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As the Spanish were selecting their team members that winter, the French scientists were working to outfit the mission and hone its meth- ods. In December Louis Godin wrote to the Royal Society of Lon- don, apprising it of his upcoming visit in early January to purchase the astronomical instruments that were critical to the expedition. These included several telescopes, an octant a precursor to the sextant built by the instrument-maker John Hadley, and — most importantly — a pen- dulum clock and precision twelve-foot zenith sector for measuring star angles created by another renowned artisan, George Graham.

Although no record of their meeting sur- vives, it is likely that they discussed the technicalities of carrying out astronomical and physical observations in distant lands. Halley, after all, was the veteran of several scientific expeditions, including a famous voy- age around the South Atlantic in to measure magnetic variations, where he commanded the navy ship Paramour. Their discussions were in French, since all educated men — especially officers of the Royal So- ciety like Halley — spoke the language at least comprehensibly; Halley himself had lived in Paris for half a year and was quite fluent.

Despite the growing political tensions between France and Britain, the Royal So- ciety elected Godin as a fellow. How long should the baseline for triangulation be? And also: How should the baseline be measured? Cassini used pairs of twenty-four- foot-long poles placed end to end. Meanwhile, Cassini wrote long mem- oirs for the Academy proceedings on the additional astronomical observations they should undertake while in Peru.

The work- horses for the survey would be the portable quadrants, the large quarter- circles typically between two and three feet in radius that were used for measuring angles. La Condamine bought a refurbished one from the es- tate of an astronomer, and three others were ordered from the instrument maker Claude Langlois, at a cost of around 1, livres , apiece. Langlois also carefully forged and ground an iron bar called a toise about 6. The French had been frequent visitors in South Pacific waters from the turn of the century — often to the great dismay of the Spanish government, which saw them as usurpers.

But not all of the voyages by the French had been devoted to trade and smuggling. Two expeditions in particular were well known to the Academicians for their scientific and geographic intelligence on Peru. The first foray into South America by a French scientist had been made from to by the priest and astronomer Louis Econches Feuillee, a disciple of Giovanni Cassini. He collected plants and made notes on the wildlife, including the spectacular condor. On his return to France, Feuillee published his observations in a dense, massive two-volume work filled with maps, tables of planetary and star sightings, and drawings of plants.

Feuillee himself had died in , so regrettably the members of the Geodesic Mission could not get any more firsthand details. In addition to his careful surveys and maps, he took copious notes on the plants, animals, and people and their customs.

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Frezier fully understood that then as now sex sells, and in a best-selling book published two years after his return, he detailed the sexual mores of Peruvian women, contrasting their daytime appearance of chastity and virtue with their supposed nighttime excursions to visit their lovers. Those South American fruits, much larger and more succulent than the puny European ones, became the primary source of the ones we know today. Given their connections to the Royal Garden, it is likely that Jussieu, Godin, and La Gondamine and perhaps Bouguer as well would have spoken with or written to Frezier to learn all they could about Peru once the mission had been approved.

Nevertheless, Frezier had become acquainted with Pedro de Peralta y Bamuevo, a noteworthy Peruvian author, mathematician, and astronomer at the University of San Marcos in Lima, who subsequently sent copies of his astronomical observations to the French Academy.

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Peralta would become a close confidant and correspondent of the members of the Ge- odesic Mission once they arrived in Peru. In spring the final arrangements for the Geodesic Mission were well under way. Both the French and the Spanish contingents were prepar- ing for a departure in mid- to late May, with a rendezvous in Cartagena de Indias in late summer.

Unlike the two Spanish team members, who would sail directly to the Spanish colony in the fleet carrying the new viceroy of Peru, the French scientists would make several stops on their maritime voyage.


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The agreement with Spain required the Geodesic Mission to debark in the French Caribbean colonies before progressing to Spanish terri- tories. At Saint Domingue, they were supposed to find a Spanish vessel to take them to Cartagena de Indias, since foreign ships were prohibited in the Spanish colonies. But the normally careful Maurepas committed his first major blunder by ordering the governor-general of Saint Domingue, Pierre Marquis de Fayet, to persuade the Spanish authorities to allow a French ship to take them instead.

Portefaix was a type of ship called a flute, similar to a frigate but designed to carry cargo and troops; it had been in service eighteen years, making it old for a wooden warship, and this would turn out to be its last voyage. The commander of Portefaix, Lieutenant Guillaume de Meschin, was just six years older than his ship. He carefully supervised the loading of cargo — primarily cannon and grain — destined for the colonies of Mar- tinique and Saint Domingue and the fortress of Louisbourg. As they came from all over France, it would have been impossible to time their arrivals any more closely.

They arrived in Rochefort in mid-April, with Jussieu and Seniergues arriving a week later. Godin presumably with Godin des Odonais and Couplet did not leave Paris until April 14, arriving by express carriage on May 7. Mau- repas, eager to get the expedition moving, wrote the Spanish court in early April telling them that the French half of the mission was already in port and ready to depart— not quite the truth, but necessary to get the Spanish half of the mission to sea.

