HISTORY | Cape Town and beyond: sailing through the roaring forties to Kerguelen Island

Painting of HMS Challenger by William Frederick Mitchell originally published for the Royal Navy (Photo: Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

On 9 February 1840, the day they said farewell to St Helena and all the helpful people of the island, it is interesting to note that Cunningham went ashore on “duty”; one of the sailors had apparently deserted, and Cunningham went in search of him. I can find no further reference to this incident, but I do know that the sailor was not apprehended before Erebus and Terror set sail, because according to a researcher of Cunningham’s diary the name of the miscreant was recorded as one Tilden Taylor, the young gentlemen’s (i.e. midshipmen’s) steward aboard Terror. He had signed on at Chatham, and his home town was recorded as Milton in Kent.

Studying the muster list, I found his record was terminated on 9 February 1840, the day the expedition sailed. Interestingly, in the 1841 census, a certain Tilden Taylor appears in it as a baker. His age tallies with that of the missing man when the ships departed, so he seems to have returned to England and settled down to a life ashore! Later censuses do not show anyone of this exact name, so what the future held for him is unknown. Enquiries are ongoing.

A good spread of sails was soon billowing aloft and, helped by a stiff breeze, both ships set a course for Cape Town. As St Helena lies at 16°S, Cape Town, at 34°S, is considerably further south. The voyage took from 9 February until 15 March – and this time Terror arrived before Erebus by nearly three days. Just as the company aboard Terror were starting to get concerned for her safety Erebus sailed in and dropped her anchors. The ships had lost contact with one another just four days after leaving St Helena, and the seas, which had picked up considerably as they made their way southwards along the African coast, had caused them considerable difficulty. Ross reports in his journal that Erebus had encountered a fairly strong northerly current of much colder water which created very misty conditions, making navigation difficult. Not wishing to close with the land while visibility was restricted, he sensibly held back and took a course further out than Terror’s. This accounted for Erebus’s delay in reaching port.

Despite the ordeals the ships’ officers had experienced on this leg of the voyage they all maintained a series of depth, temperature, and salinity records.

“The port area was of great importance to the British Empire, as it provided a major naval servicing and provisioning post for ships making their way to India and back.”

In 1840 Cape Town had only just become a municipal authority with the power to set its own laws, but the British had been in command there since the end of the Napoleonic wars, when France and her former ally, the Netherlands, had ceded all rights to the Cape Colony in exchange for a one-off payment from Britain. In 1836 the Boer settlers, wishing to be free of British domination and administration, had started their famous trek inland and to the north to set up the Orange Free State and the Transvaal. So the members of our expedition, arriving in 1840, would have witnessed at first hand the fledgling stages of what was to become South Africa as we know it today.

The port area was of great importance to the British Empire, as it provided a major naval servicing and provisioning post for ships making their way to India and back. It was this feature that Erebus and Terror hoped to take advantage of. The harbour, Simon’s Town, is about 20 miles from Cape Town, the colony’s capital. Today, Simon’s Town is the base of the South African Navy.

The two most senior British military officers at Cape Town were Rear Admiral George Elliot and Lieutenant-General Sir George Napier, and it was to these two men that Ross and Crozier paid their first calls to seek the help they needed to set up the observatory.

Having received the requisite permissions to erect the wooden building and restock their ships, the two commanders could spend the next few weeks relaxing and enjoying the company of the top echelon of the town’s citizens.

Cape Town actually had its own observatory but although this was for astronomical, rather than magnetic, purposes, its superintendent was only too willing to make available his services for the benefit of the expedition. As mentioned earlier, Lieutenant Eardley Wilmot and three soldiers, who had travelled out aboard Erebus, were to be left here to manage the additional facility until the end of the expedition.

The stay at Simon’s Town lasted just three weeks, sufficient time to complete and commission the observatory and restock the two ships before they headed out once more on their voyage of discovery.

