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Charles Green - Man Without A Face


Setting the Scene

The astronomer appointed to Cook's first voyage, with special responsibility for the observations of the transit of Venus, was Charles Green. It is a strange fact that information about him is much more difficult to come by than about Cook's other astronomers. In the Dictionary of National Biography, under "Green, Charles", there is a 16 column inch entry on the aeronaut of that name but nothing about the astronomer. The Dictionary of Scientific Biography, Who Was Who, the Encyclopaedia Britannica and an Australian encyclopaedia proved no more helpful. Some further hunting was obviously necessary; the results of this are now presented together with some background material.

Charles Green was born in 1735 in Yorkshire, the son of a farmer. No information has so far come to light on his early schooling or training and the next time we hear of him is in 1761 when he was appointed Assistant to the Astronomer Royal at the Royal Observatory, Greenwich. The British stamp issued in 1975 in honour of European Architectural Heritage Year, figure 1, Stamp depicts this building (and there is a matching PHQ card). This issue commemorated the tercentenary of the Observatory, so that by the time Green arrived there it had been in operation for some 86 years and the third Astronomer Royal was in office.

The establishment has now been moved to Herstmonceux in Sussex to get away from the light pollution around London, and uses a meter franking (post town Hailsham) with the simple wording "Royal Greenwich Observatory" except for 1975 during which year the special device shown as figure 2 Postmark was incorporated in the meter mark. This same design was also printed on their letterheading for that year.

Three special cancellations relating to Greenwich Observatory are shown below as figure 3, figure 4 and figure 5.

Postmark Postmark Postmark

The original Old Royal Observatory is now known as Flamsteed House (named after the first Astronomer Royal) and is a museum of astronomy attached to the National Maritime Museum.

An Assistant would be expected to be a competent observer as well as being able to execute the calculations following on these observations. The life of an Assistant was not a particularly happy one and there appears to have been a fair turnover of staff. The job has been described as follows: "Nothing can exceed the tediousness and ennui of the life the assistant leads in this place, excluded from all society, except, perhaps, that of a poor mouse which may occasionally sally forth from a hole in the wall, to seek after crumbs of bread dropt by his lonely companion at his last meal... Here forlorn, he spends days, weeks, and months, in the same long wearisome computations, without a friend to shorten the tedious hours, or a soul with whom he can converse." Small wonder, then, that an Assistant would jump at the chance of anything the least bit exciting - and something exciting was shortly to come Green's way.

At the time of Green's appointment, the Astronomer Royal was the Rev. James Bradley (appointed in 1742 following the death of Halley). Bradley was already well known for his discovery of the aberration of light. When he became AR, he spent some time making alterations and repairs to the instruments and then commenced a series of observations which led to the discovery of nutation (a sort of nodding motion of the axis of the Earth). He was successful in obtaining a grant for new equipment and buildings. A most careful observer, he raised the practical work of the Observatory to a very high standard. Green would receive a good training under such a man.

Bradley died in July 1762 and the following month was succeeded by the Rev. Nathanial Bliss. Bliss was no stranger to the Royal Observatory and had in fact helped Bradley on special occasions, such as the transit of Venus on 6 June 1761.

In November 1763 "two gentlemen well skilled in astronomy" were required for a voyage to Barbados. One of these was Charles Green, who was sent in charge of Harrison's fourth timekeeper on this, its second sea trial. The other was the Rev. Nevil Maskelyne (already a seasoned traveller with his voyage to St Helena to observe the 1761 transit of Venus). He was appointed Chaplain to HMS Princess Louisa so that he could help Green with the tests. The longitude of Barbados was given by the timekeeper within 16 minutes of arc; the Method of Lunars gave it within one degree. Maskelyne, who had just published the "British Mariner's Guide", wrote a favourable report on the timekeeper, although he himself preferred the Method of Lunars (shown in schematic form on the second stamp "Landfall" of the Australian strip of five issued in 1970 - figure 6).


