A Challenger's Song examines the harsh conditions of the crew of HMS Challenger, whose voyages laid the foundations of modern oceanography. An appealing read, particularly for ocean-going sailors, say Julia Jones

A Challenger’s Song
Philip Pearson
Austin Macaulay, £10.99

Philip Pearson’s great grandfather, Charles Collings (or Collins) was a leading stoker on the survey ship HMS Challenger.

Born in 1847, to an unmarried mother, he joined the Navy as a boy of 14, committing himself to ten years continuous service from age 18.

This period would include the whole of the Challenger Expedition from December 1872-May 1876 for which he volunteered and was selected.

After it was over, he left the Navy and lived a somewhat unsettled existence as a blacksmith, publican, fisherman.

He was the husband of a long-suffering and resilient wife and the father of nine children, six of whom survived to adulthood.

When Charles died, in 1932, he was one of the last survivors of this major scientific endeavour, which had laid the foundations for modern oceanography.

Philip Pearson did not inherit any direct written material from his great grandfather.

He works from family memories, other written accounts by expedition members and a couple of photographs – one of particular historical interest, taken when Challenger rescued the marooned Stoltenhoff brothers from Inaccessible Island in the Tristan Da Cunha archipelago.

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His impressionistic technique of establishing Collings’ personality before retelling the story of the expedition works well.

Very many narratives come from the officers or the scientists that it’s salutary to keep in mind the 230 crew members who were reduced to 144 by the end of the voyage.

Whilst the officers and scientists might dine on goose or turkey, the crew lived on man-or-war rations though the work was in many ways more incessant and arduous.

‘I have never been so hungry in my life,’ wrote assistant steward Joe Matkin, one of Pearson’s prime sources. Almost a quarter of the crew had deserted.

Over her three-and-a-half-year voyage, Challenger crossed and recrossed the Atlantic, then sailed south to Brazil and the Cape of Good Hope before spending several months in the Southern Ocean where she was lucky not to be sunk after a head-on collision with an iceberg.

She paused for a few months in Australia, then spent the best part of two years on Pacific exploration before her return home.

One of her most spectacular achievements was sounding the Mariana Trench at 4,600 fathoms.

This incessant activity of ‘drudging’, as the crew rightly called it not only established the depths, chemical composition, temperatures of the ocean floor but pulled up huge numbers of previously unknown species or those known only from fossils.

Links in the evolutionary chain were established and in more pragmatic terms the groundwork was done for the laying of intercontinental telegraph cables.

Little of this achievement, however, was communicated to the crew in the course of the voyage. 

Pearson’s evocation of his ancestor’s life is attractively presented and an appealing read.

It offers a human perspective on a major scientific undertaking, of particular interest to ocean-going sailors. 

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