Literary Review: Sailing School by Margaret E Schotte

On Christmas Eve, 1789, HMS Guardian found itself in the shadow of two great icebergs some 1,300 miles south-east of the Cape of Good Hope. The ship’s captain, 29-year-old Edward Riou, ordered a double watch be kept, but, engulfed in fog and with darkness falling, the Guardian struck one all the same. The collision tore a hold in the ship’s hull beneath the waterline and destroyed its rudder.

Riou set all hands to man the ship’s four pumps and ordered much of its cargo be sent overboard.

By 8.15pm, there were two feet of water in the hold. By 10pm, with two pumps broken, it was at five feet. At times over the next 36 hours it seemed as though the crew were winning: on Christmas morning, they “fothered” the hull, wrapping two oakum-lined sails underneath the ship to stem the flow of water. But the water carried on rising. By Boxing Day, it was at seven feet.

At 9pm that evening around 36 men left the ship in four small boats. Most were never seen again. Riou remained on board with some 30 crew. He did not expect to live. But, remarkably, he did. On February 21 Riou brought his ship in sight of Table Bay, having navigated his waterlogged, rudderless ship across the Indian Ocean for eight weeks. It is the scientific techniques Riou used to achieve this feat – their development and propagation – that form the backbone of Margaret E Schotte’s absorbing new book.

For much of history, navigation had been a memorial craft: learned over long years at sea, experienced captains and pilots found their way along known coastlines using landmarks – remembered headlands, hazards, bays. They learned to estimate the speed of their ships by how quickly flecks of sea-foam passed alongside; they used rhymes to measure time. To make calculations – the time of high tide in any given port being governed by the cycle of the moon – they used the knuckles of the hand as a counting device.

But the opening up of global sea routes changed everything.

The Spanish were the first to understand the need for a new kind of maritime education: far out at sea, navigators needed to triangulate their positions using the sun and the stars. As early as 1508 they appointed Amerigo Vespucci as the country’s first master navigator, charged with examining pilots for their skills and knowledge. By 1552, Seville had the first maritime school in the world.

The Spanish looked to the universities for their pedagogical model: the foundations of the teaching were, after all, Aristotelian and Ptolemaic cosmography and Euclidean geometry. And naturally, university-taught instructors thought the best place to learn these things was through lectures in the classroom. Few, if any, of them had been to sea.
This would be a problem that none of the educational models and establishments that Schotte studies could fully resolve: how to adapt a numerate, literate, lecture-based model of pedagogy to a technology learned on deck through hard experience and practised often in the most perilous conditions. Schotte quotes the wry contemporary saying, “The best navigators stand on land”: the land didn’t roil and buck beneath your feet.

The tension between the two worldviews runs through the book. “Seafaring people learning this art in a lengthy way gain a hatred for it,” wrote the early 17th-century Dutch educator Jan van den Broucke. But van Broucke’s “shortest and most minimalist method” – his words – involved his students memorising twelve key points every night for a year. Just one of the points involved mastering three different methods for calculating the sun’s altitude.

For Schotte, this tension places her narrative in the vanguard of the scientific revolution. To paraphrase, in what other discipline were lived experience and scientific theory forced to engage with another so directly – and in often life-and-death circumstances? It is that immediacy that makes Sailing School so richly fascinating.

If the broader scientific revolution, coarsely defined, took abstract theory and subjected it to the study of the world as it actually was, the development of navigational science did something like the opposite: it took people skilled in empirical observation and shut them in a classroom to teach them geometry. Yet navigators remained practical, even if what they were practical about changed. Trigonometry – “the doctrine of triangles” – emerged in 1595. It was being applied to nautical calculations by 1614. The same year saw John Napier’s invention of logarithms, which made those calculations simpler. The first logarithmic scale – the ancestor of the slide rule – was devised by Edmund Gunter in 1623.

Schotte’s book is full of characters such as former pirate Charles Hadsell, who, after ten years with Captain Morgan, tried to gain certification in London as a ship’s master in 1670. The examiners turned him down: expertise in the Caribbean was all well and good, they said, but “We doe not find that hee hath any competent skill in the Coasting of the Channell of England”.

But at its heart, Sailing School is a scholarly work that engages deeply with educational and navigational practice over three formative centuries in European maritime history. Multinational in its approach, it offers insights into both what was distinctive about pedagogy and practice in England, Spain, France and the Netherlands, and the extent to which knowledge and expertise was shared and transferred – not least through the medium of print.

What one 17th-century teacher called “This Art of Traversing and Caravanning over Neptune’s Vast Dominions” has found in Schotte a gifted historian and a lucid and illuminating writer.

This review first appeared in the December 2019 issue of Literary Review.

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