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!


[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 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.


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:

IMG_0122 copy - Version 3

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?


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]


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!


I rather scoffed at Halley’s depiction of penguins when I wrote this post in 2014, so you’ll imagine my astonishment when I came across a photograph on Twitter that entirely vindicated Halley’s drawing. The photograph was taken by Neil Spencer (@HalleyVIDoc), a doctor based at the Halley Research Station in Antarctica, who was himself surprised to see how penguins swam, tweeting “Didn’t realise penguins swim like ducks when on the surface!” and appending the photographed that demonstrated the point. Neil kindly gave me permission to use his photo – but let’s first remind ourselves of Halley’s own depiction:

IMG_0122 copy - Version 3

Extract from Halley’s Atlantic Chart. (© Royal Geographical Society (with IBG) (£), Image S0015919)

And now here’s Neil’s photograph:

Penguins swimming in Antarctic seas, by Neil Spencer (Shown with permission)

Penguins swimming in Antarctic seas, by Neil Spencer. (Used with permission)

Separated at birth, no? And a lesson learned by me not to dismiss historical descriptions that seem rather naive and amusing (sorry, Edmond!).

If you’re not familiar with the Halley Research Station, it was set up by the Royal Society in 1956 as the British contribution to the International Geophysical Year of 1957/58, and named after Halley in recognition of his voyage to the South Atlantic, and to mark the tercentenary of his birth. Halley came within about 200 nautical miles of South Georgia on his second voyage, and South Georgia is roughly 1,300 nautical miles north of the Halley station (you can find them both on the map below). There have actually been six Halley stations on the Brunt Ice Shelf, and you can read about the history of these bases at the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) website here. The website has lots of information about the scientific work carried out at the station, along with photos of the six Halley bases, and details of the recent relocation of the current base, Halley VI. You might also enjoy (as I did) this look at the evolution of Antarctic bases from wooden huts to sci-fi chic, by the BBC (spot the tube roundel on the Halley III photo!).

Lastly, I wonder what Halley would think if he saw this map of the research stations now scattered all over Antarctica, having voyaged in search of the southern Terra Incognita just 300 years ago.

Map of Antarctic stations - Halley VI is near the coast of the Weddell Sea (Source: Teetaweepo/Wikipedia)

Map of Antarctic stations – Halley VI is near the coast of the Weddell Sea. (Source: Teetaweepo/Wikipedia)


[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.

Halley’s Hoggs

Since leaving St Helena, Halley has sailed westwards in search of the islands of Martin Vaz and Trinidad*, an archipelago roughly 1,200km off the east coast of Brazil. They saw the three islands of Martin Vaz on the morning of 14 April 1700 and they reached the larger island of Trinidad on the 15th, anchoring on its west side.

They went ashore to look for water, which they quickly found, but then staved some of their cask on the rocky shore as they tried to get them back in the boat. The Paramore had drifted and so they stood further out to sea overnight on the 16th, and on the 17th:

This morning wee moored in 18 fathom on the west Side of the Isle, the north part being ENE, the South part SE, and the high Steep Rock like a Nine-pinn ESE.

Map of Trinidad, c1889 (Wikimedia Commons)

Map of Trinidad (Trindade), c1889 (Wikimedia Commons)

If you look at the west side of the map above, you can see the Ninepin rock near Bird Island, and a little further round the coast the word ‘cascade’ where they probably obtained their water. The east and north coasts are dangerously rocky, and while boats can land on the west, it’s not hard to imagine them staving their cask on the rocky shore.

The map derives from a book by Edward Frederick Knight, which details the second of two voyages he made to the island of Trinidad. He undertook the second voyage in 1889 in a ship named the Alerte to search for treasure (!), which he believed to be buried in the South West Bay – you can see his camp marked on the north of the bay. [1]

I haven’t read the whole book but it contains useful information relating to Halley’s voyage, especially regarding this next sentence in Halley’s logbook for April 17:

Whilest the Long Boate brought more Water on Board I went a Shore and put Some Goats and Hoggs on the Island for breed, as also a pair of Guiney Hens I carry’d from St. Helena.

