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Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800

Author(s):Schotte, Margaret E.
Reviewer(s):Glaser, Darrell J.

Published by EH.Net (January 2020)

Margaret E. Schotte, Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2019. xi + 297 pp. $60 (hardcover), ISBN: 978-1-4214-2953-3.

Reviewed for EH.Net by Darrell J. Glaser, Department of Economics, United States Naval Academy.

Sailing School by Margaret E. Schotte (York University) gives any reader an extensive background on the evolution of education and pedagogical methods for teaching navigators centuries ago. It also highlights how technical training was not simply a series of fads imported and exported between competing naval powers but was necessary for the success and survival of crews on ever more complicated voyages in the expanding seas of exploration and trade. Naval powers needed to extend the influence of their governments and to foster trade for their citizens, and they needed highly trained and sophisticated navigators who could make it so.

Sailing School provides us with a technically researched history of navigational pedagogy with enough captivating prose to transport the reader into the decisions and methods of educators in classrooms from past centuries. Schotte does not simply rehash the history of navigational education, but she synopsizes a brief history of mathematical pedagogy itself, and precisely how new mathematical tools became incorporated into the practice of naval navigation. The reader gets two historical lessons for one price. While learning a bit of history of mathematical tools and implementation, readers delve into the history of each European naval power’s path to acceptance of the latest mathematical tools (e.g. logarithms, trigonometry, etc.). Students of both the naval and pedagogical history of Western Europe will find her narrative interesting.

In Chapter 1, Schotte introduces us to pre-formalized eras of navigational knowledge. Summaries of the compass, cross-staff, back-staff and quadrant provide the backdrop to a fascinating mini-history of how early sailors learned to understand calendars, tides, distance and other measurements of the pulses of land, sea, stars and wind. The Casa de la Contracion held particular sway on pedagogical methods of early practical education of mariners during Spain’s peak in the sixteenth century. Ultimately these methods (many of them cosmologically based) of navigation, however, succumbed to newer tools and methods. Math and the printing press combined to generate a powerful pedagogical revolution, and ultimately forced a formalization of navigational classroom learning during the seventeenth century. The bulk of this chapter discusses this print-based revolution.

While early books printed for mariners focused on simple summaries of early tools and methods, by the end of the seventeenth century, the nautical manuals contained rules for navigation that enabled a shift in focus to learn more complicated tasks. Books quite literally freed the mind of the navigator. Rather than commit basic information to memory with rote learning (as earlier students of the sea needed to do), seventeenth century student mariners could instead focus learning efforts on more challenging methods and techniques. Space in the brain could divert from memorization of tables and charts to the understanding newer technologies.

Chapter 2 shifts the discussion to France and the role played by the Denys school in the transformation of French naval education. French state-sponsored schools of the seventeenth century formalized a “system” of education and merged the need for practical experience on ships with classroom instruction of the latest mathematical tools. By the latter part of the century, Jesuit mathematicians (with the blessing of Louis XIV) were educating better navigators and began to reduce the role and influence of the aristocracy. Although Schotte does not address this, one has to wonder if the Sun King’s democratization of education in navigation (and other areas of national importance) spawned the educated middle class that ironically helped take down French royals less than a hundred years hence.

Although the French might have begun the democratization of education, Chapter 3 highlights how the British really took this to the next level. The British made a formal decision to expand the human capital of young sailors as a precursor to expanding power at sea. This national-level investment proved critical to future success. With a goal to explicitly educate not only the sons of the rich, the education of all able bodied and academically talented young men provided a benefit to all of society. Isaac Newton himself encouraged this during his service as an educational consultant for the Royal Mathematical Society. Theoretical math not only enhanced the quality of intellect of mariners, but importantly raised the bar of what educators expected of their students. The most poignant citation by Schotte comes from Samuel Pepys, the Chief Secretary of the Admiralty, who felt the Royal Mathematical Society had a duty to “carr[y] the science of navigation beyond what our best mere tarpaulins, as they are now qualified, are ever likely to do” (p. 102). A more apt mission statement of educators past, present, and future has never been more perfectly composed.

In Chapter 4, the center of the book’s gravity shifts towards the Netherlands, where Dutch methods in the latter seventeenth century also appeared to have grown explicitly more in favor of classroom theory over the practical foundations of learning at sea. Although the Dutch did not quickly establish formal schools at the national level (partly due to the decentralized nature of the Netherlands), by the end of the eighteenth century the Dutch methods that had taken hold would echo methods that are familiar to us in twenty-first century classrooms. Dutch students in smaller independent schools for technical education created “manuscripts” and “traverse diagrams” in the classroom, which helped them visualize geometric, trigonometric, and formulaic navigation to solve complicated scenarios. Indeed these study-aids (precursors to modern problem sets employed by educators) prepared them for formal examinations that had also taken root. By the early eighteenth century, the Dutch had truly “professionalized” the process of educating and certifying navigators through classroom learning and final examinations.

Chapter 5 reproduces a harrowing and yet successful history of Lt. Edward Riou and the crew of HMS Guardian. Schotte’s riveting account follows the best traditions of historians recounting the trials of other eighteenth-nineteenth century explorers, and ties navigational education back to a real drama. The new, mathematically based methods paid real dividends of life and limb for the crew of HMS Guardian and demonstrated that this new era of learning was here to stay. Readers could easily take this chapter as a stand-alone essay.

Schotte’s extensive discussion of the evolution of navigational education highlights the need of all navies of Western Europe to increase the mathematical precision of students in the eighteenth century. As the French became more interested in military tactics, they included a three-stage exam process for young students to be newly commissioned ensigns. The English continued this shift towards well-educated professional navigators and funded schools to generate as much. Schotte provides a perfect summary of the education of navigators during this era: “It was attention and funding from government authorities that made navigation cutting edge research, the ‘big-science’ of its day” (p. 183).

Schotte’s commentary on British human capital development is brilliant, since it served to buttress the rise to dominance of the Royal Navy. This is juxtaposed by the decentralized Dutch model that seemed to support a dying model of national power. British naval human capital developed because the British government prioritized it, but is it also possible that private partners demanded it as well?

This leaves me with a single question. The one missing topic from this wonderful text is a discussion of the role of private investors in the rise of more technically proficient navigators. Could time costs, the need for efficient freight costs and the need to reduce financial risk (especially capitalist efficiency espoused in Britain and the Netherlands) have driven some of the need for technically knowledgeable navigators? Schotte discusses the pendulum of education swinging between theory and practical experience, but perhaps the mathematical tools were developed, fostered and ultimately rose to dominate partly because investors and funders of long expensive sea voyages wanted it and needed it.

On a final note, the finest elements of Sailing School appear in the spectacular drawings and plates replicated for the reader’s consumption. Just leafing through the wealth of fascinating sketches firmly plants us in the chairs of bygone era navigational students. Schotte has produced an exceptional history of education for a snapshot of time within a highly technical field.

Darrell J. Glaser is an Associate Professor of Economics, United States Naval Academy. He has several publications covering the development and implementation of human capital, particularly in the technologically advancing navies of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

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Subject(s):Transport and Distribution, Energy, and Other Services
Geographic Area(s):Europe
Time Period(s):16th Century
17th Century