‘The grim roll-call broke his [Cook’s) heart…the death of the astronomer Charles Green marked a wave of those who ‘departed this life’….By the end of January [1771] they had barely enough men to man the ship [HMS Endeavour]’. Vanesssa Collingridge, Captain Cook, The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer, Ebury Press, 2002

Charles Green son of ‘a prosperous’ free-hold Yorkshire farmer was born in Swinton towards the end of 1734. He received a broad education with a strong emphasis on science.

John his elder brother took Holy Orders and established a school in Soho, London where Charles found his ‘heavenly passion’ astronomy. After graduating he stayed on for a time teaching mathematics.

In 1760 Charles applied successfully for the position of Assistant Astronomer at Greenwich Observatory where in that capacity he served three (3) Astronomer Royals.

In 1742 James Bradley first of these men succeeded Edmond Halley of comet fame. In 1720 Halley himself had followed John Flamsteed the inaugural Astronomer Royal, appointed by King Charles II in 1675. Flamsteed remained at Greenwich until his death in 1720. Halley then held the post for twenty-two (22) years from 1720 to 1742.

Bradley’s tenure too was lengthy he reigned between 1742 and 1762. Bradley is celebrated principally for his work on the speed of light. In 1728 he estimated light moved at the speed of 295,000 km (183,000 miles) per second.

Three (3) centuries later – 2017 – Bradley’s calculations were amended to 299,790 km (186,290 miles) per second.

‘John Harrison, the man who solved the problem of longitude in 1759’. Peter Ackroyd, Revolution, Macmillan, London, 2016

If only Bradley had stuck to light and left time and longitude to Mr. John Harrison inventor of an accurate marine chronometer – a sea-going ‘pocket-watch’ – many a sea-farer would not have met a watery end.

In 1762 Reverend Nathaniel Bliss followed Bradley. The fourth Astronomer Royal lasted only two (2) years from 1762 to 1764. Owing to ill-health Bliss did not take up  residence at Greenwich but remained at Oxford University and died in September 1764.

Between 1762-64 and, for more than six (6) months following Bliss’s death, Charles Green faithfully fulfilled the onerous role of principal astronomer at Greenwich Observatory.

On 8 February 1765 King George III appointed Reverend Nevil Maskelyne Britain’s fifth Astronomer Royal. Maskelyne held the position in a strangle-hold for just on half a century, until his death in 1811. See: Malicious Maskelyne


‘On the day before reliable time-keeping, the skies were used as a giant clock’. Vanessa Collingridge, Captain Cook, The Life, Death and Legacy of History’s Greatest Explorer, Random House, 2003

Flamsteed, Bradley, Bliss and Maskelyne, consecrated men of the Church of England had a lot in common, all were wedded to old technology the lunars’ that dated from the previous century.

Luna Tables and Star catalog listing three thousand (3000) stars began as the work of Rev. John Flamsteed the first Astronomer Royal appointed by Charles II in 1675.

A year later 1676 Flamsteed took up residence in the newly minted Greenwich Observatory designed by Sir Christopher Wren. The Observatory had been erected on the ruins of Greenwich Castle destroyed by Oliver Cromwell’s Roundhead Model Army during The Protectorate.

‘John Harrison, the man who solved the problem of longitude in 1759’. Ackroyd. ibid.

Why then in 1765, did Nevil Maskelyne publish the first edition of his Nautical Almanac that extolled celestial navigation as the only reliable solution to the problem of longitude?

‘Maskelyne’s Method’ of determining longitude depended on measuring with a sextant the angular distance between moon, sun and seven (7) selected stars.

‘The Almanac represents Maskelyne’s enduring contribution to navigation – and the perfect task for him, too, as it embodied an abundance of excruciating detail’. Dava Sobel, Longitude, Fourth Estate, London, 1998

And why a few weeks after Maskelyne’s appointment as Astronomer Royal did Charles Green walk away from Greenwich Observatory?

Green and Nevil Maskelyne had history.

‘The board [had] concluded in its final report in August 1762 “the Experiments already made of the Watch have not been sufficient to determine the Longitude at Sea”. H- 4 must needs submit to a new trial, under stricter scrutiny’. Sobel. ibid.

