Book Review – ‘Nicolaes Witsen and Shipbuilding in the Dutch Golden Age’ by A. J. Hoving

By Fred Hocker, published October 2020


Among the major works published on shipbuilding before 1800, Nicolaes Witsen’s Aeloude en Hedendaegsche Scheeps-bouw en Bestier (The construction and management of ancient and modern ships) is nearly unique. Unlike more or less all of the others, it does not presume any prior knowledge of shipbuilding or design and so provides a detailed description of the process of designing, building, and outfitting a sailing ship from first principles, with the tools and process profusely illustrated. It also includes the more usual components of ancient history, mathematical instruction and ethnography which can be seen in other works. While these latter parts are an interesting snapshot of the late seventeenth-century world view in Amsterdam, the most valuable parts of the book for students of shipbuilding are the sections on ‘how ships are built in Holland today’ and shipbuilding contracts. In the former, Witsen used a single ship, a pinas of 134 feet, as an illustrative example, from the selection of the timber to the sewing of the sails, and as Hoving has demonstrated in other publications, the information is more than sufficient to build and outfit a ship. Witsen was not a professional shipbuilder but a keenly observant collector of technical information with access to knowledgeable sources, and so his work provides a fantastic wealth of detail about the shipbuilding process. Unfortunately, he was a terrible writer, with no ability to follow the very sensible structure he had laid out at the beginning of this project. The text meanders around the subject, with frequent asides and digressions, as well as apparent contradictions, and this has hindered its usefulness to historians, archaeologists and model builders….

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Filed under: Early Modern
Subjects include: Shipbuilding & Design

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