Christmas Island #233 (1989)

Christmas Island #233 (1989)

Christmas Island #233 (1989)
Christmas Island #233 (1989)

I recently received a couple of letters from friends in Australia, the envelopes of which bear stamps of Christmas Island and Cocos (Keeling) Islands along with those from Australia. These Australian dependencies in the Indian Ocean (as well as Norfolk Island in the South Pacific) have their stamps issued by Australia Post; these are valid for use in Australia and its other territories and vice versa.

The Territory of Christmas Island, is an Australian external territory comprising the island of the same name. Christmas Island is located in the Indian Ocean, around 220 miles (350 kilometers) south of Java and Sumatra, 606 miles (975 km) east-northeast of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands and 960 miles (1,550 km) northwest of the closest point on the Australian mainland, near the town of Exmouth, Western Australia.

Located at 10°30′S 105°40′E, the island is about 12 miles (19 km) long and 9 miles (14.5 km) wide. with a total land area of 52 square miles (135 km²). The island is the flat summit of an underwater mountain more than 14,800 feet (4,500 meters) high, which rises from about 13,780 feet (4,200 m) below the sea and only about 984 feet (300 m) above it. The mountain was originally a volcano, and some basalt is exposed in places such as The Dales and Dolly Beach, but most of the surface rock is limestone accumulated from coral growth. The karst terrain supports numerous anchialine caves. The summit of this mountain peak is formed by a succession of tertiary limestones ranging from the Eocene or Oligocene up to recent reef deposits, with intercalations of volcanic rock in the older beds.

Steep cliffs along much of the coast rise abruptly to a central plateau. Elevation ranges from sea level to 1,184 feet (361 m) at Murray Hill. The island is mainly tropical rainforest, 63% of which is national park land. The narrow fringing reef surrounding the island poses a maritime hazard. Christmas Island has 86.3 miles (138.9 km) of coastline but only small parts of the shoreline are easily accessible. The island’s perimeter is embodied by sharp cliff faces, making many of the island’s beaches difficult to get to. Some of the easily accessible beaches include Flying Fish Cove (main beach), Lily Beach, Ethel Beach, and Isabel Beach, while the more difficult beaches to access include Greta Beach, Dolly Beach, Winifred Beach, Merrial Beach, and West White Beach, which all require a vehicle with four wheel drive and a difficult walk through dense rainforest.

Christmas Island has a population of just over 2,000 residents, the majority of whom live in settlements on the northern tip of the island. The main settlement is Flying Fish Cove. Around two-thirds of the island’s population are Malaysian Chinese, with significant numbers of Malays and European Australians as well as smaller numbers of Malaysian Indians and Eurasians. Several languages are in use, including English, Malay, and various Chinese dialects, while Buddhism is the primary religion, practiscd by three-quarters of the population.

The first European to sight the island was Richard Rowe of the Thomas in 1615. The island was later named on Christmas Day (December 25) 1643 by Captain William Mynors, but only settled in the late 19th century. Its geographic isolation and history of minimal human disturbance has led to a high level of endemism among its flora and fauna, which is of interest to scientists and naturalists. The majority (63 percent) of the island is included in the Christmas Island National Park, which features several areas of primary monsoonal forest. Phosphate, deposited originally as guano, has been mined on the island since 1899.


Captain William Mynors of the Royal Mary, an English East India Company vessel, named the island when he sailed past it on Christmas Day in 1643. The island was included on English and Dutch navigation charts as early as the beginning of the 17th century, but it was not until 1666 that a map published by Dutch cartographer Pieter Goos included the island. Goos labelled the island “Mony” or “Moni”, the meaning of which is unclear. English navigator William Dampier, aboard the English ship Cygnet, made the earliest recorded visit to the sea around the island in March 1688. Dampier gave an account of the visit which can be found in his Voyages. He was trying to reach Cocos from New Holland but his ship was pulled off course in an easterly direction, arriving at Christmas Island twenty-eight days later. Dampier landed at the Dales (on the west coast). Two of his crewmen became the first Europeans to set foot on Christmas Island. They found it to be uninhabited.

Captain Daniel Beeckman of the Eagle passed the island on April 5, 1714, chronicled in his 1718 book A Voyage to and from the Island of Borneo, in the East-Indies. The first attempt at exploring the island was in 1857 by the crew of the Amethyst. They tried to reach the summit of the island, but found the cliffs impassable. During the 1872–76 Challenger expedition to Indonesia, naturalist John Murray carried out extensive surveys of Christmas Island.

