Book of the month: May – The transits of Venus

Chasing Venus
Andrea Wulf

My book choices often seem to lead from one to another, and in this case it was Mason and Dixon who set me off on the trail of the 1761 and 1769 transits of Venus.

The transits were important because they would allow the measurement of the distance between the Sun and the Earth by comparing measurements of the transit time from different parts of the Earth whose locations could also be measured – a fact which had been predicted and advertised by Edmond Halley almost 50 years earlier. Closer to the time, a French astronomer called Joseph-Nicolas Delisle took charge of the operation, with international cooperation – and competition – seeing observers sent to St Helena, the Cape of Good Hope (having failed to make it to Bencoolen), Rodrigues, India, Scandinavia, Siberia, St Petersburg and Newfoundland – only the end of the transit being visible across most of Europe, and none of it across most of North America.

None of the records were as accurate as the organisers and observers had hoped – as well as troubles with clouds, accurate timekeeping, disagreements and onlookers crowding the observatories, the entrance and exit on Venus on the face of the sun were not the clear events which had been hoped – the planet seemed to change shape and ‘stick’ to the edge of the sun, as well as being surrounded by a shimmering halo that was the first definite sign that Venus had an atmosphere similar to Earth’s.

With 8 years between pairs of transits, the observers now had time to try to fix these problems before their second attempt. It was this transit which saw James Cook dispatched to Tahiti – it having been realised that the greatest contrast in timings would be between northern Scandinavia and the South Seas – and it also saw both Russia and North America eager to play a greater part in scientific endeavours. It was these measurements which led to a measurement of the distance of the sun accurate to within 3%, and the various travels required for the measurements also led to discoveries in botany, mapping and other sciences.

The only problem with this book was that there were just so many people to keep track of – at times I found myself longing for a straightforward account of the French, or Russian, or British attempts, rather than jumping between them all. But in general the book was a lovely mix of science and voyages, and I really enjoyed it.


Books of the month: March and April – Persuasion and Mansfield Park

Northanger Abbey
Jane Austen

For some reason, although I had read the other five main Austen books, and all sorts of naval fiction, I had never read Persuasion, which in a way is both. Having finally got round to it, I did enjoy it very much, although I ended up feeling that I didn’t know nearly as much about the main characters, or their relationship, as I did about the many minor characters, all of whom seemed to be sketched in far more vividly.

From the Age of Sail point of view, I enjoyed seeing the busy, friendly, competent world of the naval officers and their families – the Harvilles and Captain Benwick and their open hospitality – ‘so unlike the usual style of give-and-take invitations, and dinners of formality and display’ – and the network of naval acquaintances in Bath, which is quite clearly the inspiration for the similar naval world of the Patrick O’Brian novels.

I hadn’t set out to read an Age of Sail book in April, but Persuasion having sent me off on an Austen kick again, I realised that I’d forgotten how much of the navy there was in Mansfield Park.

As with so many things in this book, this includes the darker side of the navy – Fanny’s rough Marine lieutenant father, and the Crawfords’ Admiral uncle who takes his mistress to live with him – but the navy still manages to produce one of the kinder and more effective characters of the book, in Fanny’s lieutenant brother, and the most promising of her younger brothers is also going to sea. And it’s interesting to get a comtemporary view of Portsmouth.

Throwback – Abbotsford

Abbotsford and the Tweed

Prowling round the Borders the way I’ve been doing takes me inevitably back to Walter Scott, who I think tends to be overlooked as a Georgian writer now because he wrote so little about his own times, but who was definitely one of the most famous writers of the period – although during the wars it would have been his poetry, because his first novel,  Waverley, wasn’t published until 1812.

He bought and began to rebuild the house at Abbotsford near Melrose in 1811 – as Sheriff for Selkirkshire he was required to live for part of the year within the shire, and had earlier leased a house at Ashestiel, but he also had strong family links to the Borders, and had spent part of his childhood on his grandparents’ farm near Kelso.

It started off just as a farmhouse, but ended up as quite an impressive – if eclectic – building.


Scott’s interest in local history also shows up in the house, which has stonework from older buildings built into the walls.

Old stones
Old stones
The garden

Waterloo monument – Peniel Heugh

Waterloo Monument

I made a short detour from the Borders Abbeys Way this weekend to walk up to the Waterloo Monument on Peniel Heugh, a few miles north of Jedburgh. It’s a distinctive sight from quite a long way around – I first became aware of it while walking St Cuthbert’s Way a few years ago.

Peniel Heugh from the Borders Abbeys Way

Up close it’s still pretty impressive, although it was obviously made to be seen from a distance – the gallery was a later addition.

The momunent
Location plaque

The dedication reads ‘To the Duke of Wellington and the British Army William Kerr VI Marquis of Lothian and his tenantry dedicate this monument XXX June MDCCCXV’, but it was actually built between 1817 and 1824, after an earlier monument begun in 1815 collapsed.


Collingwood Society: The Great Mutinies


The last Collingwood Society meeting of the year was a talk by Tony Barrow on the great mutinies at Spithead and the Nore in 1797.

The talk started with the display of a contemporary cartoon depicting the mutiny at the Nore – showing an unusually critical view of sailors, who were more often shown as hard working heroes, but also suggesting that the real cause of the mutinies was provocation by radical politicians. And it’s this question of whether the mutinies really were a spontaneous response to naval conditions, or something far more political, that is still interesting people today.

