The Ordeal of Guillaume Le Gentil

by Michael Wright, Co-Editor

Does this scenario sound familiar? You buy a new piece of gear; say an eyepiece that you are dying to try out on your favorite deep sky object. It arrives in the mail on a weekday so you decide wait until the week-end. On Saturday, Clear Sky Chart predicts above average seeing and transparency, but as you are pulling out your scope, your spouse reminds you that your child has a recital that evening. You do the right thing and put the scope back.

Stormy Seas Next time your observing plans are frustrated, take consolation in the story of Guillaume Le Gentil. In 1760, Le Gentil was commissioned by the French Academy of Sciences to observe the 1761 transit of Venus from Pondicherry, India. Sailing from France in March 1760, he arrived on the Isle de France (Mauritius) in July where he learned that war had broken out between France and Britain preventing further passage east. In February 1761, he was finally able to secure passage. Despite the upcoming monsoon season, he was assured that he could reach Pondicherry by mid-April in plenty of time for the transit on June 6. Unfavorable winds blew his ship off course, so it spent five weeks wandering around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea. Upon nearing Mahé on the west coast of India, the captain learned that Pondicherry had been captured by the British so he decided to return to Isle de France. Le Gentil had no choice but to remain on board for the return trip. On the day of transit, Le Gentil was on board ship and unable to make accurate observations on the rolling deck.

Rather than return to France, Le Gentil decided to stay in the Indian Ocean until the next transit in 1769 and “to make all observations I could on geography, natural history, physics, astronomy, navigation, winds and tides.” This he did for a few years. In 1766, he decided that Manila in the Philippines would be the ideal spot to observe the transit so on May 1, he sailed for Manila and arrived in August. The Spanish governor of Manila was suspicious and antagonistic towards Le Gentil. Learning that Pondicherry was in French hands again, Le Gentil escaped on a Portuguese ship. On his arrival in Pondicherry on March 27, 1768, the governor welcomed him with a feast, and the next day invited him to select a location for his observatory. Le Gentil selected a palace that has been partially destroyed by the British and was now used as a powder magazine. While waiting for the June 4, 1769 transit, he prepared his observatory and studied Indian astronomy.

On the eve of the transit, the sky was perfectly clear and Le Gentil entertained the governor with views of Jupiter’s satellites. Everything appeared favorable for observing the transit the next day. Awakening during the night, Le Gentil was dismayed that the sky was overcast. He wrote “… I felt doomed, I threw myself on the bed, without being able to close my eyes.” Instead of clearing, a storm blew in bringing thicker clouds completely obscuring the Sun for the duration of the transit. Immediately after, the skies cleared and the Sun shone for the rest of the day. Le Gentil wrote in his journal that day:

“That is the fate that often awaits astronomers. I had gone more than ten thousand leagues; 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 which came to place itself before the Sun at the precise moment of my observation, to carry off from me the fruits of my pains and of my fatigue…”

And to add insult to injury, the skies were clear in Manila that day!

Le Gentil fell into a funk for several weeks and contracted dysentery, which delayed his return to France. Still sick, he embarked in March 1770 for home, but was forced to convalesce at the Isle de France. By July he was ready to continue his journey, but could not obtain passage until November. A hurricane damaged his ship and Le Gentil was forced to return to Isle de France again, where he received news that his heirs presumed him dead and were trying to divide his estate. On March 31, 1771, he left Isle de France for the last time and endured a stormy trip to Cadiz in Spain. Traveling overland, he reached French soil on October 8, 1771; eleven years, six months and thirteen days after setting out.

But that is not all! Upon returning home, he found his heirs fighting over his estate, funds entrusted to his agent missing, eight crates of specimens collected on his journey missing, and his seat in the Academy lost. His seat was eventually restored, but he could not recoup the lost funds or locate the missing specimens. Now, compared to Le Gentil’s ordeal, are your disappointments so terrible?

This entry was posted in February 2012, Sidereal Times and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to The Ordeal of Guillaume Le Gentil

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