In his book, Knight tells us that the best description of Trinidad he’s encountered is in the novel Frank Mildmay by Captain Marryat and that it is “easy to identify every spot mentioned in that book”. [2] Marryat writes of “the goats [and] wild hogs, with which we found the island abounded” and that on the summit they saw a herd of goats, including one “as large as a pony”. [3]

But Knight himself writes:

We saw no goats or hogs, and I am confident that none are now left alive. We did, however, in the course of our digging discover what appeared to be the bones of a goat. It is well known that these animals once abounded here. Captain Halley, of the ‘Paramore Pink’,… landed on this island April 17, 1700, and put on it some goats and hogs for breeding, as also a pair of guinea-fowl which he carried from St. Helena. [4]

Wild hogs (Steve Hillebrand/Wikimedia Commons)

Wild hogs (Steve Hillebrand/Wikimedia Commons)

He also mentions that an American commander, Amaso Delano, visited the island in 1803 and found plenty of goats and hogs, and then speculates that the “teeming land-crabs” have now “gobbled all these up”. [5]

Knight seems pretty unimpressed by these land crabs (“a loathsome lot of brutes” with a “cynical and diabolic expression”) but Halley doesn’t mention them at all. [6]

Halley’s final remark for April 17 is, however, extremely interesting:

And I tooke possession of the Island in his Majties. name, as knowing it to be granted by the Kings Letters Pattents, leaving the Union Flagg flying

This act of planting the Union Jack on Trinidad prompted a minor diplomatic incident nearly 200 years later. The island seems to have had a more lively history than can be covered here, but it was ‘discovered’ by the Portuguese in the sixteenth-century, visited by Halley in 1700, declared a principality by a self-styled prince in 1893, and then on 24 July 1895, a Times reporter writes from Rio de Janeiro that:

There is growing excitement here about the British occupation of Trinidad Island. The Brazilian Government has sent two notes to the British Legation emphatically protesting against the occupation… [7]

The British wanted it as a convenient station for transatlantic cables and apparently they based their claim on Halley’s visit:

Reuter’s Agency is informed on good authority that the British title to Trinidad Island dates from 1700, when it was taken possession of by Dr. Halley… [8]

Two weeks later The Times gave more detail about Halley’s visit during his “celebrated scientific cruise” in the “strangely named sloop the Paramour Pink” and noted that he was “said to have left some pigs and sheep [sic] behind him, but after an unsuccessful struggle for existence they succumbed to inanition or the land crabs.” [9]

It seems that no public claim of ownership of Trinidad had been made by Brazil since gaining independence from Portugal, but Britain was “ready to discuss in a friendly spirit” any claim that Brazil may wish to assert, and suggested the issue be resolved through arbitration. Portugal acted as arbiter and Britain peacefully accepted her ruling in favour of Brazil. Perhaps the disappearance of Halley’s hogs had made it suddenly seem that much less attractive?

* These islands are now known as Arquipélago de Trindade e Martim Vaz and are not to be confused with the West Indies island of Trinidad. Trinidad is the spelling used for Halley’s island in all the original texts cited in this post.


[1] EF Knight, The Cruise of the Alerte (London, 1890), p 185. Chapter IX is actually called ‘Treasure Island At Last’.

[2] Ibid, pp 204 and 209.

[3] F Marryat, The Naval Officer; or, scenes and adventures in the life of Frank Mildmay (London, 1829), pp 209-210.

[4] Knight, The Cruise of the Alerte, p 173.

[5] Ibid, pp 170 and 173.

[6] Ibid, p 165.

[7] The Times, Thurs 25 Jul 1895, p 5.

[8] Ibid.

[9] The Times, Tues 6 Aug 1895, p 7.

Fish or fowl?

I wanted to draw your attention to a couple of log entries from Halley that have left people mystified.

