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.

Instructions for Halley’s second voyage

Halley received his commission to be Master and Commander of Paramore on his second voyage on 23 August 1699, and his instructions for the voyage on the 12 September.

His instructions were almost identical to those he received for his first voyage, namely:

  • to measure the variations of the compass (magnetic variation)
  • to ascertain the latitude and longitude of the places he visits, particularly in the West Indies
  • to discover the unknown lands in the south Atlantic

only this time, the section on the Terra Incognita refers to finding it specifically between the latitudes of 50 and 55 degrees south, which Halley himself asked to be included in his instructions in a letter to the Admiralty.

Here are his instructions in full (remember ye/ym = the/them):

Whereas his Majesty has been pleased to lend his Pink ye Paramour, for your proceeding a second time w:th her on an Expedition to Improve ye knowledge of the Longitude & variation of ye Compass, which ship is now Compleatly mann’d, stored and victualled at his Majesty’s Charge for ye said Expedition, you are therefore hereby required and directed forthwith to proceed with her according to ye following Instructions.

You are without loss of time to Sett Saile with her, and proceed to make a Discovery of ye unknowne South lands between ye Magellan Streights & ye Cape of good hope, between ye Latt:d of 50 & 55 South, if you meete not with ye land sooner observing ye variation of ye Compass with all ye accuracy you can, as also ye True Scituation both in Longitude & Latt:d of ye ports where you arrive.

You are likewise to make ye like observations at as many of ye Islands, in ye Seas between ye aforesaid Coasts, as you can (without too much deviation) bring into your Course.

In your returne home you are to visit ye English West India Plantations, or as many of ym as conveniently you may, & in them to make such observations as may contribute to lay them downe Truly in their Geographicall Scituation, & in all ye Course of your Voyage, you must be carefull to omitt no oppertunity of noting ye variation of ye Compass, of which you are to keep a Register in your Journall.

You are for ye better lengthning out your provisions, to put ye Men under your Comand, when you come out of ye Channell, to six to four Men’s allowance assuring ym that they shall be punctually paid for ye same at ye End of ye Voyage.

You are during ye Terme of this Voyage, to be very carefull in Conforming your selfe to what is directed by ye Generall printed Instructions annexed to your Comission, with regard as well to his Majesty’s honour as to ye Governement of ye ship under your Comand; and when you returne to England, you are to call in at Plymouth, & finding no orders there to ye contrary, to make ye best of your way to ye Downes & remaine there till further order.

Cape Horn is roughly on the same latitude that Halley's headed for (via Wikipedia Commons)

Cape Horn is roughly on the same latitude that Halley’s heading for (via Wikimedia Commons)

Harrison’s book

If you’ve been following this blog, you’ll know I’m an admirer of Halley and expect that I side with him in his difficulties with his lieutenant – yet when I first read about Edward Harrison and his book, I did have some sympathy and respect for the lieutenant.

Harrison described himself as “sea-bred”, indicating he’d been at sea from an early age, but he was evidently a man of some, if limited, education. These facts suggest someone of modest background and resources, and so it seemed to me rather impressive that he had written a book, got it printed, and circulated it to the Royal Society and the Admiralty – and I could feel some sympathy for his dismay when Halley then dismissed his enterprising efforts.

But then I read his book and that sympathy disappeared. The book, Idea Longitudinis, was published by Harrison in 1696; he’d submitted a paper of his ideas to the Royal Society about 2 years earlier but received no encouragement and so he decided to “appear on the Publick Stage”. [1]

The book includes a dedication to the Lords of the Admiralty, a preface, and 8 chapters including a conclusion, the whole about 97 pages long. The first 3 chapters cover: where to set a first meridian, a definition of longitude, a definition of time (solar, sidereal year), and chapters 4-7 consider the different methods of finding longitude: horological, magnetic variation, lunar, and Jovian.

The book seems not without merit as a handbook for his “Brother Tar”, and some of his remarks about the problems that would be encountered (refraction, parallax, impossibility of using a long telescope (for the Jovian method) on a rolling ship) are helpful – but this was all commonplace to the fellows of the Royal Society, and I would guess that that was the opinion Halley gave to their Lordships.

What Halley actually said about the book doesn’t seem to be extant, but a slightly later review of another paper of Harrison’s may give us some indication. While Halley was away on his second voyage, Harrison submitted another paper to the Royal Society on tides and winds, and this was reviewed by Richard Waller, who ends his 2-page review with “between you and me [he’s writing to Hans Sloane] I see nothing in the Paper but what is better explained in the places I have above quoted”. [2]

The opening lines of Harrison's Chapter V are taken from Halley's 1683 paper

The opening lines of Harrison’s Chapter V are taken from Halley’s 1683 paper

Perhaps Halley gave a similar assessment – that it contained nothing new – an opinion that would be reinforced when he found that the opening lines of Harrison’s chapter on magnetic variation (see image) were copied almost verbatim from his 1683 paper on the same subject (there’s at least one other section copied directly from Halley’s paper).