Maurepas had named Godin the sole leader of the Geodesic Mission, granting him absolute power over the other members of the expedition. Godin, however, was neither the oldest nor the most experienced member of the group, nor had he ever led a team of men in any activity. This alone was not cause for alarm; after all, he could have fallen back on the knowledge of Bouguer, who had been a professor since his teenage years, when he was accustomed to directing men twice his age.


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Godin could also have leaned on the military experience of La Condamine to ensure that the expedition members followed orders. As it turned out, once the mission began, Godin would arrogantly assume that he could take any action he deemed nec- essary without consultation and give any order without being questioned.

His imperious style of leadership would have disastrous consequences for the entire enterprise. The fact that Maurepas allowed Godin unchecked power might have been excusable, if only for the reason that nothing like the Geodesic Mis- sion had ever been attempted before. All prior expeditions under the banner of the French Academy of Sciences had been carried out by individual scientists, often on their own initiative. The astronomical voyages of Nicolas Couplet, Jean Richer, Louis Feuillee, and Amedee Frezier as well as the Caribbean botanical expeditions of Charles Plumier in the s were effectively one-man shows that re- quired a minimum of support and logistical planning and whose obser- vations were in many cases carried out on French colonial soil.

The success of the mission would depend not on individual bril- liance but on the close-knit cooperation of an entire team, all of whom were needed to carry out the extensive long-distance survey. It would require both personal leadership and diplomatic astuteness — neither of which was particularly encouraged in the culture of the French Academy. Maurepas, accustomed to having his orders carried out by military men, probably expected that his scientists — Godin included — would act in the best interest of both science and their nation, and put aside any personal aspirations for the good of all.

The first was an incident that suggested Godin was guilty of mishandling finances.

Yet Godin inexplicably demanded an addi- tional 2, livres roughly , today from Beauharnais, the inten- dant of Rochefort, just before sailing; when Beauharnais complained to Maurepas, the minister simply brushed him aside, stating that he should give Godin any sum he asked. It was un- avoidable that Godin was specifically charged with the conduct of the mission, being the most senior; but regarding the endeavor, he could not and I believe he will never intend to refuse to communicate with you his observations, as it is vital that your [obse rvations] become part of his during the course of the work.

Although His Majesty intends that you economize [your costs], M. Godin nevertheless has orders to under- write all necessary expenses, and you should have no worries on that subject. In addition to various scientific instruments, the men had packed clothes, books, sabers, munitions, tents, cooking utensils, and other supplies needed to sustain them in Peru.

Lieutenant Meschin unhappily counted over sixty crates at dockside, all of which had somehow to be squeezed into Portefaix. The wind rose in the predawn hours, and at 10 Ml Portefaix cleared Rochefort, warping out of the Gharente River into the bay of La Rochelle.

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The immi- nent departure of the new viceroy of Peru made the warships on which the Spaniards would be traveling, Nuevo Conquistador and Incendio , the center of much attention and to-do in the port city; Villagarcfa was accompanied by his son Mauro de Mendoza and forty members of his court, all of whom had to be accommodated in appropriate style.

The newly minted lieutenants Jorge Juan and Ulloa, meanwhile, brought clothes, instruments, other goods, and servants for their voyage.

Unlike Ulloa, who came from a well-to-do family, Jorge Juan was of modest means and took yet another loan from his uncles to pay for these accoutrements, leaving behind a total debt of almost 1, pesos about , , which he fully expected to repay when he returned. Early on May 26, , just as Portefaix was passing the islands of Madeira southwest of Portugal, Jorge Juan and Ulloa boarded the two warships now anchored on a sandy bottom in the bay of Cadiz. Jorge Juan boarded Nuevo Conquistador, on which Villagarcfa and his en- tourage were traveling; Ulloa was assigned to the smaller Incendio.

At the commandant of the ship was greeted with a salvo of 11 cannons. At 11 AM the wind brought the frigate to a heading of south-southwest. Godin, Morainville, and Verguin had un- doubtedly comforted their wives and children by telling them they would only be gone three or at most four years; the other members must have told each other the same. The dangers, the men believed, were few. Peru must be a civilized place; after all, the Spanish had been there for exactly two hundred years.

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The scientists knew their work would be difficult, but they did not foresee any major impediments to carrying out their survey and returning home with the single number they sought: the length of a degree of latitude at the equator. The fact that the expedition members were well armed and had set sail on warships was thought of as prudence; in reality, it was a harbinger of things to come. J Ill Finding Quito M ariners have heard the call of the sea for millennia, knowing that each one answers it in a different way. Jorge Juan y Santacilia and Antonio de Ulloa had answered the call early in their youth, even before they were naval cadets.

The sea had become their home, their school, their church, their workplace.