He was about 430km north west of South Georgia when he described his encounters with three sea creatures:

[27 Jan 1700, extract] All this Morning we have had a greate Fogg… and Sounded every two hours, apprehending my Self near Land; and the rather because yesterday and today severall fowls, which I take to be penguins, have passed by the Ship side, being of two sorts; the one black head and back, with white neck and breast; the other larger and of the Colour and siz of a young Cygnett, haveing a bill very remarkable hoocking downwards, and crying like a bittern as they past us. The bill of the other was very like that of the Crow, Both swam very deep, and allwais dived on our approach, either not having wings, or else not commonly useing them

[28 Jan 1700, extract] We have had Severall of the Diveing birds with Necks like Swans pass by us, and this Morning a Couple of Annimalls which some supposed to be Seals but are not soe; they bent their Tayles into a sort of a Bow thus IMG_8390 and being disturb’d shew’d very large Finns as big as those of a Large Shirk The head not much unlike a Turtles.

So Halley describes:

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, 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

A turtle (via Wikimedia Commons)

A turtle (Wikimedia Commons)

What on earth are they?

My knowledge of natural history is as limited as Halley’s appears to be, though in his case we should remember he is probably seeing creatures he has no prior knowledge of and has to search for comparisons with which to describe them.

The first bird described does sound like a penguin, though the second seems more dubious. Colin Ronan suggested that the swan-like neck might refer to a king penguin as they have the “ability to stretch their necks quite considerably”, [1] but there’s another piece of information that appears after the voyage has ended that may make you doubt whether they’re actually penguins at all. We’ll take a look at that info in due course.

The other animal with the bow-tail, large fins and turtle’s head is very puzzling. Cook suggested a bottlenose whale, and Thrower apparently discussed the creature with a former Director of the Zoological Society of London, who proposed a bottlenose whale or dolphin. [2] Colin Ronan also considered a bottlenose whale or dolphin, but thought a killer whale to be the most likely. [3]

A killer whale and a seal (via Wikimedia Commons)

A killer whale and a seal (Wikimedia Commons)

It surprises me that Halley doesn’t use the word ‘whale’ or ‘whale-like’ to describe the animal, as I believe he would have known what whales look like (there’s a splendid 1665 report in the Philosophical Transactions about whale-fishing in Bermuda by seamen “resolved not to be baffled by a Sea-monster”), and also that he doesn’t mention its size: an adult bottlenose whale would be nearly half the length of Halley’s ship – worthy of comment, I would have thought. It also has a small dorsal fin, whereas Halley describes his creature as having large fins. The killer whale is also of a noteworthy size, while the bottlenose dolphin is smaller, and both of these do have a larger fin – but I’m not sure anyone would describe either as having a head like that of a turtle!

If any readers with expertise have suggestions as to what Halley’s creatures might be, do please enlighten us in the comments.


[1] Colin Ronan, Edmond Halley: Genius in Eclipse (London, 1970), p 179

[2] Alan Cook, Edmond Halley: Charting the Heavens and the Seas (Oxford, 1998), p 277. Norman Thrower, The Three Voyages of Edmond Halley in the Paramore (London, 1981), p 160, note 1

[3] Ronan, p 179

Halley’s second logbook

First, apologies for the lengthy gap since my last post; I’ve been unwell but the skill of the ship’s chirurgeon has got me back on deck and scampering up the rigging with the best of ’em.

That’s me, but what about Halley? Well, he’s been sailing steadily southwards (well, SSE) since leaving St Iago (Santiago) in the Cape Verde Islands and reached Rio de Janeiro on December 14, where he’ll stay for two weeks. This section of his voyage, down to his most southerly latitude (which he’ll reach about the end of January), isn’t very eventful and so I thought this was a suitable time to take a look at his second logbook, which begins with this heading:

A Journal of a Voyage in his Ma:tis Pink ye Paramore intended for the Discovery of ye Variation of the Compass kept by Edmund Halley Commander anno 1699 & 1700

(I’ve written before about the correct spelling of Halley’s first name and that of his ship.)

Like the first logbook, the second is not written by Halley but presumably by his clerk, William Curtiss, and so again the spelling and abbreviations are the clerk’s and not Halley’s. The log is written on the same size (roughly 41cm high by 27cm wide) and type of paper as the first logbook and covers 53 sides (the first was 17 sides).

