§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake

During the four years of the Rattlesnake voyage, 1846-1850, Hal wrote diary items, letters, and scientific papers. These texts narrate his work as a naturalist and physician, his encounters with shipmates and natives, his moods, his prospects for a career, his falling in love with Henrietta Heathorn. A couple of sketches are self-caricatures; most of them are of marine animals, of native people, canoes, artifacts. Selection of diary entries, letters, and sketches will be found here in § 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake and in § 12. Unity in Diversity. The Rattlesnake departed from England in early December of 1846. The note concluding the diary reflects on the end of the four-year history, "The wanderings of a man among all varieties of human life and character, from the ball-room among the elegancies and soft nothings of society to the hut of the savage and the grand untrodden forest."

Although the majority of the sketches and biological illustrations he created have disappeared, enough remain to testify to his talent as an artist. His investigations of marine invertebrates were paralleled by an investigation of native culture, the beginning of what would be another life-long interest, in ethnology. See § 19. Aryan et al.: Ethnology as guide to his essays on ethnological subjects, especially The Evolution of Theology, which compares the credenda of New Guinea natives with those of Palestinian Jews. Forbes Account gives an estimate of the high regard greeting the Lieutenant's research; and for more on that research, see § 9. Medusa et al.

Rattlesnake Voyage
Map of voyage, December 1846-October, 1850
HMS Rattlesnake
The frigate on its way
H.M.S. Rattlesnake Figurehead
Rattlesnake figurehead, sited at the Admiralty Materials Laboratory, Poole, Dorset
H. M. S. Rattlesnake
by W. Brierly, June 6, 1848; from Illustrated London News
Log of Voyage
Hal's noon log

Concluding a letter to his friend Joseph Hooker, Huxley wrote: "I have always felt I owed a great deal to my acquaintance with the realities of things gained [in] the old Rattlesnake."–November 15, 1888.

While the poor had little chance of escaping from their hovels, 21-year old Hal was given a chance to escape from treating them: he joined the Navy, the ship H. M. S. Rattlesnake. Because of his having been a medical apprentice and having "scientific proclivities," as he noted in a letter to Herbert Spencer–January 18, 1887, Hal was appointed as assistant surgeon to this 28-gun frigate whose mission was to survey the Barrier Reef through hydrographic soundings that would determine shipping routes and identification of good land stations for supplying coal to British commercial ships.

His first paper, on a human hair sheath, had been published. While waiting, in the fall of 1846, to sail off, Lieutenant Huxley completed a paper, Examination of the Corpuscles of the Blood of Amphioxus Lanceolatus–its thesis that the blood of this invertebrate is comparable to that of vertebrates – which was read at the British Association the next year, followed thirty years later with Preliminary Note upon the Brain and Skull of Amphioxus Lanceolatus, read to the Royal Society in 1875, its objective to prove that Amphioxus is a fish. He wrote letters to his sister Lizzie and to his mother detailing his inhabitation of a small cabin and proposing a prognosis for what he would accomplish. He planned to observe "the 'habits' of living bodies," their development, generation, anatomy, histology.

May 24, 1846
To Lizzie, on purpose of trip and Hal's agenda
December 10, 1846
Diary item, detailed inventory of investigatory intentions
December 1846
To Mother, on cabin lodgings
"Am I not a man & a brother?"
Self-caricature displaying Hal in a prison ship hulk he inhabited while Rattlesnake was being prepared
Assistant Surgeon
Hal in tophat and in uniform at Haslar Naval Hospital in Gosport, 1846
Tailor's Bill
Hal's apparel, as of April 7, 1846

With its crew of 180, the frigate left Plymouth in early December of 1846. The first stop for H.M.S. Rattlesnake was Madeira, for Hal's description of which see December 26, 1846, December 31, 1846, and January 4, 1847.

"What on earth shall I need?"
Hal at Port Stephens, 1847.

