Viñes Martorell, Carlos Benito José
VIñES MARTORELL, CARLOS BENITO JOSé
(b. Poboleda, Spain, 19 September 1837; d. Havana, Cuba, 23 July 1893), meteorology, hurricane prediction, colonial science.
This Jesuit scientist was widely recognized as the world’s foremost authority on tropical cyclones at the end of the nineteenth century. Beginning in 1870, Benito Viñes gradually converted a small teaching observatory in Spanish-ruled Havana into the central node of a hurricane forecasting network spanning the Caribbean basin. He attracted an enormous public following in Cuba and directly inspired a similar system dedicated to typhoon prediction for East Asia. Viñes’s contribution to tropical meteorology exemplifies the importance of Jesuits to the geophysical sciences during this era, even as it underscores the significance of meteorology to colonial rule.
Colonial Science and the Jesuit Order. As a form of “practical astronomy,” meteorology played an important role in imperial expansion during the age of empire. The United States, for example, made a name for itself in the scientific realm not only with its expanding continental empire connected by telegraphic weather stations, but also for theoretical descriptions of severe storms. As a central facet of the regeneration of the Society of Jesus after its suppression (1773–1814), highly trained Jesuits scattered to the ends of the earth, “God-willing,” in the words of Viñes, “to provide a service to my brothers and contribute something to the advancement of science and the well-being of humanity” (quoted in Ramos & Enrique, 1996, p. 1). They gave particular attention to scientific education, solar astronomy, terrestrial magnetism, seismology, and meteorology—particularly, in the latter cases, where their studies might protect locals from natural hazards. They established lasting outposts of scientific excellence in the tropics, most notably at Manila (Philippines, est. 1865), Zikawei (China, est. 1872), and Tananarive (now Antananarivo, Madagascar, est. 1889). Even though most Jesuit scientists stayed aloof from colonial politics, they served as powerful agents of Western cultural imperialism.
The Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory established at the Colegio de Belén in Havana in 1857 started small, as an ancillary to the Colegio’s preparatory school curriculum. Meanwhile, Andrés Poey y Aguirre, the son of Cuba’s foremost naturalist, convinced Havana’s colonial elite to bankroll a trip to France with the goal of establishing a competing “physico-meteorological observatory” in Havana capable of acquiring “all the scientific data that can enrich the sciences in the Spanish possessions of America” (quoted in Pyenson, 1993, pp. 271–272). In 1869, in the wake of the 1868 Revolution in Spain, Cuba’s governor-general abruptly closed this state-supported observatory after a decade of irregular operation, as Cuba plunged into a ten-year anticolonial war. Poey spent the rest of his life in exile in France, long his preferred venue for publishing research into the use of clouds as tools for weather prediction and into the history of tropical cyclones. By default, high-level meteorological investigations in Havana were left in Jesuit hands.
Birth of a Hurricane Forecaster. Carlos Benito José Viñes Martorell was born to Carlos Viñes and María Teresa Martorell in a small town in the mountains west of Tarragona in Catalonia. He entered seminary in 1856 and completed his novice training to become a Jesuit in Majorca. He reputedly taught physics at the University of Salamanca during the 1860s while completing the second, advanced phase of his training. Like much of the Jesuit order in Spain after the Liberal Revolution of 1868, he fled to France, and he was ordained in Toulouse. In March 1870, he was sent to join the faculty at the Colegio de Belén and quickly took over directorship of its observatory.
Because of Cuba’s size, geographical orientation, and location in the heart of the Caribbean basin, it is extremely vulnerable to violent tropical storms during hurricane season (early June to late November)—and an excellent base for a storm scientist. October 1870 provided a rough introduction to Cuba: a hurricane ripped the zinc roof off the observatory, not long after Viñes had left his post for safer shelter. This was the first and most destructive of three storms passing near Havana that month. At this time, Viñes initiated several practices that eventually made him the world’s most celebrated hurricane forecaster. He kept a storm scrapbook recording cloud and instrument observations, conversations with ship captains, telegraph reports, and newspaper clippings useful for tracking storms—a practice his assistants and successors maintained for eighty-seven consecutive years. Viñes also published his observations in Havana newspapers to educate the public.
