Adapted by Dr William Tobin, University of Canterbury, from I.S. Kerr's "Campbell Island: A History" (A.H. & A.W. Reed, Wellington, 1976).
Good triangulation of Venus required observing stations as far separated as possible. It is therefore no surprise, at least on grounds, that one of the three southern-hemisphere observing sites chosen by French astronomers for the 1874 Transit of Venus was the remote and uninhabited Campbell Island. (They also selected Saint Paul in the Indian Ocean and Noumea in New Caledonia.) The choice of Campbell Island was no doubt influenced by first-hand accounts from a certain Monsieur Rayner, who had visited the isle a decade previously.
An advance party landed almost a year before the transit. They spent a month surveying the coast and harbours, planting vegetables, and building paths and an observing platform before returning to Noumea. The weather must have been unusually good in late 1873, because their commander optimistically reported that there was almost a 50% chance of viewing the transit.
The observing party of four scientists, ten technicians and assorted othersarrived in September 1874. "The land had a sad aspect," wrote their leader, A. Bouquet de la Grye of the naval Hydrographic Office, "...everything was grey on the land, grey in the sky and on the sea." He was dismayed to find only a few wilted cabbages had survived in the vegetable garden, "to the ruin of our culinary hopes." Further gloom was cast by the death of one of the technicians from typhoid fever.
Nevertheless, a 20-metre stone jetty was built, along with camp buildings complete with forge, darkroom, and housings for chronometersand the transit telescope. The party was able to take up residence ashore on October 1. Instruments were installed, and repaired, and the island explored. The expedition naturalist, Dr H. Filhol, gathered specimens and observed the birdlife.
The weather was not clement. Furious storms damaged and almost wrecked some of the huts. Bouquet de la Gyre realised that the chances of observing the transit were considerably less than everyone had been led to expect.
On transit day, December 9, it was cloudy; but five minutes before first contact the Sun began to show. Three minutes later Venus was seen against the Sun's corona, but the clouds closed in again. Some minutes later the observers had a 20-second glimpse of Venus half onto the solar disc---and that was all. It took almost three weeks to pack up and leave.
The expedition had failed, but the Frenchmen left a heritage by naming the island's topography. Thus Venus Bay is where they built. Mt Faye, Mt Fizeau, Yvon Villarceau Peak, Mt Dumas, Mt Paris and Puiseux Peak commemorate members of transit planning committee in Paris. De la Vire Point is named after the expedition's ship, while Jacquemart Island and Courrejolles Point celebrate the vessel's captain and one of its lieutenants, respectively. The map made by the French was the basis of subsequent British Admiralty charts of the island.
Dr William Tobin, Department of Physics & Astronomy, University of Canterbury, New Zealand.
For his book "The Life and Science of Leon Foucault: The Man Who Proved the Earth Rotates"
visit William Tobin page