25 July 2011

Campbell Island and the transit of Venus

Perseverance Harbour from coast watchers' cave, Campbell Island, 1955 or 1956. Photo:  Philip George Poppleton, via National Library / Alexander Turnbull Library.

The transit of Venus

On a cloudy early summer’s day in December 1874 a major scientific expedition to the sub-Antarctic waters of the South Pacific ended in ignominious failure. The lengthy preparations, the cost of mounting the expedition, months of sailing time to the sub-Antarctic seas, and the expectations of the expedition crew were all dashed by the intransigence of the notorious Campbell Island weather. Ian S. Kerr, in his comprehensive 1976 survey, Campbell Island: A history, explains just how much effort was put in to ensure everything was ‘just right’ for the observation of the transit of Venus, in a preliminary visit by the French naval vessel, the Vire:
The rest of September [1874] was occupied in unloading the Vire, building the camp, and even a stone jetty some 20 metres out into the bay. The buildings, including most of the housings for the scientific equipment, were prefabricated, and consisted of the main living quarters, 12 m by 5 m; kitchen, 3 m by 2 m; workshop and forge; darkroom; a small storeroom and housings for the transit telescopes, magnetic equipment, chronometers and tide gauge. There was even a pigsty and sheep-pen. Unfortunately some of the equipment had been damaged in transit but the technicians were able to repair most of it. [p.39]
The transit of Venus was worth all that effort, because accurate measurements of the hugely rare event allowed mathematicians to calculate the distance between the Earth and the Sun. The 1874 transit was also important because of the long interval since the last occurrence. Venusian transits, in which the planet crosses the face of the Sun and is visible from parts of the Earth’s surface, are according to Wikipedia, ‘among the rarest of predictable astronomical phenomena. They occur in a pattern that repeats every 243 years, with pairs of transits eight years apart separated by long gaps of 121.5 years and 105.5 years’. The 1874 transit was the next step in a process of scientific discovery that had been closely identified with James Cook’s first South Pacific journey in 1769, when he observed the transit from Hawaii. By the time of the next transit in December 1882 the distances involved could be confidently stated; by the time the next one finally rolled around in 2004 the event was more of a historical curiosity than a scientific imperative.

German author Judith Schalansky sets the scene on Campbell Island on the day of the transit:
On 8 December 1874 the sky clouds over; that night the weather is unsettled and it is misty. There is a 60 per cent likelihood of being able to view the start of the transit of Venus here, and a 30 per cent chance of seeing the end: so Captain Jacquemart calculated when he spent nearly the whole of the previous December on the island. Based on his findings, the Academie des Sciences decided to send an expedition here to view the transit. Sponsored by the government, the expensively equipped party leaves Marseille on 21 June, led by Anatole Bouquet de la Grye of the naval Hydrographic Office. When Campbell Island finally appears out of the mist on 9 September, the men's first impression is of a sad place: a barren, treeless land with a plateau of straggly yellow bushes in the north and oddly shaped peaks in the south; the fjord of Perseverance Harbour in the middle. On the morning of 9 December, the wind blows from the north-west, bringing scattered showers until ten o'clock. The sky remains a solid grey until the warmth of the sun lightens the mist a little and its white disc finally appears behind the thick veil. Five minutes before Venus is to make its transit, the wind dies down. Bouquet de la Grye peeps through the eyepiece of the telescope at noon and cheers when he sees a dark patch at the edge of the sun: faint and jagged. It is Venus. Then a great cloud hides this rare event for more than a quarter of an hour. When it is gone, Venus is already covering half the sun. The outline of the planet is now quite distinct, entirely free of refraction of light or a halo. But this moment of clarity lasts no more than twenty seconds. Then it is all over. Banks of fog roll in, making it impossible to see the sun again. When it clears hours later, Venus has long since disappeared into the sky.

-Judith Schalansky, Atlas of Remote Islands ('Fifty Islands I have not visited and never will'), Hamburg, 2009 (English translation 2010).
Half a year from departure to the day of the transit: half a year and many francs wasted, and still a long journey home ahead of the vessel and its disappointed crew. 

Undoubtedly dejected, Captain Jacquemart and his shipmates in the Vire returned with the scientific party to the port of Dunedin to recuperate and resupply before their journey back to their home port in New Caledonia. The Otago Daily Times of 31 December 1874, the day after the ship arrived in port, relates the tale:
The FRWSS Vire, Captain Jacquemart, has returned once more to her old quarters, and brings with her the observation party that had been established at Campbell Island, to watch the transit of Venus. We were sorry to hear that, as was the case nearly throughout New Zealand, the weather at Campbell Island on the memorable 9th was decidedly hostile to the observers. At the early part of the day the sun shone fitfully, but as noon approached he became obscured by clouds and thick mist, and during the remainder of the day shewed but once, and that for a few seconds only, just as Venus had crossed the edge of his disc inwards. One distance was then taken, but of the remainder of the transit nothing was seen. The Vire remained at Campbell Island until the 27th, then left with the intention of calling at the Auckland Islands, but strong N.W. weather coming on, the idea was abandoned, and she made straight for this port and arrived yesterday morning. She will remain here until after the New Year a week or so.
Despite the disappointment, Ian Kerr believed that the Vire expedition did make a valuable contribution to better understanding of Campbell Island itself:
The time at Campbell was not wasted however, for the expedition, as we have seen, was well equipped to carry out general scientific work. M. Filhol published a comprehensive account of his studies which, he said, were directed to finding alliances between New Zealand and Campbell Island fauna to suggest the greater extent of New Zealand in former times. His final conclusion seems to have been that Campbell Island had never been connected to a continental mass […]