In 1764, with Bliss too ill to travel, Green had been tasked to team up with Maskelyne and sail to Barbados to represent the Board of Longitude and oversee yet another assessment of John Harrison’s marine chronometer the H-4.

They were to shadow William, John Harrison’s son and Thomas Wyatt, who were making for Barbados aboard HMS Tartar with the ‘ pocket watch’ H-4.

For the Board of Longitude this was to be it – failure or success for Harrison’s chronometer. With Maskelyne’s Almanac versus John Harrison’s chronometer there was a lot at stake – a king’s ransom £20,000, in 2018, roughly £400 millions.

To put all doubt to rest Sir John Lindsay, Tartar’s captain, was tasked to supply the required ‘stricter scrutiny’.

As Dava Sobel says; ‘The Board of Longitude was top-heavy with astronomers’ and, one Nevil Maskelyne was determined to scuttle, once and for all, Harrison and his ‘watch’.

Maskelyne had began intensive work on his Nautical Almanac in 1761 and, if Harrison’s invention was discredited, with the Nautical Almanac on the cusp of publication, fame and fortune would be his.

When Tarter reached Barbados with H- 4 in May 1764 William Harrison found Green and Maskelyne, who had sailed to Barbados in the Princess Louise, already ensconced there in the Observatory.

However for Maskelyne this early arrival proved counter-productive. He aired to anyone who would listen unwavering allegiance to ‘his lunar distance method…boast[ing]’ that, with his soon to be published Almanac (1765), ‘he was sure he’d clinched the case and secured the prize’. Sobel. ibid.

Sir John Lindsay quietly gathered damming evidence. The Harrison team supported by Lindsay; ‘challenged Maskelyne’s fitness to judge H-4 impartially [Maskelyne] was outraged by their  accusations…in his disquieted condition, he botched the astronomical observations – even though all those present recalled there wasn’t a cloud in the sky’. Sobel. ibid.

H-4 performed flawlessly at Barbados. Without doubt it could supply accurate time-keeping, the essential ingredient required for determining longitude at sea, Charles Green’s epiphany was complete.

‘The Watch proved to tell the longitude within ten miles – three times more accurately than the terms of the Longitude Act demanded! [however] the Board of Longitude allowed months to pass without saying a word…[finally] they were “unanimously of the opinion that the said time-keeper has kept its time with sufficient correctness”. Sobel .ibid.

From then on it should have been plain sailing for John Harrison and his Watch but it was not to be.

1765 – 15 March: Charles Green logged his final official Observations on 15 of March 1765 and left Greenwich not long afterwards. It is reasonable to speculate irreconcilable differences between Green and Maskelyne the incoming master of Greenwich Observatory, centred on the ‘pocket-watch’, were responsible for Green’s departure.

1765 – 25 March: Rev. Nevil Maskelyne appointed in February 1765 assumed the role of Britain’s fifth Astronomer Royal in March 1765. He immediately opened up a second front in the fight against John Harrison. See: Three Yorkshire-men – James Cook, John Harrison, Charles Green  Walked Into A Bar – Maskelyne

Due in large part to Maskelyne’s obstinate scientific pride and avarice, his long tenure at Greenwich was characterised by the unnecessary loss of thousands upon thousands of Royal Naval men in both offensive and defensive mode, as well as a multitude of merchant seamen who sank without trace along with cargo and booty worth untold millions. See: Lotto and Longitude

But Maskelyne was not yet finished with Cook, Harrison and Green.‘Compared with that of (Joseph) Banks, Mr Green’s equipment was comparatively modest’. H.C. Cameron, Sir Joseph Banks, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1966.

1769: Lieutenant James Cook RN sailed HMS Endeavour from England to Tahiti in order to observe the Transit of Venus predicted by Edmond Halley of comet fame, to occur on 3 June 1769. Charles Green was engaged to act as Assistant Observer to Cook.

Having recorded the Transit at Tahiti Lieutenant Cook RN then opened ‘secret Admiralty Instructions’ ordering him sail deep into the southern oceans in search of the fabled Great South Land.