Before they left South Africa, McCormick and Robertson headed inland to climb Table Mountain. They set off at 4 a.m., meaning to reach the top before the sun became too hot. They were disappointed to not see much of the country’s wildlife but did at last reach the summit. From here McCormick recalls in his book that they could see right across towards Cape Town, and that as they walked round the plateau at the top of the mountain the naval base came into view in the other direction. They carried on into Cape Town after completing their descent of the mountain; on the way back to Simon’s Town they visited the newly erected observatory and saw Wilmot setting up his apparatus.

Getting back to the ships would, however, prove very troublesome. They had hired a chaise for the 20 or so miles to Simon’s Town, and having left their departure until past 8 p.m. decided to try and cross a sandy bay as a shortcut. But in the twilight the wheels sank into quicksand and they had to put their shoulders to the chaise to heave it out. While they were trying to accomplish this, the horse became entangled in its harness, which finally broke.

With no help immediately available and not wishing to remain out all night they managed to manhandle the chaise out of its immediate difficulty and drag it the last bit of the journey back to Simon’s Town. By now all chance of returning to their ships had evaporated, so they rousted the landlord of a local inn out of bed and he very kindly put them up for the night. This was the last of their forays into the countryside, and a few days later the two ships set out on the next part of their voyage. They would return three years later to pick up Wilmot and his aides.

“Ross had been prevailed upon for humanitarian reasons to detour to the Crozet Islands where a small group of men employed in the sealing trade had been landed nearly a year before.”

By the next morning, the two ships had lost contact with one another again due to a sharp squall just as they reached the open sea. Their next landfall was scheduled as either Marion Island or Prince Edward Island, just a short distance away to the south-east. The days it took them to arrive at these two islands were again spent in the usual measurements of depth, temperature, and salinity. Ross was also interested in any ocean currents that could be detected, and fully expected to locate the one that he had experienced as his ship had sailed southwards towards Simon’s Town. They did not find it, and he supposed that it was probably caused by cold water welling up nearer to land from some depths further south.

The depth of water for a considerable distance as they sailed south showed that there was a huge shoal area, which Ross referred to as the Agulhas Bank. This vast raised portion of the seabed is where the colder Atlantic Ocean meets its much warmer neighbour, the Indian Ocean. A number of ships had come to grief over the years in this part of the ocean, and Ross and Crozier would have been aware of this danger. After taking the observations they required they headed further south. At this juncture, both ships were still out of touch with one another.

The wind had failed Erebus on two consecutive days in the middle of April, and this was followed by what Ross describes as the heaviest rain he had ever experienced. He states in his book:

It came down literally in sheets of water, accompanied by very violent squalls from various quarters, alternately with perfect, but almost momentary calms… Heavy thunder and the most vivid lightning occurred during this great fall of water which lasted for more than ten hours, it required the utmost vigilance by the officers and crew to manoeuvre the ship during the rapid changes both in the strength and direction of the wind.

Compare the notes written by Cunningham aboard Terror for the same four days of April, and you would not believe they were on the same basic course. Terror experienced a calm period on the 12th followed by fine light winds on the 13th, and under very fine sailing conditions she was making about seven knots. During the 14th and 15th the wind did become stiffer but apart from a mention of close-hauling the sails and having some rain there is nothing to suggest in his notes the ferocity and quantity of rain that Erebus had to endure.

On 15 April the surface temperature of the sea fell dramatically by at least 12°F (~7°C), and Ross surmised that they might be approaching some ice, especially when the wind veered to the south and the air temperature dropped by 9°F (~5°C). As it transpired, they did not meet any ice, and by 21 April, just one week after the torrential rain that had assailed them, they were within sight of Prince Edward Island, between 46° and 47°S. It would be a day later that Terror first picked out the profile of this same island; neither ship could see any suitable landing place, and as they had not planned to stop here both sailed on past the two islands that formed the group. Their real goal was the Kerguelen Archipelago, but Ross had been prevailed upon for humanitarian reasons to detour to the Crozet Islands where a small group of men employed in the sealing trade had been landed nearly a year before. They had not been visited in the meantime and their representative at the Cape was concerned about their welfare. Ross had brought food and clothing and some other supplies to see the sealers through the coming winter. It was at this juncture that, due to the sudden drop in temperature, the crew of Erebus were issued with warmer clothing.