[In] Filhol’s account we find an interesting description of his first impressions and experiences on landing. The low vegetation covering the ground was at first delightfully soft to the feet. Moss yellowed all the old branches of the scrub and twined round the young shoots. It seemed, to start with, that one could stride over the ground with ease, but soon one was hindered by the network of stems and roots, then moss clung to the boots, and, after a few paces, one had to sit down and rest. Even sitting down soon became uncomfortable because, in spite of the steepness of the slope, the vegetation held a great quantity of water.

The drawings and illustrations in Filhol’s report included a map of Campbell Island which resulted from a survey by the naval officers. This chart has been the basis of all subsequent British Admiralty charts of the island. [p.40-1]

Campbell Island

The 112 square kilometres of Campbell Island are a bleak and remote afterthought of New Zealand’s territorial claims. At 52 degrees 32 minutes South it is 500 kilometres to the south of Stewart Island. At the same latitude in the northern hemisphere lie the temperate European cities of Amsterdam and Berlin, but Campbell Island’s climate is drastically different: it is assailed by constant rain, seldom sees the sun and is regularly lashed by foul winds unimpeded by any land mass. The island was unpopulated and unvisited before its discovery in January 1810 by the Sydney sealer Frederick Hasselborough – obviously a sensible captain in at least some respects, because his was a summertime visit. The island was named in honour of Campbell & Co., the Sydney owners of the vessel Hasselborough sailed in, and the island’s largest inlet, the 5 kilometre-long fissure in the former volcanic cone, is named Perseverance Harbour in honour of the brig. 

The discovery coincided with the uncontrolled exploitation inflicted on New Zealand seal colonies by European sealers, which by about 1810 were severely depleted. Sealers swiftly moved on to hunt remaining colonies in the far south, basing themselves on Campbell Island and the similarly isolated and bleak Macquarie Island, to harvest skins for wealthy markets.

Hasselborough’s discovery of Campbell Island also marked out the island as a dangerous place. For generations in early New Zealand drowning was known as ‘the New Zealand death’ – it was so prevalent – and Campbell was no different. In November 1810 Hasselborough and two others including a woman said to be of Norfolk Island origin, Elizabeth Farr, drowned when a small boat capsized in the harbour. The captain was said to be encumbered when he entered the bitterly cold water, which proved to be deadly:
The weather being somewhat cold, Mr Hasselbourgh had very heavily cloathed himself, and wore a thick Flushing boat cloak, together with a pair of strong high water-boots, the weight of which must have baffled every personal exertion when necessary to his preservation. [Sydney Gazette, 12 January 1811, quoted in Kerr, p.13]
Aside from scientific expeditions, sealing and whaling off and on during the 19th century, from 1896 until 1931 Campbell Island was a rather marginal sheep station, which often struggled to break even.  During World War II the island housed a coast-watching and meteorological station. While no German or Japanese vessels were sighted during the war, the weather station proved particularly useful, and was later augmented by a wide range of scientific equipment, including apparatus to experiment with the ionosphere. One noteworthy event at the station was in January 1965, at the height of the Cold War, when Perseverance Harbour was visited by the Soviet ‘marine research ship’ Gnevny. The station personnel, still presumably all male, were particularly enchanted by the presence of the wife of the ship’s chief scientist, Dr Solyanik; Svetlana Solyanik was particularly beautiful and a former Russian movie star. In later years it became clear that the Soviet Union’s interest in the deep southern waters was far from scientific: rather, Soviet ships were pillaging many thousands of whales every year in complete disregard for international conservation agreements. Researchers Phil Clapham and Yulia Ivashchenko note in a Marine Fisheries Review paper that  ‘the Soviet Union had been plundering the world’s whale populations with abandon since 1947. By the time that the illegal catches finally ended in 1973, the Soviets had killed probably over 200,000 more whales than they had officially reported’.

The manned weather station remained open until 1995, when it was replaced by an automatic station. The island is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, and is now only visited sporadically by research and conservation teams.

See also:

50 Degrees South – Videos: Weather report 10.12.10 / Storm 18.01.11


Anonymous said...

Ethan can you contact me please re your Campbell Island article


Slightly Intrepid said...

Hi Don. If you'd like to leave an email address in the comments I'll drop you a line, and delete the comment to preserve your privacy.