Manila Observatory Part Two -The Eclipse and Death of the King of Siam

Track of thme 18 Augvust 1968 eclipse

The total eclipse of August 1868 was known as “The King of Siam’s eclipse” because amateur astronomer King Mongkut/Rama IV of what is now Thailand and an predicted it two years in adgvance withm gvreater accurancy than European scientists. The event was a truly international effort. Angelo Secchi was to head an expedition to the East Indies, and nine others were organised: two French, one in India and one in Siam; two German, in Aden and India; three English, in India and Celebes,today Sulawesi; one Austrian in Aden; and one Dutch, also in Sulawesi.

Not to be left out, Father Pedro Bertran, Prefect of Studies at the Ateneo, decided to launch an expedition consisting of Frederico Faura, Jaime Nonell and Juan Ricart. Betran got the support of Manila City Council and other government offices which were to rustle up funds and a Spanish Navy warship to transport them and their instrument to the necessary location. Assured of support, Betran ordered sets of instruments from Paris.


In an all-too-familiar tale of short-sightedness, the press took a dislike to the project, Manila City Council removed its support and the Spanish Navy walked away. But the stars smiled on the effort.

Federico Faura in later years featured in a commemorative stamp. He was not yet thirty when he put the Manila Observatory on the scientific World map.

As Bertran tried to figure out his next step, the Manila Observatory had a visitor. His name was Captain Charles Bullock of the warship HMS Serpent as provisioning in Manila on its way to Australia. As it happened, Bullock had been given orders to observe the eclipse en route.

After Bertran explained his own situation, Bullock agreed to carry the Manila Observatory team, help them with their observations, and leave them at what is now Ambon Island in Indonesia.

Quickly. The Jesuits got their gear together and on the morning of 5 August, 1868, HMS Serpent got underway. It took on coal at Iloilo, then called at Basilan for more bunkers. There was yet another hiccup at Basilan – there weren’t enough labourers to complete loading the coal on schedule.

The clock was ticking – lack of manpower would not pause celestial mechanics.

It looked as though the expedition was doomed to failure, but on the evening of 12 August the ship got underway again. With six days to go, if everything went smoothly, they could land on Taliabu and set-up in time.

But fortune had another card up its sleeve. When HMS Serpent reached the northeast end of Celebes its engine failed. Like most engine-powered ships of the time the vessel was equipped with sails but the winds were unfavourable so they could not be used.

As the observatory team fretted and again faced failure, the ship’s engineers worked to repair the problem. Finally, HMS Serpent was powered up. The would not be time to reach Taliabu so instead, on the evening of 16 August, HMS Serpent anchored off Mentawatu-kiki Island, less than a kilometre across, in the Gulf of Tomin.

At one end of the island was a sandy point where Faura, Nonell and Ricart, with some of the set up three rows of equipment: the first with two cameras, the second of a couple of telescopes and the third with a specialised scope to measure solar flares or ‘protuberances’ with a camera attached. Along with these were other cameras and a table for chronometers, extremely accurate time pieces that enabled accurate time records, results to be synchronised between the expeditions as well as provide pinpoint accuracy on the location where the observations were made.

Not mentioned among the Jesuit equipment is a camera obscura although one was used and may have come from the HMS Serpent. This is basically a pin-hole camera that can be the size of a room. Light comes through a tiny hole in one wall which projects an image on the other. The variety projects the pin-hole image onto a circular table top. In its simplest incarnation it is just a piece of card with a pinhole held over as piece of paper and still used to observe eclipses by schoolchildren the world over.

Meanwhile, HMS Serpent landed an unusual variety of equipment which included a cow, a dog, a cat, some chickens, a couple of geese and a grey parrot.

Shortly after noon on 18 August with a light haze in the sky a bite appeared on the Sun. Over time the bite grew bigger as the Moon moved over the Sun’s disc. Soon there was a brilliant crescent in the sky and darkness fell. Then the Moon was encircled by a bright ring with the last bit of sun peeking at one edge, looking like a diamond ring.

Sketch of the eclipse creditted  to Captain Charles Bullock of HMS Serpent.

But as totality approached, the camera recording the protuberances that would become visible when the Moon obscured the Sun entirely failed. One of the British warship’s engineers stepped in and used the camera obscura to traced the shapes of the Sun’s protuberances, producing a sketch which became part of the Manila Observatory records.

One of the Serpent’s chickens put its head under its wing and went to sleep. Another chicken went on fossicking in the sand. A flock of pigeons went to roost in the trees. Moths fluttered and the crickets went silent.

The Moon moved on, repeating the cycle in reverse – them diamond ring then crescent and ever decreasing bites of the Sun as daylight returned until the bright disc was whole and the Moon invisibly continued its orbit.

The sleeping chicken woke up startled.

At that time in Madras, India, French scientist Pierre Janssen noticed a bright yellow line in the spectrum of light coming from the Sun. It showed the presence of an element unknown on Earth, which was later named Helium, from the Greek name for the Sun ‘Helios’.
King Mongkut got credit for his accurate prediction but pay-back was in October 1868, the next month, when he died of malaria contracted during his observations of the eclipse.

Frederico Faura, Jaime Nonell and Juan Ricart must have been very relieved to have completed their mission by the skin of their Jesuit teeth. And with the British officers of HMS Serpent they had, by chance, constituted the first international expedition in the observatory’s history.

Charles Bullock and the Jesuits exchanged notes and observations about the eclipse and there was a splendid banquet.

The gathered data would be of little value unless the Jesuits could get home so on 24 August they began yet another adventure.
After a stop at Garontalo on Sulawesi they disembarked HMS Serpent at Ambon Island on 5 September. They took passage on the brigantine Wilhelmina, leaving Amboina on 13 September and stayed ten days, on Timor. Leaving Timor on 26 September on a sailing ship them winds died and they were becalmed and carried by currents into the Sape strait between Flores and Sumbawa and narrowly escaped
shipwreck on coral reefs. At Macassar they transferred to the steamer Menado and after a stop at Surabaya landed at Singapore. T

From Signgvapore Faura sent reports of the expedition to Europe, one to Father Secchi of the Vatican Observatory and one to the Director of the Royal Observatory in Madrid.

Next they made it to Hong Kong and arrived in Manila on 20 November aboard the Gravina.

Soon the Secchi Universal Meteorograph arrived. It was in pieces and there were no assembly instructions. Faura rolled up his sleeves and got to work solving the puzzle of how to put the machine together.

Thme next few years would be as challenging,hazardous and rough as the beast Faura sought to understand – the typhoon. The Manila Obervatory’s reputation was to come under fierce attack.

Ngv up: Through The Eye of the Typhoon.

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