They first sighted the islands on 26 April but it took the best part of a week to establish contact with the sealers, and even then it was the sealers who rowed out their small boat and clambered aboard Erebus. Ross described them as being ‘more like Esquimaux than civilised beings’; their clothes were soaked in blubber and the smell emanating from them was most offensive. The leader of the group, a Mr Hickley, told Ross that they had experienced such bad weather that they had not been able to venture out in their boat for over five weeks. All of the sealers appeared to be in good health, probably because they lived on a diet of fresh meat obtained from the ‘sea elephants’ (elephant seals) they were catching and their success with fishing along the rocky shoreline.

Erebus sailed along most of the coastal strip of Possession and East Islands that formed part of the Crozet Archipelago, which was surveyed as she progressed. The findings entered into the ship’s log showed that there were virtually no safe harbours that could be used by a sailing ship of their size, and having completed the errand they had been asked to perform they prepared to make sail. Ross had hoped to meet up again with Terror whilst near these islands, but by 1 May, still not having seen his consort, he gave the order to set sail and proceed towards the Kerguelen Islands, where they hoped to set up another of the string of stations for taking magnetic readings. Their stay at Kerguelen was to last for several weeks, so it would be important to make contact again with Terror, to make sure all was well with her.

“Towards the northern end of the island was a bay that had been named Christmas Harbour by none other than Captain James Cook.”

Terror had missed out on the torrential rain that Erebus had been subjected to, but between 23 April and 4 May she went through some severe gales herself, with mountainous seas. During this period the crew made visual contact with Prince Edward Island, noting snow on the higher peaks, but the ship does not appear to have come too close to it and sailed on towards the Kerguelen group. Whereas Ross only saw one small lump of ice, Crozier and his officers in Terror saw several icebergs sailing majestically along. There was no denying the fact that the weather was getting considerably colder.

On the same day, Friday 1 May, that Erebus set course from Prince Edward Island, Terror sighted new land on her leeward bow. Orders were given to close-reef the main topsail and storm staysail, but despite this precaution, the crew had to endure massive seas breaking over the decks, soaking those who were reefing the staysail. As daylight came, the ship’s company were treated to the first sight of the sun for over a week, and could establish their bearings more accurately. The island, Kerguelen, turned out to be their destination, and their home for the next six weeks – but making a landing on it would be another matter altogether.

Towards the northern end of the island was a bay that had been named Christmas Harbour by none other than Captain James Cook, although the island group itself had been discovered in 1772 by a French explorer who went by the exotic name of Yves-Joseph de KerguélenTrémarec. He had returned to France thinking he had discovered a vast land that would turn out to be a fertile region suitable for growing all sorts of desirable crops and which could also contain treasures such as gold and valuable minerals, including coal. But his second visit a couple of years later brought him nearer to the truth. The island is sometimes referred to as Desolation Island.

The heavy weather continued throughout the weekend and even into Monday, but as it abated slightly, all sign of land disappeared. Hurricane force winds tore into Terror for most of Tuesday but at least the land was back in view. Crozier was, however, forced to keep the ship clear of the land and the next day, realising that the storm had carried her past the entrance to the bay that they were seeking, he turned her back; this time the island was seen across the starboard bow. Christmas Harbour came into sight, but the risk of entering it as the weather stood was a daunting prospect, and caution prevailed until the next morning.

