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‘Stargazers at the world's end’: telescopes, observatories and ‘views’ of empire in the nineteenth-century British Empire

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  03 August 2011

JOHN MCALEER*
Affiliation:
Curator of Imperial and Maritime History, National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London, SE10 9NF, UK. Email: jmcaleer@nmm.ac.uk.

Abstract

This article argues that the study of astronomical observing instruments, their transportation around the globe and the personal and professional networks created by such exchanges are useful conceptual tools in exploring the role of science in the nineteenth-century British Empire. The shipping of scientific instruments highlights the physical and material connections that bound the empire together. Large, heavy and fragile objects, such as transit circles, were difficult to transport and repair. As such, the logistical difficulties associated with their movement illustrate the limitations of colonial scientific enterprises and their reliance on European centres. The discussion also examines the impact of the circulation of such objects on observatories and astronomers working in southern Africa, India and St Helena by tracing the connections between these places and British scientific institutions, London-based instrument-makers, and staff at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. It explores the ways in which astronomy generally, and the use of observing instruments in particular, relate to broader themes about the applications of science, the development of colonial identities, and the consolidation of empire in the first half of the nineteenth century. In considering these issues, the article illustrates the symbiotic relationship between science and empire in the period, demonstrating the overlap between political and strategic considerations and purely scientific endeavours. Almost paradoxically, as they trained their sights and their telescopes on the heavens, astronomers and observers helped to draw diverse regions of the earth beneath closer together. By tracing the movement of instruments and the arcs of patronage, cooperation and power that these trajectories inscribe, the role of science and scientific objects in forging global links and influencing the dynamics of the nineteenth-century British Empire is brought into greater focus.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © British Society for the History of Science 2011 

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References

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3 The National Maritime Museum holds an 18.7-inch primary mirror of speculum metal belonging to the twenty-foot telescope (AST0786). This is ‘No. 3’ of three mirrors taken to and brought back from the Cape by Sir John Herschel. The other two are at the Radcliffe Observatory in Oxford and the South African Astronomical Observatory.

4 Herschel, John F.W., Results of Astronomical Observations made during the Years 1834, 5, 6, 7, 8, at the Cape of Good Hope; Being the completion of a Telescopic Survey of the Whole Surface of the Visible Heavens, Commenced in 1825, London: Smith, Elder & Co., 1847, pp. viiviiiGoogle Scholar. Over the course of four years, Herschel identified two thousand new ‘double stars’ and fifteen hundred ‘nebulae’ using the twenty-foot reflector telescope and a small refractor (‘equatorial refractor’) telescope.

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7 For studies that adopt a similar approach, see Bourguet, Marie-Noëlle, Licoppe, Christian and Sibum, H. Otto (eds.), Instruments, Travel and Science: Itineraries of Precision from the Seventeenth to the Twentieth Century, London: Routledge, 2002CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Secord, James A., ‘Knowledge in transit’, Isis (2004) 95, pp. 654672CrossRefGoogle ScholarPubMed; Simon Schaffer, ‘Instruments, surveys and maritime empire’, in David Cannadine (ed.), Empire, the Sea and Global History: Britain's Maritime World, c.1763–c.1840, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmilan, 2007, pp. 83–104.

8 As a term, ‘science’ has been the subject of much scholarly debate. Roberts, See Lissa, ‘Situating science in global history: local exchanges and networks of circulation’, Itinerario (2009) 23, pp. 1930Google Scholar, 28 n. 3. Similarly, the notion of colonial ‘peripheries’ in relation to scientific endeavours has been called into question in much of the recent literature. See, for example, MacLeod, Roy, ‘Nature and empire: science and the colonial enterprise’, Osiris (2000) 15, pp. 113, 6CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

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35 Thomas Maclear to Francis Baily, 20 February 1840, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/29, f. 21.

36 For more on John Lee see Anastasia Filippoupoliti, ‘Spatializing the private collection: John Fiott Lee and Hartwell House’, in John Potvin and Alla Myzelev (eds.), Material Cultures, 1740–1920: The Meanings and Pleasures of Collecting, Aldershot: Ashgate, 2009, pp. 53–69.

37 Thomas Maclear to John Lee, 10 April 1840, Lee family of Hartwell papers, Centre for Buckinghamshire Studies, Aylesbury (subsequently CBS), DLE/H/8/27.

38 Thomas Maclear to George Biddell Airy, 7 June 1840, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/28, f. 224.

39 Quoted in Warner, op. cit. (27), p. 42.

40 Thomas Maclear to George Biddell Airy, 6 May 1839, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/28, f. 149.

41 Thomas Maclear [to George Biddell Airy], 30 September 1839, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/28, f. 151.

