“A Peculiar Sense of Proprietorship”

[View of Arequipa Station of Harvard College Observatory with mountains in background] B

From 1889 through 1927, the Harvard College Observatory (HCO) operated a southern sky photography station in the Peruvian Andes. Led by Solon Bailey, the expedition spent two seasons observing on ‘Mt. Harvard’ near Chosica (close to Lima), before relocating south to Arequipa in 1891, where clearer weather conditions offered better sight. Throughout the life of the observatory — staffed by American astronomers, Peruvian apprentices, handymen, and Amerindian labor — the astronomers produced great science and beautiful glass plates. All of this was sent back to Cambridge, Massachusetts, where it now lives in Harvard’s libraries and archives. This exhibit illustrates the expedition as a moment of informal empire, wherein methods of extraction and exploitation elevated North American scientific prestige at the cost of Peruvian national development. Under labor regimes of race and gender, and with land-grabs, water policy, and walls, this imperialism created our scientific modernity.

It might seem strange to approach a history of astronomy through dirt and sweat, but these elements unearth the worldly and human effects of studying the stars. When the astronomers arrived in Peru, they did not enter an empty land. Harvard administrators had been invited by President Cáceras in the hopes that they could open a new frontier of national science in the high Andes, but the North American astronomers saw the land and skies as their own opportunity for scientific progress. Lima and Arequipa were vibrant cities in the process of modernizing both their infrastructure and populations, building schools, hospitals, and prisons, and using new science and technology to evaluate and control the state of the nation. Peruvian writers on their society in the late nineteenth century, such as José Carlos Mariátegui, identified a host of problems endemic to the nation, from the economic reliance on raw exports to the confused placement of Amerindians in the body politic, and suggested that modern, technocratic solutions might offer an ascending path. On the one hand, education can uplift all; but on the other, most medical and agricultural technologies entering Peru were based on racist theories and destructive methods. Nevertheless, embracing a “patriotic epistemology,” Peruvians believed the development of knowledge in the homeland could boost their growth into the image of Western modernity.

A crowd on the approach to the observatory
Fig. 1: A crowd on the approach to Harvard’s Arequipa Observatory.

But it was the Harvard astronomers’ prerogative to either integrate their project alongside these patriotic sentiments, or to overlay their tasks efficiently and frictionless, using local resources only as needed. They chose the path of least resistance, effectively extracting and appropriating the knowledge they and their Peruvian staff found in the Andean sky. They chose to engage with Peruvian material reality as little as possible, importing all instruments, tools, and chemicals from Cambridge, only trusting local suppliers for the simpler items; likewise, Harvard imported their specialized labor and scientific expertise — and relied on local labor markets to support the “simpler” tasks of construction, upkeep, and hospitality. And when the astronomers relocated their operation to South Africa in 1927, they removed all telescopes and offered the land and buildings to the local government. Taking many aspects of Peruvian society at face value, this strategy reproduced economic, racial, and gender hierarchies that have long troubled both Peru and the United States as ‘legacies of colonialism.’

At times the labor hierarchy was malleable: Bailey often helped in construction and cleaning; and Elias Vieyra, a field-trained assistant from Lima, was entrusted with oversight of observations and photography for the rainy season while Bailey scouted for cloudless locations in southern Peru and Chile. But these reversals only came at special moments, when it was time to install a new telescope, or the volcano-top weather instruments needed replacement. For the most part, North American-trained professional astronomers controlled the observatory. They spent fixed year, salaried terms in the field, where they took photographs at night, developed and shipped them to Cambdrige, and continued their pet projects on the side. Solon Bailey studied globular clusters, while William Pickering focused on Martian canals.