Lying at anchor a mile or so offshore and with a calmer sea, they sent in a boat to reconnoitre before committing the ship. On the approach to the bay they found a particularly dangerous-looking reef at its entrance that would have to be negotiated. Saturday 8 May gave them the first hope of sailing into the bay that would become their home for quite some time, but even now the weather thwarted them. Several more days of patient tacking passed when finally, on the morning of 13 May, after another sally towards the bay entrance and numerous tacks across the mouth, they managed to reach the relative calm of the harbour.

After all this time apart, the two expedition ships were together again. Erebus had managed to enter Christmas Harbour a day ahead of Terror.

“Campbell’s immediate observation was to recall Captain Cook’s visit nearly 100 years before, when he had dubbed the place Desolation Island.”

It turned out that Ross and his men aboard Erebus had by this time experienced the same sort of conditions , and on Terror Cunningham recorded the brief appearance of another vessel on 8 May, but no contact was possible between Terror and what must surely have been Erebus.

On 7 January 1874 another British vessel of discovery, HMS Challenger, slipped into Christmas Harbour and let go her anchors not far from the spot where Erebus and Terror had been anchored 34 years earlier. She had sailed from Simon’s Town and like Ross’s two ships had made an attempt to land on Crozet, but had been driven away by the seas smashing onto the rocky coasts.

On board Challenger was one Lieutenant Lord George Campbell, who wrote a book based on the diaries he kept and the constant flow of letters that he sent home to his friends and relatives during the three years Challenger was at sea. It would seem that Challenger made a relatively easy entry into Christmas Harbour, and Campbell’s immediate observation was to recall Captain James Cook’s visit nearly 100 years before, when he had dubbed the place Desolation Island. Campbell went on to describe the anchorage in more detail:

Kerguelen Island is a gloomy looking land certainly, with its high, black, fringing cliffs, patches of snow in the higher reaches of the dark coloured mountains, and a grey sea fretted with white horses surrounding it. To right and left of the harbour’s entrance are perpendicular, table topped, lava cliffs, covered on the top with green moss. On the left an oblong-shaped block of cliff is separated by a deep cut from its neighbouring cliff, of which it once formed a part; in this detached bit is a colossal arch, 150 feet in height, and 100 feet at the base – a grand freak of nature.

The harbour narrows to 500 yards some distance from its head, towards which it gradually tapers, ending in a sandy beach. As we lie at anchor on our left, towering 1,000 feet above us is an enormous rounded mass of black basalt, which has burst through rock of older formation and there remained. On our right is a steep slope, covered with moss and grass, traversed occasionally by horizontal bands of Trap-rock, and capped by a peak of grey rock – an old volcano – 1,300 feet high. Ahead, rising from the beach, the mossy slope continues, while beyond and right and left, are bare brown hills.

Thousands and thousands of penguins are sitting along the southern shore – all of the crested kind – the sulphur-crested, and another, a new one to us, with a golden crest extending across the head. These are nesting among the clumps of moss growing on the steep banks above the black rock-shores; and water all around is alive with them, jumping and splashing everywhere.

Campbell seized the opportunity to make his way ashore and marvelled at the abundance of wildlife, which included two species of penguins, ducks by the hundred, bull sealions and their mates, and many, many sea birds. The noise and smell were overpowering. He was in the habit of taking his gun with him and like McCormick before him blazed away at all and sundry. Duck was soon on the menu, and kept the ship supplied while Challenger was at anchor over the next couple of days.

Then they sailed further south along the coast before entering another protected bay called Betsy Bay, probably named after some sailor working on the sealers that frequented Kerguelen. It was here that Campbell came across a poignant reminder of how fragile life was in those remote places. A group of seven graves with roughly hewn headstones marked the resting place of whalers who had lost their lives whilst trying to catch a whale by harpooning it from an open boat. Once they had hooked on, they would then be towed along waiting for the great beast to tire itself out and at last fall within range of other men with harpoons to deprive it of its life. At some stage in the grisly chase, the whale had probably come up for air so near the whaler’s boat as to overturn it and cast the men into the sea, where they must have rapidly perished in the freezing waters of the Southern Ocean, whether or not their boat had been destroyed.

