Next month I’m taking the RMS ship to St Helena, following the route taken by several members of the Royal Society. This small Atlantic island was originally discovered in 1502-5 during Vasco da Gama’s journey to the East Indies and during the sixteenth century was visited (willingly and unwilling) by travelers as diverse as two teenage Japanese princes en route to visit the Pope and an unlucky follower of Afonso Albuqueque, who was marooned there after defecting to his enemy Prince Khan. It was also the site of what can be described as the first ever ’sci-fi’ novel, Francis Godwin’s 1638 ‘Man in the Moone’. The island passed between Dutch and English settlement before 1673, at which point the East India Company established their ‘government’ there. Edmund Halley visited in 1676 to determine the positions of stars in the northern hemisphere and to observe the transit of Mercury across the sun, for which purpose he built an observatory on the island (1). Halley’s trip to the island was also important for his observations of the magnetic declination of the earth, which would later form the basis of his atlases of the Atlantic and the world as well as making an important contribution to Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica. Perhaps frustrated by having his observations so frequently interrupted by poor weather, Halley also wrote an article about the ‘watery vapours’ on the island, a piece sometimes hailed as an early example of climate environmentalism (2). Halley was followed almost a century later by Dixon and Mason, sent to observe the 1761 transit.
As an important transit point between the Atlantic and Indian Oceans, St Helena was a site for experimentation with agricultural and manufacturing techniques drawn from both worlds: growing different types of rice and wheat as well as coffee, which is still produced on the island. Many of these experiments were drawn from Asia, which remained far ahead of Europe in terms of manufacturing techniques in the seventeenth century (the most obvious example being textiles). Having tried unsuccessfully to persuade some of the Indian inhabitants of Madras to visit and demonstrate the making of indigo, the Company was forced to rely on the experience of their servants of agricultural and manufacturing techniques used in the East and West Indies. The Governor Isaac Pyke was a frequent correspondent of the Society and published a piece in Philosophical Transactions entitled ‘The Making of Mortar at Madras’ (3), which details the technique and his efforts to reproduce it on St Helena. I recently found the manuscript copy of this paper among the manuscripts held in Senate House, along with Pyke’s ‘hydrostatick’ method of calculating the composition of metals. Weighing composite metals in water and air was another frequent obsession of the Society’s during the seventeenth century, the results of these experiments being painstakingly recorded in the Hooke folio. Pyke’s MS alerted me to the practical applications of the method; showing the composition, and thus relative values, of different types of gold and silver coins.
1) Alan Cook. ‘Edmond Halley and the Magnetic Field of the Earth’. Notes Rec. R. Soc. Lond. 55 (3), 473–490 (2001)
2) Edmund Halley. ‘An Account of the Circulation of Watry Vapours of the Sea, and of the Cause of Springs. Philosophical Transactions, 192:17 (1694), 468-73.
3) Isaac Pyke. ‘The Method of Making the Best Mortar at Madras’. Philosophical Transactions, 37 (1731/1732), 231-235.