In 1886, Captain John Maclear of HMS Flying Fish, having discovered an anchorage in a bay that he named Flying Fish Cove, landed a party and made a small collection of the flora and fauna. The following year, Pelham Aldrich, on board HMS Egeria, visited Christmas Island for ten days, accompanied by J. J. Lister, who gathered a larger biological and mineralogical collection. Among the rocks then obtained and submitted to Murray for examination were many of nearly pure phosphate of lime. This discovery led to the annexation of the island by the British Crown on June 6, 1888.

Soon afterwards, a small settlement was established in Flying Fish Cove by G. Clunies Ross, the owner of the Cocos (Keeling) Islands (some 560 miles, 900 kilometers, to the southwest) to collect timber and supplies for the growing industry on Cocos. Phosphate mining began in 1899 using indentured workers from Singapore, Malaya, and China. John Davis Murray, a mechanical engineer and recent graduate of Purdue University, was sent to supervise the operation on behalf of the Phosphate Mining and Shipping Company. Murray was known as the “King of Christmas Island” until 1910, when he married and settled in London.

The island was administered jointly by the British Phosphate commissioners and district officers from the United Kingdom Colonial Office through the Straits Settlements, and later the Crown Colony of Singapore. A post agency was opened in 1901, managed by the District Officer, the representative of the Straits Settlements colony on the island. The agency sold stamps of this colony portraying the British monarch.

Mail traveled between Christmas Island and Singapore with cargo and migrant workers by the ships commanded by the company. Most of the small amount of mail was sent and received by the European part of the population.

In 1922, scientists attempted unsuccessfully to view a solar eclipse from the island to test Einstein’s Theory of Relativity.

At the outbreak of the South-East Asian theatre of World War II in December 1941, Christmas Island was a target for Japanese occupation because of its rich phosphate deposits. A naval gun was installed under a British officer and four NCOs and 27 Indian soldiers. The first attack was carried out on January 20, 1942, by the Japanese submarine I-59, which torpedoed a Norwegian freighter, the Eidsvold. The vessel drifted and eventually sank off West White Beach. Most of the European and Asian staff and their families were evacuated to Perth. In late February and early March 1942, there were two aerial bombing raids. Shelling from a Japanese naval group on March 7 led the district officer to hoist the white flag. After the Japanese naval group sailed away, the British officer raised the Union flag once more.

During the night of March 10-11, 1942, a mutiny of the Indian troops, abetted by Sikh policemen, led to the killing of the five British soldiers and the imprisonment of the remaining 21 Europeans. At dawn on March 31, a dozen Japanese bombers launched an attack, destroying the radio station. The same day, a Japanese fleet of nine vessels arrived, and the island surrendered. About 850 men of the Japanese 21st and 24th Special Base Forces and 102nd Construction Unit came ashore at Flying Fish Cove and occupied Christmas Island. They rounded up the workforce, most of whom had fled to the jungle. Sabotaged equipment was repaired and preparations were made to resume the mining and export of phosphate. Only 20 men from the 21st Special Base Force were left as a garrison.

Isolated acts of sabotage and the torpedoing of the Nissei Maru at the wharf on November 17, 1942, meant that only small amounts of phosphate were exported to Japan during the occupation. In November 1943, over 60% of the island’s population was evacuated to Surabayan prison camps, leaving a total population of just under 500 Chinese and Malays and 15 Japanese to survive as best they could. In October 1945, HMS Rother re-occupied Christmas Island.

After the war, seven mutineers were traced and prosecuted by the Military Court in Singapore. In 1947, five of them were sentenced to death. However, following representations made by the newly independent government of India, their sentences were reduced to penal servitude for life.

After the British forces liberated Christmas Island, British Military Administration overprinted stamps of Malaya were in use in the island. The civil postal agency was reopened by the end of 1946. After these events, the local postal system followed the political changes in British Malaya. Administratively linked to Singapore in April 1946, Christmas Island received this colony’s stamps in 1948, but the mail was transported by the Pan Malayan Postal Union.

While Singapore prepared its accession to self-government, the United Kingdom decided to transfer Christmas Island administration to Australia, a country which had been controlling along with New Zealand the phosphate company, the British Phosphate Commission, since 1948.

At Australia’s request, the United Kingdom transferred sovereignty to Australia, with a Malayan $20 million payment from the Australian government to Singapore as compensation for the loss of earnings from the phosphate revenue. The United Kingdom’s Christmas Island Act was given royal assent on May 14, 1958, enabling Britain to transfer authority over Christmas Island from Singapore to Australia by an order-in-council. Australia’s Christmas Island Act was passed in September 1958 and the island was officially placed under the authority of the Commonwealth of Australia on October 1, 1958.

