In 2009, between studying for my Master’s and Ph.D., I was lucky enough to spend July at the National Maritime Museum as a research intern. This is a great programme if you are a postgraduate or just finishing your undergraduate studies, and want to try out some primary research or get to grips with the NMM’s fantastic collections. My project, supervised by Richard Dunn, looked at early modern navigational instruments, of which the Museum has quite a few. My aim was not to understand them in a scientific sense, but to consider them as cultural artefacts: what did they mean for the people who made and used them? This involved looking both at the instruments themselves and at manuscripts and books from the period, many of them held in the NMM’s Caird Library – although this was in the old Caird, before the Sammy Ofer wing was built (the new Caird is great, but I admit a soft spot for the old library, with its glass-fronted bookshelves. It was where I encountered manuscripts for the first time, too).
I wrote a short report that was published on the NMM’s collections blog about the time I started my Ph.D. With encouragement and advice from Richard and others, I then turned the internship’s findings into ‘Navigating culture: navigational instruments as cultural artefacts, c. 1550-1650’, published in the Journal for Maritime Research in May last year. As the Journal‘s 18-month embargo on depositing the ‘post-print’ text of the article has now ended, I have deposited a copy in Open Research Exeter, the university’s repository. ‘Post-print’ is the text of the article after peer review and editing, and can usually only be deposited after an embargo; many journals also allow you to deposit a ‘pre-print’, the text before review, sometimes without an embargo. This is the first time I have made an article Open Access, and since it is based on research at the NMM, and was published while I was at Cambridge, I wasn’t entirely sure where it should be deposited. However, I’ve received a lot of help from Exeter’s Open Access and Data Curation team, and the Subject Librarian for history, Aeronwen Cole. You can find the post-print here; it does not include the same pagination, or the illustrations, which were included in the article with the NMM’s permission – in the post-print I have provided links to the same illustrations on the NMM’s website, where they are available.
Since writing the article (or more accurately ‘research note’), I have come across quite a few things that would have fitted into it nicely, so it seems a good idea to share them here. Mostly – as regular readers will have come to expect – these are from the High Court of Admiralty papers at The National Archives. As these are court cases, navigation is not the main concern; but since they are usually about shipping, it’s not surprising that navigation crops up sometimes, and these incidental references can actually tell us quite a lot about the everyday practices of navigators, as opposed to the theory presented in the texts I mostly looked at during the internship. I argued in the article that navigation was a pretty common activity in which sailors as well as theoreticians were recognised as experts, and I think my more recent findings continue to prove this. For example, some historians have questioned whether sailors actually used navigational texts; so it was a pleasant surprise to find, in the deposition of Thomas Drayson, on 8 September 1657 (in HCA 13/72, fo. 50v), that ‘the M[aste]r…and the Mate [of the Gilbert] did find by the Waggoner (the name of a booke used in navigation) and by their soundings that the sayd shipp was at Aberday’.
The ‘Waggoner’ is probably The Mariner’s Mirror, a translation of Spiegel der Zeevaerdt by the Dutch writer Lucas Jansz Waghenaer although, thanks to Waghenaer’s success, ‘waggoner’ became a general term for a book of printed sea-charts. In this example, seafarers used old-fashioned piloting techniques and more up-to-date technologies together.
Navigational knowledge appears to have been quite diffuse, though real expertise was probably more concentrated. In 1656-7 James Cowse sued Daniel Jeggles, master of the Anne, after the ship’s voyage was interrupted by damage which, Cowse claimed, was Jeggles’ fault. Jeggles protested (in HCA 24/112/160) that he ‘is an able and skilfull seaman, and fitt to be master and Comander of a shipp and hath gone to Sea for many yeares last past’. Jeggles asked his witnesses (in HCA 23/18/237) to evaluate this claim: was the witness ‘a seaman and hath skill in navigation howe longe hath he used the sea and whether doe hee know the said Jeggles and howe longe hath hee knowne him is hee not an able and expert seaman and fitt to take command of any shipp’? James Cowse’s brother, Edmond, who had sailed on his brother’s behalf as merchant aboard the Anne, unsurprisingly said in his deposition on 30 May 1657 (in HCA 13/71, fo. 606r, available with transcription here, thanks to MarineLives) that Jeggles was guilty of ‘inability and ignorance’. More interestingly, thinking about navigation, he added that he himself ‘is noe seaman but hath used the sea these twenty yeares and hath some judgment in the Art of Navigation though he doe not practize the same’. This is similar to the example of shipcarpenter John Cluer, who I discussed in ‘Navigating culture’.
My favourite new example, however, comes from a case between Captain James Barcker, of the Vine, and his chief mate and pilot John May, in a voyage to the Indian Ocean. This one supports, I think, the argument I made in the research note about the importance of navigational instruments as status symbols, and as objects of very personal value. Edward Carr, a witness who deposed on 10 July 1656 (also in HCA 13/71, fos 307v-8r, available here from MarineLives), said that May asked him and others to ‘take part with him the said May and goe upon the forecastle of the sayd shipp to take part with him in case the sayd Master should endeavour to inflict any punishment upon him the said May’, and encouraged them to desert the ship. The deposition of Daniell Harman on the same day (HCA 13/71, fos 308r-v, available here from MarineLives) sheds more light on the affair. May, apparently, ‘did demande a greater or further allowance of wine & victualls in behalfe of the sayd shipps company’; but there was also a disagreement between May and Barcker ‘about the Masters takeing from him the sayd May a Compasse called an Asimoth Compasse’. That is, his azimuth compass, which Barcker wanted in order to find the local magnetic variation (so said Richard Chapman on 15 July 1656, HCA 13/71, fo. 311r, available here from MarineLives). It may have looked something like this:
Though perhaps not quite so fancy; one problem with studying navigational instruments is that often only the nicer ‘presentation sets’ survive, and instruments that were actually used aboard ship are pretty scarce. On the other hand, perhaps this was a valuable item. According to another witness, James Baker (13/71, fos 309r-v, available here from MarineLives), Barcker thought that May’s azimuth compass was ‘better than his owne’. Harman reported hearing Barcker say ‘if you (meaning the said May) will not observe in it, or make use of it yo[u]r selfe, lett mee make use of it, whereto the sayd May answered & sayd the Compasse was his, and hee would keepe it’. Barcker ordered the boatswain, John Swinburne, ‘upon perill of looseing his wages to take the sayd Compasse out of the sayd Mayes Cabbin & give or bring it to him’, to which May responded to Swinburne ‘upon perill of looseing tenn tymes more then his wages, hee should not meddle with the sayd Compasse’. The situation almost escalated into a fight, but the other sailors stepped in.
So in these examples we can see that navigation was a pretty well-known activity, but which carried important implications for the authority and success of a shipmaster, and which revolved around texts and instruments, imbuing these objects with numerous cultural meanings. If you want to know more, you might like to read ‘Navigating culture’, which you can now do for free!