Matthew Fontaine Maury
Pathfinder of the seas
A glance at the late 18th century scientific writings shows that God as creator was regularly mentioned. Then out of the same forces which had spawned the French Revolution came deism and uniformitarianism. People grew embarrassed and nervous about the mention of God in technological writings, but not Matthew Fontaine Maury.
Scientist, creationist, and Christian, Maury was a young man as uniformitarianism became popular and when he died evolution was on its way to general acceptance. Maury often stood alone.
When some of the Huguenots fled across the dangerous North Atlantic to escape religious and political persecution by Charles IX of France, they could not have known that one of their descendants would become famous for charting the currents and winds of that often-turbulent ocean.
This great son of the Huguenots was also to be foremost among those responsible for the laying of the first Trans-Atlantic cable.
The convictions behind his pursuit of knowledge and success were like those of his ancestors: an adherence to the absolute authority of God’s Word and a strong belief in God as the Sovereign Creator. This Pathfinder of the seas believed that if the Bible spoke of ‘paths’ in the sea,1 they were there and could be found. And find them he did!
Matthew Fontaine Maury, 19th century oceanographer, creationist, scientist and Christian, mapped the earth’s currents and winds for the benefit of all mankind.
Born in Spotsylvania County, Virginia in 1806, Maury was surrounded in childhood and youth by those whose lives were enriched by a deep and abiding respect for the Bible as the Word of God.
Maury grew to have a similar trust in the revealed Word, a trust which was to make him one of America’s greatest creationist scientists. Throughout his life he never disguised the relationship he saw between the creation and the Creator, between science and scripture. In one speech he openly declared, ‘‘I will, however … ask pardon for mentioning a rule of conduct which I have adopted in order to make progress with these physical researches which have occupied so much of my time … The rule is, never to forget who is the Author of the great volume which nature spreads out before us, and always to remember that the same Being is the author of the book which revelation holds up to us.”
This allegiance which brought him success in science also brought him opposition from across the seven seas he charted so well.
Matthew Maury’s globe plotting began at age 19 when he set out on what he hoped would be a life at sea. Following his brother into the United States Navy, he joined the good ship Brandywine as a midshipman, wanting to learn quickly all about the sea. But disappointment and frustration almost quenched his hopes. The ship’s instructor, though disposed to teach, lacked facilities and had little authority to assemble the midshipmen to learn. All Matthew gained from that first voyage was a greater determination to pursue his ambitions.
His next assignment on the sloop Vincennes provided the same frustrations. So poor was the captain’s co-operation that the schoolmaster was eventually kicked off the ship as a nuisance! From that point Matthew embarked on self-education.
The ship did have a library, so he sought to grasp the knowledge it offered on navigation. In spare moments on duty he chalked problems in spherical geometry on cannon balls stored on deck! In the summer of 1830 he was able to gain immense practical experience in this subject, for the Vincennes arrived safely back in New York having circumnavigated the globe,2 the first U.S. sloop of war to do so.
Matthew had by now out-taught himself as far as knowledge required by the Board of Naval Education.
His brilliant use of spherical trigonometry in a final examination left his professor floundering, so he declared Maury’s solution to the problem incorrect. After a conference with members of the Board, however, they passed Matthew, who was subsequently appointed as acting sailing master on the Falmouth. Now second to a ship’s commander, he was responsible for navigating the course, steerage, and sail trim for the voyage.
With his usual zest he pursued information on winds and currents.
During the voyage round Cape Horn to the west coast of South America, he was shocked to find that such information didn’t exist. From then on he was to keep meticulous records, for his own use, and for the help of others. Matthew wrote his South American experiences and recordings into a paper, “The Navigation of Cape Horn”, which was published in the American Journal of Sciences and the Arts.
In 1834 Matthew married Ann Herndon and they settled in Fredericksburg, Virginia. While he waited further orders to return to sea, he busied himself on the manuscript of A Treatise on Navigation.
During a period of leave in 1839 disaster struck, and Matthew’s hopes for a life at sea were dashed forever. After visiting his parents in Tennessee, a stagecoach accident in which he suffered a fractured femur left him permanently lame. Despair tore at his soul, but it was this very tragedy which thrust him into the career which placed his name on the lips and charts of sailors world-wide.
During convalescence his thoughts turned to the total lack of naval training and education he had received.
