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Transits, Travels and Tribulations, V

J. Donald Fernie

Precious Hardware

The next question was just where in the South Pacific the expedition should go. Such reports of islands in the vast ocean as existed were not entirely reliable as to latitude and longitude, and one would not, as did Le Gentil in 1761, want to find oneself at sea when the crucial moment arrived. But even as the Endeavour was being fitted out there arrived back from the Pacific the good ship Dolphin. And what news! It had found an island that was a virtual paradise on earth, an island "such as dreams and enchantments are made of . . . ." An island where not only the surroundings were paradisiacal, but where the local culture was also utterly different from that of Europe. In particular, the sailors had discovered, no doubt within minutes of arrival, that the women were extraordinarily free with their sexual favors. The gift of anything metallic would hasten proceedings even further. The captain of the Dolphin had feared his ship would sink at her moorings as her crew enthusiastically ripped the nails from her decks. Her navigators had taken particular care in determining the island's latitude and longitude. Its name was Tahiti. The Endeavour would sail for Tahiti. Considerable quantities of nails would be among her cargo.

Figure 1. Image from a photographic plateClick to Enlarge Image

So on August 26, 1768 the Endeavour sailed from Plymouth, bearing southwest for Rio, then 'round the horrors of Cape Horn and across some 7,400 kilometers of the Pacific to Tahiti, arriving with almost two months in hand before the transit. Joseph Banks (26, later Sir Joseph, and eventually one of the Royal Society's most colorful presidents), who had joined the expedition as scientific leader and botanist, found previous reports to be accurate.

Soon after my arrival at the tent 3 hansome girls came off in a canoe to see us . . . and with very little perswasion agreed to send away their carriage and sleep in [the] tent, a proof of confidence which I have not before met with upon so short an acquaintance.

But cultural differences went well beyond sexual mores. Ownership seemed a very fuzzy concept, and casually stolen goods became a sore point. Particularly when an important astronomical instrument disappeared and had to be hunted down at gunpoint. The English crew set a poor example, as Banks noted in his journal after a near-perfect observation of the transit:

We also heard the melancholy news that a large part of our stock of Nails had been purloind by some of the ships company during the time of the Observation . . . . This loss is of a very serious nature as these nails if circulated by the people among the Indians will much lessen the value of Iron . . . .

The transit observations concluded, Cook, as per instructions, set off southwestward in search of the great southern continent postulated by philosophers of the day as the counterpart to the great land masses of the northern hemisphere. Instead, he discovered New Zealand and spent six months charting its coasts. Setting off westward once more, he ran into the east coast of Australia and worked northward, charting 3,000 kilometers of coast as he went. That took them out into the channel between the coast and nearly 2,000 kilometers of the Great Barrier Reef. Despite the crew's desperately careful sailing, the beautiful but treacherous reef claimed the Endeavour, and although they eventually got her off they had to beach her for many weeks on the desolate Queensland coast to make repairs.

With supplies running low, the Endeavour put in to Batavia (Jakarta) for refreshment and more permanent repairs. So far the crew's health had been fine; indeed, Cook, with his insistence on sauerkraut as a defense against scurvy, was famous for protecting the well-being of his crews, but he had no defense against the malaria and dysentery ("the bloody flux") of tropical Batavia. By the time the ship set off to cross the Indian Ocean, round southern Africa and sail the length of the Atlantic, nearly half the crew had died and most of the remainder were severely stricken. But finally, on July 13, 1771, more than two years after the transit, the survivors, weak and shaken, arrived home. Among those they left behind was Charles Green, the expedition's official astronomer. It was reported that he "had been ill some time … [and] in a fit of phrensy got up in the night and put his legs out of the portholes, which was the occasion of his death."

It says something of Cook the man that he would undertake two more expeditions to the Pacific despite these previous experiences. It was, of course, to cost him his life.

So another chapter in the history of the transits of Venus was closed. No one alive then would see another. It remained only to determine how well they had done in arriving at their goal of calibrating the astronomical unit, the distance between the earth and the sun.

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