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.

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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.

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[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”.

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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:

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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.

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[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 falls ill

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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…

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[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.