Sep 232010

Mexico’s first international scientific expedition in 1874 left Mexico City with only a few months to travel half way around the world to Japan to set up their instruments in time for the transit of Venus on 9 December.

Mexico’s international scientific expedition to observe the 1874 transit of Venus

Looking at a map, the quickest route would appear to be via Acapulco and then by boat across the Pacific. However, in 1874, the “road” to Acapulco was often in appalling condition, especially after the rainy season, and boats crossing the Pacific from Acapulco were few and far between.

The Commission of Mexican Astronomers opted to travel via San Francisco, from where more vessels left regularly for the Far East. Getting from Mexico City to San Francisco in 1874 was nowhere as simple as it is today. For the first part of the trip, the intrepid group was able to take advantage of the Mexico City-Veracruz railway line, inaugurated only the previous year.

Rail bridge on Mexico City-Veracruz line

Infiernillo Bridge on the Mexicano Railroad (from Viaje de la Comisión Astronómica Mexicana al Japón)

This was an arduous and long trip in those days. Fortunately, the railway from Mexico City to Veracruz had just been completed. The expedition’s memoirs include a charming sketch of the Infiernillo railway bridge (see image).

Boats from Veracruz did not operate on a strict timetable either, and the group decided to wait in Orizaba for news of a suitable vessel rather than risk exposing themselves to the tropical diseases prevalent in the port itself. They had left Mexico City on 18 September and eventually set sail from Veracruz six days later—to Havana, Cuba. This was because vessels were much more frequent to the USA from Cuba than from Mexico.

Landing in Philadelphia on 30 September, the group was placed in temporary quarantine until diplomatic efforts succeeded in getting them released. A few days later, they caught a train to New York, and then the following day, to Chicago and on to San Francisco. Within a week, they had berths on board the Vasco de Gama to Japan.

Route taken by Mexico's first international scientific expedition, 1874-5

Route taken by Mexico’s first international scientific expedition, 1874-5. All rights reserved

Their route back home was via Hong Kong, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), the Suez Canal, Italy and France (see map). By the time they arrived back in Mexico, they had completed a world tour, though it had taken somewhat longer than that of Jules Verne’s fictional tale Around the World in Eighty Days.

Source: Odisea 1874 o el primer viaje internacional de cientificos mexicanos by Marco Arturo Moreno Corral (Fonda de Cultural Economica,  1986)

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