PlantExplorers.com - the adventure is growing™
Skip to page contentHome  |  Explorers  |  Articles  |  Resources  |  About Us  |  Login  |  Site Map 
 

Home  >  The Explorers  >  Joseph Dalton Hooker > The Antarctic

Joseph Dalton Hooker - The Antarctic

Rhododendron hookeri, by Walter Hood Fitch, from Curtis's botanical magazine, published London, 1856.Born in Halesworth, Suffolk, England on the 30th of June, in 1817, Joseph Dalton Hooker was one of the truly great plant explorers.

Some children are overwhelmed by the success of their parents, or perhaps it is the parents who overlook their children while pursuing their own careers, but young Joseph was lucky to avoid such a fate. As young as five years old, he regularly attended his father's botanical lectures at the University of Glasgow, and displayed a genuine interest in the subject. He later briefly attended Glasgow High School, but the curriculum was too limited, so Joseph and his older brother William were withdrawn to be tutored at home. Botany was still regarded as little more than a branch of medicine, so he took the natural course of any young botanist in his day, and studied for his medical degree at the University of Glasgow.

In 1839, Sir James Clark Ross, who was a friend of William Jackson Hooker, offered young Joseph the position of assistant surgeon on his expedition to the Antarctic - on the condition he finish his medical studies first. Such an opportunity was not to be missed; so all thoughts of plants were put aside as he completed his studies, just barely completing them in time.

Her Majesty's discovery ships Erebus and Terror sailed from the docks at Medway on the 25th of September 1839, and then proceeded on to Madeira, where they stopped for additional supplies. This gave young Joseph his first opportunity to botanize in a foreign land.

     'There are peculiar emotions consequent on visiting new countries for the first time, which are perfectly indescribable. I never felt as I did when drawing near Madeira, and probably never shall again. Every knot that the ship approached seemed to call up new subjects of enquiry.'

The Canary Islands, then as now, had an amazing array of flora and fauna, both native and introduced species - enough to keep a budding naturalist very busy, although his efforts on the islands were cut short due to a sudden bout of rheumatic fever. Although his father heard of his son's illness in March of 1840, he would not be reassured of his good health until the autumn of that year. The expedition was travelling to the farthest known corners of the earth and beyond, and the mail was consigned to whatever vessel was heading in approximately the right direction. It is remarkable that they were able to communicate at all.

Captain James Ross was impressed by the studious young man who was always working on cataloguing either the plants he had collected or the contents of the tow-nets that the zoologist, McCormick, would have nothing to do with. Ross offered young Joseph a cabinet in which to store his collections and a place at his table to work with his microscope while drawing his many new discoveries.

The expedition made several stops on the way to the Cape, primarily to take magnetic readings, but this afforded Joseph the opportunity to botanize on a number of islands, including the almost barren rock outcroppings of St. Paul's Rocks and Brazilian Trinidade, and St. Helena, where he made his first observations of the local flora and fauna being displaced by introduced species.

They reached the Cape on March 17th, giving young Joseph his first glimpse of a region of the world unmatched in the density and variety of its local flora. One of his first duties was to ship his collections back to England. To help ensure that at least some of these collections arrived safely, they were made in multiple sets, one for the Royal Society, one for the Admiralty, two for his father, William Jackson Hooker, and one for Captain Ross. Although their stay was only three weeks, Joseph had managed to collect over 300 species to catalogue and draw during the long sea voyage.

Pringlea antiscorbutica  
by PlantExplorers.com staff illustrator,
William LovegroveThey departed on April the 6th and sailed for Kerguelen's Land, an obscure group of islands that lie between 48° and 50° south and 68° and 70° east in the southern Indian Ocean. There are over 300 islands, islets and reefs in the group, but the largest island by far is Ile Kerguelen, also called Desolation Island, as Captain Cook called it in his 'Voyages' - a book that Joseph's Grandfather had read to him as a young boy.

Captain Cook had noticed little of the vegetation, except for the 'Kerguelen Cabbage', so called for its similarity in appearance and culinary usage to its distant cousin, the lowly cabbage. Despite its discovery more than half a century earlier, it was Joseph Hooker who was the first to scientifically describe this plant, Pringlea antiscorbutica.

