• J.L. Hilton University of KwaZulu-Natal


The science of astronomy has had a long and distinguished history at the Cape of Good Hope (hereafter referred to as “the Cape”). This is no accident, since Cape Town was for many years (since 1652, in fact) the only fortified and inhabited European settlement in the southern hemisphere. Thus when astronomers in The Netherlands, France, and England turned their attention to mapping the southern skies it was to the Cape that they brought their instruments. In addition, the mother city of South Africa is only about eighteen degrees east of the Greenwich meridian in London, so that observations of the skies in London and Cape Town could be made from approximately the same longitude. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, star-gazing was not merely a matter of academic interest; on it depended the accuracy of navigational aids used by the merchant and naval shipping of these and other nations. The interest shown in Cape Town by the British astronomical community is also evident from the construction of the Royal Observatory at the Cape in 1820 by the Admiralty. This observatory was intended to be the counterpart of the Greenwich Observatory in London (Evans 1981a:196; Warner 1995). In addition to this interest in navigational accuracy, the invention of the refracting telescope at the beginning of the seventeenth century provided the means for scientists to make star-maps of the southern skies more accurate and complete. The Dutch astronomer, Peter Kolbe, was sent to the Cape in 1705, and in 1751 a Frenchman, the Abbé De La Caille, also arrived there for this purpose (McIntyre 1951:3-5; De La Caille 1763b). The latter was considerably more successful than the former; he added 9766 stars and 42 nebulae to the celestial catalogue (De La Caille 1763a). Among other things he determined the distance between his Cape observatory in Strand Street and the moon (De La Caille 1751).