Sometime in late 1676 Edmund Halley left Oxford and set sail for St. Helena, an island in the south Pacific. There he hoped to accomplish two projects. First, he wanted to compile a catalog the stars in the southern sky, which would complement John Flamsteed’s catalog of norther stars. Second, Halley wanted to observe the transit of Mercury, which would occur the following year, so that he could calculate the distance between the earth and the sun. Thanks to the support of King Charles II, who wrote a letter to the East India Company asking them to take Halley to St. Helena, Halley sailed south and arrived on St. Helena around March, 1677. He set up his instruments and spent the rest of the year observing the heavens, cataloging 341 stars in the process. In 1678 shortly after he returned to England, he published his star catalog, Catalogus stellar australium.
A letter Halley wrote in late November 1677 while still on St. Helena is fascinating for what it suggests about his time on the island and the personal conflicts that threatened his reputation. He found life on the island pleasant and boasted that the “air was so agreeable to English bodies” that scarcely anybody could get sick. Far from being uninhabitable, as the ancients had supposed islands in the torrid zone would be, he found the climate more pleasing than England’s. He did, however, complain about the frequent cloud cover that prevented him from carrying out his observations. Although he doesn’t mention it in this letter, just a couple weeks earlier he was lucky enough to have clear skies when he observed the transit of Mercury. Halley also complained about the Deputy Governor, a Mr. Beall. The two did not seem to get along. According to Halley, Mr. Beall was “the most Malicious person” he had met and had “abused [him] in the basest manner imaginable.” Mr. Beall disparaged Halley to commanders and other people on the island. Here is a full transcription.
St Helena November 21, 1677
The honour you have done me, in taking notice of that acquaintance, which the community of our studies contracted, when I might well have been forgotten, through ye long absense I suffered from you, together with that extraordinary favour I [received] from you, by the [letter] you were pleased to send me in the Downs, makes me believe that the newes of my welfare will not be unacceptable to you; these therefore may informe you that ever since my departure, I have enjoyed my health, as well or rather better than in England, both on the sea, and in the Island, the air whereof is so agreeable to English bodies, that the greatest intemperance will scarce make a man sick, so that of near upon three hundred people that are on the Island, there hath been but one died of any distemper in the eight month time that I have been here; The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not inhabitabilis estu but even under the line the heat doth not exceed temperature; and had I the company and accommodations here that England affords, I should prefer a habitation here where neither heat nor cold infest us, I can find no fault with the Island, but only that it is not favourable to my purpose for we are almost continually covered with clouds, which hinder us from the sight of the starrs, sometimes for six weeks togather, so that I am almost persuaded, I must returne without the full accomplishment of my intents, [which] will be the greatest trouble to me, that can possibly happen, by reason I shall give the world cause to judg hardly, and censure me for failing in a thing I had undertaken, but to all those that know me, I have the confidence to think, that it will not be attributed either to want of skill or endeavour that I am so unfortunate; In the mean time I doubt not but your Mathematicall Studies make a better progress, under the Conduct of Mr Colson, who I believe will make good the Character I gave you of him; and I hope I shall find you well advanced in Algebra by my return which will be as I suppose in Aprill, for I have not the least encouragement to stay here, being quite in despair of weather for my purpose, and being troubled by one Beall ye Deputy Governour who is the most Malicious person I ever conversed with, and who has abused me in the basest manner Imaginable, and disparages me to all the commanders that come here, making them believe that I conceale my inabilitie, to perform my business, under pretence that the clouds hinder me, which aspersion may gain credit with those who know me not, and do me some injurie among his friends: I pray remember my respects to your friends whom you made me known to viz: Mr Boles and Mr Donne whom you may certifie of my welfare: So wishing you all health and happiness I remain
Sr Your ever assured friend & [servant]
At one point Halley seems to paraphrase book one of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, on the origin of the earth. There Ovid says the torrid zone is not inhabitable because of the excessive heat, “Quarum quae media est, non est habitabilis aestu.” Halley rephrases it, saying “The Island lies in the Torrid Zone as it pleased the ancients to call it, but I assure you it is not _inhabitabilis estu_….” It is unclear whether or not Halley knew this quotation directly from Ovid or if he knew of it through some other text, e.g., Sacrobosco’s De sphaera. By the 13th century Sacrobosco’s text included these lines from Ovid. The quotation became a standard feature of Sacrobosco’s text in the print tradition. See, for example, the late 15th-century edition printed in Venice or the late 16th-century edition also printed in Venice.
Whatever Halley’s source, it seems odd that in the late 17th century anybody still bothered to mention the ancient worry that the torrid zone was uninhabitable.
This letter is in Haverford’s Quaker and Special Collections, it is part of a large collection of autographed letters. It was the subject of a short post a few years back: Edmond Halley letter streaks across our imagination. ↩