Margaret E. Schotte, Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019.
ISBN: 9781421429533. 320 pp. Bibliography, Illustrations etc. $59.95 Hardcover.
By Samuel McLean
In Sailing School, Margaret Schotte examines four leading European examples of the early modern foundation of institutionalized, and importantly, textualized navigation education. Through the examination of the teaching of navigation in Spain, the Netherlands, France, and England, she discusses the transmission of knowledge and expertise, and uses excellent archival fonds to illustrate not just different philosophies and approaches from the educators, but also between students.
Textbooks and the instruments used for the transmission of piloting and navigation knowledge remain at the heart of this book. Schotte posits that Sailing School takes a different approach to the study of navigational training as her work is transnational, defines print culture broadly, and examines actual practices from both navigation classrooms and ship decks. Further, influenced by recent trends in the history of science, this study studies navigation training as a continually evolving “science” that was influenced by intellectual elites (who provided mathematical models and philosophies) and also by practitioners.
The prologue is a discussion of Spanish developments during the 16th century, focused on and around the Casa de Contratación in Seville. This chapter provides the basis for the those that follow as it discusses how the Casa conducted its education program, and how pilots/mariners were evaluated. The first chapter discusses Amsterdam in the early 17th century, and is an introduction to many of the concepts around navigation as well as early developments in Northern Europe around the creation of navigational textbooks and theory books. These include how to calculate a year’s “Sunday letter” using the joints of one’s hand, necessary for calculating the age of the Moon (in the lunar cycle). Schotte uses these concepts to provide context for just how complicated and mutli-faceted learning navigation could be. The second chapter examines the school of L’abbé Guillaume Denys in Dieppe, and the creation of a more mathematical (but also colourfully metaphorical) approach to teaching navigation. This chapter refers back to the Spanish texts like Medina’s L’Art de naviguer (in translation), as well as new texts that were created. These directly related back to and sought to improve on established knowledge—like Denys’ example of two Dutch navigators who used different methods to solve navigational problems, which demonstrated that navigation should have universal rules (p. 81).
The third chapter examines the Royal Mathematical School in London in the 1680s. Here, Schotte describes a conflict between the aim to provide education for future Royal Navy officers and a decision to hire University educated mathematics experts. She argues that these experiences show that in the classroom “sailors gained the ability to convert these essential elements … into mathematical techniques – and vice versa” (p. 113). The fourth chapter returns to the Netherlands, to discuss both the development of differing audience for navigational expertise, where shore-bound enthusiasts were very much different from the professionals who also needed to learn those skills. The chapter ends by describing a schism where sailors and mariners texts increasingly grew less mathematically advanced, and changed more towards preparing students for passing the required exams. Further, experienced mariners were no longer viewed as valuable experts for passing on navigational knowledge (p. 147). The final chapter uses Lt. Edward Riou’s amazing voyage on board HMS Guardian in 1789/90 to put into context how English, French, Dutch and Spanish methods and systems had changed—but also, importantly, identifies the continuities and similarities. Schotte concludes by pointing out again that her transnational approach allowed for the identification of similarities, shared knowledge and practices, but also that nationality and educational experience mattered.
Schotte really makes her study text and knowledge-centric, and almost rebukes the too-easy framework of “theory vs practice”. In each of the cases, she draws out the complexities of those who commissioned or created the schools, those were involved in the transmission of knowledge, and those who organized that knowledge, and the students of these mariners and schools. Schotte then further teases out the complimentary and competing approaches, where archival sources make it possible. This is particularly well done in the chapters discussing the Royal Mathematical School, and in the chapters on the Netherlands. What really takes this book to the next level is that Schotte doesn’t just compare the textbooks and publications that addressed navigation theory and practice, but also looks at student notes, exams, and other sources that demonstrate the complexity in other aspects of the education and knowledge-transmission relationships as well. Each of these are presented as equally valid components of an ongoing and important process.
In her conclusion, Schotte describes Sailing School as “a history of the book for a group not known for its literacy, a scientific history of … an intuitive art, and an account of common origins and shared lessons rather than naval conflict” (p. 184). She sets a very high standard for other scholars to try to match, but one that I hope others will take up with glee. If Schotte’s accessible writing, excellent scholarship and fascinating approach is the direction that maritime history is developing then the future is very bright indeed.