A comet trails the sky

In this concluding part, J. Sarath Edirisinghe looks at how the world saw the comet of 1664, and the conclusions that were made

The novice’s study

The following account gives the details of the famous personalities that recorded the sighting of the comet of 1664 in England, and the calamities that followed. While Knox was embroiled in the travails and tribulations of an internal conflict in the 17th century Kandyan kingdom, Isaac Newton was toiling at Trinity College, Cambridge, as a 22-year-old sub-sizar. This meant that he had to supplement his income by acting as a servant to Fellows of Cambridge or to other wealthy students. As a sub–sizar he was allowed to attend lectures at a lower fee.

The observations and comments on comets were important for natural philosophers, since their motions raised questions about the orderly structure of the universe, and the relationship between celestial and terrestrial matter. In his famous notebook he noted the observation of the comet on December 23, 24, 27, 29 and 30, 1664. His observation of the comet in the winter of 1664 was a turning point in the young scientist’s life. Prompted by his observations and recording of the position of the 1664 comet, Newton embarked on a self study of astronomy at Trinity College. The entry for December 10, 1664 shows that he was unable to locate the comet correctly in the crowded night sky. His status as a novice to astronomy is evident by the specification of the comet’s mistaken position in relation to the moon’s centre. It appears that Newton realised the error as shown by a decisive cancellation of the entry at a later date. By the time of his second report on December 17, he had correctly located the comet.

Just one glimpse

The appearance of the fiery, blazing star over England, heralded a period of frantic prophesies among the ordinary folks, while the intellectuals and the scientists considered the apparition as a stimulus to further research and philosophical discussions. Samuel Pepys was one of the most disappointed notables in England, who was not fortunate enough to observe the comet of 1664. Pepys wrote about his frustrated endeavours to see the 1664 comet as follows: ‘Mighty talke there of this Comet that is seen a ’night; and the King and the Queene did sit up last night to see it, and did, it seems. And to-night I thought to have done so too, but it is cloudy and so no stars appear. But I will endeavor it (December 17), My lord Sandwich this day writes me word That he hath seen (at Portsmouth) the Comet, And says it is the most extraordinary thing that Ever he saw. (December 21)

Pepys at last caught one disappointing glimpse of the comet, larger and duller, than any other star on December 24, the day after young Isaac Newton recorded the first clear observation of it in his ‘notebook’.

Errors and additions

Christopher Wren and John Wallis saw the comet of 1664 and were advancing theories about the movements of comets, based on assumptions of straight lines and constant speeds. The men of the Royal Society made use of the comet of 1664 to test their theories. Sir Christopher Wren, who designed the St. Paul’s Cathedral after the ‘Great Fire’ destroyed the original building in 1666, was one of the founder members of the Royal Society. Dr. Robert Hooke, Secretary of the Royal Society, observed and studied the comet of 1664, and erred by identifying it as the one that appeared in 1618. Allen Chapman, delivering the Sir Henry Tizard Memorial Lecture, attributed Hooke’s error to the lack of precision instruments to measure the angular dimensions of the comet nucleus. Hooke was a great scientist and an inventor, and has since been called the ‘Leonardo’ of England. It is noteworthy to highlight the close association of Robert Hooke with the author of the ‘An Historical Relations Of Ceylon’ Robert Knox. Hooke read Knox’s manuscript, encouraged him to publish the book, and wrote the lengthy preface to the first edition of the book. Later Hooke inserted the verse now seen at the bottom of the Portrait of Robert Knox, designed by Winter, at the Bodleian. Knox mentions Hooke in his autobiography as ‘my esteemed friend’. Of the 21 papers Hooke submitted to Philosophical transactions, over a dozen deal with astronomy. Knox remained a close associate until Hooke’s death in 1703.

The domestic Annals of Scotland, Reign of Charles II: 1660-1673, Part 3 says that in December 1664, “…There appeared mighty, frae four hours in the morning till day light one fiery comet, tending in our sight frae the southeast to the northwest and seen our horizon betwixt Arthur’s seat and Pichtland Hill with one tail terrible to the beholders. It began to appear at about three am in the morning and very terrible in its first apparition. After that it appeared in the evening”.

In ‘De Cometis’ John Gadbury (London 1665) lists the omens that comets bring “...Threatening the world with famine, plague and war. To Princes, death! To Kingdoms, many crosses. To all estates, inevitable losses. To Herdsmen, rot. To ploughmen, hapless seasons. To sailors, storms. To Cities, civil treasons. That is how the majority of English saw the omens associated with comets.

