Magazine article History Today

Edmond Halley - Explorer

Magazine article History Today

Edmond Halley - Explorer

Article excerpt

Edmond Halley is best known by the comet that bears his name, but at the turn of the eighteenth century he was also involved in some intriguing cloak-and-dagger voyages of exploration. Ian Seymour tells a little-known story.

On August 2nd, 1700, a cluster of English fishing boats settled off Toad Cove, Newfoundland. Their calm routine shattered as an illfavoured craft bore down on the flotilla; pirates were active along the coast and few honest sailors welcomed the sight of a strange, dishevelled vessel. Captain Humphrey Bryant's trawler had already fought off one attack and his crew had no stomach for polite introductions. Five rounds of red-hot shot roared from their swivel-guns and sliced the brigand's rigging. The ship abruptly anchored as an agitated figure jigged about the poop deck, treating Bryant to a torrent of abuse impressive even by North Atlantic standards. It was maritime history's least likely Blackbeard -- Edmond Halley, FRS.

Appearances deceived; Halley was no buccaneer, yet Bryant's error touched on truth. The popular image of scientists in the late seventeenth century was as half-crazed cranks or solitary adepts, immersed in arcane studies and shunning normal life for the `high lonely tower' of Milton's Il Penseroso. Halley was totally different. A friend recalled him as `naturally of an ardent and glowing temper. He always spoke and acted with an uncommon degree of sprightliness and vivacity. He was open and punctual in his dealings, candid in his judgements and blameless in his manners, sweet and affable'. Even allowing for loyal exaggeration, Halley emerges as a warm, convivial man, well-liked and good-hearted, with a schoolboy's taste for swashbuckling excitement. He cut an energetic and engaging figure.

The astronomer's reputation has suffered from his fame. Halley's Comet -- the only bright comet to pass Earth at fairly short intervals has overshadowed the extraordinary range of his interests. Few scientific histories even mention the ocean voyages contemporaries considered by far his greatest achievement.

These adventures began shortly before noon on October 20th, 1698, as His Majesties' `Pink' Paramore slipped away from Deptford and headed for the open sea. Halley, Secretary of the Royal Society and a newly appointed naval captain, opened the sealed orders he had written for himself five days earlier. They began:

To Captn. Edmd. Halley Comandr ...

You are to make the best of your way to

the Southward of the Equator, and there to

observe on the East Coast of South America

and the West Coast of Africa, the variations

of the Compasse, with all the accuraccy

you can, as also the true Situation both in

Latitude and Longitude of the ports wher

you arrive

... and, if the season of the yeare permit,

you are to stand soe farr to the south till

you discover the Coast of the

Terra Incognito.

This wondrously optimistic final clause gave Halley carte blanche to explore and observe. The astronomer was eminently qualified for both. In November 1676, soon after his twentieth birthday, he and a friend embarked on a voyage to the remote Atlantic island of St Helena, intending to map the southern stars. They proved remarkably successful despite the island's overcast skies and the motiveless malice of Governor Gregory Field. In the following years Halley distinguished himself in almost every branch of science, displaying a powerful practical bent that marked him out from most of the Royal Society.

As early as 1693 he and Benjamin Middleton `made proposalls of going into ye South Sea & Round the World' to measure the variation of the compass and chart the Earth's magnetic field. Halley's reputation ensured a high level of official support, as did the obvious benefits to navigation. The causes of compass variation -- or `Declination' in technical terms -- are still not perfectly understood. …

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