Rocks of the Challenger Expedition 1872-76

HMS Challenger

HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth on 21 December 1872 and began the first major sea-going voyage of discovery since the Beagle almost exactly 41 years previously. Unlike this earlier expedition though, it was the measurement of the physical characteristics of the ocean water and floor and the recording of benthic and deep water fauna and flora that most occupied the scientists aboard Challenger. Under the captaincy of George Nares the crew of 240 seamen was supplemented by a team of zoologists, botanists and meteorologists directed by Charles Wyville Thompson.

John Murray

John Murray

Of the naturalists aboard, John Murray, a Canadian of Scottish parentage, became the one most closely associated with the voyage by making possible the publication of the 50-volume report detailing its observations and conclusions. The expedition was planned jointly by the Royal Society and the University of Edinburgh and sponsored by Gladstone's Government. The expedition circumnavigated the globe in an eastward direction and visited many of the oceans islands. It was from these islands that by far the majority of the 730 rocks in the Challenger Collection come. John Murray, Prof Henry Moseley, John Buchanan and Fleet Surgeon George Maclean RN seem to have been most concerned with rock collecting although their rocks were also examined microscopically and named more exactly after the voyage by Prof A. Renard of Ghent University. The rocks were donated to The Natural History Museum by John Murray in 1890, and numbered BM.64588 to BM.65289 (non-continuous); and, in 1921, as BM.1921,764(1-52). The slides described by Renard are registered as 1920,668(1-119). In addition to rocks, zoological material is held within the Zoology spirit collection and ocean bottom sediments, fossil sharks' teeth and manganese nodules are kept in stable environmental conditions at our Wandsworth out-station.

The islands visited by HMS Challenger on her 1872-76 voyage

Above:The islands visited by HMS Challenger on her 1872-76 voyage

The most productive stopover was Kerguelen Island, which yielded 20% of the rocks in the collection, while Ascension provided 12%. The 500 rocks outside these two source areas were divided approximately evenly between the remaining islands. As a consequence of their geographic origin 32% of the rocks are basalt (one of which yielded a rare olivine nodule), 9% are trachyte and 9% andesite, with 2% phonolite (mainly from Kerguelen and Fernando Noronha).

The basalts had their most varied forms in Hawaii, where stalactitic, amygdaloidal and ropey types were collected from the crater at Kilauea. Of the rocks that were not the result of ocean island volcanism no single rock type predominated but they included serpentinite (Malanipa), limestones (Bermuda, Cape Verde, Honolulu, Ascension), fossil wood (Kerguelen) and coal (Zebu -The Philippines, Kerguelen).

The latter would have concerned the travellers greatly as, although primarily a sailing vessel, Challenger did have a rudimentary steam engine and was thus limited by proximity to coaling stations. The possibility of finding a profitable coal mine conveniently sited on some remote ocean island could not have been far from their minds.

Ropey lava cataract at Kilauea crater

Ropey lava cataract at Kilauea crater.

John Murray did, however, profit personally from the expedition by locating a phosphate deposit on Christmas Island, and the taxes paid to the British Government for the annexation and protection of this island would eventually surpass the cost of the expedition. But, of course, the observations the scientists made make the best testament of the voyage; outside the discovery of manganese nodules and countless new fauna and flora their efforts inspired a whole new science: oceanography. The voyage was not exceeded in scale or effort until the Deep Sea Drilling Project a century later.

Fossil wood from Kerguelen island

Fossil wood from Kerguelen island (BM.64841)

For further information contact: David Smith

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