But no tropical cyclone of comparable intensity passed near Havana for several years. In the meantime, Viñes dedicated himself to the relationship between magnetic and meteorological phenomena, and he threw himself into scientific life in the colonial capital. The Colegio de Belén’s staff physician, Carlos Finlay, became a close friend. In 1883, Finlay successfully inoculated a student and demonstrated that mosquitoes serve as vectors for spreading yellow fever. Thus, the Colegio de Belén provided the locus—and dozens of test subjects—for two celebrated programs of tropical research.
In September 1875, Viñes finally had the chance to test his method for tracking storms. On the basis of telegraph reports from Puerto Rico passed on by the Spanish navy, he issued a public hurricane warning on the eleventh, advising ships to avoid sailing east or north from Havana. The eye passed northeast of Havana along its predicted path two days later before heading for Texas. Only one U.S. steamship, the Liberty, dared to sail into the Strait of Florida ahead of the storm. All hands were lost— but not a single paying passenger took the risk of embarking from Havana, thanks to Viñes’s advisory. On 17 October 1876, based purely on his own cloud and barometric observations, Viñes issued a warning forty-eight hours before a major hurricane made landfall south of Havana.
This success turned Viñes into a scientific celebrity. He used his notoriety to obtain support for three extended tours of damaged areas in Cuba, Hispaniola, and Puerto Rico during the winter of 1876–1877. He used physical evidence and oral reports collected during these trips to produce his first major statement of the laws of hurricane circulation and movement (1877). At least in Havana, his authority as a forecaster became so great that he had the power to cause panic. This made him very protective of his reputation; on more than one occasion, he withheld storm advisories from local newspapers in retaliation for criticizing his forecasts, the Colegio, or the Jesuit order.
International Networks. Even before the 1876 season reached its conclusion, Viñes began exploring ways to establish a telegraphic network of storm observers in the Caribbean. This led the Spanish navy to organize an irregular association reporting storm observations to the Colegio de Belén from Cuban railway operators, Spanish and British consular officials, and U.S. Army Signal Corps observers scattered throughout the region. Meanwhile, Viñes began corresponding with Federico Faura, a Spanish Jesuit administering the Manila Observatory. Based on Viñes’s ideas, Faura issued his first storm warning for the Philippines in July 1879. He and his successor, José Algué, greatly extended the methods pioneered by Viñes and organized an international typhoon warning network far more elaborate, respected, and lasting than the one Viñes eventually organized.
In 1882, Viñes journeyed across the Atlantic to purchase instruments in Europe. Stephen Perry, the celebrated director of the Jesuit Observatory of Stonyhurst College in England, was in the midst of preparing for an expedition to Madagascar to observe the transit of Venus across the Sun—the signature event in solar astronomy of this era. Perry personally trained Viñes to use the new, high-precision instruments he purchased for the Colegio de Belén and oversaw their calibration at Kew Observatory, the geophysical center of the British Empire. Back in Havana, Viñes not only observed the transit of Venus in December 1882, he also reported magnetic observations from the tropics as part of the First International Polar Year (1882–1883). These contacts helped cement Viñes’s reputation as a trustworthy colonial scientist.
Viñes’s vision for a trans-Caribbean storm-warning network finally came to fruition in the wake of an exceptional hurricane season. Seven storms affected Cuba in 1886, including a catastrophic hurricane that destroyed Indianola, Texas, three days after passing over Cuba. In 1887, Havana’s Chamber of Commerce inaugurated a telegraphic network incorporating Spanish, British, French, Danish, Dutch, Dominican, and Venezuelan dominions—all reporting to Viñes at the Colegio de Belén. He dutifully passed on his advisories to Washington, D.C. During the hurricane season of 1888, the United States’ foremost expert on tropical storms, Everett Hayden, made a pilgrimage to Havana to learn from Viñes. Hayden’s Coast Pilot charts from this era strongly urged mariners to heed Viñes’s warnings.
The Laws of Hurricane Circulation and Movement. During the twenty-three years Viñes spent as director of the Colegio de Belén observatory, he published two major books, fourteen scientific articles, several observatory yearbooks, and innumerable newspaper articles. He prepared his last and most influential work for presentation at the 1893 Columbian Exposition—and died of cerebral hemorrhage only two days after completing the final manuscript. (Faura and Algué presented it posthumously in Chicago as representatives for science in the Spanish Empire.) This treatise presented two general laws of tropical cyclonic circulation and six laws of hurricane movement applicable to the West Indies, all inspired by midcentury international debates concerning the “law of storms.” Viñes modeled these empirical laws, ultimately, on the geometric laws of planetary motion of Johannes Kepler.