Under Commonwealth Cabinet Decision 1573 of September 9, 1958, D. E. Nickels was appointed the first official representative of the new territory. The Australian Christmas Island Act accepted the continuity of the Singapore legal system in the island, including the postal system. The Malayan dollar remained the currency because of the needs of South-East Asian workers. Consequently, the island’s postal system was independent from Australia’s and placed under the responsibility of the Christmas Island Phosphate Commission. Inhabitants could collect their mail at the post office in Flying Fish Cove. For outgoing mail, specific postage stamps would be issued even if the Australian Department of Territories asked the Australian post office to produce them. Postal rates remained those of Singapore, placing this State inside the interior rate zone of Christmas Island.

However, two modifications were made on the Singapore postal system in Christmas Island: the airmail postage rate to Australia was reduced and Australian cancelling stamps were sent in 1958 with the designation CHRISTMAS ISLAND / INDIAN OCEAN / AUST.

The first stamp issue specifically for Christmas Island was released on October 15, 1958 (Scott #1-10). This was an adaptation of Australia’s 1 shilling 7 pence stamp of March 1955, using a bas relief profile of Queen Elizabeth II by W.L. Bowles with a floral ornament. The design by F.D. Manley was reshaped by engraver G. Lissenden to include a black CHRISTMAS ISLAND inscription and encircled value in Malayan dollars overprint. The face values and part of the chosen colors were inspired by the last definitive stamps of Singapore in use in Christmas Island. Stamps were printed in recess for the effigy and the word AUSTRALIA and in typography for the overprint by the Note Printing Branch of the Commonwealth Bank in Melbourne. The philatelic office in Melbourne, in charge of the Australian Territories stamp sales, delivered one hundred stamp sheets to the Phosphate Commission which expedited them to the island by ship sailing from Fremantle. The same royal effigy served for the registered postal stationery issued on May 18, 1959.

The first stamps were viewed as a temporary issue, but it took five years to produce the next series. Under supervision of the Department of Territories, the Stamp Advisory Committee and representatives of the island, the Australian Post Office and Note Printing Branch’s artists and printers worked on the project from photographs taken on the island presenting its flora, fauna and mining industry. Finally, ten stamps were scheduled, drawn and engraved by G. Lissenden, Peter Morris and Bruce Stewart. They were issued on August 28, 1963 (Scott #11-20).

Two years later, the island participated in the omnibus issue for the 50th anniversary of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC) landing in Gallipoli during World War I (Scott #21). These two issues bore the designation CHRISTMAS ISLAND without any reference to Australia like the new cancelling datestamps on which the AUST abbreviation disappeared. Nonetheless, on May 6, 1968, the monetary and postal systems of Christmas Island were brought closer to the Australian ones: the Malayan dollar was replaced by the Australian dollar and the Australian Post and Telegraphs Act came into force. Local adaptations remained possible, like the localization in Western Australia of Christmas Island to calculate the postal rates, and the special low rate for letters to Malaysia and Singapore.

A third definitive issue was released on May 6, 1968, depicting Indian Ocean fish (Scott #22-33). This zoological topic was proposed as early as 1966 by the Christmas Island representatives for the second series, who approved artist George Hamori’s designs. But the twelve stamps were not issued until 1968 to coincide with the monetary change. The inscription CHRISTMAS ISLAND / INDIAN OCEAN appeared for the first time on these 1968 stamps and remained in use until 1993.

In a media statement on August 5, 1960, the minister for territories, Paul Hasluck, in discussing the first island Secretary, D. E. Nickels, stated that “his extensive knowledge of the Malay language and the customs of the Asian people… has proved invaluable in the inauguration of Australian administration… During his two years on the island he had faced unavoidable difficulties… and constantly sought to advance the island’s interests.” John William Stokes succeeded him and served from October 1, 1960, to June 12, 1966. On his departure, he was lauded by all sectors of the island community. In 1968, the official secretary was re-titled an administrator and, since 1997, Christmas Island and the Cocos (Keeling) Islands together are called the Australian Indian Ocean Territories and share a single administrator resident on Christmas Island.

On February 1, 1969, postal responsibility on the island was transmitted by the Phosphate Commission to the Christmas Island Administration. It quickly created a philatelic office and in 1971 chose an agent for sale in the rest of the world, the Crown Agents. The stamp program was then decided locally, produced with the Agents’ expertise and printed by specialized printers in Europe and in Australia starting in the late 1980s.

