Longitude, those fine lines that run from the top of a map to the bottom, is described as the distance east or west of a standard meridian and is measured in degrees, minutes and seconds. This knowledge was 500 years ago and until the 1790s as esoteric as time travel is today. The sea farers of long ago risked falling off the edge of the world.
They were driven by avarice, possessed by courage and a knowledge of the sea, and they depended on ‘dead reckoning’ to understand the distance east or west of their home port. This was done by the heaving of a log of wood overboard. The captain would observe how quickly his ship sailed away from this bobbing, swirling marker and keep a record of this time in his ‘log book’, checking the direction of his course by a compass or by looking at the stars at night if he could find them. Bearing in mind fickle winds and sea currants, he would work out where in the world he was. A very dangerous business! He could miss his mark, and crash into reefs. He could run out of water and food. Long ocean voyages deprived men of vitamin C, which caused scurvy and terrible death. Lack of knowledge of longitude also caused serious economic problems, especially in times of war, when all shipping was using the known, safe passages or lanes. The quest for longitude was an urgent and desperate issue.
"They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters, these see the works of the Lord, and His wonders in the deep." (Psalm 109)
He snapped the battered Bible shut. The salty wind, more than his eyes could bear, and looked astern towards the Madre de Jesus trailing in his wake. She was a tiny thing on the very edge of the horizon. Above, the sky, a faultless bowl of the purest blue, formed a perfect circle. Around and about, the endless rolling of the waves and a steady south-easterly wind carried him with every ticking minute away. Proof, they say, is an idol before which every mathematician tortures himself. He was a mathematician, and he was in search of truth. He was also an astronomer, and as such felt convinced of the certainty of the stars.
Born in Spain in 1759, he had been described as a handsome, melancholy, learned man, and was by his nature a problem solver. He was endowed with two incompatible qualities - restless imagination and a patient tenacity. He was well known as a scientific navigator and a model Spanish officer, with the rank of vice-admiral. He had been seconded for duty with the expedition formed to fix the longitude of various important points in the Americas in relation to Cadiz. He had been further honoured by being put in charge of that section dealing with the Antilles and Mexico. On the 17th June, 1792, he had sailed from Cadiz with two brigantines. He was 33.
Trinidad de Barlovento, to the windward, appeared to starboard as a low blue smudge of mountains, then a shattered gap of tiny islets, marked 'Boca del Drago', then, from the mainland, a rugged peninsular like a finger, pointing at the island which had the appearance on the chart of a cowhide laid flat. It was square to the points of the compass, having four coastal regions or 'bandes'. Rolling with the pitch of the Atlantic breakers, the brigantines sailed the length of the island's 'bande de l'est', its eastern coast. Seeking the comparatively safe passage of the Columbus Channel, marked Boca de Sierpe, the Serpent's Mouth, and entered the vast and placid Gulfo de Baline, the Gulf of Whales, on the 21st of July. To stand down gently before a refreshing breath to the hamlet marked ‘Porto de los Hispanioles’, named by his parents with some imagination and perhaps an apprehension of his future profession.
He was called Cosmo Damien Churruca. The little habitation on the verge of a vast tropical wilderness contained some warehouses, mud and thatch dwellings, a wooden church, a landing attended by a small redoubt of five guns that was connected to the mainland by a mole or land bridge. It was peopled by a lunatic assortment of foreigners of every possible sort, condition and combination of skin colour, and overflown by huge griffin vultures that had been imported from Spain for the purpose of sanitation.
Riding in the company of the governor to his ‘palace’ along the Plaza del Marina, Churruca noticed a busy commerce and saw many French who appeared to be gentlemen. Don José was also a naval officer of the same rank and age, and within days and in his company he commenced a survey to ascertain the best spot to establish an observatory.
To the east of the town was a low ridge, thickly wooded and known as Laventilla or the Lavant, named for the east winds. This was chosen as the site, and a winding road cut along the rocky ridges led to it. George B. Airy, Great Britain’s sixth astronomer royal, penned these lines in praise of his fellow travelers “who with vigour unequaled, unyielding devotion, surveyed every coast and explained every ocean, in frigid and torrid and temperate zones.
This Churruca did, as his charts attest to this day. With perfect elevations, the four coastlines of the island of Trinidad are faithfully depicted. It was, however, on the slopes of Laventille hill that he made geographical and astronomical history. After testing and standardising his instruments, he observed on the 2nd January with great precision the immersion of the third satellite of Jupiter in the disc of the moon, and also that of the first satellite. This most unwieldy lunar method demanded accurate astronomical observations, and could only be achieved by true genius. From his observations he fixed for the first time an accurate meridian in the New World. On the 28h January, 1793, he dismantled his observatory, and sailed for Spain on the 21st October of that same year. At Cadiz, he made an accurate observation of the entrance of the star of Aldebaran into the disc of the moon with its exit. This, with his observations in January in Trinidad, enabled him to link the New World with the Old and to fix the absolute longitude of the observatory at Laventille, the first point ever so fixed in the New World. Observatory Street in Port of Spain still retains a memory, and the observatory at Laventille, now a police communications post, is called Fort Chacon.