At Sea with the Scientifics: The Challenger Letters of Joseph Matkin

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9780824814243: At Sea with the Scientifics: The Challenger Letters of Joseph Matkin

When HMS Challenger sailed from Portsmouth in 1872, a young assistant ship's steward, Joseph Matkin, was among the crew. Throughout the three-and-a-half-year voyage, Matkin maintained a journal from which he composed the many letters he sent home to his family in England. In his letters he commented on oceanographic operations, reported on shipboard events of special concern to the crew, and discussed at length the history, geography, and peoples of the many exotic and remote ports at which the ship called on its famous circumnavigation of the globe.

The Challenger expedition established the foundations of oceanography and is second only to Darwin's voyage aboard the Beagle for its contributions to nineteenth-century science. The massive quantity of specimens and information acquired was written up in the fity-volume series of Challenger Reports, and personal accounts were published by officers and scientists. No ocean voyage had ever been so well documented.

Yet no account of the seaman's life "below decks" was known to exist until the early 1980s, when two substantial collections of Matkin's letters surfaced. The letters are unique in their perspective and fascinating for their depth and literacy. Matkin, the son of a printer, was well aware of the significance of the voyage and strove to present a learned account in a proper style. His letters convey a wealth of detail about shipboard logistics, the crew's attitudes toward scientific operations, and officer-scientist-crew relations. Unwittingly, Matkin also illuminates himself and the middle-class society of which he was a part.

Matkin's letters, published here for the first time, bring freshness and immediacy to this great Victorian scientific enterprise. Philip F. Rehbock has edited and annotated the letters, providing a particularly readable work of travel literature for anyone interested in oceanography, voyaging, maritime social history, and naval affairs.

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From Publishers Weekly:

Historians and buffs of nautical yarns will welcome this collection of 69 recently discovered letters penned by a literate, observant crew member of the British oceanography survey vessel Challenger, which traveled the waters of the globe from 1872 to 1876. While the expedition's scientific accomplishments have been well recorded, this is the first chronicle by a "below decks" witness. Matkin's letters are enlivened by perceptive comments laced with humor about various shipboard characters and relations between "scientifics," officers and crew. His lively curiosity and appreciation of natural and manmade beauty is reflected in informed descriptions of the flora and fauna at exotic lands and their sophisticated or primitive peoples. Excellent editing and smooth transitional annotations by Rehbock, who teaches history and science at the University of Hawaii, greatly add to the letters' narrative impact. Illustrations not seen by PW.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.


"Candid details of shipboard life and port visits, as well as some of the scientific discoveries seen with an observant laypersons's eye, come to life."

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