened after their summer recess, and, having resigned his Fellowship in 1686 to become the Society’s clerk, he was re-elected FRS at the General Meeting of 30 November 1700 and voted one of the auditors of their accounts on December 17. [3]

Halley was often referred to as “Capt Halley” in the Society’s minutes of this period, but it’s somewhat surprising how few references there are to his voyage; I assume Edmond mostly talked about his expedition in the coffeehouses.

Halley by Kneller (NMM Ref)

Halley, by Kneller (© NMM, BHC2734)

It was perhaps during this period that Halley had his portrait painted by Godfrey Kneller. The date of the portrait isn’t known, but has been estimated at around 20 years after his voyages because of a mezzotint version published after Halley became Astronomer Royal in 1720. However, Alan Cook says that Halley is wearing naval uniform and so suggests it may have been painted in 1702 after his third voyage, and this – or even 1701 – seems more likely to me, when Halley was famed for his voyages, and also because Halley appears younger in this portrait than in the one known to date before 1713. [4]

In between preparing his chart, attending Royal Society meetings, frequenting the coffeehouses, and perhaps having his portrait painted, Halley surely entertained his wife, Mary, and their three children with tales of adventures and of the people and animals he’d seen on his cruise. Perhaps he brought back curiosities as gifts for them?

I know he did bring back some items, and they’re partly what prompted me to speculate whether Halley had kept a private journal or notes during his voyage. Another reason is that one or both of his logs may initially have been written on loose pieces of paper and then written up later (and there is some doubt in my mind whether the fair copies were actually written up by his clerk(s)). I hope to do more research on the history of his logbooks and will perhaps write more about this at the end of his third voyage.

A further reason for my speculation is that there are extant papers besides his logbook surviving from the second voyage – namely, a series of sketches of fish! He presented these drawings (made by himself) to the Royal Society on 6 November 1700, along with some sketches of the Batavian Islands; the sketches of the Islands are seemingly lost but five sketches* of fish are safely stored in the Society’s archives and here’s perhaps the best of the set, with text written by Halley:

Fish (© Royal Society, Image)

“A Fish Taken in the Latitude of 36° NEbN from Bermodas following an old Mast overgrown with Barnacles.” (© Royal Society, RS.9360)

It was a great pleasure to see the originals in the Society’s library; they are more impressive ‘in the flesh’, and I particularly liked that they gave me a palpable sense of Edmond sitting down in his cabin and carefully sketching the fish on the table before him (you can really sense him at work on the fish’s scales towards the tail). The drawings may not display the talent of Hooke or Waller, but their ordinariness somehow serves to evoke the physical presence of Halley the man.

And so, having conjured his presence, we’ll leave him be for a while. His third voyage will start in June next year (2015 for us), and I’ll be back then to conclude this project to bring astronomer Edmond Halley’s seafaring adventures to wider attention.

* I couldn’t link to the page showing all the fish, so here are the individual links to the other four: Doctor fish, Tuna fish, Pilot fish, Flying fish. If only there’d been a sketch of his birds!

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[1] Royal Society, JBO/10 p 219.

[2] National Archives, ADM 2/181 p125.

[3] Royal Society, JBO/10 pp 204 and 206.

[4] Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p xv.

Halley’s Atlantic Chart, part 2: his results

Halley undertook his Atlantic voyages to measure the magnetic variation at sea. Magnetic variation (or declination) is the angle between magnetic and geographic north in a horizontal plane. Halley thought that if a pattern could be observed in the variation, it might offer a way to determine a ship’s longitude at sea. He measured the variation regularly throughout his two voyages and began preparing the presentation of his data as soon as he arrived back in Deptford in September 1700.

Halley is noted for his ability to draw general conclusions from complex data and for his appreciation of visual representation of those conclusions, and he demonstrated both these traits in presenting his data in the form of a sea chart.

The chart – known as his Atlantic Chart – holds an important place in the history of cartography, as it is regarded as the first published chart to represent magnetic declination using what became known as isogonic lines. It was not the first time such lines had been thought of, but the earlier examples were never published and Halley is thought unlikely to have known about them. [1]

We’ll look at the chart and its data in a moment, but first I’d like to highlight some of its decorative features.

IMG_0122 copy - Version 4

To the east of the mysterious birds, we find The Icey Sea with the black-streaked “Mountains of Ice” that Halley and his crew had encountered in February (notice their track passing through it). Neither Halley nor his crew had seen icebergs before and Halley was unsure whether they were floating or grounded.

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The track of Halley’s second voyage is shown on the chart and indicated by representations of the Paramore pursuing her figure-of-eight course.

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There are three cartouches on the chart: the one on South America is formed by a native family reclining beneath two fruit-laden palm trees. The adults wear feathered headdresses and skirts, the woman clutches a small child and the man holds a spear, has a bow at his feet and a quiver of arrows on his back. Behind them, hanging between the trees, is a sheet bearing the chart’s title:

A New and Correct CHART Shewing the Variations of the COMPASs in the WESTERN & SOUTHERN OCEANS as Observed in ye Year 1700 by his Ma:ties Command by Edm. Halley.

