Book Review -‘Navigational Enterprises in Europe and its Empires, 1730–1850’ by M. K. Barritt

By M. K. Barritt, published October 2020


The chapters in this important addition to the Cambridge Imperial and Post-Colonial Studies Series are derived from papers delivered at a sequence of conferences inspired by the Board of Longitude project of the University of Cambridge and the National Maritime Museum. The editors declare an aim of giving depth to the British story by describing analogous activity in other European countries and the transnational linkages that facilitated progress in the theory and practice of navigation. The contributors also provide perspectives that call into question both the distorted popular fable of the ‘lone genius’ of horology and the counter-narrative of the ‘golden age of the lunar distance method’.

The first two parts of the book, ‘National Enterprises’ and ‘Longitude in Transnational Contexts’, draw in contributions from scholars in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Sweden. The role of institutions, both the counterparts of the Board of Longitude, and other learned bodies, naval academies and navigational schools, in drawing together scientists, instrument-makers and practitioners, and in stimulating advances, is thoroughly discussed.

Part III, ‘Voyages as Test Sites’, is devoted to the French, but the scientific fruit of other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century voyages of discovery is well covered elsewhere in the volume. In Part IV, ‘The Practice of Navigation’, the two contributors reinforce the thread of scepticism that runs through the volume with respect to extravagant claims for the critical contribution of either the horologists or the astronomical theorists. Actual practice did not necessarily match the theory in the navigational textbooks.

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Filed under: Indian Ocean | Pacific
Subjects include: Miscellaneous | Science & Exploration | Strategy & Diplomacy

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