The philatelic program did not surpass four issues per year. The major topics were local: fauna and flora, local history (political, economical and daily life). Christmas became an annual topic from the 1970s due to the name of the island, with some gaps around 1990: the seasonal issue was replaced by minisheets announcing international philatelic exhibitions.

Mail was moved by the ships exporting phosphate to Australia or the liners to Singapore. In June 1974, the mail transportation took advantage of the establishment of new regular air services between the island, Perth and Singapore.

The settlement of Silver City was built in the 1970s, with aluminium-clad houses that were supposed to be cyclone-proof.

Phosphate mining had been the only significant economic activity, but in December 1987 the Australian government closed the mine. In 1991, the mine was reopened by a consortium which included many of the former mine workers as shareholders. With the support of the government, the $34 million Christmas Island Casino and Resort opened in 1993, but was closed in 1998. As of 2011, the resort has re-opened without the casino.

From the late 1980s and early 1990s, boats carrying asylum seekers, mainly departing from Indonesia, began landing on the island.

At the beginning of the 1990s, Australia decided to impose full Australian legislation to Christmas Island. In postal matters, starting March 2, 1993, Australia Post became the postal operator of the island and responsible for its philatelic program. Consequently, Christmas Island stamps issued after March 1993 were usable in Australia, and Australian stamps in Christmas Island.

On March 4, 1993, the first five Australia Post stamps were issued with a new designation: CHRISTMAS ISLAND / AUSTRALIA, a strip of five stamps plus a souvenir sheet depicting seabirds (Scott #349a-349f). The philatelic program topics remained limited. Australia Post promised three issues per year: a Christmas stamp that was issued every two years during the 2000s, a Chinese New Year stamp since 1995 (later a twelve stamp issue after 2002) and one issue on local life.

The Australian government in 2001 agreed to support the creation of a commercial spaceport on the island, however this has not yet been constructed, and appears that it will not proceed. The Howard government built a temporary immigration detention center on the island in 2001 and planned to replace it with a larger, modern facility at North West Point. Also that year, Christmas Island was the site of the Tampa controversy, in which the Australian government stopped a Norwegian ship, MV Tampa, from disembarking 438 rescued asylum-seekers. The ensuing standoff and the associated political reactions in Australia were a major issue in the 2001 Australian federal election.

The Howard government operated the “Pacific Solution” from 2001-2007, excising Christmas Island from Australia’s migration zone so that asylum seekers on the island could not apply for refugee status. Asylum seekers were relocated from Christmas Island to Manus Island and Nauru. In 2006, an immigration detention center, containing approximately 800 beds, was constructed on the island for the Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs. Originally estimated to cost A$276 million, the final cost was over $400 million.

The December 26, 2004, Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami centered off the western shore of Sumatra in Indonesia, resulted in no reported casualties, but some swimmers were swept some 490 feet (150 meters) out to sea for a time before being swept back in.

In 2007, the Rudd government announced plans to decommission the Manus Island Regional Processing Centre and Nauru Detention Centre; processing would then occur on Christmas Island itself. In December 2010, 48 asylum-seekers died just off the coast of the island in what became known as the Christmas Island boat disaster when the boat they were on, hit rocks off Flying Fish Cove, and then smashed against nearby cliffs.

In the case Plaintiff M61/2010E v Commonwealth of Australia, the High Court of Australia ruled, in a 7–0 joint judgment, that asylum seekers detained on Christmas Island were entitled to the protections of the Migration Act. Accordingly, the Commonwealth was obliged to afford asylum seekers a minimum of procedural fairness when assessing their claims. As of June 20, 2013, after the interception of four boats in six days, carrying 350 people, the Immigration Department stated that there were 2,960 “irregular maritime arrivals” being held in the island’s five detention facilities, which exceeded not only the “regular operating capacity” of 1,094 people, but also the “contingency capacity” of 2,724.

Christmas Island was uninhabited until the late 19th century, allowing many species to evolve without human interference. Two-thirds of the island has been declared a national park, which is managed by the Australian Department of Environment and Heritage through Parks Australia. Christmas Island has always been known for its unique species, both of flora and fauna.

The dense rainforest has grown in the deep soils of the plateau and on the terraces. The forests are dominated by 25 tree species. Ferns, orchids and vines grow on the branches in the humid atmosphere beneath the canopy. The 135 plant species include at least 18 that are found nowhere else. The rainforest is in great condition despite the mining activities over the last 100 years. Areas that have been damaged by mining are now a part of an ongoing rehabilitation project.

