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Jean Houzeau in Jamaica

In Jamaica 1868-76.
During his first year in Jamaica Houzeau apparently rented a farm a few miles outside of Kingston, but there is no indication as to where this farm actually was. In 1869 he moved to a property at the foot of the Blue Mountains which was called either Ross View or Rose View. This property, which consisted of a small house surrounded by two and a half acres planted with coffee and fruit trees, is variously described as being on the banks of the Mammee River, three or four miles above its junction with the Hope River, and near, or above, Gordon Town. An estate map in the National Library of Jamaica, clearly made some time in the 19th-century, shows a property named Ross View on either side of the Mammee River, adjacent to properties called Mango Ridge and Belcour Lodge, the latter of which still exists. This Ross View was clearly larger than two and a half acres, but Houzeau's house was presumably situated on some part of the property probably along the river bank.

The property was located in a Black Jamaican community and local people were at first unwelcoming, but became friendly when they realised how sympathetic he was towards them. However, they clearly found the activities of the astronomer incomprehensible; in a letter to Frank Cundall, M. B. Hennen [probably in fact W. B. Hannan] who had owned Mango Ridge at the time, wrote that 'The people in the district told me that "Mushe"* was crazy and used to spend most of his nights out in the open lying on his back staring at the stars.' Houzeau was able to do a considerable amount of work during the seven years that he spent in this locality. He lived the life of a virtual recluse and few knew of his presence in Jamaica; W. B. Hannan, who visited him in the 1870s, seems to have been one of the few to make his acquaintance.
[*"Mushe" or "Mushay" was apparently a local pronunciation of "Monsieur". Here it was suitably used of a Belgian, but later it was commonly used of Chinese and Syrian residents in Jamaica.]

RossView.jpg

This reproduction of the estate map, which was made by the well-known surveyor Thomas Harrison, appears on this site courtesy of the National Library of Jamaica. Unfortunately the map is not dated, and I have not yet been able to establish when it was drawn up.

While in Jamaica, Houzeau made a number of expeditions around the island, including one to the top of Blue Mountain Peak in 1873. But his major work was still in the field of astronomy; of particular importance was his work of cataloging the stars visible to the naked eye. He apparently carried out much of this work in Jamaica, benefiting from the island's clear skies and the visibility of many of the stars of the Southern Hemisphere. In late 1875 he went to Panama for two months in order to be able to view stars even further south. He was much distressed by the disease-ridden condition of Colon and in fact himself contracted malaria while in Panama. He also worked on observations on the Zodiacal Light and of the Milky Way. He continued to write articles for magazines in Europe and the United States, and worked on a number of publications which were produced while he was in Jamaica.

Houzeau operated a small printing press while he was in Jamaica, and apparently printed several works particularly on mathematical subjects, though it seems unlikely that any copies of these works still exist. Hennen/Hannan in his 1909 letter says that he purchased Houzeau's printing plant around 1879 'but found it of little use to me consisting as it did of Astronomical, Mathematical and Greek type.' Houzeau had two assistants who helped him with his printing; one was William Lang or Laing, a young Coloured man, who had come from New Orleans with him, while the other was George L. Hall, a young Black Jamaican. In recognition of their work, Houzeau sent back money for them via the Colonial Bank in 1880 'with the hope to help them to advance themselves in life'; his letter to the Belgian Consul asking him to confirm the identity of the young men to the Bank still survives in the Manuscript Collection of the N. L. J.

Houzeau continued his reclusive life on the banks of the Mammee River until 1876. He wrote 'I very seldom go to Kingston and when in town can hardly afford to remain after half past four o'clock as I reach then my mountain path, which is not one of the best, after it is fully dark.' This was in the days before even the mule-drawn street cars, and even the trip to the local Post Office was one he seldom made. Not surprisingly even the Belgian Consul was unaware of his presence in the island, and a cable from the Belgian Foreign Minister in Brussels inviting Houzeau to accept the appointment of director of the Brussels Observatory was completely unexpected. The Consul asked an acquaintance with business in Gordon Town to take a note for Houzeau and to have it delivered by special messenger. Two days later Houzeau went down into Kingston, visited the Consul and accepted the appointment offered by the Belgian government.

The story of his life to 1868 . . .

And after that . . .

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written by Joy Lumsden - October-November 2001

The story of his life to 1868 ...

In Jamaica 1868-76

And after that ...

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  joy lumsden 2004