Green and Maskelyne arrived home from the West Indies in the autumn of 1764 to find that Bliss had just died. Green immediately returned to the Royal Observatory and continued with Bliss' programme of observations until such time as a new AR could be appointed. This appointment followed in 1765 - it was Maskelyne.

The new AR had sympathy for the lot of his Assistants. At that time the salary of an Assistant was £26 per annum. Maskelyne increased this to £60 out of his own pocket. Later on he managed to obtain an "augmentation" to the salary of the Assistants from the Lords Commissioners of the Treasury. However, Green apparently had a disagreement with Maskelyne and left the Royal Observatory to enter the navy. In 1768 he was listed as purser of the "Aurora" and it was from there that he came to the Endeavour.

The year after his appointment as AR, Maskelyne had published the first issue of the Nautical Almanac (i.e. for the year 1767). This proved to be a most valuable aid to navigation and Maskelyne was personally responsible for its annual publication for 44 years until his death. The availability of this work, the experience and training of Green, and a certain Captain James Cook beginning to make a name for himself - all these threads were to be gathered for the voyage of the Endeavour.

The Endeavour Voyage

By the middle of the 18th century the relative distances of the planets from the Sun were known but the actual distances were still only estimates. If the distance of one planet from the Sun could be established accurately, the rest would follow. It was hoped that observation of the transit of Venus from places widely separated in latitude would provide this vital distance and so give scale to the solar system.

Any good textbook on astronomy will explain the conditions for a transit. There are a number of stamps which depict the solar system and its members. The example shown in figure 7 incorporates the symbol for Venus (copper), together with the Sun and the orbit of the inner planet Mercury. Venus is shown partially illuminated and indeed she does exhibit phases just like the Moon as seen from the Earth.

Members of CCSU will no doubt be familiar with the organisation of the British observing teams. In 1768 Charles Green was selected as the official astronomer on the-South Seas expedition. He was nominated by the Royal Society and was to receive 200 guineas as gratuity for this work - or, if the voyage should last longer than two years, 100 guineas a year. (Cook was granted 100 guineas for his transit observations).

And so Cook receives a message from the Admiralty: "... You are hereby requir'd and directed to receive the said Mr Charles Green with his Servant Instruments and Baggage, on board the said Bark, and proceed in her according to the following Instructions..." (Order dated 30 July 1769). This servant was John Reynolds.

The great adventure began. Green proved himself very useful and Cook thought highly of him. The two men seemed to get on well together (perhaps because they both came from farming stock and were both Yorkshiremen). Cook praised him for his "constant and accurate work" and his Journal is full of references to astronomical observations. For example, on the very day that Alexander Buchan died, Cook and Green stayed ashore overnight hoping to observe an eclipse of Jupiter's first satellite "which we was hinder'd from seeing by clowds". When the Quadrant was stolen, Green and Banks recovered it. A transit of Mercury was observed in November 1769 at Mercury Bay, New Zealand (a souvenir cover commemorating this was illustrated on page 35 of Cook's Log for Jan/Mar 1977 as members will recall).

However, the main object of the exercise was the transit observation of 3 June 1769. Endeavour had arrived at Tahiti in good time and Green would be busily occupied making observations to obtain the co-ordinates of the observing site as well as checking over all the instruments and the important clock. There are many philatelic items which can be used to illustrate this aspect of the voyage (figure 8).


For instance the ½c Cook Islands stamp of 1968 showing


at anchor off Fort Venus, and a number of stamps depicting the quadrant, the tent observatory, etc.

Cook records: "This day prov'd as favourable to our purpose as we could wish, not a Clowd was to be seen the whole day and the Air was perfectly clear so that we had every advantage we could desire in Observing the whole of the passage of the Planet Venus over the Suns disk." Green, Cook and Solander all observed but there were some discrepancies in their results and of course, worldwide, the observations failed to achieve the desired goal - which seems a great pity after all the effort.

The Tahiti observations were published as: GREEN, C., and Cook, J., "Observations made, by appointment of the Royal Society, at King George's Island in the South Sea", Phil. Trans. R. Soc., vol. 61 (1771), 397-421.