While the director of the observatory received more handsome pay, the younger astronomers started on an annual salary of $500, with $100 more for each following year of good work. In order to help with these tasks, the astronomers sought cheaper assistants from their friends among the “Spanish” Peruvian gentlemen, often finding well-to-do young men in need of occupation. These men — Elias Vieyra, Luis Dunker, Juan Muñiz — often began with an interest in astronomy, and received training in the basics and exigencies of field astronomy. Like the “first-rate” employees, these “second-rates” were offered a raise for every year they stayed on: starting at 20 soles per month and increasing as high as s/.50 (approximately $40 per month). Through the Annals, which HCO used to disseminate the work of their observatories, these men received credit for their contributions. However, with the exception of Muñiz and his family, the astronomers did not encourage these men towards an education equal to their own. Muñiz was a reliable and brilliant handyman, but Bailey viewed the other men as volatile and irresponsible, failing his expectations when developing and packing plates without supervision, and occasionally abusing the credit of the observatory in town. Bailey tried to find middle ground in hiring George Waterbury, an uneducated man from North America, to assist, thinking that a dependent man so far from home would be more responsible. Starting him $100 annually (plus $75 per year), he worked so energetically that he burned-out after two years. When he left, Bailey realized that it was logistically impractical to import the “easier, i.e. simpler” labor, especially if he must continually retrain them in proper technique. To find the cheap, reliable man of his dreams, Bailey had to look local.

The Bailey family at home in Chosica
Fig. 4: The Bailey family in the Chosica residence, with all the trinkets of home.

At the lowest rung of the hierarchy, women and racialized Peruvians extensively supported the observatory, but received little recompense for their labor. On the women’s end, domestic labor involved cooking, cleaning, laundry, and, since Bailey brought his three year old Irving, child-care. Occasionally, Bailey’s wife, Ruth, or other North American women on site would provide calculations (with wages negotiated at the same rate as the computers in Cambridge, 25 cents per hour), but for the most part they delegated household tasks and maintained a familiar and comfortable home. Notably, when Annie Jump Cannon visited from Cambridge in 1922, she received full control of the telescope and photographic operations — a result of her long career, earned respect and high regard among the HCO administrators. On Mt. Harvard, working in close and remote conditions, the astronomers regarded the whole staff as a family. But as the institution grew in Arequipa, attracting more local and international attention, the space became more of a “hotel.” It was expected that the astronomers’ wives would maintain the family space, but for frequent guests and visitors, Bailey sought a trustworthy “matron” who could attend to the logistics and finances of housing. This plan was too difficult for Bailey to realize alongside his astronomy work, and so the observatory cut back on its external cooperation and staff housing.

Herder with Llamas in front of El Misti
Fig. 5: Herder with Llamas in front of El Misti.

While assistants were necessarily live-in for their late-night duties, the astronomers drew construction crews from a regional pool of itinerant day-laborers constituted mostly of Amerindian or mestizo Peruvians in poverty. Bailey accessed these workers through his political connections with the railroad, who connected him with muleteers and cattle-drivers that regularly hired crews for herding, hacienda farming, or construction. Bailey kept the more delicate building projects to himself (i.e. installing the telescope with a level base), which left the rote tasks of building paths up mountains, loading and hauling supplies on mules, and assembling the prefabricated paper houses purchased from Worcester for the expedition. Paid in paltry wages (5 soles per day, 10 for the treacherous tasks), these men still did good work and had fun with their foreman (A poorly placed ladder gashed open a paper wall. And they joked, who builds a paper house where it will rain for a whole season? Elias Vieyra, the Limeño assistant, lived alone with this mistake while the astronomers scouted dryer locations in the south). When the opportunity presented itself, Bailey hired those happy laborers whom he thought he could trust as residential “servants” to help cook, clean, or watch for breaks in the clouds in the dead of night. These men and women — Francisco and Vincenta in Chosica, and Josephina, Pelionela, and nameless others in Arequipa — each received a flat monthly wage of s/.15, approximately $11. In his journals and reports, Bailey racialized these workers as “indians,” “cholos,” “half-breeds,” “mixed race,” and even “Inca,” and reflects on them with a mix of idyllic poverty and premodern frustration — simple, lazy, and only motivated with a drink. He clearly appreciated their work and knowledge of the locale. Unfortunately, he rarely recorded their names or stories, and their group photographs capture their faces in ghostly shadows. 

