Top of page

A map of the eclipse site drawn by meteorologist Cleveland Abbe, in a letter to his wife.
A map of the eclipse site drawn by meteorologist Cleveland Abbe, in a letter to his wife. Sailors at the camp apparently mocked Abbe for removing his shoes and socks and darting around the beach to see the clouds better, resulting in a painful sunburn. Cleveland Abbe to Fanny Abbe, December 27, 1889, Box 8, Cleveland Abbe Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Failing to See: The United States Eclipse Expedition to West Africa

Share this post:

Introduction

Shortly after taking office as Secretary of the Smithsonian, Samuel Langley described a total solar eclipse as a “spectacle… which, though the man of science may prosaically state the facts, perhaps only the poet could render the impression.” Eclipses, in other words, demand to be seen. That doesn’t mean we all see the same things when we look at them.

By the 1880s, powerful nations were throwing resources at elaborate eclipse expeditions, journeys that transported scientists to the far ends of the earth so they could observe the phenomenon for themselves and then “state the facts” about what they saw. As historian Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes, these voyages were shaped by the growth of astrophysics and eclipse photography, but also by “imperial expansion, transfers of technological systems to colonial territories, the development of tourism and colonial culture, and ideas about colonized peoples.” Official eclipse expeditions of the time were well-funded, often militarized adventures in the age of high imperialism, part tourist voyage and part scientific fieldwork. One expedition, to view an eclipse as it passed over coastal Angola in December 1889, shows those intersections of science and militarism, fieldwork and tourism in particularly vivid terms, and holds important lessons about scientific failure.

The Pensacola expends unused munitions on the journey home, near the island of St. Helena.
The Pensacola expends unused munitions on the journey home, near the island of St. Helena. From Eben Loomis, An Eclipse Party in Africa.

“Astronomically the Expedition Was… a Flop.”

The U.S.S. Pensacola was a massive warship from another age, a vessel commissioned just before the Civil War and described by one of the expedition’s scientists as “an old wooden tub.” The ship may have paled in comparison with the ironclads of the day, but she did offer the advantage of size: big enough for twelve tons of astronomical equipment and a scientific group that included astronomers, naturalists, photographers, technicians, a meteorologist, botanist, terrestrial physicist, linguist, and anthropologist. Also aboard were more than 400 sailors, marines, and officers, and an arsenal that ran from Hotchkiss and Gatling guns to muzzleloading and breechloading cannons, some dating from the Civil War era. On October 16, 1889, the ship passed beneath the Brooklyn Bridge, bound for the Angolan coast.

Eclipse expeditions were fragile things, their months of planning always contingent on a cloud not drifting in front of the sun at the critical moment. So the expedition’s leader, astronomer David Todd, hedged his bets, bringing along some scientists who were barely interested in the eclipse at all. Naturalists (and brothers) William and Arthur Brown planned to collect plant and animal specimens for the Smithsonian, more in the vein of big game hunters than biologists, and declared themselves especially eager to shoot a hippopotamus. E. D. Preston aimed to study the Earth’s magnetism for the U.S. Coast Survey, and to swing pendulums at points all along the expedition’s route. Linguist Heli Chatelain wanted to gather traditional African stories. Meteorologist Cleveland Abbe kept his head in the clouds, eventually publishing his findings in an article entitled “Cloud Observations at Sea.” Even the astronomers had a plan B, with Todd adapting an old pipe organ, an equatorial mount, and an automated series of cameras and telescopes into an invention he called a “photoheliograph,” one which could be reused in a future eclipse.