“McCormick and Hooker spent most of their time exploring the harbour area and up into the surrounding hillsides, noting the bird life, vegetation and geological structure of the island.”

The coastline of Kerguelen consisted of a whole series of large inlets on the same lines as the fjord region of Norway, caused by the same relentless gouging by the glaciers of many millennia earlier. Challenger spent the remainder of January visiting a number of these inlets and carrying out a running survey as she progressed along the coast. On the last day of the month she returned to Christmas Harbour and sailed around to the west coast where the sealers that they had contacted earlier assured them that at least one glacier still reached the sea. Challenger’s visit in January proved, unsurprisingly, to be far more amenable regarding the weather than that experienced by Ross’s men when they were there in May and June 1840. In fact, Campbell concluded his diary for their stay, reflecting that he had enjoyed his visit.

Ross and Crozier from time to time gave names to various geographical features that they discovered, and here on Kerguelen Island they called the reef at the harbour entrance Terror Reef. Ross had discovered a shallow area in the sea as Erebus approached the island, which they named the Erebus Bank – and the natural arch at the entrance to the bay they called Arched Rock.

Christmas Harbour is circular and so it appeared to be safe wherever the wind came from, but to make sure, the two crews spent most of the first day warping and manoeuvring their vessels as close to the shore as possible before securing them for the duration of their stay. The main reason for getting them close in was to facilitate the unloading of all the building materials that would be required to construct the next observatory.

Throughout the expedition Sundays were usually set aside to carry out a simple divine (i.e. Christian) service and allow the crews some recreation time, and so it was on this occasion. Then the next day and for several days following, most of the men were employed in the task of erecting the observatory. They had to complete it by 29 May because that was a Term Day. Several such term days had been pre-planned so that the observations from the many different stations in various parts of the world could be synchronised. This was part of a plan by several countries, including France and Germany, to gain a larger picture of the magnetic variations that were known to occur from time to time.

A short quotation from Ross’s first volume has some relevance here:

It happened most fortunately to be a time of unusual magnetic disturbance, so that our first day’s simultaneous observations proved the vast extent and instantaneous effect of the disturbing power, whatever it might be, affecting the magnetometers at Toronto in Canada and here at Kerguelen Island, nearly antipodal to each other, simultaneously and similarly in all their strange oscillations and irregular movements, and thus immediately afforded one of the most important facts that the still hidden cause of magnetic phenomena has yet presented.

This comparison with Toronto was of course only possible when all the results had been collated after the expedition arrived home, but it does show the lengths they had gone to in order to achieve a comprehensive data base for future scientific research.

While the observatory was being prepared, McCormick and Hooker spent most of their time exploring the harbour area and up into the surrounding hillsides, noting the bird life, vegetation and geological structure of the island. McCormick even discovered some fossilised tree trunks, which he measured at seveb feet in diameter. On one occasion he even took one of the sailors to try and bring a substantial sample back to the ship, but the terrain proved too difficult for them to carry the bulky and quite heavy wood. The next day he returned to the spot where the tree trunk lay and this time, even with the help from two sailors, it again proved too difficult to remove so he had to content himself with several much smaller examples. The weather on the island was proving most depressing with an almost constant sea mist that dampened everything outside including the enthusiasm of those exposed to it but McCormick did not really let that get in the way of his exploring rambles. Most days he could be found out on the hillsides, gun in hand, picking off a few local ducks for the table or seeking out samples of the other birds for whom this island had until now been a safe home.

“Several times, however, they took detours and carried out some more exploration of a local nature, and in the end these detours were to last for two days.”

