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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 1998 > Article Detail

MARGINALIA

Transits, Travels and Tribulations, III

J. Donald Fernie

Fatal Cloud

1768 gave way to 1769, and the transit date of June 3 approached. At Pondichery only the egress of Venus from the sun would be visible, but the precise timing of that event near 7:00 a.m. local time on Sunday, June 4 would be vital. "During the whole month of May, until the 3rd of June, the mornings were very beautiful." The evening before was clear and calm. But at 2:00 a.m. Le Gentil was awakened by "the moaning of the sandbar," implying a change in the wind. Leaping from his bed he "saw with the greatest astonishment that the sky was covered everywhere…. From that moment on I felt doomed, I threw myself on my bed without being able to close my eyes." A powerful wind brought even heavier cloud, "the sea was white with foam, and the air darkened by sand and dust…." Nothing in the sky was visible at 7:00 a.m., but around 9:00 a.m. the sun came out and "we did not cease to see it all the rest of the day."

Le Gentil's journal entry says it all: "That is the fate which often awaits astronomers. I had gone more than ten thousand leagues [50,000 kilometers]; it seemed that I had crossed such a great expanse of seas, exiling myself from my native land, only to be the spectator of a fatal cloud…. I was more than two weeks in singular dejection and almost did not have the courage to take up my pen to continue my journal...," especially when he later learned that near-perfect conditions had prevailed in Manila.

His one thought now was to return home, and he arranged passage on the first available French ship, due to leave Pondichery in October 1769. But he fell seriously ill with fever and dysentery, and missed the sailing. Indeed, he barely survived, but by March 1770, he was so desperate for home that, although still ill, he took ship for Isle de France as a first step. Here his convalescence continued for seven months, until in November he left on a ship bound for home via the Cape of Good Hope. Only two weeks out, though, an extremely violent storm almost sank them, and only great good luck brought them back to Isle de France on New Year's Day 1771. Another three months passed ("The sight of [Isle de France] had become unbearable to me"), but in March 1771, Le Gentil was aboard a Spanish warship, which finally returned him to Europe. On October 8, 1771, "at last I set foot on France at nine o'clock in the morning, after eleven years, six months, and thirteen days of absence."

He returned to discover that since no one in Paris had heard from him for so long, he had been presumed dead, and his seat in the Académie Royale des Sciences given to someone else, while his heirs were engaged in dividing up his estate. The latter problem took much expensive and tiresome litigation to correct, but intervention by the King gave him back a seat in the Académie within a few months.

There was a happy ending to his life. He lived another 21 years, married happily and had a daughter who became the delight of his life. He died of a relatively mild sickness at the age of 67 in 1792.

© J. Donald Fernie




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