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.