There had been several single ship mutinies in the years leading up to 1797 – notably the famous mutiny on the Bounty, and a mutiny on Culloden where the crew refused to put to sea in a ship they believed to be unseaworthy, where a promise of a pardon for the mutineers had been reneged on. Later in 1797 there was also a notorious incident where the crew of the Hermione had revolted against a tyrannical captain and turned the ship over to the Spanish.

To some extent this was an artefact of the growth of the navy, with wartime manning problems meaning that sailors were turned over from ship to ship as they were needed, instead of staying with a captain they knew well, as in earlier days – Nelson seems to have believed that the main problem was this habit of keeping men without ever letting them ashore to their homes and families, while Collingwood believed that the main problem was with men who should never have become officers, who ‘endeavouring to conceal, by great severity, their own skilfulness and want of attention, beat the men into a state of insubordination’.

The two great mutinies were very different in some ways, although they were so close in time, and superficially similar in their demands.

The demands of the first mutiny, at Spithead, were essentially about pay and conditions – they asked for a rise in the basic wage, which hadn’t changed in more than a century, for the abolition of the ‘purser’s pound’s, which meant that for every pound of provisions bought, 14 ounces went to the ship and 2 ounces to the purser himself, and for the removal of some specific unpopular officers – and their demands were met. It was very well organised, with delegates sent from each ship, and no ringleaders ever discovered – and relatively peaceful, with the men themselves providing discipline as necessary. None of the delegates were punished, and several were later promoted – but the mutiny lasted the time it did partly because it wouldn’t end until a royal pardon had been obtained for everyone involved.

The mutiny at the Nore was quite different from the start – instead of taking place within a settled fleet, the Nore was a place where ships – and men – regularly came and went. It had leaders who not only were named by others but claimed the position for themselves, and it quickly turned violent – as well as setting out to blockade merchant shipping into London, where the Spithead mutiny had only affected naval movements. As well as asking for the concessions granted at the Nore to be applied to all sailors – which had already been agreed – they were asking for all sailors to be given leave to visit their homes after they came into port, for pressed men to be given two month’s advance on their pay, and for changes to the distribution of prize money and to the Articles of War – still things which concerned the sailors’ wellbeing, but were arguably more political as well. This second mutiny ended not only with the refusal of the requests, but with executions and other punishments.

Various groups have been blamed for stirring up unrest on board, particularly the United Irishmen and the recently introduced quota men – either that malcontents were being sent on board for their counties to get rid of them or that saboteurs were deliberately being sent within their numbers – but there is no evidence that either group was involved disproportionately, although by this time a fairly large proportion of seamen were Irish. Tony’s own contribution seems to have been looking at the number of men from the north east involved, and the idea that they brought an early form of trade unionism with them – we were shown a broadsheet circulated on the Tyne earlier in the decade listing many of the same grievances over naval conditions.

Later writers have also disagreed on the basic reason for the mutinies – as we’ve seen, at least some contemporaries believed that it was being stirred up by radicals in the background, but the first historical account (from the 1840s) believed it to be essentially about the conditions. Later left-wing historians present it as essentially political, complaining about it being shown as a parochial affair of ships biscuits. Later again, writers seem to have shown the influence of both elements – we were left to make up our own minds!

Book of the month: November – George Vancouver

I didn’t have any particular idea about what I wanted to read in November, but at some point I was back to North America – eastern Canada, originally, but I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to know about – and then I remembered Vancouver and the west coast. So this was a spur of the moment buy for the content, rather than a book or author that particularly appealed to me.

Vancouver first comes into history as an officer’s servant and then midshipman on Cook’s voyages – first to the Antarctic circle, where he was briefly the most southerly person in the world, and then to the Pacific coast of America to search for a Northwest Passage. Returning from this voyage, he passed his lieutenants exam and spent time first in the Channel and then in the West Indies, where he gained experience of surveying.

Early 1791 saw him setting off for North West America again (via the Cape of Good Hope and New Zealand) as commander of the Discovery (not Cook’s ship but a successor), both to carry out the coastal surveys which Cook’s voyage had not had time for, and to settle Spanish claims to land in the region. Although many of his officers proved themselves and went on to successful future careers, two in particular were to cause him problems – Archibald Menzies, appointed as botanist to the expedition with orders to report back to Sir Joseph Banks any ‘obstructions’ to his researches, who later became Discovery‘s surgeon, and midshipman Thomas Pitt (later Lord Camelford), who had already been refused a certificate of service from his last ship, but seemed to feel that his birth counted for more than his actions.

Most of the book is a straightforward (and very chronological) account of the coastal surveys, and the various events and encounters which took place during them – meetings with local natives, with Spaniards and with whalers, and various accidents with the ships. The surveys went well in spite of this, but other things were not so successful – Vancouver was ill for a large part of the voyage, found himself turned away from Spanish ports on the west coast of America when refitting one winter, and eventually found himself superceded in the negotiations over Nootka Sound – at which point he decided to head for home, war having now broken out with France.

Sadly, things weren’t any better for him at home – not only were Menzies and Banks causing trouble, but Pitt (now Lord Camelford), who had eventually been sent home in disgrace, was causing even more, attempting to call Vancouver out over the discipline he had been subject to as a midshipman, and stirring up the press in his ownfavour. Worn out by illness and his other troubles, Vancouver died aged 40 in 1798, just after finishing his account of his voyage.

As a book, I found it a bit uneven – written by someone to obviously knew a great deal about Vancouver’s life, but without that sense of deep background knowledge that you get from a real expert. But as a story it was fascinating.