Christmas Island’s endemic plants include the trees Arenga listeri, Pandanus elatus and Dendrocnide peltata var. murrayana; the shrubs Abutilon listeri, Colubrina pedunculata, Grewia insularis and Pandanus christmatensis; the vines Hoya aldrichii and Zehneria alba; the herbs Asystasia alba, Dicliptera maclearii and Peperomia rossii; the grass Ischaemum nativitatis; the fern Asplenium listeri; and the orchids Brachypeza archytas, Flickingeria nativitatis, Phreatia listeri and Zeuxine exilis.

Two species of native rats, the Maclear’s and bulldog rats, have become extinct since the island was settled, while the Javan rusa has been introduced. The endemic Christmas Island shrew has not been seen since the mid-1980s and may be already extinct, while the Christmas Island pipistrelle (a small bat) is critically endangered and probably also extinct.

The Christmas Island flying fox, an important pollinator and rainforest seed-disperser, is also in decline and under increasing pressure from land clearing and introduced pest species. The flying fox’s low rate of re-production (one pup each year) and high infant mortality rate makes it especially vulnerable. Flying foxes are an `umbrella` species helping forests regenerate and other species survive in stressed environments.

The land crabs and seabirds are the most noticeable fauna on the island. Christmas Island has been identified by BirdLife International as both an Endemic Bird Area and an Important Bird Area because it supports five endemic species and five subspecies as well as over 1% of the world populations of five other seabirds.

Twenty terrestrial and intertidal species of crab have been described here, of which thirteen are regarded as true land crabs, being dependent on the ocean only for larval development. Robber crabs, known elsewhere as coconut crabs, also exist in large numbers on the island.

The annual red crab mass migration (around 100 million animals) to the sea to spawn has been called one of the wonders of the natural world. The Christmas Island Red crab (Gecarcoidea natalis) is a species of land crab endemic to Christmas Island. Low numbers are also found on North Keeling Island, thought to be from larvae drifted from Christmas Island and never been observed to breed. Although restricted to a relatively small area, it has been estimated that 43.7 million adult red crabs once lived on Christmas Island alone, but the accidental introduction of the yellow crazy ant is believed to have killed about 10–15 million of these in recent years.

For most of the year, Red crabs can be found within Christmas Islands’ forests, however, each year they must migrate to the coast to breed. The beginning of the wet season (usually October/November) allows the crabs to increase their activity and stimulates their annual migration. The timing of their migration is also linked to the phases of the moon. During this migration, red crabs abandon their burrows and travel to the coast to mate and spawn. This normally requires at least a week, with the male crabs usually arriving before the females. Once on the shore, the male crabs excavate burrows, which they must defend from other males. Mating occurs in or near the burrows. Soon after mating the males return to the forest while the females remain in the burrow for another two weeks to lay their eggs. At the end of the incubation period the females leave their burrows and release their eggs into the ocean. This occurs precisely at the turn of the high tide during the last quarter of the moon. The females then return to the forest while the crab larvae spend another 3–4 weeks at sea before returning to land as juvenile crabs.

During their annual breeding migration, red crabs will often have to cross roads, sometimes as many as three or four, to get to their breeding grounds and then back to forest. As a result, red crabs are frequently crushed by vehicles and sometimes cause accidents due to their tough exoskeletons which are capable of puncturing tires. To ensure both the safety of crabs and humans, local park rangers work hard to ensure that the crabs can safely cross the island to the coast. Park rangers set up aluminum barriers called “crab fences” along heavily traveled roads. The crab fences funnel the crabs towards small underpasses called “crab grids” so that the crabs can safely cross under the roads. In recent years, the human inhabitants of Christmas Island have become more tolerant and respectful of the crabs during their annual migration and are now more cautious while driving, which helps to minimize crab casualties. Further, a five-meter-high bridge has also been constructed at one point along the road to help the crabs move across the island and continue their migration.

The island is a focal point for seabirds of various species. Eight species or subspecies of seabirds nest on it. The most numerous is the red-footed booby, which nests in colonies, using trees on many parts of the shore terrace. The widespread brown booby nests on the ground near the edge of the seacliff and inland cliffs. Abbott’s booby (listed as endangered) nests on tall emergent trees of the western, northern and southern plateau rainforest, the only remaining nesting habitat for this bird in the world. Another endangered and endemic bird, the Christmas frigatebird, has nesting areas on the northeastern shore terraces. The more widespread great frigatebirds nest in semi-deciduous trees on the shore terrace, with the greatest concentrations being in the North West and South Point areas. The common noddy and two species of bosun or tropicbirds, with their brilliant gold or silver plumage and distinctive streamer tail feathers, also nest on the island.