Having ventured all the way round Christmas Harbour, McCormick volunteered to lead a boat party out of the bay and sail round the coast for several miles to explore the neighbouring Cumberland Bay. Accompanying him on this trip would be Lieutenant Charles Phillips from Terror. The two officers had marshalled a crew of three men from each ship to handle the boat, and on 2 June an early start was made, some stars still shining in the pale dawn sky, and the weather for once promising a fine start. They rowed passed the Arched Rock at about 7 a.m., and took a compass bearing before turning along the coast to locate Cumberland Bay.

With their change in direction the wind became favourable, and they shipped their oars and hoisted the small sail, which carried the boat rapidly towards the new bay. Entry into the bay did not prove too difficult, nor did finding a suitable landing place. They had come about 10 miles since departing from Christmas Harbour, and taking once more to the oars they gained the head of the bay.

McCormick was fascinated by the inquisitiveness of the shags that inhabited this bay. They followed the progress of the boat, swooping down towards it, as they had obviously never before seen human beings. They hovered above the boat as it was being rowed along and several times one of the sailors would take a swipe at them with his oar, bringing one down with each blow. These unfortunate birds would finish up by supplementing the explorers’ first evening meal.

Reaching the top of the bay they were able to run the boat up onto a sandy beach not far from a small stream trickling down from the high ground that surrounded the bay. The bay was estimated to be 12 miles long, and by 7 p.m. that first evening they were securely set up for cooking their supper and preparing for a good night’s sleep in the blanket bedrolls they had brought with them.

The following morning the plan was to head inland and attempt to cross the relatively narrow part of the island, to bring them to the opposite coast. The higher ground that they had to negotiate proved a stumbling block, however, and because of its boggy nature and with the heavy camping equipment they had brought with them they came to a premature halt.

McCormick was, however, determined to complete the crossing, and taking just one of the men and discarding their camping gear, the two left the others to retrace their steps, and pressed on across to the other side of the island. Mist enshrouded the view when they arrived and not wishing to be out for the night without any tent or means of protection should the weather become inclement, they beat a retreat and caught up with the others. Now with darkness creeping up on the party and the weather deteriorating all the time it was essential that they find a suitable resting place because they would have to spend the night out on the fells.

Supper consisted of the several ducks that McCormick had managed to shoot, together with pea soup that formed part of the rations they had brought with them. In the morning they resumed their way to the sandy beach, and after gathering together the natural history samples that had been collected and loading the boat with them and their camping gear, they rowed back up the bay towards the entrance. Several times, however, they took detours and carried out some more exploration of a local nature, and in the end these detours were to last for two days; McCormick was constantly being drawn to unusual features in the landscape and of course the boat would have to be beached while he examined them. His curiosity knew no bounds, and for a naval surgeon he was remarkably well informed about all aspects of geology and nature in general.

Finally, they were able to proceed towards the bay entrance but now the weather overtook them and they spent an uncomfortable night in the boat. They had taken a stock of provisions with them to last at least ten days and these were being supplemented with the aid of the gun. They spent the night of Friday 5 June on a sandy beach close to the boat, which they had pulled up nearby, and after a short ramble by McCormick first thing in the morning they launched the boat back into Cumberland Bay and, taking advantage of the fresh breeze, pursued a course that would bring them to the bay’s entrance. The sea crossing back to Christmas Harbour threatened to be a rough one, but with the strategic use of oars and sail to take advantage of any variances in the wind, they drew level with the harbour entrance and by 4 p.m. had pulled down its length, to reach Erebus where she lay at anchor. Ross was at the observatory, and McCormick went to report that he and his team had returned safely. The party had been away for four days.

“Neither Ross nor Cunningham wrote in any detail about the various groups’ experiences except to say they were carrying out survey work.”

The members of the expedition that had been left on board the two ships had endured some very poor weather including snow showers and hail. The wind always seemed to be present, and the period that the expedition spent here seems to have been quite a strain on their patience. The accounts that were written at the time and later certainly reflect on the period as one everybody would rather forget.

