Out of diaries: November 1760

In November 1760 two French astronomers set out from Paris to view the transit of Venus from far-flung destinations: thirty-eight-year-old Jean-Baptiste Chappe d’Auteroche began his 4,000-mile journey to Tobolsk in Siberia and forty-eight-year-old Alexandre-Gui Pingré to Rodrigues, a small island in the Indian Ocean not far from Mauritius.

Both were regarded as ‘worthy’ of the honour and the ‘perfect’ candidates for the appointment – or so at least the members of the Académie des Sciences thought. They were certainly brilliant astronomers, but also corpulent and middle-aged – not exactly the epitome of dashing adventurers but they were ready to face the dangers of the long voyages.

Pingré, however, had some second thoughts on the evening before of his departure. The appointment had first ‘extremely flattered’ him, but now his friends’ warnings began to trouble him. They were ‘the first to be frightened about his fate’, Pingré noted in his diary, and therefore tried to convince him that his life was in danger. Suddenly he saw the voyage through different eyes: instead of fame and honour, death and disease might loom. With the whole of Europe in the midst of the Seven Years War, Pingré was risking ‘my liberty, my health, and even my life’.

Despite his worries, Pingré left Paris to catch a boat from Lorient – the headquarters of the Compagnie des Indes – on the coast of Brittany, while Chappe made his way across Europe. From the beginning their journeys were riddled with problems. Only a week after Chappe had departed from Paris, his carriage was already beyond repair. He had to purchase a new one as well as replace his thermometers and barometers which had been damaged in accidents – though luckily his telescopes emerged intact. Meanwhile Pingré was stuck in Lorient where the local agents of the Compagnie complained that he had brought a rather excessive amount of luggage. Outraged, Pingré argued that 700 to 800 pounds of luggage was nothing unusual for an astronomer – they were certainly not travelling lightly.

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