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.

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.