Mules loaded with weather station for transport up the volcano.
Fig. 6: Mules loaded with the weather station transport to the summit of El Misti.

Where the day-laborers only found small and short wages, other workers found a steady opportunity for income with Harvard’s meteorological project. In order to determine both the best observing climate in the region, and also the general climatic behavior, the astronomers established a series of small, self-recording instruments in locations throughout the southern Andean cordillera. Once set, these instruments needed only a change of papers, and for finished records to be sent to the observatory. At first, Bailey hired nearby residents for this task, paying 10 soles per month for four or five months of reading, all up front. However, he soon found that his picks were unreliable, often falling out of contact after only a few weeks. Bailey had more luck with wealthy landowners, on whose land he could build a station, and whose wealthy leisure inclined them to help the project gratis. By the time the meteorology recording project ended early in 1900, Muñiz was making annual trips to gather the data, reset the instruments, and this travel was taking a toll on his health. Citing inconsistent reliability of readers and eerie constancy in the climate, Bailey shifted resources to the institution’s astronomy projects.

The primary science project was the photographing of the southern sky. With the maximizing of productivity in mind, the astronomers spent little time studying through the eye-piece. If they spent too much time on visual observations, as William Pickering did when studying seasons and canals on Mars, the administration reprimanded them and, in Pickering’s case, removed them from the job. (The demands for this material production allowed for hardly any time to share the telescope with local guests and visitors.) The plates were a valuable commodity from which professional “readers” (i.e. the women computers) deduced the size and nature of the universe — Henrietta Leavitt could not have worked out the Cepheid period-luminosity relationship without the Magellenic clouds, only viewable in the south. If, in the journey north, plates were poorly packed or boxes poorly stacked, the glass broke. But with such valuable and unique information, the computers repaired any plate not shattered to oblivion with tape. Usually these damages were blamed on rough waters or the Panama traversal (before the completion of the canal in 1914 a system of railroads, boats, and mules carried freight over the isthmus); but on occasion, Bailey caught an assistant with their pants down, loosely packing boxes and casually tossing them aside.

Crowd at the Chosica railway station
Fig. 7: A curious crowd at the Chosica railroad station.
Harbor at Mollendo, where dockers loaded plates and people by dingy and crane.
Fig. 8: Harbor at Mollendo, where dockers loaded plates and people by dingy and crane.
Fig. 9: Bailey’s Meridian Photometer, one of the first telescopes to rest in the Atacama sun.

The telescopes in Arequipa were just as valuable (if not intrinsically moreso) than the plates, and their safety equally concerned the astronomers. To avoid the perils of Panama, the valuable 24-inch Bruce Doublet was sent by way of the Straits of Magellan; and Bailey carried the 8-in Bache telescope in his personal luggage at the outset of the expedition. It was unlikely that anyone would steal such cumbersome instruments, but if any of the many small parts were damaged, it would take months for a replacement from Cambridge. On Mt. Harvard, the instruments were so remote, and visitors often expected and well supervised, that these security concerns were minor. But matters were more complicated in Arequipa. Having bought a terraced hill, previously worked by villagers in the surrounding houses, the observatory sat in the middle of habitual lands: residents regularly passed through the grounds, planted crops on the fringes, and no matter how much barbed fencing they put up, animals always found a way through to trample the gardens. The astronomers loathed this behavior, although such friction is expected when a foreign system of private property abuts against a tradition of communal land-sharing on the ayllu. None of these traversals caused any real damage beyond petty tool theft or wall damage from the kids and their rocks, but Bailey took serious concern about the telescopes. To make matters worse, it felt like Peru “seasonally” underwent bursts of civic instability; whether revolution, rebellion, or train robbery, the observatory was paranoid that throngs of armed men would descend upon them in a looting frenzy. They tossed around a few proposals to improve security: they could convert the telescopes to cannons; the corners of the house could be made in the style of the “Irish landholders,” fortified with improved sightlines; or they could build a tall wall of earthworks all around the property, invest in a gun, and keep the front door locked. To best dispel this spectre of theft, the astronomers choose the wall, further isolating themselves from the adjacent village, and fully converting their production-house into a North American enclave. With the American flag at full mast, Bailey felt confident that no troublemakers would bother the observatory.

