Guest post: Compasses, commerce and colonisation

ROG Opening Times

Important Notice for the 31 December: The Royal Observatory North (Flamsteed House) and Meridian Line will open to the public at the later time of 11:30. The Astronomy Centre and Planetarium will open as normal at 10:00.

Following a previous guest post, Hannah Salisbury has sent us some further thoughts on Ralph Walker and the compass he submitted to the Board of Longitude: The invention of his variation compass was just one episode in Walker’s busy and varied life; as well as being an inventor, he was a mariner, a Jamaica planter and in later life an engineer, working principally on the construction of London’s new wet docks. When I first began researching Walker’s life, these career changes all seemed rather sudden and disconnected, yet during my research, it became clear that there were common threads running through each of them. Designing the West India Docks was Walker’s first engineering job, begun in 1795. They were the biggest project of their kind in the world at the time.

West India Docks

'An elevated view of the West India Docks', by William Daniell, 1802 (NMM PAI7124)

Improving navigation and the accommodation of shipping were by no means isolated pursuits for Walker. He keenly felt that in order to compete with other nations in trade and in war, Britain needed to have a strong navy and merchant fleet. Walker’s career at sea had given him an international scope, and he saw Britain within the context of international networks of war, trade and diplomacy. This understanding of Walker’s political worldview provides a backdrop to his work as an inventor and engineer. Our best insight into Ralph’s political worldview comes from two letters he wrote to Henry Dundas, Viscount Melville, then Secretary of State for War, in 1795 and 1796, the first of which was addressed from the Jamaica Coffee House, a haunt of West India merchants and captains. Walker was clearly a staunch supporter of the British system of monarchical government, which he described as ‘the pride of England, and the admiration of all Europe for Ages’. He had no time for the politics of the French Revolution, referring to them at different times as ‘pernicious principles’ and ‘the French Disorder’. During the French Revolutionary Wars, Walker was clearly concerned to protect British interests. Walker feared that the French:

will soon become our superior on the Seas, and shut up our fleets in our Ports and sweep the Seas of our Commerce, Deprive us of our Colonies, and put a total stagnation to our Trade, which in a short time would turn the current of commerce into their Ports, and our manufacturers would be obliged to emigrate to a Country, where taxes and the price of living and labour low. Then adieu to the Trade of Great Britain, and the payment of the interest of the National Debt.

For Walker, the only way of avoiding this dire fate was to enhance Britain’s naval strength. Britain, he suggested, should withdraw land forces from the continent, and instead ‘strain every nerve to enable us to keep our superiority at Sea’. It is not just Walker’s political views, but also his philosophical standpoint which is relevant to his efforts to improve navigation. His (flawed) theory that magnetism followed regular patterns was part of the Enlightenment attempt to discover ordered, harmonious rules governing the natural world. As he explained in his Treatise on Magnetism, presented to the Board of Longitude along with his compass, he believed that these laws were provided by God in order for man to make sense of the world. Once they had been discovered, they could be used to ‘colonize and carry on commerce for our benefit and happiness’. Walker was clearly aware of the links between navigation, commerce and conquest, and he seems to have felt no disquiet about the colonisation of foreign lands, or about the use of slave labour. As a Jamaica planter, he seems to have been more concerned about the disruption caused by rebellious slaves rather than their living conditions. In his 1796 letter to Dundas, Walker complained about the problems caused by disruptive slaves, which had cost the white settlers over £300,000. Although care needs to be taken in extrapolating too much from the fragmentary evidence available, a good deal can be understood about Walker’s political worldview, and he can be placed firmly within literate eighteenth-century coffee-house political culture. For Walker, Britain’s security and prosperity depended upon its navy and upon its commerce, and its commerce depended upon successful maritime navigation, an endeavour which Walker’s compass aimed to improve. The variation compass which Walker submitted to the Board of Longitude is, therefore, symbolic not only of technical advances in navigation, but of the political, economic and cultural forces driving those advances.