Of the ten native land birds and shorebirds, seven are endemic species or subspecies. This includes the Christmas thrush and the Christmas imperial pigeon. Some 86 migrant bird species have been recorded as visitors to the island.

Six species of butterfly are known to occur on Christmas Island. These are the Christmas swallowtail (Papilio memnon), striped albatross (Appias olferna), Christmas emperor (Polyura andrewsi), king cerulean (Jamides bochus), lesser grass-blue (Zizina otis), and Papuan grass-yellow (Eurema blanda).

Scott #233 is the high value, $1.10, of a four-stamp set issued on March 16, 1989, honoring Sir John Murray, a pioneering British oceanographer, marine biologist and limnologist. He is considered to be the father of modern oceanography. In 1872, Murray assisted in preparing scientific apparatus for the Challenger Expedition under the direction of the expedition’s chief scientist, Charles Wyville Thomson. When a position on the expedition became available Murray joined the crew of HMS Challenger as a naturalist. This is the ship depicted on Scott #233 which was printed by lithography and perforated 14½x14. During the four-year voyage, Murray assisted in the research of the oceans including collecting marine samples, making and noting observations and making improvements to marine instrumentation. After the expedition, he was appointed Chief Assistant at the Challenger offices in Edinburgh where he managed and organized the collection. After Thompson’s death in 1882, Murray became Director of the office and in 1896 published The Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of HMS Challenger, a work of more than 50 volumes of reports.

HMS Challenger
HMS Challenger

HMS Challenger was a steam-assisted Royal Navy Pearl-class corvette launched on February 13, 1858, at the Woolwich Dockyard. She was the flagship of the Australia Station between 1866 and 1870. As part of the North America and West Indies Station she took part in 1862 in operations against Mexico, including the occupation of Vera Cruz. Assigned as the flagship of Australia Station in 1866 and in 1868 undertook a punitive operation against some Fijian natives to avenge the murder of a missionary and some of his dependents. She left the Australian Station in late 1870.

She was picked to undertake the first global marine research expedition: the Challenger Expedition. This was a grand tour of the world during covering 68,800 nautical miles (127,580 km) organized by the Royal Society in collaboration with the University of Edinburgh. Charles Thomson was the leader of a large scientific team. The Challenger carried a complement of 243 officers, scientists and crew when she embarked on her journey.

As recently as the late 19th century, human knowledge of the oceans was confined to the topmost few fathoms of the water and a small amount of the bottom, mainly in shallow areas. Sailors and scientists knew almost nothing of the ocean depths. The Royal Navy’s efforts to chart all of the world’s coastlines in the mid-19th century reinforced the vague idea that most of the ocean was very deep, although little more was known. As exploration ignited both popular and scientific interest in the polar regions and Africa, so too did the mysteries of the unexplored oceans.

To enable her to probe the depths, Challenger‘s guns were removed and her spars reduced to make more space available. Laboratories, extra cabins and a special dredging platform were installed. She was loaded with specimen jars, filled with alcohol for preservation of samples, microscopes and chemical apparatus, trawls and dredges, thermometers and water sampling bottles, sounding leads and devices to collect sediment from the sea bed and great lengths of rope with which to suspend the equipment into the ocean depths. Because of the novelty of the expedition, some of the equipment was invented or specially modified for the occasion. In all, she was supplied with 181 miles (291 km) of Italian hemp for sounding.

Members of the Challenger Expedition aboard HMS Challenger, October 1874
Members of the Challenger Expedition aboard HMS Challenger, October 1874

On her journey circumnavigating the globe, 492 deep sea soundings, 133 bottom dredges, 151 open water trawls and 263 serial water temperature observations were taken. Also about 4,700 new species of marine life were discovered.

The scientific work was conducted by Wyville Thomson, John Murray, John Young Buchanan, Henry Nottidge Moseley, and Rudolf von Willemoes-Suhm. Frank Evers Beddard was appointed Prosector. The official expedition artist was John James Wild. As well as Nares and Maclear, others that were part of the naval crew included Pelham Aldrich, Lord George Granville Campbell, and Andrew Francis Balfour (one of the sons of Scottish botanist John Hutton Balfour). Also among the officers was Thomas Henry Tizard, who had carried out important hydrographic observations on previous voyages. Though he was not among the civilian scientific staff, Tizard would later help write the official account of the expedition, and also become a Fellow of the Royal Society.

