When you come across certain people, living or dead, it’s not hard to be humble. The Basque-Irish savant (1810-1897) who lived in a Château in Hendaye a few miles south of my modest ‘ouse on zeee beeech in Bidart, is one of those individuals. Like most people, even in France, I had never heard of him. But his story deserves to be told, if only because of his brilliance as an astronomer and scientist, and of the depth of his Catholic faith which was not only untroubled by his scientific knowledge but enhanced by it.
“Caeli enarrant gloriam Dei” (“The heavens declare the glory of God”). Antoine’s extraordinary home, which he left to the French Academy of Sciences, consists of three massive wings : a fabulously furnished family dwelling, a splendid small church, inaccurately termed a chapel, and his library which housed tens of thousands of books, incorporating his observation-tower featuring the impressive telescope with which he patiently scanned the skies, stretched out on the padded plank on which he spent every night, when he was not somewhere in Africa, creating, for example, the first maps of Ethiopia. The Latin quotation from Psalm 18 is set in stone on the outside wall of the telescope tower. Antoine never felt so close to the Creator as when he was admiring the wonders of His universe.
If ever you visit the French border-town of Hendaye – perhaps as the starting-point of your pilgrimage to Compostella … – you must take at least an afternoon to discover Abbadia. The spacious grounds stretch as far as the coast; to the East, you have a perfect view of the Rhune, the Basque Country’s highest mountain (905 m). Antoine worried that his patient observations of the stars, on the North-South axis on which his telescope was fixed, were subject to tiny inaccuracies due to refraction. He set out to discover the necessary coefficients to correct the errors by boring holes in the walls of his Château, beginning with his laboratory, and attempting to note variations by peering through this horizontal quasi-telescope, focused on the Rhune. Among the many inscriptions found inside and outside the Château (for example, “A thousand welcomes !” in Gaelic over the front door, along with numerous English, Basque, Latin and Arabic quotations all over the walls, the one above the final aperture facing the mountain is a curious play-on-words in Basque. His experiment in optics was a total failure, and he wanted the world to know it : “Ez ikusi, ez ikasi” – “I saw nothing, I learned nothing”. One cannot but respect a scientist as honest as that. Coupled with the fact that he and his wife were fervent believers, such integrity cannot but give pause for thought to an atheist who might expect from such a man a less exemplary dedication to the truth. Along with our Australian star-gazer, the Rev. Robert Evans of the Blue Mountains west of Sydney, Antoine of Abbadia will remain an enigma and a challenge to lesser minds like mine.