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Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Lets take a Right Royal Captain Cook at Venus

When I was a kiddie in Victoria, I was told (not "taught" - as I went to a Catholic Primary School, and they didn't "teach" us anything worthwhile) that Captain Cook "discovered Australia" (***A) for England.

I remember learning much later, that his voyage was really to do with Venus, and Tahiti.

Although Lieutenant Cook sailed in HMS Endeavour, the expedition was proposed by and organised for the Royal Society (hence my "right royal" reference in the title - the rest is rhyming slang)
  • "The (Royal) Society’s southerly observations were entrusted to the expedition lead by James Cook FRS (1728-1779) sailing with HMS Endeavour to Tahiti, in the Pacific Ocean. One of the most famous scientific voyages of all time encountered scepticism at Rio de Janeiro: “the account we gave of ourselves of being bound to the Southward to observe the Transit of Venus (a phenomenon they had not the least Idea of) appeared so very Strange to the narrow minded Portuguese that they thought it only an invented Story to cover some other design we must be upon...” James Cook and astronomer Charles Green (c.1734-1771) made a highly successful set of transit observations under clear Tahitian skies, somewhat overshadowed by the fame of their subsequent explorations of Australia and New Zealand. The information transmitted to the Royal Society was immensely valuable; tragically, it was to be Green’s legacy as he died of fever at sea as Endeavour sailed home in 1771."
  • See also the Facsimile printed notes in "Philosophical Transactions" published by the Royal Society.
  • King George's Island is a location in "Otaheite" (known today as Tahiti) in Polynesia, in the "South Seas".
  • "This Island is called by the Natives Otaheite and was first discover'd by Captain Wallice in His Majestys ship Dolphin on the 19th of June 1767. ^ and to the credit of him and his officers the Longd of Royl Bay was by settled ^ by them to within half a degree of the truth, and the whole figure of the Island not ill described —   It is situated between the Latitudes of 17°..29' and 17°.. 53' South and between the Longitudes of 149..10 and 149..39 West from the Meridian of Greenwich. Point Venus, so called from the Observation being made there is the northern extremety of the Island and lies in the Longitude of 149°..30' being the mean result of a great number of observations made upon the spot." (Description of King Georges Island - from Cook's Descriptions of Places) (Transcribed by the National Library of Australia)
  • In April 1769, Captain James Cook made his first visit to the island on orders from the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty and the Royal Society to view the transit of Venus on 2 June. He, along with Charles Green and Daniel Solander, set up camp at Matavai Bay and stayed on until 9 August. Cook estimated the population to be 200,000 including all the nearby islands in the chain. This estimate was later lowered to 35,000 by anthropologist Douglas L. Oliver, the foremost modern authority on Tahiti, at the time of discovery in 1767. On later visits Cook made harbour at Tautira Bay which is sometimes known as Cooks Anchorage.
Wikipedia then explains: "Once the observations were completed, Cook opened the sealed orders which were additional instructions from the Admiralty for the second part of his voyage: to search the south Pacific for signs of the postulated rich southern continent of Terra Australis. Cook then sailed to New Zealand and mapped the complete coastline, making only some minor errors. He then voyaged west, reaching the south-eastern coast of Australia on 19 April 1770, and in doing so his expedition became the first recorded Europeans to have encountered its eastern coastline."

So the Admiralty was doubling up on the Royal Society's commission to Cook.
In that sense, the "discovery" ***A of New Zealand and of the east coast of Australia were very much subsidiary to the principal purpose of the voyage - to monitor the Transit of Venus (from the remote* location of Tahiti (* remote from the Royal Observatory, Greenwich). This was all about getting the "Paralax" measurements necessary for measuring the distance to the Sun.

I was in Sydney last night, and the Internet links offering "Transit of Venus" sites were so busy that I could not connect to see anything. I did see a few brief images on the Television.
But I was delighted to find, before I left Sydney this morning, that that my Blogging colleague (and Author) James Woodford had published an extraordinarily clear image that he managed to get with the help of a local Townsville amateur astronomer.

Venus looking like a"Beauty Spot"
on the lower right
of the "face" of the Sun.
Courtesy of Transit of
Image captured at 2:33PM
(Australian Eastern Standard Time)

***A "Discovery" - not only had Abel Tasman been to both locations more than a century earlier, but of course, the Maoris had long since taken up residence in New Zealand, and as we now know, the entire "Terra Nullius" concept has been overturned. it was, of course, the basis upon which the Cook claimed Australia, without making a "treaty" with the Aboriginal inhabitants. This is the basis of the Mabo decision, the 20th anniversary of which has just been celebrated.

Everything is coinciding - Venus, Cook, Mabo - what a week for commemorations and natural recurrences.

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