His indignation motivated him to write articles pressing for naval reform. He envisaged an organised Naval Academy with a curriculum providing skills in chronometry, natural history, mathematics, international and maritime law.
His was not the only voice demanding higher standards ethically and educationally.
He wrote under the nom-de-plumes “Will Watch” and “Harry Bluff” to avoid attracting hostility, but his authorship was discovered and those responsible for the Navy’s inefficiency, corruption and graft set themselves to oppose Maury whenever and wherever they could. This animosity was to pursue him for a long time.
In 1841 he was placed in charge of the U.S. Depot for Charts and Instruments. During this appointment Maury developed the U.S. Naval Observatory’s Hydrographic Office.
It was this land-based position which at last gave him opportunity to apply his gifts in meteorology, oceanography, and hydrography. From his initiative a world-wide co-operative system to collect maritime information was organised. In 1852-53 he made a remarkable achievement in getting 10 major maritime powers together for a meeting in Brussels. Even more remarkable, when compared with modern multi-national meetings, was his ability to extract out of that gathering unanimous agreement on the kinds of observations seamen should make, and how they were to be recorded and processed for the benefit of all mankind.
Over the next 35 years more than 35 million logs were sent into Maury’s observatory for the development and revision of wind and current charts.
Using his own collected information he published his first volume of Physical Geography of the Sea in 1855. This became the first popular textbook on marine science. Maury had long believed that laymen could understand science and always wanted the results of science to be shared with the public.
Maury had a real affinity with the general populace which stemmed perhaps from the fact that he was largely self-taught.
An indication of this can be seen in a letter to Maury from Captain Phinney of the good ship Gertrude which reveals Maury’s personal effect on him: “For myself, I am free to confess that for many years I commanded a ship and although never insensible to the beauties of nature upon the sea or land, I yet feel that until I took up your work, I had been traversing the ocean blindfolded. I did not think: I did not know the amazing and beautiful combination of all the works of Him whom you so beautifully term ‘the Great First Thought’ … you have done me good as a man. You have taught me to look above, around and beneath me and recognise God’s hand in every element by which I am surrounded. I am so grateful for this personal benefit.”3
Maury claimed that his success in science was firmly based on his Christian commitment.
He once stated: “In observing the working and studying—the offices of the various parts of the physical machinery which keeps the world in order, we should ever remember that it is all made for its purposes, and that it was planned according to design, and arranged so as to make the world as we behold it, a place for the habitation of man. Upon no other hypothesis can the student expect to gain profitable knowledge concerning the physics of the sea, earth, or air.”4
But Maury’s successes were soon to be tried with the stormy weather of naval politics.
The naval reform he had long advocated eventually led to the setting up of a special commission called the Retiring Board. It was a Pyrrhic victory. His opponents on the board saw this as the opportunity to settle their old scores.
Ironically, they used his lame leg to declare him ‘retired’ from active duty.
The ‘dismissal’ order was a hard blow, mollified only partly by the fact that the orders did include instructions to continue his work at the observatory.
Maury may have had enemies in high places but there were many in the general population who had always warmed to him and came to his support. Newspapers took up the outcry and there were fellow officers and politicians who joined in declaiming this vindictive ‘retirement’.
Some three years later it was revoked.
In the days before the American Civil War (1861–1865), Maury travelled widely to lecture and wrote with urgency to reconcile the splintering United States. But when war came and his home state of Virginia joined the seceding confederate states he sadly made his choice. Remembering the welcome arms that received his persecuted forefathers, he resigned his commission from the Navy, gave up his magnificent observatory, and all its future prospects of scientific recognition and advancement, and joined the Southern Confederacy.
The South appointed him as head of their coast, harbour and river defences and he was soon singled out for special attack. The $3,000 price on his head was bettered only by that offered for Jefferson Davis, the Confederate leader. Maury’s skilful invention of an electric torpedo in 1861 aided the South’s harbour defences.2
Many of Maury’s previous enemies were Southerners and—surprisingly—their continuing bitterness impeded his loyal efforts.
He was sent to England in 1862 to serve as a diplomat for the Confederacy (with the initial job of purchasing materials for his torpedoes). His significance in the war can be seen in the fact that early in 1864, the National Academy of Sciences of the U.S. passed a resolution ‘that sailing directions, and wind and current charts, issued by Maury should no longer be used’!
It is noteworthy that navigators continued to turn to Maury for advice. To the sailors, petty political judgements from a National Academy meant nothing.