Plagues and fires hit London

How true the predictions of John Gadbury’s were. True to its form the comet wasted no time to usher in the inevitable catastrophe that accompanies it. The comet was visible almost throughout the month of December 1664, and London experienced one of the coldest winters in history. The bright comet that traced an arc in the sky led to much comment, portending ‘horrible winds and tempests’. Then in the ‘remote, squalid precinct of St. Giles-in-the field’ outside thee city wall Goodwoman Phillips was pronounced dead of the plague. Her house was locked up and ‘Lord have mercy on us’ painted on the door. By the following Christmas, the plague had claimed more than 100,000 Londoners, about a third of those who did not flee the city.

With the epidemic of plague, Cambridge closed and young Newton went home to Woolsthorpe. While the horrible plague brought in misery to thousands, cloistered at home, Newton invented Calculus. The plague was soon followed by the ‘Great Fire of London’, which burnt out the plague as well as other contagion, thereby cleansing the city.

The diary of Samuel Pepys records the events surrounding the ‘Great Plague of London’, which began in the winter of 1664, and was mercifully interrupted by the ‘Great Fire of London’ that destroyed much of the city in 1666. Daniel Defoe, as a young boy, was in London and saw both ‘the plague’ and the ‘great fire’. Defoe’s ‘A Journal Of The Plague Years’ is considered one of the first examples of journalistic fiction, where in this book, he himself becomes a pseudo–witness writing the account of the plague in 1665. The ‘Journal’ was written in 1722.

Some consider the devastating epidemic of the plague in 1664 to be the third pandemic in historical times, while others consider the third as the one in 1896. Defoe described in great detail the shortness of the time between falling sick and dying, showing the short incubation period of pneumonic plague. He also described how many townspeople committed suicide due to unbearable pain, or being pushed into depths of utter misery, poverty and hopelessness.

The name ‘black death’ for plague came into use during the second pandemic in 1340. There are several reasons for this name – one being the belief that death was heralded by a black hooded messenger, riding a black horse, and the other based on the clinical manifestations of septicemic plague where the fatally infected showed large purple or black patches on the body, following bleeding in to the skin. The patches which appeared shortly before death were known as ‘tokens’ or ‘God's marks’ and were used by ‘searchers’, whose duty was to view the bodies in order to report the cause of death. So in London, searchers inspected the dead for the presence of tokens and many fell dead themselves a few days after.

At this point it is worth highlighting that Defoe knew Robert Knox and used the information in the ‘historical relations’ to mould the character of Captain Singleton. According to James Ryan, Defoe's ‘Robinson Crusoe’ was published a few months before Knox's death, and its introspective and religious passages strongly resemble Knox's account of his own religious difficulties in captivity.

People of the new states in America saw the comet of 1664. In fact it was in 1664 that the English captured the town of New Amsterdam from the Dutch and renamed it New York. Astronomer John Danforth of Massachusetts, who correctly deduced that the great comet of 1664 passed well above the orbit of the moon said that ‘…most comets are observed to precede if not portend great calamities’. He urged people to repent their sins and pay heed to this sign from an angry god.

A ‘Tiger Tail’ in the sky

Millions in Spain, Italy and other European countries saw the great comet or 1664. A 12-year-old Japanese boy, Matasaburou, in his personal daily diary, had recorded an illuminating account of the comet of 1664, including its position. He called it the ‘Tiger Tailed Star’. He grew up in this early Edo period to be a successful sake businessman and a great scholar. Later he was able to buy ‘status’ and to take up his adult name, Katsurai Soan. He rose up to the position of a Sensei.

There are no records of any calamity of note associated with the comet of 1664 in Japan, although it is known that a comet was observed during the siege of Osaka 13 years earlier and another one during the farmers’ riots in 1637-1638, the Shimabara conflicts.The great comet of 1664 was seen around the world. The magnitude of its brightness was such that it was classed as one of the brightest. It received the official name – C/1664 WI. It was described and drawn by Johannes Havelius. Some call the comet by this name.
In his paper, written in Latin, ‘Astronomiae Cometicae Synopsis’, published in the philosophical Transaction 1705, Edmond Halley reported his findings after studying the orbits of 24 comets. He had calculated the orbital elements of their orbits as approximated by parabola. He found that three comets of 1531, 1607 and 1682 had similar orbits, and concluded that they were probably different apparitions of the same comet orbiting the sun on a highly eccentric elliptical orbit with a period of about 76 years. He predicted its return – 1758/59. As predicted, the comet appeared in 1759, and people were convinced that it was the laws of physics that determined its appearance and not any impending calamity.

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