Kalākaua had a great interest in science and he saw it as a way to foster Hawai‘i’s prestige, internationally.
The opportunity to demonstrate this interest and support for astronomy was made available with the astronomical phenomenon called the “Transit of Venus,” which was visible in Hawai‘i in 1874.
“The coming transit of Venus will be observed from about 75 stations, at many of which there will be a large number of instruments. … Wherever knowledge can be gained it is worth being gained … these expeditions will lead to most valuable results.” (George Forbes, Chief Astronomer)
The King allowed the British Royal Society’s expedition to set up three sites in the Islands, Honolulu’s waterfront in a district called Apua (mauka of today’s Waterfront Plaza,) Kailua-Kona at Huliheʻe Palace and Waimea, Kauai.
The mission of the British expedition was to observe a rare transit of Venus across the Sun for the purpose of better determining the value of the Astronomical Unit – the Earth-to-Sun distance – and from it, the absolute scale of the solar system.
The orbits of Mercury and Venus lie inside Earth’s orbit, so they are the only planets which can pass between Earth and Sun to produce a transit (a transit is the passage of a planet across the Sun’s bright disk.)
Professor George Forbes was the Chief Astronomer for the British expedition. He befriended Charles Lambert, eldest son of an English gentleman residing at Coqnimbo in Chile. (Lambert, not one of the astronomers, had been invited by his friend Captain Ralph P Cator, (Commander of the ‘Scout’) to accompany him in his cruise to the Hawaiian Islands.)
“(Lambert) had come out for his health on the ‘Scout,’ from Valparaiso, his father being one of the richest copper-mine owners in Chile. He intended to stay here a short time with the Venus Transit party (Prof. Forbes and Barnacle.) (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 5, 1874)
Then, the fateful day … not December 8, 1874 (the date of the Transit of Venus) – rather, November 20, 1874 when tragedy struck.
“During three days previously a Kona had been blowing into the bay, and having on Thursday seen the natives using the surf-board, Mr Forbes and his friend (Lambert) thought of trying their hands at it.”
“They were furnished by the Hon. Simon Kaʻai, Sheriff and Representative of the District, with surf-boards, he not considering that there was any danger in so doing.”
“Professor Forbes entered the water first. When it was up to his chest, being about thirty yards from the shore, he began to look out for a good wave to try to ride in upon.”
“Not having been successful and happening to look round he found that he was a hundred and fifty yards from the shore, having been carried out by the under current. He did not however at that time apprehend any danger.”
“A small native boy, an adopted son or Simon Kaai, now shouted to him, gesticulating and pointing to Mr Lambert, who was about fifty yards nearer to the shore than himself. He saw that Mr Lambert had let go of his surf-board, and was in difficulty.”
Forbes reached Lambert and tried to bring them both in to shore. “He made however no head way, but was drifted farther out, and it then occurred to him that there was no prospect of either of them being saved, and he resolved to hold up his friend until they should both go down together.” (Hawaiian Gazette, December 2, 1874)
Folks on shore were able to bring a canoe out through the surf. Henry Weeks, a carpenter putting up the astronomical buildings, and a local swam “out to their assistance, but (Weeks) was soon exhausted and was just able to reach the canoe.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 5, 1874)
“The surf was at this time dashing against the rocks at their side so that landing seemed impossible. … Ten minutes after Professor Forbes became absolutely exhausted; his arms lost their power, and it was only with the greatest difficulty that he was able to hold on to Mr Lambert, every wave engulphing them both.”
“The Professor with the dead body of his friend was put into (the canoe,) and reached the shore in safety.”
“Great credit is due to Simon Kaʻai for his attempts to aid Professor Forbes and his friend, he (Simon Kaʻai) stated that he was much flurried, and that was why he did not think of a canoe sooner.”
“Thanks also are due to Mr Bergman, a German resident here, for coming off in the canoe, and likewise to the stepmother of Simon Kaʻai for the same service.”
“Mr Lambert met his end, as all who knew him must have felt that he would, with fortitude and resignation, it is believed that he died without pain; and the calmness of his expression showed that he died in peace.”
“The conduct of Professor Forbes, in whose arms Mr Lambert drew his last breath, and who, with unequalled courage and devotion, risked and would have sacrificed his life to save that of his friend, is beyond all praise.” (Hawaiian Gazette, December 2, 1874)
Lambert “was buried the next day, twelve natives carrying the coffin to the English Episcopal Church in South Kona. The case is all the sadder from the circumstance that Lambert was actually improving here with a good prospect of completely recovering his health.” (Pacific Commercial Advertiser, December 5, 1874)
On December 8, 1874, the transit was observed by the British scientists; however, the observation at Kailua-Kona was interrupted by occasional clouds. The Honolulu and Waimea sites were considered perfect throughout the event, which lasted a little over half a day.
Ironically, on December 8, 1874 the big day, the king was absent, being in Washington to promote Hawaiian interests in a new trade agreement with the United States.
When American astronomer Simon Newcomb combined the 18th century data with those from the 1874/1882 Venus transits, he derived an Earth-sun distance of 149.59 +/- 0.31 million kilometers (about 93-million miles), very close to the results found with modern space technology in the 20th century.
After the Transit of Venus observations, Kalākaua showed continued interest in astronomy, and in a letter to Captain RS Floyd on November 22, 1880, he expressed a desire to see an observatory established in Hawai‘i. He later visited Lick Observatory in San Jose.
Perhaps as a result of the King’s interest, a telescope was purchased from England in 1883 for Punahou School. The five-inch refractor was later installed in a dome constructed above Pauahi Hall on the school’s campus.
The image shows a calmer day in Kailua Bay. (ca 1890) In addition, I have included other related images in a folder of like name in the Photos section on my Facebook and Google+ pages.