Wall on the street in front of the observatory.
Fig. 10: Wall on the street in front of the observatory.
Wall built in the northeastern corner of the yard.
Fig. 11: Wall built in the northeastern corner of the yard.
View of the village before wall construction.
Fig. 12: View of the village before wall construction.

They were never under siege, but the wall did provide peace of mind during an actual civil war of 1894-5. Not only could the astronomers rest easy that their telescopes were safe, disassembled and buried, and their staff secure at the observatory, but they also opened their gates to the locals who feared their village might be pillaged. Nicolás de Piérola’s (ultimately victorious) army spent a few weeks resting in Arequipa, during which all communication and shipping to Cambridge was blocked. Bailey reported minimal violence, except for a few stray gunshots in the distance, barricades in the street, and troops occupying the railroads. The walls soothed the anxieties of administrators at Harvard as much as their astronomers in the field, but they felt such troubles should have been avoided, since the institution was well connected with the American Resident in Lima and officials in the Peruvian government (who, admittedly, were under attack). Unfortunately, the Office of the Resident frequently changed hands, with some men more interested in US science than others. Politics alone would never secure the position of the observatory; physical infrastructure was needed to code the space as exceptional zone.

The buildings on site were certainly magnificent. Ditching the drab, damp prefab paper houses of Chosica (thoughtfully gifted to their assistants Francisco and Vincenta), William Pickering built a “commodious hacienda” (Dava Sobel, The Glass Universe) atop the terraced hill, with elaborate gardens and a facade of white volcanic stone (sillar). It was an expensive undertaking that almost cost William his relationship with his brother Edward, who had been prudently administering the finances of the project from Cambridge. Twelve thousand dollars later, Bailey was recalled to replace Pickering as the southern director. The budget reoccurs as a major concern in the correspondence between Arequipa and Cambridge, but once the mansion was built, the administration realized the value of solid infrastructure.

One immediate benefit arose in access to water. Clean water not only hydrated the employees, but was also necessary to develop the glass plates before they were sent north. Before settling on bought land in Arequipa, Bailey struggled to get a regular and reliable source of water. Despite his best efforts, a few times he was not able to get water to his construction workers for over a day (he shared from his pisco in guilt). At length, he was able to find a regular supply from a boy named Ascenio, who carried water up Mt. Harvard each morning to the tune of a sol per shipment.

In Arequipa, the establishment installed plumbing and running water for their operations. To access this water supply, Bailey negotiated with the surrounding landowners, the Polars, to install a pipeline from the rio Chile and pay a small monthly fee for its use. However, without any substantive water laws, the astronomers often found themselves placed second to larger and more influential water needs, mostly for irrigation on nearby haciendas. Out of frustration with his sputtering spouts, Bailey suggested to his superiors that they increase the water budget. More money to the authorities might convince the water to flow constantly. After a few years of steady supply, the astronomers thought about ways to use their land and water access to generate electricity: they could install more pipes to accommodate a water-powered electrical generator on site, or use the strong altiplano winds that blew outside of private control and regulation. No matter how tied-up the observatory might have been in the city’s infrastructure and policy, they always looked for ways to operate as independently and fluidly as possible.

The gardens in around the Observatory.
Fig. 13: The gardens around the Observatory.