Viñes’s most valuable discovery, by far, stemmed from his realization that the thin veil of cirrostratus clouds visible on the outer edges of a tropical cyclone was caused by the outflow of winds at high altitudes. These clouds not only provided one of the earliest indications of an approaching storm, the orientation of elongated “plumi-form cirrus” clouds at a hurricane’s leading edge seemed to indicate the direction of its deadly eye. He developed a landmark, three-dimensional model of hurricane circulation based on careful observation of cloud types formed at different altitudes. From his compilation of historical storm tracks, Viñes also proposed a set of rules indicating the most likely geographical routes taken by storms during different phases of the hurricane season.
These rules were controversial, particularly his laws of “recurvature”: the tendency of West Indian hurricanes at some point to reverse their westward movement and curve back toward the northeast. Viñes and Hayden engaged in a vigorous debate regarding why so many storms failed to follow these rules. This debate ultimately weakened the faith of U.S. meteorologists in Cuban forecasts.
Another Spanish Jesuit, Lorenzo Gangoiti, took over for Viñes one month into the 1893 hurricane season. At least in Havana, the public breathed a huge sigh of relief when Gangoiti precisely predicted the next major storm to strike Cuba. In September 1900, during the U.S. occupation, Gangoiti warned that a tropical storm passing over Cuba posed a threat to the Texas coast—just like the September 1875 and August 1886 storms that had done so much to establish Viñes’s reputation. But Gangoiti could not transmit an advisory because U.S. Weather Bureau forecasters now controlled the Caribbean network Viñes had established and prohibited anyone from issuing a competing forecast. Unfortunately, this storm followed Viñes’s laws almost to the letter and took several thousand lives when it again made landfall in Galveston on 8 September 1900 as the deadliest hurricane in U.S. history.
Storm notebooks, correspondence, and other archival materials are at the Centro de Estudio de Historia de la Ciencia y la Tecnología and the Instituto de Meteorología, Ministerio de Ciencia, Tecnología y Medio Ambiente, both in Havana, Cuba.
WORKS BY VIÑES
Apuntes relativos a los huracanes de las Antillas en setiembre y octubre de 1875 y 76. Havana: Tipografía y Papelería El Iris, 1877. His first major work; based on three field expeditions. Translated by George L. Dyer under the title Practical Hints in Regard to West Indian Hurricanes. Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1887.
Investigaciones relativas a la circulación y traslación ciclónica en los huracanes de las Antillas. Havana: Imprenta del Avisador Comercial de Pulido y Diaz, 1895. His capstone work; widely extracted by the international scientific press. Translated under the title Investigation of the Cyclonic Circulation and the Translatory Movement of West Indian Hurricanes. Washington, DC: Weather Bureau, 1898.
Album conmemorativo del quincuagésimo aniversario de la fundación en la Habana del Colegio de Belén de la Compañía de Jesus. Havana: Imprenta Avisador Comercial, 1904. Institutional history of the Colegio de Belén and its observatory.
Hidalgo, Angel. El P. Federico Faura, S.J. y el Observatorio de Manila. Manila: Observatorio de Manila, 1974.
———. El P. José Algué, S.J.: Científico, inventor y pacifista(1856–1930). Manila: Observatorio de Manila, 1974. Biographies of two Spanish Jesuits who followed Viñes’s lead and transformed typhoon prediction in the western Pacific.
Larson, Erik. Isaac’s Storm: A Man, a Time, and the Deadliest Hurricane in History. New York: Vintage, 2000. Blames colonialist hubris for failed forecast of the 1900 Galveston hurricane.
Pyenson, Lewis. Civilizing Mission: Exact Sciences and French Overseas Expansion, 1830–1940. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1993. Explores the uses of meteorology as a tool of cultural imperialism, particularly by French Jesuits.
Ramos, Guadalupe, and Luis Enrique. Benito Viñes S.J.: Estudio biográfico. Havana: Editorial Academia, 1996. Uses Cuban archival materials.
Udías, Agustín. “Jesuits’ Contribution to Meteorology.” Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society 77, no. 10 (October 1996): 2307–2315. Global historical overview with focus on tropical-storm prediction; extensive bibliography.
Gregory T. Cushman