All the rain had created a fine display of cataracts and waterfalls cascading down off the cliffs that surrounded the bay. Even with the two ships lying only about 40 or 50 yards off the shore it wasn’t uncommon that the short crossing ashore and back would be barred by the foulest of weather.

June turned into July and still the weather dominated their existence. One of the biggest problems they had was trying to keep warm and dry. Worse, every time a party went outside, there was the certainty that a change of clothing would be required as soon as they gained the sanctuary of the lower decks or their cabins. There were only limited opportunities to dry their clothes, and this made for a very uncomfortable lifestyle.

After the short exploration of Cumberland Bay, Ross sent out an order on 8 July for another boat expedition to be organised. This time Erebus’ first lieutenant, Edward Bird, was to leave with two boats departing from Christmas Harbour as soon as the arrangements could be made and the weather allowed. Their brief was for one of the boats to carry out an examination of White’s Bay and the other to return to Cumberland Bay. McCormick and Phillips were to lead the Cumberland Bay party and resume where they had left off on their first visit. Bird and his team were given the job of carrying on past Cumberland Bay to reach White’s Bay. But the day after the order was given Bird reported sick.

Cunningham wrote in his journal that Lieutenant Edward Bird from Erebus had reported sick on 8 July, and McCormick noted that he would have to be very diplomatic in the way he informed Captain Ross of his first lieutenant’s indisposition; McCormick had long thought that Bird had not really had his heart in the expedition.

Cumberland Bay and its geography were quite complicated, judging by a look at the map of Kerguelen. Neither Ross nor Cunningham wrote in any detail about the various groups’ experiences except to say they were carrying out survey work. There is, however, a long entry in McCormick’s book about the second Cumberland Bay trip. He certainly was very active during his explorations into the countryside on both sides of the bay. His notes contain an amazing amount of information, and his zeal for the work in hand displays the traits of a very driven person.

There were some ridges in the landscape, bounded by higher land; on his previous visit this had led him to believe that by crossing this feature he would possibly be able to look down into White’s Bay. To prove this theory, he took with him as an assistant Edward Fawcett, the boatswain’s mate.

The two boats returned to the ships’ anchorage in Christmas Harbour 12 days after their departure, and although both the crews were severely strained as a result of the continuing bad weather, they at least had not suffered any casualties.

Joseph Hooker had been given a whole list of “must haves” by his father, with a request to send home seeds of the plant that most epitomises this island, the Kerguelen cabbage. Hooker senior then wrote to his son reporting that the seeds would not germinate, or when they did, they were dismal plants doomed to failure. Joseph responded that he had successfully grown the plants even aboard the ship and could not understand his father’s failures.

Hooker spent many hours searching for samples of the plant and insect life on Kerguelen, but what really caught his attention was the existence of many varieties of mosses and lichens which thrived on the hillsides. Some of these were still embedded in snow and ice, and it was difficult for him to procure any samples; hacking with a suitable metal instrument released some of them but of course damaged the minute structures. He eventually devised a way round the problem by sitting on the sample until it thawed sufficiently to enable him to gently extract the small tuft of vegetation, and add it to his growing collection. His fascination with lichens and mosses, or cryptogams as they are known, went back to his earlier rambles at home as a boy. Even though they do not produce flowers they still provide a colourful display in shades of red, orange, lilac and yellow as they cling to boulders and rock faces on the hillsides.

The distribution of plants across the vast expanses of the Southern Ocean with many hundreds of miles between land masses and other island groups would pose Hooker one of his most serious challenges, and on his return home he frequently corresponded with Charles Darwin and other eminent botanists of the time, to establish a solution to this phenomenon.

The above is an excerpt from the book The Magnetism of Antarctica: The Ross Expedition 1839 – 1843 written by John Knight. It is reprinted here with the permission of Whittles Publishing based in the UK.

John Knight

John Knight is an author based in Lincolnshire, UK.