The Rambling Boy
The transit of Venus and famous astronomers
By LONN TAYLOR
A couple of weeks ago I was in a committee meeting in Fort Davis, working with our new school superintendent and a group of teachers to plan the implementation of a new school curriculum next year. One of the other committee members is Marc Wetzel, the education program coordinator at McDonald Observatory. We were trying to set a date for the next meeting, and the superintendent suggested June 5. Wetzel’s face registered absolute horror. “June 5 is the transit of Venus,” he said. “That’s one of the most important astronomical events of this century.” He said it as though it was a foregone conclusion that everyone in room would be occupied watching the transit of Venus that day.
Now, I had heard of the transit of Venus and I even vaguely knew that Captain Cook had discovered Australia while on a voyage to observe the 1769 transit of Venus. What I did not know, until Wetzel explained it to me, was that it occurs when the planet Venus passes between the earth and the sun, so that the planet is visible as a black dot moving across the sun’s surface, and that transits come in pairs eight years apart, separated by gaps of more than a century. The first transit in the current pair took place in 2004; the next one after June 5 will happen in December 2117, so it is not likely that anyone alive today will see it.
In the past, the transits of Venus provided astronomers with an opportunity to calculate the distance from the earth to the sun and thus obtain an improved understanding of the nature of the solar system. The transits of 1761 and 1769 were the subject of an unprecedented international scientific effort, with French, English, and Austrian scientists spreading out all over the world to make observations. For the 1874 and 1882 transits, even more governments got into the act, and in 1882 both the United States and Belgium set up observatories in San Antonio, Texas, which was considered the most desirable place in North America from which to observe the transit.
The Belgian observatory was located on Government Hill, just south of the Quadrangle at Fort Sam Houston, in a tent erected in the back yard of a rented house. The U.S. Naval Observatory telescope was about five hundred yards east, on the grounds of the fort. The man in charge of the three-person Belgian team was Jean-Charles-Hippolyte-Joseph Houzeau de Lahaie, director of the Royal Observatory in Brussels, whose extraordinary personal history included a previous career in Texas and a narrow escape from a lynch mob.
Jean Charles Houzeau, as he was known in America, was born into a noble Belgian family on his father’s estate near Mons in 1820. In his early twenties he developed an interest in astronomy, and published several papers on the subject which earned him an appointment as an assistant at the Royal Observatory. However, he also had an interest in radical politics, and in 1849 he was dismissed from his observatory post for writing revolutionary pamphlets.
For the next twenty-seven years Houzeau lived the life of a moneyed vagabond, someone out of an Alexandre Dumas novel. He first went to France, where he secretly married a working-class girl, then traveled across Europe. In 1857 he decided to visit America and went to New Orleans, where he encountered his first African Americans (the population of New Orleans at that time included 15,000 slaves and 10,000 free blacks). The contrast between American democratic ideals and the reality of slavery that he observed in New Orleans led him to become an abolitionist.
From New Orleans Houzeau went to Texas, arriving in the spring of 1858. For the next four years he wandered over southern and western Texas, working as a surveyor and collecting botanical and geological specimens. When the Civil War started he moved to San Antonio, but his outspoken abolitionist opinions and his association with Unionists got him into hot water with the Confederate authorities, and in March 1862 he fled to Mexico, disguised as a Mexican teamster and using the name Carlos Uzo. From Mexico Houzeau made his way back to New Orleans, by then occupied by Federal troops, and there he became a black man.
Houzeau went to work as the managing editor of the New Orleans Tribune, a daily paper published in French and English by and for the African American community of New Orleans. The Tribune’s masthead declared that it was edited by “men of color,” and while the paper’s owners knew that Houzeau was white, he enjoyed passing himself off as one of New Orleans’s many people of mixed race. He was dark-complexioned and he immersed himself in the world of the city’s well-educated, French-speaking blacks. During the New Orleans race riots in June 1866, in which over a hundred people were killed, Houzeau barely escaped with his life.
Houzeau left New Orleans in 1868 for Jamaica, where he settled on a small farm, growing bananas and publishing books on astronomy. He never planned to return to Europe (he evidently left his French wife behind when he first came to America), but in 1875 the man who had fired him from the Royal Observatory died and King Leopold II asked Houzeau to succeed him director, an offer he accepted. He moved back to Belgium, modernized the observatory, and published his Vade-mecum de l’astronome, a 1,144-page bibliography of astronomy that is still an indispensible guide to the history of the subject. He died in 1888.
Government Hill in San Antonio was full of astronomers, both professional and amateur, on that December day in 1882 when Houzeau set up his telescope. One wonders how many of them knew about the long, winding path that had brought their Belgian colleague to that hillside.
Lonn Taylor is a writer and historian who lives in Fort Davis. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Story filed under: West Texas Talk