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Story of Astronomy in southern Africa

African Starlight

Since the most ancient times, Africans looked up at the sky and wondered, as did people elsewhere around the world. Stars like IsiLimela (known to Europeans as the Seven Sisters) and the Giraffes (the Cross and the Pointers) told when to dig and hunt and plant. The Swazis kept a very accurate calendar by the sun. Legends grew up around the sky as well, telling how a young girl threw ashes from a fire into a sky to make the Milky Way, or how the Sun was made to give light to the Earth when people threw him into the sky.

Modern astronomy in southern Africa began with ships and their unfortunate habit of colliding with the African coastline. Accurate positions for southern stars were needed, and accurate maps. Some help was provided by visiting astronomers such as Father Guy Tachard, who stopped at the Cape in 1685 on his way to Thailand, and Nicholas de Lacaille, who spent two years in Cape Town charting the positions of nearly 10000 stars before returning to France.

Wooden Hut and Nearest Star

But something more permanent was needed, and in 1820 the 'King's Most Excellent Majesty in Council' authorised the British Admiralty to found an observatory at the Cape to provide more accurate positions for southern stars. The new Royal Observatory at the Cape of Good Hope was the first modern scientific institution in Africa since the burning of the Library at Alexandria, but it began in a very humble way. The instruments escaped being dumped on the beach only because President van Breda of the Burgher-Senate volunteered a room in the town granary. Observations began from a prefabricated wooden hut, set up in the back garden of a rented house. When construction of the main Royal Observatory building was finally complete in 1828, 'His Majesty's Astronomer at the Cape of Good Hope' began observing from 'Snake Mound' between the Liesbeeck and the Black River swamps. The hill deserved its name -- while digging the foundations the crew killed as many as 90 snakes a day. One night while the scaffolding was still up, the shutters on the roof failed to open because a leopard was lying on them. The leopard and the astronomer were both startled, and disappeared rapidly in opposite directions.

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