Assistant naturalist Arthur Brown describes riddling a hippopotamus with bullets, only for it to get away.
Assistant naturalist Arthur Brown describes riddling a hippopotamus with bullets, only for it to get away. Brown and his older brother William decided not to return home, instead becoming minor figures in the early history of Rhodesia (present-day Zambia and Zimbabwe). A. H. Brown Journal, December 26, 1889, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

Armed to the teeth and laden with scientific equipment, from tiny containers that would house the naturalists’ insect collection to five prefabricated buildings that would house the astronomers, the Pensacola’s scientific and military contingents collided almost immediately. Gossipy newspaper accounts later quoted sailors who saw scientists seemingly baffled by their own unassembled instruments. Especially puzzling was meteorologist Cleveland Abbe, who repeatedly set his “toy balloons” adrift at sea for no reason the sailors could discern, and seemed to spout ivory tower nonsense about weather patterns that ran counter to their own experience. One officer noted, more diplomatically, that the mutual misunderstandings merely resulted from academics who “naturally felt themselves entitled to as many privileges on board a man-of-war as on a passenger steamer” and displayed a general unfamiliarity with naval manners and customs. In fact, the scientists relied on the military for transportation and security no less than America’s navy relied on scientific research to map the world and help them navigate it.

Finally putting in at the Angolan capital of Luanda, the Pensacola deposited a contingent of academics and then continued south to Cabo Ledo, a stunning beach with “fine, snow-white sand… sweeping in a grand curve” from a “bold promontory” to the southwest. There they found British astronomer Albert Taylor, whose camp’s modesty was belied by the massive gunboat lying offshore, the H.M.S. Bramble. The Americans began transporting their tons of equipment through the surf. Three weeks later, one observed that the camp resembled a “thrifty mining town.”

In the meantime, though, scientist and sailor alike were on edge, each imagining himself a bold adventurer in a treacherous land. They had, in fact, sited their eclipse camp in a region outside de facto Portuguese control in Angola, one controlled instead by the Kisama people, a group long resistant to Portuguese rule. The scientists, in letters, journals, and publications, recorded their repeated dismissals of the Kisama as people good enough to trade with but not a source of knowledge about land or sky. The sailors, misinterpreting a meteor for a danger signal, stormed the beach one night in an armed frenzy, only to retreat when they discovered nothing was amiss. One recorded the arrival of the marines in verse:

Then was placed upon the hillside

With their arms a few marines,

To guard against the natives,

Who disliked Europeans.

Peace on the beach was maintained, but little communication was had.

When the eclipse finally came, on December 22, the sky happened to be cloudy. A few minutes later, totality had passed. While some scientists put on a brave face, even Todd later admitted that, astronomically, the expedition was “a ‘flop.’” The New York Times reported the failure as “crushing,” casting a “perfect gloom” over the ship’s wardroom for days. The scientists, sent thousands of miles to observe, had seen nothing. Of the plain facts of the eclipse, they had little to show. Of its poetry, even less. And more bad news awaited them on their return: a spate of negative press coverage, and accusatory letters from one of the nation’s most prominent astronomers, including an allegation that astronomer Eben Loomis had stolen a diamond.

Astronomer Simon Newcomb accuses Eben Loomis of stealing a diamond acquired during one of the expedition’s later stops in South Africa.
Astronomer Simon Newcomb accuses Eben Loomis of stealing a diamond acquired during one of the expedition’s later stops in South Africa. Loomis wrote back to profess his shock and hurt at the allegation. Newcomb to Loomis, October 20, 1890, Box 57, Simon Newcomb Papers, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

African Cultural Astronomy

As Alex Soojung-Kim Pang notes, Victorian eclipse expeditions tended not to record the “experiences of eclipse-watching” from Indigenous points of view. “This is especially unfortunate,” he writes, “for a comparison of the experiences of watching an eclipse – and of watching members of another culture watch an eclipse – would have been interesting.” In this case, we have only the typical assumptions, as with Eben Loomis’s observation that not one of the Kisama, the “lookers-on at our preparations,” would have had a “remote idea of the approaching phenomenon.” Loomis, of course, had no way to know whether this was true, because he did not ask.

Kisama people visit the eclipse camp at Cabo Ledo, 1889.
Kisama people visit the eclipse camp at Cabo Ledo, 1889. From Eben Loomis, An Eclipse Party in Africa.

But elsewhere in Angola, the linguist Heli Chatelain, then far upriver from the city of Luanda, was collecting traditional stories of the Ambundu people, including one epic account of a hero named Kimanaueze, who dreamed of marrying the daughter of the sun and moon. In Chatelain’s version, Kimanaueze teams up with a trickster frog, who fools the sun and moon into sending their daughter to Earth. There, the two marry. The story places humans, animals, and celestial bodies on the same plane, imaging gods on Earth and humans in space. It’s a story about the poetry of the sky world, and the depth of human relationships and ambitions. Perhaps further inquiry would have revealed Indigenous knowledge about eclipses as well.

Scientific failures can be damaging, not only to the egos of the scientists involved but to society at large, when science results in harm to communities or just leads to missed opportunities. But one of the virtues of a scientific failure is that it can often be corrected through more and better science. On March 29, 2006, another eclipse passed over Africa, through Ghana, Togo, Benin, and Nigeria. This time, some of the astronomers who converged in West Africa decided to hold the Ghana Eclipse Conference, the first meeting held in Africa dedicated to “the eclipse traditions of Africans.” That work continues. Researchers looking for documentation of the eclipse expeditions of the past, however, will find that there’s a great deal to see in the Library’s collections.

 

Do you want more stories like this? Then subscribe to Unfolding History – it’s free!

 

“Samuel Langley described…” Samuel Langley, The New Astronomy (Boston: Ticknor and Company, 1888), 38.

“Alex Soojung-Kim Pang writes…” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, “The Social Event of the Season: Solar Eclipse Expeditions and Victorian Culture,” Isis 84, no. 2 (June 1993), 254.

“The U.S.S. Pensacola was…” William Harvey Brown, On the South African Frontier: The Adventures and Observations of an American in Mashonaland and Matabeleland (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1899), 2.

“Also aboard were…” A. H. Brown Journal, October 13, 1899, Miscellaneous Manuscripts Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

“declared themselves…” Eben J. Loomis, An Eclipse Party in Africa: Chasing Summer Across the Equator in the U.S.S. Pensacola (Boston: Roberts Brothers, 1896), 38.

“Especially puzzling was…” “Science on a Man-Of-War: Tars Having Their Fun with the Learned Professors,” The Sun, May 21, 1890.

“One officer noted…” “Return of the Pensacola: End of the Famous African Eclipse Expedition – Why the Observations Failed – The Trouble Between the Officers of the Ship and the Scientists,” New York Times, May 24, 1890.

“a stunning beach…” Loomis, Eclipse Party, 42.

“Three weeks later…” Loomis, Eclipse Party, 46.

“sited their eclipse camp…” Joel Beckles and Deborah A. Kent, “Eclipsed by History: Underrecognized Contributions to Early British Solar Eclipse Expeditions,” Royal Society Journal of the History of Science (2023), 15.

“One recorded…” Herman S. Davis, A Seven Months Cruise Among the Islands of the Atlantic and Along the West Coast of Africa in a Man-Of-War (Dover, Delaware: The State Sentinel, 1890), 18.

“even Todd later admitted…” David Todd, “Automatic Photography of the Sun’s Corona,” Popular Astronomy 41, no. 6 (June-July 1933), 311.

“The New York Times reported…” “Return of the Pensacola,” New York Times.

“This is especially unfortunate…” Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Empire and the Sun: Victorian Solar Eclipse Expeditions (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2002), 3.

“Eben Loomis’s observation…” Loomis, Eclipse Party, 59.

“In Chatelain’s version…” Heli Chatelain, Folk-Tales of Angola (New York: Houghton, Mifflin and Company, 1894), 18.

“This time…” Jarita C. Holbrook, “Chasing the Shadow of the Moon: the 2006 Ghana Eclipse Conference” in African Cultural Astronomy: Current Archaeoastronomy and Ethnoastronomy Research in Africa (Berlin: Springer, 2008), 4.

Add a Comment

This blog is governed by the general rules of respectful civil discourse. You are fully responsible for everything that you post. The content of all comments is released into the public domain unless clearly stated otherwise. The Library of Congress does not control the content posted. Nevertheless, the Library of Congress may monitor any user-generated content as it chooses and reserves the right to remove content for any reason whatever, without consent. Gratuitous links to sites are viewed as spam and may result in removed comments. We further reserve the right, in our sole discretion, to remove a user's privilege to post content on the Library site. Read our Comment and Posting Policy.


Required fields are indicated with an * asterisk.