Why was HMS Endeavour not equipped with a Harrison chronometer ‘that’ as Peter Ackroyd has it ‘solved the problem of longitude in 1759’? See: Captain Cook Caught Short

James Cook had not been Nevil Maskelyne’s first choice for the Transit expedition. Maskelyne had recommended Alexander Dalrymple to the Admiralty. Dalrymple, a wealthy Fellow of the Royal Society he was, as Cameron has it, ‘a proper person to be sent to the South Seas”.

Dalrymple had never forgiven Cook for replacing him in the command of he expedition….Of the many charges which he made against Cook perhaps the most ridiculous was that the grounding of the Endeavour on the coral reef was due to the Captain’s misconduct in not anchoring’. Cameron. ibid.

And Maskelyne never forgave the Admiralty for choosing lowly Lieutenant Cook RN. Maskelyne, the scientist who persecuted John Harrison the artisan, withheld H – 4 from James Cook a mere warrant officer when given the nod over Dalrymple.

It is highly likely if Cook had known with greater certainty HMS Endeavour’s position while in uncharted waters he may not have spent three (3) months getting to New Zealand. Nor might it have taken so much time charting New Zealand’s North and South Islands, as it was, Cook did not leave the area until February 1770.

In April 1770 HMS Endeavour anchored in Botany Bay.

Although much is rightly made of Cook’s success in warding off scurvy nevertheless, home-ward bound at Batavia, one-half of Endeavour’s starving debilitated crew succumbed to malaria and dysentery.

Of Joseph Banks’ party of ten (10) only four (4) survived including Banks himself. Earlier two (2) had been lost when they froze to death on Terra del Fuego and Alexander Buchan an artist died at Tahiti following an epileptic fit.

Not long after Endeavour left Batavia for England via Cape Town Charles Green died of what, from the symptoms, appears to have been cerebral malaria.

1771 – 13 July – Spithead: Cook, once on home soil began to; ‘write to the families of all those who had died in his care [including] the loved ones of Mr Green [and] George Monkhouse of Cumberland who had entrusted his sons with Cook’. Collingridge. ibid.

William Monkhouse, Endeavour’s surgeon and his brother Jonothan the young sailor who saved Endeavour from complete destruction after she ran aground on the Great Barrier Reef by ‘fothering‘ the ship a tricky manoeuvre Jonothan had picked up on a previous voyage.


John Harrison’s marine chronometer H-1 had shown, as early as 1736-37 on a timed voyage London, England to Lisbon, Portugal in HMS Centurian, to be capable of accurate time-keeping sufficient to establish longitude at sea when ships were beyond sight of land.

In 1763 Ferdinand Berthoud the Swiss born clockmaker, whose interest also included marine chronometers had, at the behest of the French King, visited John Harrison in London.

In early October of 1764 Berthoud took his own chronometer to sea for a timed trial but no results of that trial have been discovered. In 1766 Berthoud tried, again without success, to have Harrison divulge the essential elements of H-4. However Thomas Mudge a prominent London watchmaker who, from time to time serviced H-4, did discuss its intricacies with Berthoad.

‘As it turned out, Berthoud and the other continental clock-makers did not steal Harrison’s designs in the construction of their own marine timekeepers’. Sobel. ibid.

While it is not known for certain if Antoine de Bougainville, a mathematician of note and a member of Britain’s Royal Society, took a chronometer with him on France’s first successful voyage of circumnavigation, November 1766 to March 1769, the intriguing question remains open to speculation.

‘Joseph-Jerome Lalande; self-styled most famous astronomer in the universe…visited the Greenwich Observatory, exchanged pleasantries with King George III and helped smuggle out the first description of Harrison’s famous chronometer designed to determine longitude at sea’. Ken Alder, The Measure of All Things, The Free Press, Simon and Schuster, 2002

Not only did English seamen suffer and die due to Maskelyne’s intransigence in sabotaging and actively discouraging the use of Harrison’s chronometer the damage spread across the maritime world. Nevil Maskelyne – drop the N .See: Malicious Maskelyne


Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply