Item of the Day: A Voyage to California by Mons. Chappe D’Auteroche (1778)

Full Title:  A VOYAGE to CALIFORNIA, to Observe the Transit of Venus. By Mons. Chappe D’Auteroche. With an Historical Description of the Author’s Route Through Mexico, and the Natural History of that Province.  Also, a VOYAGE to Newfoundland and Sallee, to make experiments on Mr. LeRoy’s Time Keepers. By Monsieur De Cassini.  London: Printed for Edward and Charles Dilly, In the Poultry, MDCCLXXVIII.

 I set out from Paris September 18, 1768, for Havre de Grace, where I was to embark.  I was attended by a servant, and by three other persons, who had engaged to go along with me to California, and to share the labours and dangers of so long a voyage.  Mr. Pauly, the King’s Engineer and Geographer, from whose talents I expected great assistance, was to second me in my astronomical and geographical operations:  Mr. Noel, a pupil of the Academy of Painting, was intended for our draughtsman, to take draughts of sea coasts, plants, animals, and whatever we might meet with that was curious:  Lastly, Mr. Dubois, a watchmaker, was intrusted with the care of preserving my instruments, and repairing the little mischiefs they too often sustain in such long voyages.

Whoever considers that prodigious extent of a passage of several thousand leagues, such as I was going to undertake; and reflects that one unlucky moment, the least intervening cloud, might in one day defeat all our hopes, and render fruitless so much toil and expence, will not wonder at my taking these precautions, to draw other advantages from this voyage: that in case we should be so unfortunate as to fail in our main purpose, we might in some measure make amends to the learned world for this loss.  Astronomy, geography, physic, and natural history, were the objects I proposed.  If the apparatus and materials requisite for that purpose were both cumbersome and costly, I was fully repaid by the pleasing hopes of improving my voyage to more purposes than one.

I arrived at havre de Grace on the 21st of September, and found the ship Le Nouveau Mercure, commanded by Captain Le Clerc, ready to sail for Cadiz.  I embarked the 27th with my company and instruments, and we set sail the next day.  We had a very rough passage; a hard gale that we met with north of Cape Finisterre, left the sea very tempestuous for near a week after.  The winds were almost always contrary, so that we were one and twenty days going from Havre to Cadiz, which is commonly done in half the time.

We arrived at Cadiz October 17.  The Spanish fleet which was to convey us to Vera Cruz, had already been in the road a whole month, and seemed ready to sail.  This gave me joy at first, little knowing how distant that departure was, which to me seemed so near; still less did I foresee the difficulties I was to encounter, joined with the tediousness of a delay, which a thousand times made me despair of getting in time to California.

The very moment I landed, I hastened to wait on the governor of Cadiz, the intendant of the navy, and the Marquis de Tilly, general of the fleet. These gentlemen received me with the greatest civility.  Mr. de Tilly having signified to me the orders of his court, by which he was enjoined to take me on board this fleet, with only a watchmaker and a draughtsman, I was in the utmost astonishment to find that no mention was made of Mr. Pauly, my second.  I represented to M. de Tilly that this omission, falling just upon the very man I could least spare, must be merely owing to a mistake:  he was very sensible it was so, and assured me that on his part I should meet with no difficulty in the affair.  But unfortunately, the embarking of the passengers was not wholly in his power; it principally concerned the Marquis de Real Theforo, president of the Contractation, and to him we were to apply.  Then it was that I met with fresh obstacles.

In the orders of the court, communicated by the intendant to the president of the contraction, no mention was made but of me.  the latter consequently, far from allowing Mr. Pauly to attend me, would make out no order but for myself alone, and only one instrument.

. . .

This fresh order from court soon changed the face of affairs.  At last I saw the wished-for moment that had so long deluded my hopes.  A vessel with only twelve hands, was fitted out in a trice.  I was still more expeditious in removing my instruments that were on board the Commodore ship.  The frailty of the vessel I was going to venture in, and on which account some people endeavoured to intimidate me, was in my eyes but one merit the more. Judging of her swiftness by her lightness, I preferred her to the finest ship of the line.  At length we set sail, and at that instant I felt a transport of joy, which was not to be equalled till I landed in California.

I shall not trouble the reader with the journal of our passage from Cadiz to Vera Cruz, as it offers nothing but what is common to all long voyages.  Every kind of weather, calms, storms, winds, sometimes fair, sometimes contrary; such is in few words the history of most voyages; and as to ours, we may add, a continual tossing of our little nut-shell, which was so very light as to be the sport of the smallest wave.

I spent the whole time of our voyage in making physical and astronomical experiments and observations; such as, comparing the height of the different thermometers, some plunged into the sea at different depths, others in open air; I ascertained the declination and inclination of the magnetic needle in different latitudes; lastly, I made several observations relative to the distance of the moon from the stars.  I will not conceal the difficulties I met with when I endeavoured to make use of the megameter for these observations.  I tried several times to use this instrument, and never could succeed but once, when the ship was quite steady; at that time, I got the moon full in the lens, which I never could when the sea was in motion.  Perhaps this was for want of practice; however, I was obliged to have recourse to the octant, which I employed with much more ease and success.  I attempted in vain to observe Jupiter’s satellites with the new telescope proposed to the academy by Abbe Rochon.  Indeed the field of this telescope was rather too small; I saw Jupiter plain enough, but could not see the satellites.

All these trials suggested to me that it will be a hard matter to succeed in inventing instruments of easy use at sea, if they rest upon nothing more than the hand of the observer.  One remark more I shall make on the determination of longitudes by distances of the moon from the stars.  The tedious calculations which this method requires, with the accuracy and attention requisite in the observation itself, make it doubtful to me whether it will ever be fit for the use of trading vessels.  It must be confessed, it requires no small degree of resolution, even in persons best acquainted with these studies, to add to the fatigues of the sea, those of a nice observation, and of the tedious calculations consequent upon it.  This convinces me that the use of time-keepers, from its extreme ease, will be found to be of more general service in the navy; it requires no instruments but what seamen are accustomed to; no nicety is wanted in the observation; lastly the calculation is short and easy; a most important advantage this, in many cases, and particularly at sea.


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Filed under 1770's, California, Natural Science, Posted by Rebecca Dresser, Travel

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