Story: Astronomy – overview

Page 1. The first astronomers

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Māori and astronomy

The full extent of early Māori astronomical knowledge is not known. It is likely that the Polynesians who journeyed to New Zealand navigated by the stars, but much of that knowledge disappeared when Europeans settled the Pacific.

The rich mythology of Māori is entwined with astronomical knowledge. They recognised several star patterns, as well as the brighter planets. They knew the yearly star cycle and related this to seasonal activities such as the planting and harvesting of crops. Matariki, or the Māori New Year, commences when the star cluster Pleiades is seen to rise just before dawn in late May or early June.

James Cook as astronomer

The first European astronomers in New Zealand were James Cook and Charles Green. Cook was not only captain of the barque Endeavour and leader of an expedition to the south Pacific to make observations of the 1769 transit of Venus across the sun, he was also employed as one of the expedition’s astronomers. After observing the transit from Tahiti on 3 June, Cook sailed south and began mapping the New Zealand coastline. This involved taking many astronomical observations on board ship to determine latitude and longitude. In November of 1769 Cook and Green undertook the first astronomical observations on New Zealand soil when they viewed the transit of Mercury from a beach on the Coromandel Peninsula. On departing, Cook named the place Mercury Bay.

Later, on the second (1773–74) and third (1777) expeditions, Cook and his astronomers made extensive astronomical observations for determining latitude and longitude from Dusky Sound in Fiordland and Ship Cove in Queen Charlotte Sound.

Astronomy in the new colony

Applied astronomy was the key to accurate timekeeping in the 19th century. Because all trade to and from New Zealand was by ship, it was crucial that accurate time was kept at each of the main ports so that ships’ captains could set their clocks before they sailed. In 1863 the Wellington provincial government established a small observatory on Wellington Harbour that provided a time service for the nation. Six years later this was superseded by the Colonial Observatory, located in Wellington Botanic Garden. Archdeacon Arthur Stock took up duties as the official observer and in so doing became the nation’s first professional astronomer, albeit in a part-time capacity. He continued as official observer until his retirement in 1887. He was keen to popularise astronomy, and in 1874 wrote a beginners’ guide to astronomy for New Zealand readers.

An amateur tradition

A number of new settlers arrived with a good knowledge of astronomy. Enthused perhaps by the 1874 and 1882 transits of Venus, they began to systematically observe their patch of the southern sky. They were not professional astronomers, but some were accomplished observers and made significant discoveries. Two notable figures were Joseph Ward, a telescope maker who surveyed southern skies for double stars, and John Grigg, discoverer of three comets and a pioneer of astronomical photography.

How to cite this page:

Maggy Wassilieff, 'Astronomy – overview - The first astronomers', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 January 2017)

Story by Maggy Wassilieff, published 12 Jun 2006