IMG_0122 copy - Version 6

A second cartouche appears on the landmass of Africa and carries the chart’s dedication to William III and is topped by personifications of astronomy (holding a telescope and armillary sphere), navigation (a backstaff and ship) and mathematics (dividers and triangle).

The third cartouche is found on North America and explains the information depicted in the chart:

The Curve Lines which are drawn over the Seas in this Chart, do shew at one View all the places where the Variation of the Compass is the same; The Numbers to them, shew how many degrees the Needle declines either Eastwards or Westwards from the true North; and the Double Line passing near Bermudas and the Cape de Virde Isles is that where the Needle stands true, without Variation.

And here’s the full chart, shown with the permission of the Royal Geographical Society:

Halley's Atlantic Chart (© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Image S)

Halley’s Atlantic Chart – click to open in a new tab. (© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (£), Image S0015919)

You can see that it has two compass roses, the one in the mid-Atlantic radiating lines that somewhat obscure Halley’s “Curve Lines” of equal magnetic declination. (Halley himself realised this was a problem and omitted this feature on the World Chart he published around a year later.) It is on a Mercator projection, with lines of latitude and longitude, and the meridian of London, the equator and tropics identified, but no indication of scale.

This version of the chart includes text that was written subsequently by Halley and printed in two strips that could be stuck to the sides of the original chart. It describes how to consult the chart by way of examples, and explains that it has two uses:

  • to enable the mariner to know by how much he needs to adjust his course to take account of the magnetic variation, and
  • to estimate a ship’s longitude at sea, the curve lines running nearly north-south (as off the west cost of Africa) giving “a very good Indication of the Distance of the Land” from the ship

This useful knowledge is obtained by reference to the isogonic lines. They are a little difficult to pick out but you can easily see the double curved line to the right of the central compass, which Halley has named The Line of No Variation (the agonic line) and the curved lines above and right show the degree to which the compass varies west of geographic north, and to the left, east of geographic north (the number of degrees of variation is shown on the horizontal line above The Icey Sea).

As mentioned above, the chart was (and is) regarded as the first (extant) published use of isolines (contour lines), and until the nineteenth century these lines were known as Halleyan lines.

So the chart is impressive and historically important, but how accurate was it? Alan Cook observed that it was “an improvement on anything that had gone before”, [2] but as I wrote in a previous post, the problem with longitude is knowing both where you are and where the place is that you’re heading. Halley’s recorded longitude was often inaccurate and sometimes considerably so: when he was sailing towards St Helena from the east, the longitude value he reported is actually west of the island – and so the degree of variation he thought applied to the east of the island in fact applied to the west.

Similarly the coordinates of islands and land weren’t then accurately known: Cape Horn, for example, is roughly 10° further west on Halley’s chart than we now know it to be, so his lines of variation near that coast must be likewise misplaced. [3] It seems to me that the moral of this exercise is that to devise a chart that helps estimate a ship’s longitude at sea, the deviser needs to have a fairly accurate knowledge of longitude in the first place.

But Halley was alert to the likelihood of error in his chart and in his final paragraph he wrote that:

…all knowing Mariners are desired to lend their Assistance and Informations, towards the perfecting of this useful Work. And if by undoubted Observations it be found in any Part defective, the Notes of it will be received with all grateful Acknowledgment, and the Chart corrected accordingly.

And I think that’s how Halley’s chart was most useful: it was a cartographic innovation from which better and more accurate maps might evolve.

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[1] For details of prior manuscript isoline charts see Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore 1698-1701 (Hakluyt Society: London, 1981) pp 57-58, and Thrower, Maps & Civilization (3rd ed, Chicago and London, 2008) pp 97-101.

[2] Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p 281.

[3] In 1714 Halley defended his World Chart (an extended version of his Atlantic Chart, incorporating data supplied by others) in the Philosophical Transactions from charges of inaccuracy by the French Royal Academy of Sciences, including that he had placed Cape Horn too far west.

All images © Royal Geographic Society (with IBG) (£), Ref S0015919.

Halley’s Atlantic Chart, part 1: fish or fowl revisited

Over the next two posts we’ll look at the results of Halley’s voyage, which he published in the form of a sea chart. But before we consider his chart in full, I want to pick out one detail which may help to settle the identity of those mysterious creatures that Halley saw in the South Atlantic.