The original ship’s complement included 21 officers and around 216 crew members. By the end of the voyage, this had reduced to 144 due to deaths, desertions, being left ashore due to illness, and planned departures.

The first leg of the expedition took the ship from Portsmouth (December 1872) south to Lisbon (January 1873) and then on to Gibraltar. The next stops were Madeira and the Canary Islands (both February 1873). The period from February to July 1873 was spent crossing the Atlantic westwards from the Canary Islands to the Virgin Islands, then heading north to Bermuda, east to the Azores, back to Madeira, and then south to the Cape Verde Islands. During this period, there was a detour in April and May 1873, sailing from Bermuda north to Halifax and back, crossing the Gulf Stream twice with the reverse journey crossing further to the east.

After leaving the Cape Verde Islands in August 1873, the expedition initially sailed south-east and then headed west to reach St Paul’s Rocks. From here, the route went south across the equator to Fernando de Noronha during September 1873, and onwards that same month to Bahia (now called Salvador) in Brazil. The period from September to October 1873 was spent crossing the Atlantic from Bahia to the Cape of Good Hope, touching at Tristan da Cunha on the way.

December 1873 to February 1874 was spent sailing on a roughly south-eastern track from the Cape of Good Hope to the parallel of 60 degrees south. The islands visited during this period were the Prince Edward Islands, the Crozet Islands, the Kerguelen Islands, and Heard Island. February 1874 was spent travelling south and then generally eastwards in the vicinity of the Antarctic Circle, with sightings of icebergs, pack ice and whales. The route then took the ship north-eastward and away from the ice regions in March 1874, with the expedition reaching Melbourne in Australia later that month. The journey eastward along the coast from Melbourne to Sydney took place in April 1874, passing by Wilsons Promontory and Cape Howe.

Track of HMS Challenger from December 1872 till May 1876.
Track of HMS Challenger from December 1872 till May 1876.

When the voyage resumed in June 1874, the route went east from Sydney to Wellington in New Zealand, followed by a large loop north into the Pacific calling at Tonga and Fiji, and then back westward to Cape York in Australia by the end of August. The ship arrived in New Zealand in late June and left in early July. Before reaching Wellington (on New Zealand’s North Island), brief stops were made at Port Hardy (on d’Urville Island) and Queen Charlotte Sound (on New Zealand’s South Island) and Challenger passed through the Cook Strait to reach Wellington. The route from Wellington to Tonga went along the east coast of New Zealand’s North Island, and then north and east into the open Pacific, passing by the Kermadec Islands en route to Tongatabu, the main island of the Tonga archipelago (then known as the Friendly Islands). The waters around the Fijian islands, a short distance to the north-west of Tonga, were surveyed during late July and early August 1874. The ship’s course was then set westward, reaching Raine Island (on the outer edge of the Great Barrier Reef) at the end of August and thence arriving at Cape York, at the tip of Australia’s Cape York Peninsula.

Over the following three months (September to November 1874), the expedition visited several islands and island groups while sailing from Cape York to China and Hong Kong. The first part of the route passed north and west over the Arafura Sea, with New Guinea to the north-east and the Australian mainland to the south-west. The first islands visited were the Aru Islands, followed by the nearby Kai Islands. The ship then crossed the Banda Sea touching at the Banda Islands, to reach Amboina (Ambon Island) in October 1874, and then continuing to Ternate Island. All these islands are now part of modern-day Indonesia. From Ternate, the route went north-westward towards the Philippines, passing east of Celebes (Sulawesi) into the Celebes Sea. The expedition called at Samboangan (Zamboanga) on Mindanao, and then Iloilo on the island of Panay, before navigating within the interior of the archipelago en route to the bay and harbor of Manila on the island of Luzon. The crossing north-westward from Manila to Hong Kong took place in November 1874.

Challenger reached Hong Kong in December 1874, at which point Nares and Aldrich left the ship to take part in the British Arctic Expedition. The new captain was Frank Tourle Thomson. The second-in-command, and the most senior officer present throughout the entire expedition, was Commander John Maclear. Willemoes-Suhm died and was buried at sea on the voyage to Tahiti. Lord Campbell and Balfour left the ship in Valparaiso, Chile, after being promoted.