In Rio de Janeiro, which the Rattlesnake arrived at in January, Lieutenant Huxley found, as his mentor Carlyle had fantasized, that slaves were "mostly in capital condition, and on the whole look happier than the corresponding class in England, the manufacturing and agricultural poor, I mean." He had a greater respect for these slaves than for their masters–January 24, 1847 and March 28, 1847. By May, the Cape of Good Hope had been passed and the frigate reached Mauritius, this part of the voyage described in a diary item written on his twenty-second birthday–April 16, 1847, May 4, 1847–the entry rich in poetic description of the landscape From Port Louis, he sent his mother a recount of the amours of Paul and Virginia–May 15, 1847.

In June, he penned a diary entry commenting on the "melancholy fit" that would frequently assail him–May 25, 1847 and June 22, 1847; the June 22nd note gives an account of his research plans and is enriched by a sketch of Sewan. a Mauritian, "little Asmodeus of a boy, " As the ship continued its journey eastward to Australia, he continued work on a paper describing marine invertebrates. In July, the Rattlesnake arrived at Sydney, where Hal met and became engaged to Henrietta Heathorn; her home drawn in several sketches such as Holmwood

"At Booral"
"At Booral, Port Stephens Ae 27 Prof. Huxley picking a turkey's legbone"

He informed Lizzie that his account of Physalia, the Portuguese man-of-war, had been sent to the President of the Linnean Society, the careful investigation he made giving rise "to several new ideas covering the whole class of animals to which this creature belongs.... If my present anticipations turn out correct, this paper will achieve one of the great ends of Zoology and Anatomy, viz. the reduction of two or three apparently widely separated and incongruous groups into modifications of the single type, every step of the reasoning being based upon anatomical facts"–August 1, 1847. His aim was to discover a single type of Medusa which had undergone modification into several other types.

Creating an important scientific theory, which he expressed well and with modest recognition of its importance to comparative anatomy he wrote "On the Anatomy and Affinities of the Family of the Medusæ." The Royal Society recognized the importance of his speculation developing a basic affinity between the layers of an adult invertebrate (the jellyfish) and the germ layers of the vertebrate embryo. In this letter, he also recollects Lizzie's having thrown a slipper after him to give him good luck on a coming examination.–August 1, 1847.

In October, he wrote the first of many letters to Henrietta, this one continuing a conversation they had engaged in on faith and doubt–October 1847, Huxley giving a further account of the Fanning family in a diary entry of November 25, 1847.

Conviviality at upcountry Australia, sketch by Hal at Darling Downs, December 1847
"Hallow Doctor! Are you off"
Equestrian Hal falling off horse at Botany Bay–sketch probably by THH, 1848
Lieutenant Serving
By THH? Hal. serving tea to Captain Owen? supervised by crucifixion symbol

On Christmas day, he wrote to Lizzie saying that there would be no more festive days of any kind for him on the ship, a dismal prospect relieved by his nostalgic recollection of the time, six years earlier, that he had won a prize for botany at Chelsea–December 25, 1847.

During the fall and winter, 1847-1848, the Rattlesnake conducted its cruise to make the Inner Passage off northeastern Australia safe for British shipping, Hal still depressed, the fruits of his endeavors reminding him of "the fabled fruit of the Dead Sea." But he managed to continue his investigation of sea creatures, his ambition a vast one, to reveal embryonic and morphological homologies among a dozen different kinds of invertebrates, ranging from sea anemonies to spiders. His dissection was so precise that he found certain generalizations on molluscan nerves made by the major anatomist of Great Britain, Richard Owen, incorrect. He compiled data for a manuscript that would earn for him membership in the Royal Society and its golden medal and would be published six years later by the Ray Society–February 3, 1848 and March 7, 1848.

Some of his research saw publication while he was still on the cruise and soon after his return to England:

Examination of the Corpuscles of the Blood of Amphioxus Lanceolatus
read at the British Association in 1847.
Description of the Animal of Trigonia, From Actual Dissection
published in Zoological Proceedings as part of a paper by Edward Forbes in 1850.
Notes on Medusę and Polypes
sent to Edward Forbes from Cape York, in 1849, and published in the Annals and Magazine of Natural History in 1850.
Observations on the Genus Sagitta
another British Association paper, published in 1851.
Zoological Notes and Observations Made on Board H.M.S. Rattlesnake during the Years 1846-50
published in Annals and Magazine of Natural History in 1851.

