Born in Graulhet, in the department of Tarn, France, Élie Colin’s first studies were in the choir school of Albi, then in the minor seminary of Lavaur. He entered the Jesuit novitiate of Toulouse on August 25, 1870. From 1872 to 1874, he completed his study of literature at the Sainte Marie School, also in Toulouse, then studied philosophy for three years in Vals près le Puy. From 1877 to 1882, he first taught grammar and then math and science in Bordeaux, Sarlat, and Monaco. In the fall of 1882, he began to study theology, and undertook specialized studies in science in 1886. The following year he was sent to Stonyhurst College, which is near Blackburn, in England, to work with P. Perry, the famous astronomer. After that, he did one more [year of] internship at the observatory in Montsouris. He had already been picked to found and to direct an observatory in Madagascar, and his projects in Madagascar received the enthusiastic support of Mascart and Le Myre de Vilers.
Colin sailed from Marseilles, France for Antananarivo in late 1888, and arrived on January 4, 1889. He began construction of the observatory of Ambohidempona in April, and began to publish meteorological observations the following year.
As soon as he had arrived in Tamatave, he had contracted [yellow] fever, and by 1893, his health had deteriorated to such a degree that he needed to return to France for medical help. The observatory was able to continue to function through August of 1895, as he had been able to train some personnel. However, this first achievement was to be destroyed by order of the Malagasy government on September 18 of that year.
In the early months of 1896, after the Franco-Hova war, Colin was able to return to Antananarivo. The observatory was rebuilt along more modest lines, which took time. Aside from one trip to Paris, via Mauritius, he remained in Madagascar until his death, which occurred on April 10, 1923.
The scientific work
As soon as he arrived in Madagascar his life was divided between sedentary work at the observatory and frequent travel throughout the country, as he was called upon to continue various initiatives that had been started by others. As of 1872, for instance, Jean Laborde and then the Brothers of the Christian Schools, as well as Fathers Delbosc and Roblet, had been recording the temperature and barometric pressure on a daily basis in Antananarivo. We also know that, starting in 1869, a mountain of information had been gathered by Alfred Grandidier during his explorations, and that cartographic work had been undertaken by Father Roblet starting in 1872. So, Colin was already faced with a plentiful harvest of information that needed to be verified and utilized.
That particular set of circumstances helps to explain why the observatory was set up as it was. At first, work was confined to practical matters: hourly readings, geodesy, and meteorology. Later, there was also some interest in the earth’s magnetism. Now and then, there were requests for help during occasional astronomical phenomena such as eclipses of the sun, or the transit of Mercury (across the sun) on May 9, 1891. Also, because of Madagascar’s location, the director of the observatory was led to do a close study of the cyclones that plagued the region.
There was no shortage of things to observe, but the work of synthesis and interpretation was more difficult. Starting in 1890, Colin undertook a huge alternating workload in two general areas: the annual publication of works presenting the synthesis of a variety of observations, and the publication of monographs on certain phenomena that were particular to that region, such as data on wind, temperature, rain, etc.
Having been promoted to the status of corresponding member of the Académie des sciences of Paris, in the geography and navigation section, Colin was eager to communicate the results of his research. His work was greatly appreciated and he was awarded a number of prizes: the Jérôme Ponti prize in 1890, the Louise Bourbonnaud prize in 1895, the Herbert Fournet prize in 1898, the Valz prize in that same year, and the Gay prize of the Académie des sciences, in 1903. In recognition of his work, he was also made a Knight of the Legion of Honor on August 4, 1921.
Music was more than an artistic hobby for Colin, who had shown promising musical talent at an early age. At the age of seventeen, he was chief organist for the cathedral of Albi, and his gift for music was not to be neglected. When he arrived in Antananarivo, he was quickly given the title of organist of the cathedral of Andohalo. In addition to being an organist, his practical knowledge of the instrument also led to the installation of organs in Antananarivo, Fianarantsoa, and Rose-Hill (Mauritius).
In Madagascar, music provides another means of communication because the Malagasy people are so music-minded. Once a week, Colin would come down from his hill in Ambohidempona to give singing classes in Andohalo. He was also interested in the music of Madagascar, and in 1899, he published a songbook of Mélodies malgaches with a preface on Malagasy music and musicians.
The man and the priest
Elie Colin was loved by all, even though he didn’t seek popularity. This is what one of his friends, Father de la Devèze, had to say about him:
The man’s natural charm was supplemented by exquisite humility; after all, one supposed that he was familiar with the greatest scientific theories, but he remained a simple person. He was friendly but reserved, and although he was very distinguished, he never turned down a request for help. His devotion to others was matched with such urbanity that he came across as one indebted to those who came to him for his knowledge.
Austere in his religious practice, and thoroughly infused with his missionary duty, he always knew how to combine his zeal with his work: the little chapel in Ambohidempona is well-known by all the poor Malagasy people who live near the observatory. One would have had to follow Father Colin around during his scientific excursions to know of all the good that he did. Although he could barely communicate in Malagasy, he visited the sick and comforted the dying. We all know about his work as a scientist, but only God knows about his work as an apostle. Sometimes his zeal was even heroic: in the course of a geodesic expedition in 1896, when his party was ambushed by rebels, he not only bandaged up the severely wounded leader, captain Delcroix, under a hail of bullets, he also pulled a wounded soldier to safety under the same conditions, and gave aid to yet another who was mortally wounded, unto the administration of last rites.
J. L. Peter s. j.
There is no need to give an exhaustive list of Father Colin’s publications here, as a reasonably complete bibliography already exists in:
Charles Poisson. Essai bibliographique (1889-1923). Antananarivo: imprimerie de la Mission catholique, 1923, 36 p.
On Father Colin:
Le Père Élie Colin, Fathers de La Devèze and Charles Poisson. Bourges: imprimerie Tardy-Pigelet, undated, 17 p.
L’observatoire de Tananarive et ses travaux [The Observatory of Antananarivo and its Work], Charles Poisson, s.j. Antananarivo: imprimerie de l’Émyrne, G. Pitot et Cie, 1929, 41 p., ill.
Un cinquantenaire: l’observatoire d’Ambohidempona [The Fiftieth Year Anniversary of the Observatory of Ambohidempona], Charles Poisson s.j. Paris : éditions Dillen, 1939, 141 p.
N.B. A number of these publications are still available, either in Antananarivo: (Maison St. Paul, Tsaramasoandro); or in Paris: (Procure des Missions, 79 avenue de Breteuil).
This article, reprinted here with permission, is from Hommes et Destins: Dictionnaire biographique d’Outre-Mer [Men and Destinies: Overseas Biographical Dictionary], vol. 3, published by the Académie des Sciences d’Outre-Mer (15, rue la Pérouse, 75116 Paris, France). All rights reserved.