The Silent Landscape – Richard Corfield

0719565316Deep below the earth’s great oceans lies an alien world that we have only just begun to explore.  The quest to know more about this secret domain began in earnest in 1872 when HMS Challenger set sail from Portsmouth on the first ever sea voyage devoted exclusively to science.  Her scientists and crew sailed from the endangered coral reefs of the Caribbean to the trackless depths beneath the western Pacific, braving stifling heat and stupefying cold, on an expedition that remains perhaps the greatest oceanographic mission of all time.

As far as epic voyages go HMS Challenger is up there with the greatest, easily as monumental in impact as the more famous HMS Beagle’s, taking four years to travel 68,900 miles from England to Brazil and South Africa.  Before taking in Antarctica and returning home by way of Australia, Hong Kong and Hawaii all on a vessel measuring 200 by 40 foot.  It’s little wonder 269 of the crew deserted.

This, the last great voyage of the Victorian age and is brought to life through generous helpings of the crew’s diaries which are used to humanise the scientific endeavours and keep the tone light enough to encourage the reader’s inquisitiveness before giving out some fascinating scientific histories.

whilst focussing on life on the ship its dual existence being both a rollercoaster of monotony and of astonishment, the author uses the many discoveries as a springboard to educate the reader not only on how it enhanced our understanding of the seas but also how the geology of our ancient planet was formed.  The Challenger expedition found the deepest part of the sea, The Mariana Trench in the Pacific, numerous new species of plants and animals helping to confirm Darwin’s theories, the idea for plate tectonics and of course kept alive the tradition of looking down on people and places from all other nations as inferior.

The book is a celebration of human ingenuity and curiosity and of those people that are willing to attempt such things, who wish to know, to learn, to pour forth the secrets and wonders of the secret ocean depths, these men were true pioneers tackling a prodigious task and their findings revolutionised science and oceanography to new depths.  Reading through these adventures is almost reminiscent of those ‘boy’s own’ adventure books from back in the day with storms, strange creatures, diseases and the odd exotic maiden thrown in.

It was the first great voyage of scientific exploration, sent out for no other purpose than the acquisition of knowledge.  It was a milestone in the history of humanity, when the importance of learning for its own sake was perceived, not just by a small intellectual elite but by ordinary people as well.

Challenger’s legacy goes beyond what its crew found and the platform it gave us to understand, its name reverberates around us today, not only  naming many boats on ocean-going expeditions but also the ill faced space shuttle Challenger and interestingly the inspiration for the name of Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger, the link being that he studied the voyage’s chief scientist Wyville Thomson at Edinburgh university.

The world seems a small place these days, yet spending time with this book, I came to appreciate not only the size of our planet but also the exertions that explorers go to, to understand the world around us.  There is plenty of fascinating detail to be found that is both relevant and  enthralling.  A ship seeking knowledge for the betterment of understanding is always going to be seen as a noble cause but the sheer amount of data – handled with intelligence – that was discovered (and narrowly missed in some cases) is not only the cause for celebration but also the betterment of education.


25 Replies to “The Silent Landscape – Richard Corfield”

    1. I knew bits and bobs of undersea science but to have an overall picture and context through the Challenger voyage is refreshing. There was plenty of stuff I wasn’t familiar with as well so it was a double whammy of worthwhile. Reading a book like this give me the impetus to start looking for books of a similar ilk…as if an excuse were needed!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It took me ages to find this particular cover, there are a number of other covers out there which all look good in their own way but I am an obsessive when it comes to putting up the particular edition I have read. Oceanography is a fascinating glimpse into the past and I’m looking forward to reading more books under the ocean, usually my reads have tended to stay above it so far.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. This sounds like my kind of book Ste! I will be putting this on my ‘to-read’ list immediately. Thank-you for bringing it to my notice. The explorers and scientists of the 19th century and earlier were such amazing and brave people. They had not much of an idea what they’d find or where they would end up.


    1. I found this particular book for $2.99 in an old barn converted into a bookshop so I am well proud of that, I like to think it was my slightly rubbish and lazy homage to those great explorers. These days the discoveries would go viral within minutes thanks to Twitter and the like, so to have to post vital findings back over thousands of miles and wait for almost half a decade to finally write up and correlate all the notes is quite mind blowing.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. The unknown is always enticing and the ocean remains mysterious even after all these years. I am glad my review caught your interest, books are like the ocean in some respects, although thankfully not half as wet.


  2. Sounds very interesting. You might like some of the books about Shackleton’s polar adventures and I read a great exploration book for Shiny New Books, of course I can’t remember what it’s called now …


    1. Ah, the curse of the voracious reader, so many titles escape the mind whilst the book stays refreshingly familiar. I own Shackleton’s South but haven’t got around to it yet, I think I’m really waiting for snow so I can ‘method read’ as it were.


  3. Dear Ste J, It seems as if (to me) after several years of observing your reading lists, and what you write about, that your preference is for adventurous and exciting texts. I wonder whether you might not have been one of the explorers or ship’s crew if you had lived back in the 1870’s!


    1. They don’t call me Swashbuckling Ste for no reason! I do love to dabble in all sorts of books but their is something intoxicating about adventuring around. It would have been wonderful to be a travel writer back in the day although it is a lot more sanitary these days. I couldn’t get on with Moby Dick though, maybe one day I will venture there again.


      1. According to at least one haughty male friend of mine, you will have a better chance than I with a re-read of “Moby Dick.” When I told him I disliked it, he said that was because it was a man’s adventure story, and not really meant for women. Hmmmph!


        1. That’s like saying Lord of the Rings is for men because it has fight scenes and hardly any of that love nonsense (well in the book version that is). I find I can enjoy books that appeal to women as I know is vice versa, if books blur the lines between dare I say traditional divides of the book reading public then all to the better. It’s rather archaic now to have your friend’s viewpoint but as with these things it does make one think back to those days and wonder if exploration killed the classic adventure story.


    1. It really does show you the magnificence of the oceans the vast history that we are still discovering. Add it to the list, don’t be shy!


  4. In particular I like that you point out what you learned from this book and how big the world now seems to you upon reading it. I like to learn and when I have those ‘aha’ moments as I read, I find them priceless! Happy New Year 🙂


    1. Seeing things from a perspective of years ago really reminded me how big it all is. Planes and Skype and the rest of it makes everything seem so…local. Learning whilst doing something I love is always the best feeling. Happy New Year my friend!

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It has something for everybody but getting it for your husband means you only get to hear about the most fascinating bits if it isn’t your cup of tea but hopefully it will tickle your fancy as well.

      Liked by 1 person

    1. It a surprisingly diverse theme, I have Jules Verne’s The Adventures of Captain Hatteras to get through sometime soon as well which I am hoping has some vague basing around a true story so I can go look it up.


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