     'To a crew long confined to salt provisions or indeed to human beings under any circumstances, this is a most important vegetable, for it possesses all the essentially good qualities of its English namesake, whilst from its containing a great abundance of essential oil it never produces heartburn or any of those disagreeable sensations which our pot-herbs are apt to do.'

Although Cook had reported that the island was home to less than twenty species of plant, Joseph Hooker was able to identify and collect over 150 different species, including 18 flowering plants, 3 ferns, 35 mosses, and the rest lichens and seaweeds. This was no easy task, as the cold weather, frost, snow, rough terrain, and almost constant wind, made collecting quite difficult. In a letter home to his father he described one method he employed…

     'Many of my best little lichens were gathered by hammering out the tufts or sitting on them till they thawed.'

On the 20th of July they sailed for Hobart Town in Van Dieman's Land (the name Tasmania was not adopted officially until January 1st 1856). They arrived on August 16th and the expedition was restocked and replenished. The distraction of shore leave in this strange land of colonists, convicts and marginalized native peoples, was sufficient for most of the crew, but Joseph was to finally receive a letter from his father, telling him of his brother's death. William had traveled to Jamaica to study yellow fever, but had succumbed to the disease himself that January.

By October the Captain was anxious to sail, as news had arrived that the American and French expeditions were well ahead in the race for the discovery of the magnetic South Pole. So on the 12th of Campbell Island - one of the Subantarctic  Islands where the Megaherbs grow. Watercolour sketch by Charles N Worsley in 1902.October 1840 they sailed for the Lord Auckland Islands, arriving at Enderby Island on November 20th. They stayed for three weeks while the Captain waited for the start of the Antarctic summer. It was here that Joseph made his first collections of the strange plants that Captain Ross had dubbed the 'Megaherbs'. With a brief stop on Campbell Island, where again Hooker was able to collect more of these strange plants, they sailed for the Antarctic Circle.

During the next three months at sea, the Erebus and Terror had reached latitude of 78° 3' S., further south than any other expedition, and had made many discoveries along the way. Captain Ross was able to take numerous readings to accurately triangulate the location of the magnetic South Pole.

One of the most remarkable topographical discoveries made during this leg of the voyage was the volcano the Captain named Mount Erebus. Joseph described the scene in his journal;

     'The water and the sky were both as blue, or rather more intensely blue than I have ever seen them in the tropics, and all the coast one mass of dazzlingly beautiful peaks of snow, which, when the sun approaches the horizon, reflected the most brilliant tints of golden, yellow and scarlet; and then to see the dark cloud of smoke, tinged with flame, rising from the volcano in a perfect unbroken column; one side jet black, the other giving back the colours of the sun, sometimes turning off at a right angle by some current of wind, and stretching many miles to leeward!

     This was a sight so surpassing every thing that can be imagined, and so heightened by the consciousness that we have penetrated under the guidance of our Commander, into regions far beyond what was ever deemed practicable, that it really caused a feeling of awe to steal over us, at the consideration of our comparative insignificance and helplessness, and at the same time an indescribable feeling of the greatness of the Creator in the works of his hand.'

However, it was the sight of the fantastical natural sculptures in an iceberg filled bay that had captured the imagination of shipmate Cornelius J. Sullivan;

'All hands when they Came on Deck
to view this the most rare and magnificent Sight
that Ever the human eye witnessed Since the world was created
actually Stood Motionless for Several Seconds before he Could Speak
to the man next to him.
Beholding with Silent Surprize the great and wonderful works of nature
in this position we had an opportunity to discern the barrier
in its Splendid position.

Then i wishd. i was an artist or a draughtsman
instead of a blacksmith and Armourer.
We Set a Side all thoughts of mount Erebus And Victoria's Land
to bear in mind the more Imaginative thoughts of this rare phenomena
that was lost to human view.
In Gone by Ages'

The Erebus and the Terror returned to Hobart on the 6th of April 1841. The crews were in fine health, and only moderate maintenance was needed on the ships, as they had faired extremely well through the Antarctic ice. Over the next three months the ships were restocked with provisions sufficient for a voyage of three years. On July 6th they sailed for Sydney and arrived at Botany Bay on the 14th, then set out for New Zealand and reached the Bay of Islands on August 16th. Hooker made several excursions during the three months of their stay, but as much of the New Zealand flora he found was already catalogued, so his new discoveries were mostly limited to the mosses.

