skip to content

The British Empire was built on scientific labour. Precision instruments made in London, charts published by the Royal Observatory, chronometers set to Greenwich time: all of these material tools and many others were essential for the navigation of Britain’s ships to far flung corners of the globe.

On foreign soil, astronomers, surveyors, and geographers worked side by side with administrators and the military during British efforts to discover, conquer, settle, and manage new colonies. And once established, the imperial world also served as a crucial field site for numerous astronomical enterprises, from the periodic observation of eclipses to the establishment of major new observatories.

Using the rich collections of the Whipple Museum and the University of Cambridge Institute of Astronomy, the articles in this section explore this tangled history of astronomical science and colonial encounter, from the time of Cook through to the breakup of the British Empire. They consider the instruments, tools, and practices of those sent around the globe to observe, navigate, survey, and chart on behalf of imperial interests. And they examine the use, appropriation, and exchange of diverse materials on both sides of the imperial encounter.

This Explore section is based on the exhibition Astronomy & Empire, which ran from Autumn 2017 to Summer 2019 in the Museum’s Special Exhibitions Gallery.

Read more at: The Stolen Quadrant
Close-up of W.1084, a John Bird 18-inch quadrant, very similar to the one taken on Cook’s 1768-71 voyage

The Stolen Quadrant

On the 2nd of May, 1769, the quadrant belonging to Lieutenant James Cook was stolen from his ship’s encampment on the island of Tahiti. Cook’s men had journeyed to the South Pacific for two reasons: to observe the transit of the planet Venus across the sun, and to explore and claim territory on behalf of the British Crown.

Read more at: Astronomy at Sea
Close up of Wh.1490 scale

Astronomy at Sea

Astronomy was crucial for British imperial power at sea.

Read more at: Navigational Arts
Chronometer, in gimbal and fitted box

Navigational Arts

Navigators used many tools in the 18th and 19th Centuries to track their course at sea. The reality of navigation was a lot messier than stories about precision instruments might suggest.

Read more at: Encounter and Exchange
Samoan tattooing implement

Encounter and Exchange

Astronomers and their instruments played their part in new cultures of contact that arose in the 18th-century Pacific world. Trade and exchange flourished in encounters between British ships and coastal communities, with both sides keen to acquire each other’s artefacts. These transactions were often fraught, exposing...

Read more at: Science in the Field
Close up of transit eyepiece

Science in the Field

Astronomy in the British Empire was not just about star-watching from observatories and ships. In the colonies, astronomy was also an essential part of the ‘survey sciences’—a diverse range of geographical practices deployed to chart territory in the service of imperial settlement and administration. This took astronomers...

Read more at: The Sun Worshippers
Box for prism train

The Sun Worshippers

In the second half of the 19th Century, astronomers became infatuated with the sun. Eclipse expeditions, in particular, became key events in the astronomical calendar. Their complex planning and execution reveal how the tools of empire were as important as the new tools of astrophysics in these projects.

Read more at: Famine and Astronomy

Famine and Astronomy

Between 1876 and 1902 somewhere between 12 and 29 million people starved to death in India. As a succession of devastating famines swept through the country, British colonial rule came under attack for its role in the management of food resources and grain exports. In response, some British experts offered astronomy as the...

Read more at: Local Knowledge
Closeup of panjica

Local Knowledge

British scientists working in the colonies encountered, employed, and collaborated with a wide range of local experts, informants, go-betweens, and assistants. The uneven power dynamic typical to these collaborations—and the asymmetry of the historical record from which this Explore section draws—has tended to obscure the...

Read more at: Instrument Breakage and Repair

Instrument Breakage and Repair

Science in the British Empire was mainly practiced in the field. Fragile instruments had to be transported across rough seas and land, and then perform reliably in remote locations. Breakage and loss was a constant problem, and the challenges of maintenance and repair ever-present. Instrument users were quick to point out...

Read more at: Charles Piazzi Smyth and His Imperial Measures
Great Pyramid 5-inch standard scale

Charles Piazzi Smyth and His Imperial Measures

Imperial powers used colonial spaces to test new scientific programmes. Egypt provides a dramatic example: the Great Pyramid of Giza was a site of study and disagreement amongst European scholars in the 18th and 19th Centuries. In the 1860s, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland, Charles Piazzi Smyth, boldly claimed this...