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Transits, Travels and Tribulations, IV

J. Donald Fernie


Chappe's entourage was slight. Besides Chappe himself, it included an artist, a clock maker and a man named Pauly, described as an engineer-geographer. Two Spanish assistants were added for political reasons, and the party sailed from Cadiz on March 8, 1768, hoping to reach their assigned site before the transit some 15 months later. Getting across the Atlantic alone took 77 days, and after landing at Mexico's east-coast port of Vera Cruz, the group set off northwestward to cross nearly 1,000 kilometers of wild terrain. Pauly, who would be the sole survivor of the expedition, writes of "high mountains, dreadful precipices, dry deserts . . . . We came near dying a thousand times. We were besides crushed by an excessive heat which hardly left us strength enough to drag ourselves around," especially after the heat ruined their food supply and left them to live off the countryside.

Figure 1. William Wales's handwritten observationsClick to Enlarge Image

Two months of this brought them to "San Blas, on the rosy sea" some 200 kilometers south of Mazatlán. There followed six weeks of navigating 500 kilometers of the Gulf of California to reach San José del Cabo at the southern tip of Baja California ("so dangerous that nobody ever dared to land thither . . . because of perpetual waves foaming with rage against rocks"). Despite the foaming waves (one sometimes suspects Pauly of laying it on a bit thick) they got themselves and their equipment ashore with 13 days to go before the transit on June 3, 1769. That was the good news. The bad news came when "some savage people . . . informed us that a most dreadful epidemic was laying waste to the country." The expedition was advised to move immediately at least a hundred leagues (450 kilometers) to the north, but they had yet to unpack, clean and set up their instruments; there was no time for more travel. They stayed where they were.

Chappe's observations of the transit were among the best made of either transit anywhere in the world. Moreover, his subsidiary astronomical observations to establish the latitude and longitude of his site (crucial to the final analysis) were done with an accuracy unprecedented in arduous fieldwork.

But already the epidemic had the expedition in its grip. Pauly writes, "We used to feel the most unspeakable pains, and every one of us . . . was wishing most anxiously for death as a supreme cure. You would hear all around but heavy groanings; every day used to carry away some of our Companions." Chappe himself died on August 1. "We were all dying, myself and my companions, when I closed up his eyes…. Our situation did not allow us to attend to his funeral with many ceremonies."

Pauly, now default leader of those left, packed up "all the papers concerning the object of our voyage . . . in a casket which I directed to the Viceroy of Mexico. I begged most earnestly some savages of good standing . . . to see that it would reach its place in the case we should all pass away, and to tell the Viceroy to have it shipped [to the Academy in Paris]."

Pauly, clutching the casket, and the remaining two expedition members set off on the fearful journey homeward in September. These other two both died en route, and Pauly himself had to pause for strength, sometimes months at a time, before finally arriving in Paris a year later on September 5, 1770. "I hasted to the Academy the observations made in California. That body of men has bestowed on me the highest Eulogy . . . ." The king, Louis XV, awarded Pauly a pension of 800 francs a year. Sadly, though, it seems he remained an invalid, and eventually had to petition for an increased pension.

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