Alan Cook describes Harrison’s book as “[s]cientifically and technically… poor, second-hand, and ill-digested. It is shot through with aspersions on mathematicians, the manner is aggressive, and it shows a deep inferiority complex”, and possibly the most interesting aspect of the book is what it reveals about Harrison himself, giving us some idea of what Halley had to deal with on board his ship. [3]

Harrison comes across as having a rather inflated view of himself. He twice compares himself to Columbus as being someone who “shewed the way”, and warns us that some “ordinary Mathematicians may hate to be out-done by a Tarpolin, if they have ought to say against him, its because his Practice and Experience may prove him to be a more Competent Artist in Navigation then [sic] themselves”. [4]

Hindsight makes the opening lines of the dedication seem ironic: “It is a saying in the Navy, He that knows not how to obey Command, is not worthy to bear Command”. As, too, does this sentence, given he’d lifted passages from Halley and then gone on to despise him for dismissing his book: “If any Envious Person pretend I have borrowed most of my Book, may he be obliged to Quote the Authors, where I have not”. [5]

The passages that revealed most about his personality were also the most unexpected:

“…if I know more than others, it is by Divine Authority, by Industry and Experience, by an Inborn Idea, and Instinct in Nature; it was ordained for me by God Almighty, from my Mother’s Womb.” [6]

And when considering the location of a first meridian:

“I could Bafle and Impose on the World as our Predecessors have, false Arguments for other places, from whence they might account their first Meridian. God forbid I should be so wicked, Honour and Glory, and beginning of Good, belongs to God; a first Meridian may be represented, and if the Heads of our Church and State, think it good, let there be made a Figure, representing a first Meridian, and Erected over St. Pauls Church in London, with this Inscription, Glory be to God, good Will towards Men…” [7]

Harrison's Idea Longitudinis, preface

Harrison’s Idea Longitudinis, preface

Blimey. These passages took me by surprise, as it had never occurred to me that Harrison might be religious, and they perhaps provide another reason why Harrison was so hostile towards Halley, as Halley had something of a reputation for being irreligious. I think Halley must have had a hard time dealing with Lieutenant Harrison, and yet, as he tells us, he “endeavoured all I could to oblige him”. [8]

My feeling is that Halley gave an honest critique of Harrison’s book, but that Harrison was not the type of person who could accept criticism and so nursed a grievance towards Halley (whom perhaps he had once admired, given his imitation of his works) and seized the opportunity to wreak his revenge when chance put them together on board the same ship.

I suspect that Harrison was rather fortunate in the court’s verdict

This post was originally published on 10 July 2013 and revised in July 2017.


[1] Edward Harrison, Idea Longitudinis (London, 1696), preface

[2] Richard Waller to Hans Sloane, dated 4 Dec 1699, Royal Society, EL/W3/68

[3] Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998) p 264

[4] Harrison, preface

[5] Harrison, preface

[6] Harrison, preface

[7] Harrison, pp 3-4

[8] Captains’ Letter Book, National Archives, ADM 1/1871

What’s in a name 1: Edmond or Edmund?

Since I became interested in Halley, I’ve been astonished at the number of basic errors I’ve seen about him, especially in regard to his name and title.

I frequently see him referred to as ‘Sir Edmond’ (he wasn’t) and even on one occasion as ‘Reverend Halley’, which is particularly inappropriate as Halley had a reputation for being irreligious and once failed to obtain an important position on that account.

He was plain Mr Halley until embarking on his first voyage in 1698, then Captain or Mr Halley until 1710 when he received his honorary doctorate, and then Dr Halley until his death in 1742.

His first name is unequivocally Edmond. Confusion arises because Halley rarely signed his first name in full but usually abbreviated it to ‘Edm.’. He also often used the Latin form ‘Edmundus’, which in turn was abbreviated to ‘Edmund.’. So even people who knew him would rarely have seen his first name written in full and would no doubt have tended to assume the more common spelling, Edmund, which would be reinforced by seeing the Latinised form in many of his published papers – but when he did sign his name in full, it was always ‘Edmond’, as can be seen in this 1696 letter addressed to Hans Sloane from Chester:


Halley to Hans Sloane 12 Oct 1696 (© The Royal Society, EL/H3/48)

The pronunciation of his surname is more difficult to settle. I’ve come across the spellings: Halley, Hally, Hailey, Haley, Hawley – and seen it suggested that this last spelling probably indicates the way it was pronounced by his contemporaries. Perhaps, but then why the Hailey/Haley spelling, which seems to suggest a completely different pronunciation?

Myself, I pronounce it to rhyme with valley – but the best argument for this pronunciation is that it allows you to join in with this rousing Royal Astronomical Society drinking song, dating from 1910*:

Of all the comets in the sky

There’s none like Comet Halley.

We see it with the naked eye,

And periodic-ally.

The first to see it was not he,

But still we call it Halley.

The notion that it would return

Was his origin-ally.

Cheers, Captain Edmond Halley!

* © Royal Astronomical Society. Apparently the song once had four verses. I found three reproduced in an online extract from volume 33 of The Observatory magazine with this preceding note: “It originally contained four verses, but as the last one mentions names in a manner which might be deemed invidious, I have ventured to suppress it”. Interesting. I’ll return to this delightful song in a future post if I track down the fourth verse (and the identity of its suppressor!).