In a previous post we looked at Halley’s descriptions of three animals – two birds and something akin to a whale – that he’d seen in the seas to the north-west of South Georgia, and I summarised his descriptions as follows:

  1. a bird he takes to be a penguin with a black head and back, white breast, and a bill like that of a crow; it swims deep, dives on the ship’s approach, doesn’t appear to fly, and has a neck like a swan
  2. a second bird he also takes to be a penguin, larger than the first, and the colour and size of a “young Cygnett”, it has a bill that hooks downwards, cries like a bittern, and also swims deep, dives on the ship’s approach, doesn’t seem to fly, and has a neck like a swan
  3. an animal thought by the crew to be a seal but which Halley asserts is not. It bends its tail into a bow, has large fins like a shark and a head like a turtle
800px-Giant_petrel_with_chicks - Version 2

Giant petrel with chicks (Brocken Inaglory/Wikimedia)

While researching that post, I wondered if the second bird might have been a petrel (because of the beak) and some readers suggested that too, but the main objection is that almost every image of petrels shows them flying, which Halley says they don’t do (“either not having wings, or else not commonly useing them”).

Another reader suggested they might have been shags and I think these seem more likely as they resemble penguins and have long necks (I’m looking at the Imperial and South Georgia varieties). They do fly, but the proportion of images of them flying is far lower than it is for petrels.

Phalacrocorax_atriceps_-Cooper_Bay,_South_Georgia,_British_Overseas_Territories,_UK-8

An Imperial Shag, South Georgia (Liam Quinn/Wikimedia)

In that earlier post I mentioned there was another piece of information about these birds that appears at the end of the voyage, and it appears in Halley’s chart. There, Halley gives a description of the birds and provides a little more detail:

The Sea in these parts abounds with two sorts of Animalls of a Middle Species between a Bird and a Fish, having necks like Swans and Swimming with their whole Bodyes always under water only putting up their long Necks for Air.

Now it seems to me that “a Middle Species between a Bird and a Fish” is a good way to describe penguins – but happily Halley doesn’t just describe his birds, he depicts them too! Here they are:

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Extract from Halley’s Atlantic Chart – notice the feet. (© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG), Image S0015919)

Er… oh, well, perhaps they’re not quite my idea of penguins after all. But before I scoff too much at Halley’s illustration, it’s worth remembering that he was trying to describe something he’d never seen before and to people who likewise had never seen such animals before, and so he has to use vocabulary and comparative imagery that were familiar to him and his readers. Additionally, he wasn’t near land when he saw the birds and he hadn’t mentioned seeing any floating ice, so he may only have seen them swimming in the sea, which would have made it very difficult for him to see them properly (have a look at this 36 second film of penguins at sea and you’ll appreciate his difficulty).

If you look closely at the birds, you can see that their beaks are slightly different, and the one on the right has a few tufts on the back of its head, so I wondered if that might have been a type of crested penguin, such as a southern rockhopper?

574px-Gorfou_sauteur_-_Rockhopper_Penguin

Rockhopper Penguin (© Samuel Blanc/Wikimedia)

As to the animal the crew thought was a seal and Halley says is not, what’s curious about that is that he doesn’t call it a whale or whale-like, an animal he would have known – perhaps he was even among the crowd that went to gawp at this poor cetacean stranded in the Thames around 1690. [1]

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Broadside, c1690 (© British Museum, Image Z,1.163)

I don’t have any more information about this animal, which Halley’s biographers have suggested might have been a bottlenose whale, a killer whale or a dolphin, although there are problems with each of these identifications – but I have been wondering whether it might have been a Risso’s dolphin? They have a more turtle-like head, a large dorsal fin, and unlike the bottlenose and killer whale are not remarkable in size, something which Halley fails to comment on. An unfamiliar type of dolphin might also explain why Halley doesn’t use the word whale and why the crew think it’s a seal.

But there are three objections to this suggestion: there don’t seem to be many images of them “twisting [their] tayl into a bow” as Halley describes them doing, he may have been outside their range when he saw them, and the sea temperature may have been too cold.

So we haven’t resolved for certain what these creatures were but we have added some new ideas to the list of possibilities. One thing is certain, though, and that’s that no further clues are likely to come from Halley: five months after his return to England, his recollection of these animals was even more confused as we find it minuted that at the Royal Society meeting of 5 February 1701:

Mr Halley said that he saw a kind of Tortoises in the S. of Brazile, having Necks like Swans, and all their bodies under Water. [2]

And for that creature, I think we may need to search among the monsters of medieval cartography, not the seas of the South Atlantic!

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[1] The text is well worth a read. You can probably make out the title, A Trew Draught of the Whale as he was seen at Blackwell Dock, and underneath it says:

This Monsterous Fish is 57 foot in Lenght & near 40 foot About, he is more in hight, then in breath, and is taken to be a matter of 50 Tunn in Wight, He was first discover’d near the Bouy of the Nore, Where he was fier’d at by a Kings Yoath so received sum Wound, & made toward the Shoure so came along by ye Hoop & beat himselfe upon ye Sand after that he was Harpoon’d & Taken, then Bought by a Quacor, etc.

[2] Royal Society, JBO/10 p 210.