Thursday, 11 August 2011

The first meridian of the New World

Fort Chacon is the only fort in the country that was never a fort. Its correct name should be ‘Charruca Observatory’.

But Fort Chacon in Laventille got its name because it was originally built by the last Spanish governor of Trinidad, Don José Maria Chacon in 1792. The governor, however, had this sturdy building erected not to house arms and ammunition, but telescopes and polished lenses. It was always intended as an observatory for the use of Spanish astronomer Don Cosmo Damien Charruca.

On a cloudless dry-season night of the 2nd January 1793, Charruca observed ‘the immersion of the third satellite of Jupiter in the disk of the moon, and also that of the first satellite’. From these cryptic-sounding observations, the Spanish astronomer was able to fix for the first time an accurate meridian in the New World.

Upon returning to Spain, Don Cosmo completed his experiment by observing from Cadiz on the 23rd October 1793 the entrance of the star Aldebaran into the disk of the moon, with its exit. This together with his observations in Trinidad in January of that year, enabled him to link up the New World with the old and to fix an absolute longitude, the first one so fixed in the Americas.

Observatory Street in Port-of-Spain commemorates this remarkable global event, which was so beneficial for navigators forever after.

Don Cosmo, who was born in 1759, married Dona María Dolores Ruiz de Apodaca, a niece of Don Sebastian Ruiz de Apodaca, the Admiral of the Spanish fleet. In 1805 while in command of the ‘San Juan Nepocumeno’, the astronomer was killed at the battle of Trafalgar at the age of only forty-six.

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