42 Weekly Register, 24 December 1849, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/2, f. 80. In this instance, Maclear relied on help from the Royal Navy to transport the instrument back to Britain. Maclear specifically refers to this as ‘Bradley's Sector’. Some sources suggest that Bradley's zenith sector returned to Greenwich in 1839. See Howse, Derek, Greenwich Observatory: The Buildings and Instruments, London: Taylor & Francis, 1975, p. 64Google Scholar.

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47 Extract from public letter from Bombay, 19 July 1815, OIOC, BL, F/4/502/12026, f. 11.

48 John Curnin to the Honourable the Governor in Council, 2 July 1828, OIOC, BL, F/1032/28377, ff. 115–116. At this time, the rate of exchange was roughly one rupee to two British shillings, so the telescope was selling for about £350.

49 John Curnin to Charles Norris, 12 October 1827, OIOC, BL, F/4/981/27686, ff. 81–83.

50 Extract from public letter from Bombay, 5 January 1828, OIOC, BL, F/4/981/27686, f. 2. A note on the file, dated June 1828, confirms that this had been undertaken.

51 Buist, op. cit. (24), p. xli.

52 Bombay Times, 12 August 1848, quoted in Buist, op. cit. (24), p. xxiii.

53 Fearon Fallows [to Francis Baily], 15 June 1822, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/29, ff. 1–2.

54 Thomas Young to John Wilson Croker, 4 July 1822, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/27, ff. 49–50.

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56 Robert Molyneux to William Ronald [1826], RGO, CUL, RGO15/27, f. 69.

57 Thomas Maclear to George Biddell Airy, 4 July 1839, RGO, CUL, RGO15/28, f. 218.

58 This was the 12½-foot zenith sector, made by George Graham, with which James Bradley discovered the aberration of light. It is now in the collection of the National Maritime Museum (AST0992). For further information about the object see Howse, op. cit. (42), pp. 60–64.

59 George Biddell Airy to Francis Beaufort, 31 March 1837, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/28, f. 544, underlining in original.

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85 Hurly, R.F., ‘Thomas Maclear, geodetic surveyor’, Transactions of the Royal Society of South Africa (1995), 50, pp. 6163CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Maclear took a base measured over a period of 158 days, from 30 October 1840 to 5 April 1841. This measured 42,818.75 feet (13,051.14m) in length and, measuring with bars 9 feet long, represents 4,750 individual measurements.

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91 Extract from public letter from Bombay, 19 July 1815, OIOC, BL, F/4/502/12026, ff. 11, 25.

92 Representation of O. Woodhouse [March 1815], OIOC, BL, F/4/502/12026, f. 23.

93 Buist, op. cit. (24), p. xliv.

94 James Dowling Herbert to George Swinton, 5 December 1831, OIOC, BL, F/4/1400/55470, f. 29.

95 James Paton to James Prinsep, 8 September 1831, OIOC, BL, F/502/12026, ff. 24–25.

96 Extract of public letter from St Helena, 19 July 1826, OIOC, BL, F/4/866/22837, paragraph 81.

97 Quoted in Warner, op. cit. (27), p. 8.

98 John Lee to Thomas Maclear, 30 January 1838, CBS, D–LE/H/8/21; ‘Maclear's Account of the Early History of the Cape Observatory’, 1840, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/18, f. 1.

99 For a more detailed discussion of this see McAleer, John, Representing Africa: Landscape, Exploration and Empire in Southern Africa, 1780–1870, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2010, pp. 3358Google Scholar.

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105 In relation to southern Africa, for example, see Keegan, Timothy J., Colonial South Africa and the Origins of the Racial Order, London: Leicester University Press, 1996Google Scholar; Ross, Robert, Status and Respectability in the Cape Colony, 1750–1870: ‘A Tragedy of Manners’, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999CrossRefGoogle Scholar; McKenzie, Kirsten, Scandal in the Colonies: Sydney and Cape Town, 1820–1850, Carlton: Melbourne University Press, 2004Google Scholar.

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107 See MacKenzie, John M., Museums and Empire: Natural History, Human Cultures and Colonial Identities, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2009Google Scholar.

108 Representation of O. Woodhouse [March 1815], OIOC, BL, IOR/F/4/502/12026, f. 25.

109 Kejariwal, op. cit. (25), pp. 163–164.

110 Saul Dubow, ‘Introduction’, in idem, Science and Society in Southern Africa, op. cit. (14), p. 3.

111 Quoted in Warner, op. cit. (32), p. 94.

112 Dunn, op. cit. (16), p. 10.

113 Thomas Maclear [to George Biddell Airy], 22 April 1839, RGO, CUL, RGO/15/28, f. 603.

114 Herschel, op. cit. (4), p. 452.

115 Sir John Herschel, quoted in Ruskin, op. cit. (101), p. 25.

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