Illustrations from The Oceanic Hydrozoa, published by the Ray Society in 1859:

Agalma, Velella, Medusa Plate 7, 11. 12 of Oceanic Hydrozoa

In a diary entry of the winter of 1848, he recollected a time when he had assailed Michael Faraday with his notion of a perpetual motion machine–March 1848, and an account of what was going on is given in a letter to Lizzie–March 21, 1848. What the Lieutenant looked like in those days is rendered in "Mademoiselle Etta Barry from her most devoted THH" March 7, 1848

The cruise from April, 1848, to February, 1849, continued hydrographic exploration of the inner passage, to New Guinea and Huxley continued research on jellyfish and on the taxon called "Radiata," an incorporation of quite different living things, from amoebas to starfish. On April 29, 1848, the Rattlesnake departed from Sydney, for a voyage to the Barrier Reef, its home base to be Rockingham Bay. The monotony and heat induced Hal to prefer sleep and reading novels to observing coral reefs or collecting specimens. He fell again and again into melancholic pessimism about his talent for a scientific life, whether that talent were not silver, but lead, in which case "no Bedlam fool can be more worthy of contempt," wondering yet again whether he had the capabilities for a scientific life–May 28, 1848

In the spring of 1848, the Rattlesnake attained Rockingham Bay, two diary entries of importance being those of his twenty-third birthday–May 4, 1848 and of a couple of weeks later– May 21, 1848. At Cape Upstart, exploring Mount Hinchinbrook, Hal engaged the attention of three natives, one of whom "showed great signs of admiration of my white shirt and black neck-ribbon." He describes the natives' canoe, the subject of canoes being of continual interest to him throughout the voyage, seven sketches of them available:

Papuan Canoe with pennants
Fig. of June 15, 1849
Rossel Island canoe
With sail hoisted
Sailless canoe
Coral Haven
Canoe plan, 1849
Single canoer
June 25, 1849
Louisiade Sailing-canoe plan
August 1849
"Catamaran and Natives of Brumer Island"
Louisiade Archipelago
Fleet of native canoes
By a coast, 1850
Study of men paddling canoe

Melancholy was relieved a party of surveyors led by Edmund Kennedy. In late May, 1848, he went off with Kennedy to see the camp at Tam Point, and arranged to join Kennedy for a thirty to forty mile penetration into the country. The aborigines retaliated at Hal's recording them in his sketch-book by painting him–on his forehead.

"Hal being painted"
Rockingham Bay

He broke through his lethargy to relate the adventures of exploration, the crew's meeting with natives, observing them, bartering with them, at one time fighting off an assault; and to draw himself and Kennedy–June 5, 1848, June 8, 1848, June 21, 1848.

Kennedy Party
Kennedy party
Kennedy and Hal (confirming location?) observed by native Papuans
"Kennedy's Reconnoitering Party
Cutting Its Way through the Bush, June, 1848. Hal in background
"Cutting through the Scrub"
June 1848
"Watering Creek, Louisiade Archipelago"

In early August, they anchored at Lizard Island. Huxley's research was at this time devoted not to investigation of sea creatures, but to investigation of himself and reading Dante and learning Italian–August 2, 1848, September 30, 1848, December 31, 1848. On his return to Sydney, he wrote to his mother about his enamorata and a visit to miserable Port Essington–February 1, 1849; and to Lizzie giving an account of the cruise to the Great Barrier Reef and of "a fine noble fellow," Kennedy, who had invited Huxley for another exploration that would conclude with joining the ship at Cape York. Having to attend to his medical duties, Hal was much saddened by being unable to accompany Kennedy. Of the party of thirteen, ten, including Kennedy himself, were killed by natives or starved to death–March 14, 1849.