Maury’s judgements recorded in his precious charts meant their safety and their lives. Finally, the bitter Civil War ended, and Matthew found himself without a country. The general amnesty offered to Confederates excluded those who served as diplomats, or had resigned U.S. Military or Navy Commissions to join the South. Maury lost both ways.
Never one to say ‘die’, Maury now attempted to form a colony of displaced Southerners in Mexico and was given the Cabinet post of ‘Imperial Commissioner of Immigration’ by Mexican Emperor Maximilian, himself a famous Navy man.
Maury was also appointed Director of the Astronomical Observatory in Mexico, and while there introduced cultivation of cinchona to make quinine for the treating of malaria.
Despite his influential efforts the colonisation attempt failed and was abandoned in 1866.
For a while Matthew and his family settled in England where his popularity led to him being presented with a testimonial raised by public subscriptions, and many other honours were conferred on him there. When the U.S. offered an even more general amnesty in 1868, Maury was free to return to his beloved America. With delight he accepted a professorship of meteorology in the Virginia Military Institute.
There he proposed a polytechnic college and in 1872 the Virginia Polytechnic Institute opened in Blacksburg, Virginia. Maury declined the offer to become its first president.
Early in the next year Maury died. On February 1, 1873, one of the most outstanding creationist scientists of the 19th century closed his earthly career to begin a heavenly one. His death had followed an illness brought on by one of his popular but exhausting lecture trips.
Maury had all through his career an intense desire to find the paths of the sea2 spoken of by the Psalmist; and he found them.
In the currents of the oceans Maury always saw strong evidences of design and purpose. The Gulf Stream filled his heart with wonder. He wrote, “If the current of the sea, with this four-mile velocity at the surface, and this hundreds of tons pressure in its depths, were permitted to chafe against its bed, the Atlantic, instead of being two miles deep and 3,000 miles broad, would have been long ago cut down into a narrow channel that might have been as the same ocean turned up on edge, and measuring two miles broad and 3,000 miles deep. But had it been so cut, the proportion of land and water surface would have been destroyed and the winds, for lack of area to play upon, could not have sucked up from the sea vapours for the rains to form and the face of the earth would have become as a desert without water.”5
When Maury looked at his beloved oceans he saw the work of the hand of God, the Creator God who he firmly believed had set “bars and doors to stay its proud waves; and who gave the sea His decree that its waters should not pass His command. He laid the foundations of the world so fast they should not be moved forever.”
Some 13 years before he died, Maury had laid the cornerstone for the University of East Tennessee (November 30, 1860).
The speech he gave then forms a fitting comment on the whole of his professional life as a Christian and a scientist:
“I have been blamed by men of science, both in this country and in England, for quoting the Bible in confirmation of the doctrines of physical geography. The Bible, they say, was not written for scientific purposes, and is therefore of no authority in matters of science.
I beg pardon! The Bible is authority for everything it touches.
What would you think of the historian who should refuse to consult the historical records of the Bible, because the Bible was not written for the purposes of history? The Bible is true and science is true, and therefore each, if truly read, but proves the truth of the other. The agents in the physical economy of our planet are ministers of Him who made both it and the Bible.
The records which He has chosen to make through the agency of these ministers of His upon the crust of the earth are as true as the records which by the hands of His prophets and servants, He has been pleased to make in the Book of Life.
They are both true; and when your men of science, with vain and hasty conceit, announce the discovery of disagreement between them, rely upon it, the fault is not with the witness of His records, but with the worm who essays to interpret evidence which he does not understand.”6
References and notes
- Psalm 8:8. Return to text.
- Encyclopaedia Britannica. Return to text.
- In Memoriam, Matthew Fontaine Maury, LL.D. 1873. Proceedings of the Academic Board of the Virginia Military Institute, Lexington, Va., on the occasion of the Death of Commodore M.F. Maury, LL.D., Professor of Physics, in the Virginia Military Institute, pp.21-22. Return to text.
- Maury, M.F., Physical Geography of the Sea, p.403. Return to text.
- Maury, M.F., Ref. 4, pp.295-296. Return to text.
- Matthew Fontaine Maury address at the laying of the corner-stone of the University of the South, on Swanee Mountain in East Tennessee. Cited in Corbin, Diane Fontaine Maury, 1888, A Life of Matthew Fontaine Maury, USN & CSN, compiled by his daughter. Sampson & Low & Co. Return to text.