A Community Devoted to the Preservation and Practice of Celestial Navigation and Other Methods of Traditional Wayfinding
Re: Sumner and the Smalls lighthouse.
From: George Huxtable
Date: 2006 Apr 2, 11:06 +0100
From: George Huxtable
Date: 2006 Apr 2, 11:06 +0100
I had written- "The end-result of all this is to prove what I had suspected; that the old Smalls lighthouse that Sumner saw, and its replacement in 1861, are within a few feet of the same spot on the same rock, the only rock that's always above sea level. And it's all of 5 miles away from the spot that Sumner showed it on his sketch map. Unless Sumner happened to possess a chart or light-list that showed the light 5 miles North of where it really was, it seems that he falsified the position of the light so as to make a more dramatic story out of the first "Sumner line". In my eyes, that rather diminishes the stature of Captain Thomas Sumner." | Frank replied- | That doesn't make much sense as a story of "falsification" to me. If he was | making up a story, completely fictional and "falsified", then why would the | details be wrong in the most obvious parameter that he could have looked up in | a book? And what would be the motive?? It strikes me much more as a case of | someone attempting to re-construct the events long after they happened. | Clearly he spent years experimenting with his methods after the initial experience | in 1837. If he had remembered the general circumstances but not the exact | numbers involved in his sights in that year, he would naturally have started by | working backward from the position of Small's Light. He puts this down a | plotting chart, introducing some small error, and then works backward to the | details of the sight that gave the line of position. This seems like a probable | scenario to me. Navigators in that era rarely kept all the details of their | calculations. Sights were often worked up in chalk on a slate. Maybe. But Frank's suggestion, that he had somehow lost all the details and then reconstructed the whole thing from a misremembered position of the Lighthouse, implies that the whole account is somewhat fictional. It does not correspond with his text. The event is described in two places in his booklet. On pages 14 to 17, the event appears as "example I", and is written in the style of a made-up navigational problem, as were common in many navigation manuals, and beloved of examination boards. For example, it starts, in this impersonal vein- "On 17th December, 1837, sea account, a ship having run between 600 and 700 miles without observation, and being near the land ...". Written in that way, an entirely made-up problem might indeed be acceptable, even expected. Then the details of the observations and the calculations follow. However, in a following note, still part of example I, the event is personalised by adding- The ship's true position, at the time of the observation, is shown on the plate, as was actually proved by making Small's light (see page 38)." And the account, in and around page 38, makes it clear that this is no textbook example to illustrate a principle, but a relation of what actually happened. Is it likely that Sumner had only his memory to guide him? Frank states "Navigators in that era rarely kept all the details of their calculations. Sights were often worked up in chalk on a slate." That depends somewhat on what sort of vessel, in what sort of trade, and with what sort of navigator. But I agree that the use of slate, rather than pen and ink, was common, in which case the calculations from the observation might well have been lost, and might have to be reconstructed. But not the Sun observation itself, surely? The altitude, date and time of that Sun sight would have been written into a permanent log, not just on a slate. As this event was Sumner's proudest achievement, is it likely that he neglected to retain that log, or at least transcribe a copy? We have to face it. If Sumner had taken the Sun observation he said he did, and if he made good the course he tells us he did, and if the weather was indeed foggy as he tells us it was, there's simply no way that he could have seen the Smalls lighthouse "close aboard". So there must be at least one serious discrepancy in his account; not just that he happened to plot the lighthouse in the wrong place. Frank suggests that the whole thing was made-up after the event, to correspond to Sumner's recollection, and then dressed up as observations taken on the day. Would that make it more excusable? He refers to the plot as "making some small error", but a five-mile discrepancy in such a close-quarters situation is no small error. Not when it was the nub of the matter that Sumner was addressing, and the basis of his claim to fame. We won't ever know Sumner's motivation, for misleading us as he did. Fred Hebard may have put his finger on it, in writing "Regarding Sumner, I wonder whether this falsification is related to his subsequent insanity." It's worth quoting from Vanvaerenbergh and Ifland on that point. " ...Sumner's life was destined to end tragically. Shortly after his book was published in 1843, his mind began to fail. By 1850, at age 43, he was admitted to the McLean Lunatic Asylum, Boston...". Perhaps his discovery of the "Sumner Line" became an obsession. There are people who get taken that way, not just navigators. As I said in the earlier mailing, "it seems that he falsified the position of the light so as to make a more dramatic story out of the first "Sumner line". In my eyes, that rather diminishes the stature of Captain Thomas Sumner". That remains my view. George. ============= contact George Huxtable at email@example.com or at +44 1865 820222 (from UK, 01865 820222) or at 1 Sandy Lane, Southmoor, Abingdon, Oxon OX13 5HX, UK.