Endeavour, left Tahiti on 13 July and headed south-westerly. The story of the charting of New Zealand is well known from other accounts and need not be repeated here. Leaving New Zealand on 1 April 1770, Cook made for Australia and began charting the coast. By 20 May he had passed the site of modern Brisbane and reached the southern limit of the Great Barrier Reef.

On Sunday 10 June 1770, "after hauling round Cape Grafton", Cook saw a "low green woody Island". He named this Green Island after Charles Green. It lies 16 miles east of Cairns, and it is interesting to note that today there is an Observatory on Green Island - but it is an Underwater Observatory to enable visitors to see the fascinating marine life of the Reef.

The following day, 11 June, "the Ship Struck and stuck fast". The Reef almost ended the epic voyage. Various items were thrown overboard to lighten the ship. In the public display area of the Observatory on Green Island there are restored replicas of the Endeavour's" cannon which were salvaged 1969-71.

The following illustrations show the old and new cancellations of Green Island, this latter being brought into use on 25 June 1980 (Figure 9 and figure 11).

Postmark Stamp Postmark

Figure 10 shows the fifth stamp of the Australian strip of five. This design "Possession" includes a piece of coral, symbolic of the near-disaster.

Some weeks later, Endeavour was in trouble on the Reef again and on 16 August 1770, we find Green calmly completing an observation assisted by Clerke and Forwood while the ship was in danger of foundering. Was he brave, dedicated or foolhardy?

Following the temporary repair of fothering the hull, Endeavour was in no condition for the long homeward voyage without further repairs and Cook made for Batavia (present-day Djakarta). Batavia was at that time a rather picturesque city showing evidence in its architecture of the Dutch colonists. However, it was built on swampy ground. The climate was most unappealing - high temperatures and high humidity proved debilitating. There were frequent thunderstorms. Additionally, in 1699 Batavia had suffered a severe earthquake. The rivers about it were choked with mud and flooded the surrounding country. Batavia became notorious for being unhealthy and was in danger of being abandoned. In the 22 years from 1730 to 1752, 1,100,000 deaths are said to have been recorded. Endeavour had been a healthy ship but at Batavia the ship's company were exposed to dysentry, malaria and a variety of other tropical diseases. Green's servant, Reynolds, died of dysentry here on 18 December 1770, and Green himself fell victim to the disease.

Green had been very well received at Batavia. There was a thriving Dutch Indies Astronomical Society with an observatory in the modern part of the town, and the Rev. Johan Maurits Mohr had a private observatory of some renown. People so interested in astronomy would be delighted to meet a visiting astronomer from Greenwich. In the London Evening Post was printed "The copy of a letter from a gentleman on board the Endeavour" - "... great respect was paid here to Mr. Green by the principal people of Batavia, but no particular notice was taken of the rest of us by the Dutch".

After leaving Batavia, Green was very ill and in the Journal for Tuesday 29 January 1771 we read "In the night Died Mr Charls Green who was sent out by the Royal Society to Observe the Transit of Venus; he had long been in a bad state of hilth, which he took no care to repair but on the contrary lived in such a manner as greatly promoted the disorders he had had long upon him, this brought on the Flux which put a period to his life". He was buried at sea, 13 days out of Java in the Indian Ocean. Noon position that day was 11° 57' S, 101° 45' E.

A rather lurid account of the circumstances of Green's death was printed in the General Evening Post. "Mr. Greene, the astronomer, who went out with Mr. Bankes, died soon after the ship left Batavia. He had been ill some time, and was directed by the surgeon to keep himself warm, but in a fit of phrensy he got up in the night and put his legs out of the portholes, which was the occasion of his death. All his papers relative to the transit of Venus, of which he had made the most accurate observation, were happily completed and preserved."

The papers referred to were the cause of some controversy after the voyage was over. Maskelyne was openly critical of the state of Green's paperwork, but Green was most loyally defended by Cook. It is quite possible that Green had simply been too busy on the outward part of the voyage to get down to reducing his observations, and had been hoping to use the homeward run to complete this task. When he took ill, all hope of completing the work vanished.