By the middle of November 1841 the Captain and crew were ready for another excursion to the Antarctic Circle. Just before they left Joseph received a letter from his father announcing his appointment as the new director of Kew. As a congratulatory gift, Joseph gained permission to ship a case full of living plants for his father. Joseph Hooker was one of the first plant explorers ever to use the Wardian case for his collections.

The Erebus and Terror set out to continue their mission from where they had left off the previous year. On January 1st 1842 the ice had closed in on the ships, however, Ross seems not to have worried as he instructed his men to have a party to celebrate the new year. The two ships were moored on either side of an ice floe, and a pub was hastily constructed on it. The flag that was hoisted at the magnetic North Pole was then raised to mark the occasion, and the sign for the pub read 'A Pilgrim of the Ocean' on one side, and on the other 'The Pioneers of Science'.

Although the height of the Antarctic summer, a violent storm struck while the ships were still amidst the pack ice. Captain Ross described the scene of January 17th in his journal;

     'The awful grandeur of such a scene can neither be imagined or described, far less can the feelings of those who witnessed it be understood. Each of us secured our hold, waiting the issue with resignation to the will of Him who alone could preserve us, and bring us safely through this extreme danger; watching with breathless anxiety the effect of each succeeding collision, and the vibrations of the tottering masts, expecting every moment to see them give way without our having the power to make an effort to save them.'

When the storm subsided and the worst of the squalls had died down, the necessary repairs were made to both ships - the rudder on the Erebus had been badly damaged, while the Terror had lost hers completely. The Captain once again ordered the ships to be lashed to either side of a small ice floe for stability. They had sailed to latitude 71° 30' S., longitude 14° 51' W., further south than they had before, but with the impending onset of winter, it was time to cross over the Antarctic Circle and head for warmer waters.

On their way to the Falkland Islands, on March 12th, the expedition met with an even more terrible storm. Both ships were tossed violently against nearby icebergs, and even collided with each other at least once. In the dark of night the Erebus lost sight of the Terror, but there was no time for her crew to contemplate the loss of their companions. With astounding agility the sailors climbed the rigging, and unfurled the storm sails in an attempt to make headway and clear the ice. Finding a narrow passage between two towering icebergs, the Erebus dashed though to calmer water.

In the darkness before dawn, and with some trepidation, a blue light was hoisted in hopes of signaling the Terror.

It was answered immediately.

Sullivan wrote;

     'Judge my Friends our Feelings at Both Sides . . .
With a good resolution all hands set to work to clear away the wreck
the Sun Shone Beautiful the day was calm but the Sea run high
we had fine weather for a week.'

They made it safely to the Falkland Islands by April the 6th, then on to Hermite Island where Joseph was eager to botanize ever since reading of Darwin's visit only a few years before. He found that the island's cool humid climate was the perfect environment for mosses and he collected over 100 species during his stay. His other discoveries on the island were perhaps more surprising to him than any of the strange and exotic flora he had seen so far - a number of the most common plant species closely resembled, or even appeared to be identical to, plants from England. Thus began his lifelong studies of the distribution of species.

He had met Charles Darwin briefly before the expedition, but it was after his return that their true friendship grew when the two got together to compare notes. They would remain the closest of friends for the rest of their lives, often consulting one another while working on their theories - Hooker on his theory on the distribution of species, and Darwin on the evolution of species.

The Erebus and Terror reached the shores of England on September the 4th, 1842 having been away for almost four and a half years. There were many collections and many discoveries made during the long voyage, as the two ships were pushed to the limits of the navigable ocean, and beyond, and more than once the two ships were nearly crushed by the ice, but the skill and leadership of Captain James Ross ensured that neither ship nor any crew were lost during this most remarkable voyage.

Next: Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker - The Himalayas

Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker

Sir William Jackson Hooker

For more detailed information on the extraordinary life of Sir Joseph Dalton Hooker...

Top

Selected by the SciLinks program, a service of
the National Science Teachers Association.
Home  |  Explorers  |  Articles  |  Resources  |  About Us  |  Login  |  Site Map
Copyright © 1999 - PlantExplorers.com™ and Plant Explorers Inc
powered by plazma™