Unlike the first journal, the second is not signed at the end by Halley and it also differs slightly in structure. The first log included several tables of data, ranging from two days to forty-three, but the second has only two tables of eight and eleven days, and instead largely gives the data in prose, as in these two examples for 2 and 11 November 1699:

[2 Nov] By a very good observation I am in 7°.40′ North Latt: Since yesterday noon we have had the Winds from EbN to NEbE a fine gentle Gale; in the night we had much Lightning, but no Thunder. We have made our way S24°E Distance 73 Miles, Diffrence of Longitude 30′ East, My Long from Lon: 18°:57′ West

[11 Nov] By a good observation I am in Latt 2°.42′ We have had the wind mostly at SSE and have made our way good W38S. 62 Miles diffr of Long 48 Minutes Long West from Lon. 20°:37′ a Fine Gale and fair weather Saturday Morning and Evening I had a good observation of the Variation Morn Ampl[itude] 18°:50′ Even 21°:30′.

So at noon each day he records his latitude, the weather, his course, miles covered, difference of longitude from the previous day’s measurement, and his total longitude west from London. Most entries at sea include this basic information in this style, and a number of days include additional data (variation and amplitude) and anything out of the ordinary (such as birds flying around the ship). I’m rarely tweeting a full entry, usually the latitude, weather and any general information. I’ve also occasionally silently added some punctuation and have always rendered values as DD°MM’ regardless of how they appear in the log.

There is no overall ‘story’ to the second voyage, unlike the first with the hostility and court martial of Lieutenant Harrison. Halley is now focused on collecting his data and we’ll see what use he puts it to at the end of his voyage.

One thing I find surprising (and frustrating) is that he makes very few remarks about the places he visits and appears to show little interest in the lands or native inhabitants – and this leads me to wonder whether Halley might perhaps have kept a private journal?

His second logbook is very much a ship’s log rather than a natural philosopher’s journal, but as an active member of the Royal Society I would expect him to take an interest in a far wider range of topics with which he might entertain the Fellows on his return. [1] When Halley was at the Chester Mint, in the two years before his first voyage, he sent several reports back to the Society (a number of which were published in the Philosophical Transactions), so it seems strange that he would sail around the Atlantic and not make notes of events that would be likely to interest the Fellows. [2]

I haven’t encountered any suggestion of a private journal but we saw from the Society’s minutes that he collected botanical specimens on his first voyage, which was not indicated in his logbook, and there are similarly some unreported items that will appear at the end of this voyage, so a private journal or notes might perhaps have existed – and how much more interesting that would surely be for the general reader!

But there are some entertaining entries still to come in his official logbook, which will resume on 29 December when he leaves Rio for the southern latitudes and he and his crew encounter something none of them have ever seen before…


[1] Halley was elected Fellow of the Royal Society on 30 November 1678 but had to resign his fellowship when he became clerk in January 1686. He was re-elected FRS on 30 November 1700.

[2] These accounts from Chester published in the Phil Trans give some idea of the range of subjects Halley might report on: a dog born “per anum” and a Roman altar; two reports of a hailstorm here and here; a trip to Wales to try the Torricellian experiment; observations of a lunar eclipse.

Halley in London

The last time we saw Captain Edmond Halley was on July 11, 1699 when he moored his ship Paramore at Deptford and brought his first voyage as master and commander to a close: but what has he been getting up to since then?

He kept no diary and so we must look for him in other documents, such as correspondence and minutes, and though these don’t offer any glimpses of his domestic life, it’s surely not too fanciful to picture him entertaining his wife Mary and daughters, Margaret and Catharine, with seafaring tales, and getting to know his three-month-old son.

Ficus citrifolia: is this Halley's Barbados fig tree? (Photo by Riba, Wikimedia Commons)

Ficus citrifolia: is this Halley’s Barbados fig tree? (Photo by Riba, Wikimedia Commons)

We do see him at several meetings of his erstwhile employer, the Royal Society; he didn’t make the meeting held the day after he arrived at Deptford but he was there a week later on July 19 when he entertained the Fellows by showing a “Branch of a Barbados fig tree, which having many nerves or long fibres, which falling downwards, hang so yt they touch ye Ground, where they take root, and so grow up again”. [1]

He followed this up at the next meeting by presenting “part of a viviparous plant as he called it, which grows by the salt water side, called [?]Guapaiaira ye Mangrave; Dr Sloane said it is mentioned and figured in ye Hortus Malabaricus.” [2]