June 1849 gives us many notable diary entries and sketches of interest. The weather was, for a change, "exquisite," the smooth sea "beautiful . . . just sufficiently broken into waves to give an appearance of life to the deep blue waters; this deep infinite blue sky, with here and there a summer cloud floating dreamily along, or hanging like a hovering bird"–June 2, 1849. A few days later, the weather had worsened, the air hot and damp and rainy, Huxley becoming "a very morose animal"–June 8, 1849. The ship was visited by about seventy natives in their canoes, Huxley describing the people and canoes in an entry–June 15, 1849, this followed the next day by another entry of a visit to an aborigine village of "copper-coloured gentlemen," where Hal "made a hasty sketch of the most remarkable of the fuzzy heads" –Hair style, New Guinea Sept. 1849– and other sketches of ethnological and perhaps aesthetic interest–June 16, 1849. One man carried a jaw bracelet, "in fine preservation and evidently belonging to a young person, every tooth being entire"–June 25, 1849. In an entry a few days later, he sketched a gentleman whose head was not quite so fuzzy, himself: Je voici , Fig. of June 10, 1849. Other summery diary items of interest are: June 13, 1849, June 20, 1849, June 26, 1849, and July 1, 1849.

A very long entry is that of July 6, 1849. Huxley left the ship to go wading ashore, dancing with and sketching the natives on the beach, exchanging "red cotton night-caps, bits of glaring cotton handkerchiefs and other articles of virtù " for yams and coconuts. "We landed at the same place as before and this time the natives ran down prancing and gesticulating, as if to welcome us, in a far more friendly manner than before. Many of them had garlands of green leaves round their heads, knees and ankles, some had long streamers depending from their arms and ears and floating in the wind as they galloped along shaking their spears and prancing just as boys playing at horses do at school." Huxley and others of the crew visited a native village. Sharing coconuts, Tom Huxley and a friendly native exchanged names, the native taking on "Tamoo" and Huxley "Kai-oo-why-who-ah."

The New Guinea natives were exceedingly delighted at discovering that this white fellow was intelligent, and broke into shouts at discovering that the skin under his shirt was as white as that of his face. Huxley sketched them and also their artifacts and huts, which he describes in careful detail in this entry.

Sketches of natives:

Pencil sketch of Cape York woman.
Cape York mother and baby
Trio of Papuans chatting
May 1849.
"Interview with natives of Redscar Bay"
"Village of Tassai, New Guinea"
Papuan man waving, woman and child
"Natives of Redscar Bay"
Chatting duo.
"Louisiade and New Guinea Natives drawn by Huxley"
Baby, mother, two men
New Guinea natives canoeing to H. M. S. Rattlesnake, one of the men holding up coconut for bartering, Signed "Huxley" at lower left.
"Sketched by Professor Huxley"
Women of the Defaure Island 1849? Unsigned, inscription in unknown hand at upper right
"Ye Natives finding ye grapes"
1849? Unsigned, undated.
Natives on the New Guinea Coast
Family emerging onto beach (Tassai?). "TH" at lower left in ink.
Village scene
New Guinea natives and European visitors.
Bay scene
Natives carrying food, swimming, canoeing.
of native Louisiade Archipelago women, 1849.
Sketches of artifacts and huts:
New Guinea Artifacts
Betal calabash and stopper, Fish hooks, Jawbone bracelet, Spears, shield, basket, and comb, Drum, cup, flask, Panean pipe with bamboo tube, Wooden pillow.
"Hut on Brierly Island, Louisiade Archipelago"
Hut and its environs
Palms and hut
Hut on stilts, with palms l. foreground and r. background
Darnley Hut Interior
Hut on stilts, with sleeping resident
Darnley Hut
Featuring human head. December 1849 And landscapes:
Cape York Id
"Cape York Id. Oct. 13th, 184[8]" By T.H.H.?
Bower with bird
Cape York, 1849

The next month they arrived at Brumer Island, Huxley's entry detailing catamarans and a witty native who used a tin-pot as a drum–August 17, 1849; and describing native women who came aboard to visit, to chat, dance, hug each other and a ship's boy; and defending native culture–August 19, 1849, August 20, 1849,August 22, 1849, August 23, 1849, August 26, 1849, September 5, 1849.

