Following Jeffrey Stokes's visit to Point Venus in 2005 [see Cook's Log, page 34, vol. 29, no. 3 (2006)], in 2007 we popped over to Tahiti to have a look at the place where Lieutenant Cook set up his observatory to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun. With present day transport it took us forty four hours from Yorkshire, easily beating Cook's time in the Endeavour of seven and a half months! We did choose a different route though, and stayed overnight in Los Angeles.
Matavai Bay was one of the must-see places on our visit. We arrived there on a sunny afternoon with clouds clinging to the volcanic heart of the island. Our guide pointed out the Point Venus lighthouse with the plaque quoting Robert Louis Stevenson in 1866. The Stevenson family were the noted lighthouse builders around the Scottish coasts. We were also taken to see the memorial to the Polynesians who sailed with Fletcher Christian to Pitcairn Island on the Bounty.
I then asked our guide if she knew where James Cook had erected his observatory. She took the party to a nearby round pillar surmounted by a ball; the whole monument was surrounded by red metal railings. The guide explained to our group that this was where the instruments had been set up to observe the transit. The ball on top of the pillar represented Venus. There was no inscription on the monument to indicate why it was erected. This would explain why Jeffrey Stokes missed finding the reminder of Cook and his scientific base.
Fort Venus, as the community was termed, consisted of a number of tents surrounded by an earth bank and ditch. Defending the site were two four-pounder guns and six swivel guns. Despite these precautions the light fingered Tahitians managed to purloin the astronomical quadrant. The stolen goods were retrieved later the same day.
Around the site today are numerous trees that may have impeded an observation of the sun, depending on the time of day. From the Matavai Bay beach though, popular with locals, there are spectacular views inland to the tree-covered volcanic mountains that form the heart of the island.
See also Cook's Log, page 5, vol. 28, no. 2 (2005)
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 12, volume 31, number 3 (2008).
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