History | June 8, 2021

Reading time: 6 minutes

On December 21, 1872, HMS Challenger set sail on a three year global voyage of marine exploration to lay the foundation for modern oceanography. Challenger was the first Royal Navy vessel to be dedicated to the pursuit of science under the guidance of civilian scientists.

Challenger, a steam-assisted British naval corvette, took part in operations against Mexico and at Fiji before she was selected for the scientific expedition. She was a 200-foot wooden sailing ship with a three-masted square rig and a 4,000-horsepower engine. Sailing for most of the voyage, she used the engine primarily for manoeuvering while conducting scientific observations and deploying heavy gear.


All but two of her 17 guns were removed and the ammunition magazines were converted to scientific laboratories, workrooms, and storage for dredging and sounding equipment, trawls, nets, and supplies. The naturalists had an analysing room, the photographer a darkroom, the physicist a laboratory, and the surveyors a chart room.

A deck scene aboard Challenger; below, the ship’s laboratory, NMB


The expedition traversed 68,890 nautical miles investigating the earth’s oceans and recording cultures and landscapes encountered. The significance of the expedition lay in the intensity of observations made, the large-scale coverage, and the emphasis on very deep-water investigation.

The team was twice stationed at HM Dockyard, Bermuda, where members dredged and took soundings around the volcanic platform and carried out scientific excursions on the Island.

HMS Challenger in Dockyard, 1873, NMB

Amateur Naturalists

The popularity of natural history in the 19th century gave rise to a subculture of amateur naturalists and a few locals—largely self-taught—assisted the Challenger team in their scientific pursuits.

James Heyl, the local pharmacist and photographer had a keen interest in natural history. He collaborated with Bartram to help identify shells and contributed to the expedition by forwarding photographs of Bermuda. The photos combined with other sources gave, according to Wyville Thompson,“a fair description of the aspects of vegetation and flora in Bermuda and in all probability an almost complete enumeration of the species constituting the present flora of the islands.”

James Heyl’s photograph of Boss’s Cove, Bermuda, NMB

According to the Scientific Results, an unnamed Bermudian fisherman, who collected coral and knew the localities of different species, guided the Challenger scientists to caves and cliffs along the North Shore for specimen collection. For accurate data, the scientists needed to source local knowledge.

Sir John Henry Lefroy

Governor of Bermuda (1871–77), Sir John Henry Lefroy, was a soldier and scientist trained in magnetism who employed his scientific skills in Bermuda. With an interest in market gardening and agriculture, Lefroy imported plants from all over the world to increase the Island’s produce. Wyville noted that Lefroy was a

“trained observer and deeply interested in the welfare of the colony, he was thoroughly acquainted with its physical conditions and it was chiefly under his friendly guidance that we gathered what information we could during the short period of our stay.”

An eccentric resident of Stokes Point, St.George’s, John Tavenier Bartram became one of the most important and original authorities on Bermuda’s natural history of the period. An avid observer and collector of local fauna and flora, he created a museum to house his findings. His recorded observations became the basis for subsequent Bermuda natural history publications.


Bartram was described as an enthusiastic naturalist by Thompson and provided the scientists with his expertise and specimens.

Science and Photography

The Challenger expedition was the first scientific exploration to have an official photographer on board. The photographs of Bermuda were compiled in an album documenting the voyage and were used as scientific evidence and produced as illustrations in the official Scientific Results. Thanks to Fay and Geoffrey Elliott we have one of the original Challenger albums published after the expedition in the Museum’s collection.

Below are a few of the photographs from the album with notes made by the scientists and crew onboard Challenger.

Front of Hamilton, 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

Hamilton is a quaint, rather pretty little town of about 2,000 inhabitants. A half street of irregular houses and stores with green verandas faces the harbour, with a commodious line of wharves and sheds along the shore.

—Charles Wyville Thomson, Chief Scientist on the Challenger

Avenue Hamilton (Cedar Avenue), 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

The suburbs of Hamilton show well the peculiarity of the contrast between the white-roofed houses and the dark junipers.Nearly the best examples of these so-called “cedars” form a fine avenue just behind the town. The dark colour of the juniper trees, called in the island “cedar,” the prevailing foliage, not unlike that of pines in appearance, gives the landscape a northern aspect, and on cloudy days the island, as viewed from sea, looks cold and bleak.

—Henry N.Moseley, Botanist on the Challenger

Outlying Rocks, Somerset (Pulpit Rock), 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

[In] some places where these great heaps of sand had accumulated and hardened by the action of rain and other processes (by which this coral is converted into limestone) were to be seen rocks of the most irregular and fantastic shape.

—William J. J. Spry, Engineer on the Challenger

Shifting Sands, 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

This photograph was the basis of an illustration in the Scientific Results and labelled: Fig. 55. Aeolian Limestone Beds in process of formation showing stratification and the remains of a grove of Cedars, which has been overwhelmed. Elbow Bay, Bermuda.

Travelling Sands, 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

There is a wonderful “sand glacier” at Elbow Bay, on the southern shore of the main island.The sand has entirely filled up a valley and is steadily progressing inland in amass about five and twenty feet thick…When our photograph was being taken, the owner of the garden was standing with his hands in his pockets…contemplating the approach of the inexorable intruder.

—Charles Wyville Thomson, Chief Scientist on the Challenger

The photograph was reproduced as an illustration in the Scientific Results and labelled: Fig.56. Sand Glacier overwhelming a garden. ElbowBay, Bermuda.

House Buried by Travelling Sand, 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

The land surface of the island is almost entirely composed of blown calcareous sand, more or less consolidated into hard rock. In several places, especially at Tucker’s Town and Elbow Bay, there exist considerable tracts covered with modern sand dunes, some of which are encroaching inland upon cultivated ground and have overwhelmed at Elbow Bay a cottage, the chimney of which only is now to be seen above the sand.

—Henry N.Moseley, Botanist on the Challenger

Caves at Walsingham, 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

We went on the steam pinnace with the photographer and some of our party byway of CastleHarbour to Walsingham, to try to photograph the interior of one of the caves with the magnesium light…The caves at Bermuda…consist of large vaulted chambers hollowed out in the rock by the removal of its material by running fresh water or by the action of the sea.

—Charles Wyville Thomson, Chief Scientist on the Challenger

In the Bush Botanizing, 1873 Fay & Geoffrey Elliott Collection, NMB

A very careful collection of the plants of the islands was made during the stay, and this together with a most valuable series of specimens collected by General Lefroy after prolonged exertions extending over the whole period of his residence in the group, forms the basis of the treatise on the flora of the islands which forms the Botanical Reports of the Expedition.

—Henry N. Mosely, Botanist on the Challenger

This article is dedicated to Fay and Geoffrey Elliott, long-standing friends of the National Museum of Bermuda (NMB) and champions of the preservation of Bermuda’s cultural heritage. The Elliotts were integral in the restoration of Commissioner’s House at NMB and donated an extensive collection of Bermuda-related material including historic watercolours, rare books, photographs to NMB and the Bermuda National Trust. Their public collections are invaluable primary sources to advance the expanding field of Atlantic World Studies. 

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