After several weeks in Hong Kong, the expedition departed in early January 1875 to retrace their route south-east towards New Guinea. The first stop on this outward leg of the journey was Manila. From there, they continued on to Samboangan, but took a different route through the interior of the Philippines, this time touching at the island of Zebu (Cebu). From Samboangan the ship diverged from the inward route, this time passing south of Mindanao (in early February 1875). Challenger then headed east into the open sea, before turning to the south-east and making landfall at Humboldt Bay (now Yos Sudarso Bay) on the north coast of New Guinea. By March 1875, the expedition had reached the Admiralty Islands north-east of New Guinea.

On March 23, 1875, at sample station number 225 located in the southwest Pacific Ocean between Guam and Palau, the crew recorded a sounding of 4,475 fathoms (8,184 meters) deep, which was confirmed by an additional sounding. As shown by later expeditions using modern equipment, this area represents the southern end of the Mariana trench and is one of the deepest known places on the ocean floor. Modern soundings to 10,994 meters have since been found near the site of the Challenger‘s original sounding. Challenger‘s discovery of this depth was a key finding of the expedition in broadening oceanographic horizons on the ocean’s depth and extent and now bears the vessel’s name, the Challenger Deep.

The final stage of the voyage on this side of the Pacific was a long journey across the open ocean to the north, passing mostly west of the Carolina Islands and the Mariana Islands, reaching port in Yokohama, Japan, in April 1875.

Challenger departed Japan in mid-June 1875, heading east across the Pacific to a point due north of the Sandwich Islands (Hawaii), and then turning south, making landfall at the end of July at Honolulu on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. A couple of weeks later, in mid-August, the ship departed south-eastward, anchoring at Hilo Bay off Hawaii’s Big Island, before continuing to the south and reaching Tahiti in mid-September. The expedition left Tahiti in early October, swinging to the west and south of the Tubuai Islands and then heading to the south-east before turning east towards the South American coast. The route touched at the Juan Fernández Islands in mid-November 1875, with Challenger reaching the port of Valparaiso in Chile a few days later. The next stage of the journey commenced the following month, with the route taking the ship south-westward back out into the Pacific, past the Juan Fernández Islands, before turning to the south-east and back towards South America, reaching Port Otway in the Gulf of Penas on December 31, 1875.

Most of January 1876 was spent navigating around the southern tip of South America, surveying and touching at many of the bays and islands of the Patagonian archipelago, the Strait of Magellan, and Tierra del Fuego. Locations visited here include Hale Cove, Gray Harbour, Port Grappler, Tom Bay (all in the vicinity of Wellington Island), Puerta Bueno (near Hanover Island), Isthmus Bay (near the Queen Adelaide Archipelago), and Port Churruca (near Santa Ines Island). The final stops, before heading out into the Atlantic, were Port Famine, Sandy Point, and Elizabeth Island. Challenger reached the Falkland Islands towards the end of January, calling at Port Stanley and then continuing northward, reaching Montevideo in Uruguay in mid-February 1876. The ship left Montevideo at the end of February, heading first due east and then due north, arriving at Ascension Island at the end of March 1876. The period from early to mid-April was spent sailing from Ascension Island to the Cape Verde Islands (visited almost three years ago on the outward journey). From here, the route taken in late April and early May 1876 was a westward loop to the north out into the mid-Atlantic, eventually turning due east towards Europe to touch land at Vigo in Spain towards the end of May. The final stage of the voyage took the ship and its crew north-eastward from Vigo, skirting the Bay of Biscay to make landfall in England.

Challenger returned to Spithead, Hampshire, on May 24, 1876, having spent 713 days at sea out of the intervening 1,250.

Findings from the Challenger Expedition continued to be published until 1895, 19 years after the completion of its journey. The report contained 50 volumes and was over 29,500 pages in length. Specimens brought back by the Challenger were distributed to the world’s foremost experts for examination, which greatly increased the expenses and time required to finalize the report. The report and specimens are currently held at the British Natural History Museum and the report has been made available online. Some specimens, many of which were the first discovered of their kind, are still examined by scientists today. A large number of scientists worked on categorizing the material brought back from the expedition including the palaeontologist Gabriel Warton Lee.

As the first true oceanographic cruise, the Challenger Expedition laid the groundwork for an entire academic and research discipline. The name of the Challenger was applied to such varied phenomena as the Challenger Society for Marine Science, the oceanographic and marine geological survey ship Glomar Challenger, and the United States Space Shuttle Challenger. Her figurehead is on display in the foyer of the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton.

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