The facts on Green's life are sparse and there does not seem to be any portrait of him. In "Notes on the Cook Bicentenary Stamps" in the Australian P.O. Philatelic Bulletin for April 1970 (pp. 35-38) the designer Robert Ingpen states (after describing Parkinson and Banks), "The third figure, Charles Green, is some-thing of a mystery. Apart from knowing that he was a competent astronomer... little is known about him and no portrait can be found of him despite extensive enquiries. He is depicted in a green jacket". (How obvious can you get!). Ingpen carefully turned Green's head away so that he is symbolically shown looking at the sky, and a full-face portrait is not attempted. See figure 12.


A rather amusing way of treating the "faceless" Green was adopted by the Illustrated London News in the issue dated April 25, 1970. The centre spread on pages 24 and 25 consisted of a drawing by Dennis Adams. Titled "The Ship that Changed the World", this was a cutaway drawing of Endeavour with each compartment and cabin numbered. No. 21 is titled "Mr Green's Cabin" and the wording is: "He was the official astronomer sent to observe the transit of Venus from the Pacific. He had seven square feet of precious space and a maximum of 5 ft 4 in head room." Most of the other personalities on board are shown by the artist with heads but in the case of Green, we see him not actually inside his cabin but in the act of entering it, so that his head and shoulders are cut off by a portion of the deck above. Was this a clever way of getting round the fact that no known portrait exists?

Incidentally, when sending away for an example of the new pictorial cancellation of Green Island, I took the opportunity of asking the Postmaster if there was any portrait of Green on the island and received a kind reply informing me that there was not. On the 40c value of the set issued by Tuvalu on 14 February 1979 the man kneeling at the telescope has greenish trousers. Is this our mysterious friend again?

Finally, a few hints as to the sort of person he was. His journal was written in a small neat hand and revealed him to be something of a wit. He was a competent and dedicated astronomer and most anxious to pass on his knowledge and skill. Thanks to him, a number of the petty officers were trained in making observations - in particular Charles Clerke (who was appointed Lieutenant by Cook in place of Hicks and who was later to command "Discovery"). He also took a great deal of trouble teaching English to the Tahitians, Tupaia and Taiata. Altogether a most useful person.

Certain excesses are hinted at but it is not made clear just what these were. Is there any clue in a letter from Cook to the Royal Society dated 17 September 1768 from Madeira, in which he states that he has drawn certain sums of money "being for the Purchase of Wines and other necessaries for the use of Mr Green and myself"?

He was married, and in the Transactions of the Royal Society Council 19 May 1768 is the entry "Orderd that Mr Burrow do pay Mr Green £50 on account & that 50£ Per Ann. be paid by quarterly payments to his Wife during his absence." I have recently learned that Green was a brother-in-law of William Wales, so this may be a future possible line of inquiry to obtain further details of his life.

References include:
Beaglehole, J. C., (Ed.) The Journals of Captain James Cook on his voyages of Discovery. Part I - The Voyage of the Endeavour 1768-1771 (1955).
Forbes, E. G., Greenwich Observatory: Vol. 1 - Origins and Early History (1975), and references therein.
Hollis, H. P. The Greenwich Assistants during 250 years. The Observatory, 48, (1925), 388-398.
Howse, D., & Hutchinson, B. The Clocks and Watches of Capt. James Cook, 1769-1969. Reprinted from Antiquarian Horology (1969).
Taylor, E. G. R., Navigation in the Days of Captain Cook. J. Inst. Nav. 21, (1968) 256-276.
"Astrofax" - magazine of the Astronomy Study Unit of ATA.
"Man is not lost" HMSO (1968).

The Libraries of Glasgow University and the Glasgow College of Nautical Studies.
Helpful discussion with Mrs Jean Clark, Paisley.
Personal correspondence with Commander Howse, Keeper, Dept. of Navigation and Astronomy, National Maritime Museum.

Margaret Morris

Originally published in Cook's Log, page 92, volume 3, number 4 (1980) and page 102, volume 4, number 1 (1981).

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