This robust, remote facility also attracted many North American scientists who sought to use the resources of the Arequipa station. The astronomers regularly received requests for data, remote work, or simple hospitality on their travels. Among the more notable guests were C. G. Abbot of the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, who sought data on the power of the sun; Hiram Bingam III of Yale asked for weather records to help in planning his Machu Picchu expeditions; and Harvard’s anthropologist F. W. Putnam often sent directions for the astronomers to document and collect gravesites nearby. Anthropological archaeology became a favorite hobby of the astronomers, and a strange spectacle for their assistants. Once, when excavating a site near the observatory, Bailey stumbled across an intact grave almost instantly. Francisco, a local muleteer and guide, joked that he must have “used his astronomy” to locate it. Bailey laughed but did not correct the simple error. For Peruvian locals, especially those without formal education or the experiences of wealth, these sciences remained shrouded in mystery. Bailey occasionally gave lectures at the local university in Arequipa, and often gifted copies of the Annals and photo reproductions of his favorite plates, but these efforts did not lead to a sustained astronomical education campaign for interested locals. The observatory, as a transnational institution with a penchant for interdisciplinarity, operated for the sake of North American knowledge needs. 

And as an institution of North America, North Americans appropriated its legacy just the same as the knowledge it produced. When the astronomers left Peru in 1927, they relocated their entire operation, insular as it was, to their new observatory in Bloemfontein, South Africa. In contrast, other astronomical expeditions to South America, such as the Gillis’ United States Naval Observatory or Mills’ Lick Observatory expeditions to Santiago de Chile had sold their instruments to their Chilean colleagues, establishing educational programs and the seeds of a national observatory program. Contemporary Peruvian journalism proudly claims the Arequipa observatory as a historic moment of patriotic achievement, but sitting in history, Harvard’s business in Peru followed the same extractive model that plagued the nation’s faltering economy. Guano, sugar, wool, nitrates, railroads, all of Peru’s notable commodities had been appropriated by foreign companies who extracted the resources and kept the wealth away from the nation. The Harvard astronomers, however grand and humanistic their mission, behaved exactly the same. When a priest visited at Arequipa, he watched the photography operation and accused them suspiciously, “you take our stars, and you send them to Cambridge, and they have use of them there.”

View of the observatory north, with Chachani in the background.
FIg. 14: View of the observatory north, with Chachani in the background.

When Solon Bailey first arrived at the spot that would become Mt. Harvard, he surveyed the land and felt “a peculiar sense of proprietorship.” It is improper to ask whether this was the quiet complacency of a tired frontiersman, the assertion of a closeted imperialist, or just the excitement of a man ready to begin his mission. There were no gunboats in the story of the observatory, no intervention or regime changes, no spectacle of domination. This how empire appeared to Bailey and his contemporaries, mired as they were in the fog of their contemporary moment. But, in retrospect, the actions of the Harvard astronomers demonstrate that the legacies of colonialism die hard. Without active resistance to exploitative and oppressive systems of labor and land, active institutions risk blindly duplicating the structural violences that have separated humans for so long. It does not take an emperor to build an empire. All you need is a statement of purpose and a blinding amount of material power. 


Bibliography: All quoted and pictured sources can be found in the following digital archives from the Harvard University Archives (HUA):

Harvard College Observatory. “Papers of Solon Irving Bailey, 1889-1925,” 1925 1889., HUG 1191.

———. “Papers of William Henry Pickering, 1870-1907,”, HUG 1691.

———. “Records of Director Edward C. Pickering, 1864-1926 (Inclusive),” , UAV 630.

———. “Records of the Harvard College Observatory : Photographs, 1887-Approximately 1930? And Undated.,”, UAV 630.271.

———. “Records of the Harvard College Observatory : The Boyden Station, Arequipa, Peru, 1888-1927.,”, UAV 630.100.

———. Annals of the Astronomical Observatory of Harvard College. Vol. 34 (1895), and 36 (1899).

*This blog and exhibit has been adapted from the author’s master’s thesis. For a more intense bibliography, refer to “You Take Our Stars: Harvard Astronomers in Peru, 1889-1900,” (Master’s Thesis, Simmons University, 2019).

**All currency conversions and calculations come from the HCO Annals v. 34, in which Bailey offers the equation of 32 soles approximately “equal to 25 dollars in gold.” (34). According to Bailey, this was the standard annual wage for workers at a nearby sugar plantation. 

Alex McGrath

Archives Assistant at Wolbach Library
Alex is the Archival Assistant at Wolbach.