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HMS Challenger Logbook That Proved Darwin Right for Bonhams Auction

A logbook from the famous 1872-1876 journey of HMS Challenger, described at the time as “the greatest advance in the knowledge of our planet since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries” will go on sale at Bonhams 16th September auction of Exploration, Travel and Topographical Pictures. The Book is estimated to sell for £10,000-12,000.


The expedition has been described as one of the defining achievements of the age and the scientific equivalent of the Egyptian Pyramids or the Palace of Versailles. Conducted just 13 years after Darwin’s Origin of the Species, Challenger was tasked with constructing a fossil record that would test the new theory of evolution and became inextricably intertwined within the God vs. Science debate.

The expedition may in fact have been the single largest research project of all time, comprising of 30,000 pages of type, 3000 lithographs, over 200 maps and numerous wood cuts.

The Challenger expedition was to invent, in effect, oceanography and was as the name suggests a forerunner of NASA’s Challenger Space Shuttle. Indeed, it was on this expedition, that for the first time, scientists were able to identify sediment material as extraterrestrial dust from comets and asteroids. The expedition also catalogued almost 5,000 previously unknown species, including exotic variants of arctic eelpouts and black sea-devils.

The findings of the expedition provided positive proof that life really did exist on the deep-sea bed. Even now, when knowledge of the ocean depths is still profoundly limited, what is understood owes an enormous debt to the pioneering work of the Challenger.

At the voyage’s completion, Challenger had sailed a staggering 68,890 miles. A vast quantity of biological and other material had been collected by the time the ship returned to England in the summer of 1876, and work started immediately to study and catalogue the findings.

Challenger’s major contributions, covered in a 50-volume, 29,500-page report took 23 years to compile. This major resource and the original samples kept at the Natural History Museum are still in constant use by researchers today.

The ship, commanded by Captain George Nares, sailed from Portsmouth, England, on December 21, 1872, on a voyage that would cross most of the World’s oceans. For the first time, detailed information was collected from the deepest parts of the oceans, to depths in excess of 8,200 metres. Watercolours and the new science of photography were also employed to record native life and traditions whenever the ship touched shore.

The expedition was led by British naturalist John Murray and Scottish naturalist Charles Wyville Thompson. Thompson had previously dredged mysterious specimens from the ocean depths in the North Atlantic and the Mediterranean Sea. It was these prior discoveries that persuaded the British government to launch a worldwide expedition to explore the ocean depths.

There were numerous dramatic incidents during the course of the voyage. One of such was the rescue of two marooned Prussian sailors who had been living on a tiny island in the middle of the South Atlantic. The interior of the island was inaccessible from the beach where they’d been left by their whaling ship that had promised to return after three months. The 2000 foot vertical cliffs kept them from reaching the interior of the island and as a consequence they had been stranded on the beach for two years.

In addition to the logbook being auctioned at Bonhams, there are assorted papers, including the discharge papers of the man responsible for it, Arthur Bromley, recording his appointments from Acting Sub Lieutenant in 1867 to Commander in 1882, together with a small collection of photographs, including HMS “Challenger” in dry dock in Japan, the main deck showing the scientific equipment, and at anchor in Sydney Harbour.