In October, an English woman who had been rescued by natives and kept by them was successful in transferring her residence from Prince of Wales Island to the Rattlesnake–October 16, 1849 and October 18, 1849, which notes that the sailors were at some sites welcomed by awe-struck natives because they were thought to be "markis," ghosts of recently departed villagers In this entry, Huxley describes the aborigine rituals of mourning and conducting a funeral.

"Funeral Scene, Mount Ernest, Torres Straits" Funeral memorial monument.

In December, Huxley and a companion again visited a village, guided by Panooda–December 3, 1849. "There we sat like three Chinese Josses squatted down…. I shall never forget the beauty of the place; while in it I felt as if listening to beautiful music"–December 5, 1849. As 1849 dwindled into history, the Rattlesnake departed from New Guinea, to arrive back in Sydney in February. Huxley, having spent years as a nomad, and having to leave Henrietta, wrote to his mother that he did not look upon his return "with unmixed joy"–February 11, 1850. In April, Hal inscribed a concluding entry to "dearest": "It tells of the wanderings of a man among all varieties of human life and character, from the ball-room among the elegancies and soft nothings of society to the hut of the savage and the grand untrodden forest. It should tell more. It should tell of the wider and stranger wanderings of a human soul, now proud and confident, now sunk in bitter despondency–now so raised above its own coarser nature by the influence of a pure and devoted love as to dare to feel almost worthy of being so loved"–April 6, 1850. Heading for New Zealand in May, he described a "vile night," inventorying all the noise that did not celebrate his twenty-fifth birthday: May 4, 1850, and for another entry of this time, May 13, 1850; a subsequent diary item details his agenda–May 27, 1850.

THH drawing of New Zealand waterfall

By July, the Rattlesnake rounded Cape Horn on its way to the Falklands–July 4, 1850, July 12, 1850; and then landed in the Azores in early October–an elegant description of touring Mt. Pico is given in October 6, 1850 and October 13, 1850.

"Ladukapuafanoa Brother of Thakubau"
Unsigned, undated; date from the time Huxley was returning to England; Thakubau a chief of Figi [sic].

H. M. S. Rattlesnake arrived at Devenport on October 23, 1850.

Throughout his life, Huxley would often refer back nostalgically to the Rattlesnake voyage, as in the November 15, 1888 letter to Hooker; and in an 1890 eulogy of his crewmates–On Illusions. The three works devoted to an exploration of the exploration are:

Zoological Notes and Observations Made on Board H.M.S. Rattlesnake during the Years 1846-50 (1851)
Science at Sea (1854)
The Oceanic Hydrozoa (1859)

The concluding item in Julian Huxley's rendition of his grandfather's diary is Lieutenant Huxley's translation of the Goethe phrase Thatige skepsis:.

Active Skepticism
"An Active Skepticism is that which unceasingly strives to overcome itself and by well directed Research to attain to a kind of Conditional Certainty"

For relevant guides to the voyage, see § 1. THH: His Mark, § 9. Medusa et al. and § 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology.



1.   THH Publications
2.   Victorian Commentary
3.   20th Century Commentary

1.   Letter Index
2.   Illustration Index

Gratitude and Permissions

C. Blinderman & D. Joyce
Clark University

§ 1. THH: His Mark
§ 2. Voyage of the Rattlesnake
§ 3. A Sort of Firm
§ 4. Darwin's Bulldog
§ 5. Hidden Bond: Evolution
§ 6. Frankensteinosaurus
§ 7. Bobbing Angels: Human Evolution
§ 8. Matter of Life: Protoplasm
§ 9. Medusa
§ 10. Liberal Education
§ 11. Scientific Education
§ 12. Unity in Diversity
§ 13. Agnosticism
§ 14. New Reformation
§ 15. Verbal Delusions: The Bible
§ 16. Miltonic Hypothesis: Genesis
§ 17. Extremely Wonderful Events: Resurrection and Demons
§ 18. Emancipation: Gender and Race
§ 19. Aryans et al.: Ethnology
§ 20. The Good of Mankind
§ 21.  Jungle Versus Garden