Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550–1800, by Margaret E. Schotte

Sarah Kinkel is very impressed by a detailed account of how navigators learned their skills

November 21, 2019
18th century presentation of Dutch seamanship
Source: Getty

Rapid technological transformation leads to new economic possibilities and parameters, and in turn to anxious public debates about how to equip young people with the education and the skills necessary to securing a place in the future economy. Margaret Schotte’s Sailing School isn’t about 2019, although it could be. Instead, she explores public engagement with education in the early modern period, as Europeans took on the challenge of long-distance oceanic navigation.

The central problem of navigation is simple: navigators need to know where they are, and how to get to where they want to be. Coastal sailing could be carried out by memorising landmarks and hazards, but the shift to oceanic sailing relied upon a deeper understanding of astronomy, geometry and trigonometry. Sailors, bureaucrats, mathematicians and curious amateurs had to rethink how those skills could best be acquired, and in large part they turned to printed manuals, treatises and workbooks to complement face-to-face instruction. Those hoping to be more than entry-level seamen increasingly had to be not only numerate but literate to pass the exams that England, France, Spain and the Netherlands introduced to assess navigational skill.

Sailing School is a detailed transnational history of that educational shift, which took place as much in the public sphere as at sea. Schotte deftly places nuanced accounts of individual classrooms, cities and practitioners against a backdrop of major cultural and political transformations: the explosion of print culture, the development of new forms of knowledge production, the expansion of the state and imperial growth. She gently subverts traditional narratives by focusing on transnational commonalities rather than imperial competition, giving the visual elements of print at least as much attention as the written parts, and emphasising the ways in which humble men received and contributed to the elite Scientific Revolution.

Like other forms of knowledge during this period, navigation became a theoretical science, although theory never fully replaced practice. Learning by doing was no longer enough to be considered an expert, but most also accepted that there could be no replacement for time at sea. Armchair captains might enjoy the intellectual puzzles of paper navigation, but they could never be entrusted with a real ship. Most systems fused elements of skills-based technical education, theoretical and critical thinking, and hands-on experience.

Sailing School deploys compelling printed images and manuscript notations to reconstruct the practice of learning, a particularly difficult feat for a phenomenon that takes place in an intangible mental realm. In fusing the history of learning and print with that of navigation, Schotte shows how deep transformations in public intellectual culture built on themselves. Given the centrality of print to navigational education, it was perhaps not a coincidence that two of Europe’s major publishing hubs – London and Amsterdam – also became maritime powerhouses.

Navigational education was reshaped through the interplay of public and private interests, as sailors learned how to make their way on the seas and in the new economic world being created. Oceanic sailing could not have become commonplace without technological innovation, but Schotte reminds us that there was no substitute for human capital and that technical skills alone could not supplant good judgement. In an era of economic and educational upheaval, new technology offers new possibilities, but the most important element remains the people who build and use it.

Sarah Kinkel is an independent scholar and partnerships manager at the University of Technology Sydney. She is also the author of Disciplining the Empire: Politics, Governance, and the Rise of the British Navy (2018).


Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550–1800
By Margaret E. Schotte
Johns Hopkins University Press, 312pp, £44.50
ISBN 9781421429533
Published 24 September 2019

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Print headline: Getting from where you are to where you want to be

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