He seems not to have attended the August 2 meeting but on August 9 he was back again with another specimen, this time showing the seed of his “viviparous plant” (a mangrove brought back from Brazil) and Hans Sloane again informed the Fellows that it was “very well described and figured in ye hortus Malabaricus.” [3]

On the 16 August, Halley enlivened the final meeting before the summer recess by showing “Several Variations of the Needle he had observed in his Voyage, set out in a Sea chart, as also he shewed yt Brazile was ill placed in ye common Maps, and he shewed some Barnacles, which he observed to be of quick growth.” [4]

Robert Hooke’s diary has ended by this date and so we have no recorded sightings of Halley in London coffeehouses, but it’s a safe bet that he spent time there, hearing the news and catching up with his friends – and perhaps passing round his botanical exotica.

He was apparently spoken of in wider London society as Narcissus Luttrell mentions his voyage and the court martial of his Lieutenant, though Luttrell’s account is largely erroneous, wrongly reporting the crew were minded to turn pirate and that Harrison was declared “uncapable for ever of serving his majestie by sea or land”, when Harrison was actually found not guilty. [5]

But Halley is most visible in the Admiralty records, where we learn he attended the Lords of the Admiralty on July 21 to ask that he “may be a second time sent out, for the perfecting his designe of discovering the variation of the Compass” and that their Lordships were “inclinable to allow [it]”, given the “good that may thereby accrue to ye Publique”. [6]

There was evidently some (unjust?) criticism of Halley by their Lordships after Harrison was found not guilty at the court martial and so you might think that Halley would have been happy just to obtain a second commission, but he in fact went on to complain about the sailing qualities of Paramore and asked for another ship!

The Admiralty ordered Deptford to survey the Paramore and report on her condition, and the dockyard advised that they could make alterations to settle her more in the water and help find her trim and then “here is noe Vessell … more fitting then she is for that Service”. [7]

So whatever Halley’s wishes, he’s not to be parted from his Paramore just yet.


[1] Royal Society, JBO/10, pp 139-140

[2] Ibid, p 141. The Hortus Malabaricus is well worth a look: here’s a short introduction to the work, with a selection of illustrations

[3] Ibid, p 143

[4] Ibid, p 145

[5] Narcissus Luttrell, A Brief Historical Relation of State Affairs, Vol IV, pp 532 & 538

[6] National Archives, ADM 2/397, pp 153-4

[7] National Archives, ADM 106/3292, f.100v

At Fernando Loronho

On February 19 the Paramore anchors off the island of Fernando Loronho (modern day Fernando de Noronha) and remains there until the 23rd when Halley leaves for Pernambuco (Recife), having found no fresh water on the island.

Halley’s description of the island is interesting because it includes two drawings – a profile of the island as seen from the sea, and a plan of the island, which is reproduced below. It isn’t possible to say who made the drawings but the handwriting on the plan is the same as the logbook, so it was perhaps his clerk, Caleb Harmon.

The next day we came to an Anchor under the Lee of the Island, haveing narrowly escaped a Sunk Rock; that lies off the SW point of the Island. I went on Shore to see what the Iseland might afford us, but found nothing but Small Turtle Doves and Land Crabbs in abundance, neither Goats nor hogs nor any people; we saw many green Turtle in the Sea and in Someplaces their Tracks on the Sand, but could Catch none, by reason of the great Suff of the Sea; we searcht the whole Lee Side of the Iseland but found no fresh water; we lookt not on the windward side because we found such a Suff on the Lee side: here we againe scrubb’d our Shipp and gott some Wood and Sett up all our Shrouds and brought our Masts more aft. we found a four Clock Moon to make high Water, and it flows about 6 Foot on a Spring. The Variation observed on Shore was not full 3 degrees East. The Island is but Small, about 7 Miles Long and very Narrow. the Middle thereof is in Latt 3°57′ South, and Longit by reckoning from London 23°.40′ West. The Appearance thereof when the high pico like a Steeple bears SWbW at 5 Leagues distance is thus –

[profile of island – a simple outline drawing]

[plan of island – see below]


Extract from Halley’s first logbook: The plan of the Island Fernando Loronho (© British Library (£), Add MSS 30368 f.4r)