Oceanic Enterprise: thoughts on a conference

On 25-26 January, several members of the Longitude Project team were in California for our conference at the Huntington Library, Oceanic Enterprise: Location, Longitude, and Maritime Cultures 1770-1830. It was an extremely enjoyable and interesting meeting. I attempted to summarise the papers before the  final discussion, so here are some thoughts about what we heard.

The conference largely focused on the elite scientific voyages of exploration of the late 18th and early 19th centuries as "the Enlightenment symbol of technological and scientific modernity" (a phrase borrowed from Nick Dew's opening paper). In characterising these expeditions, two themes came up repeatedly:

  • They were hybrid enterprises, with diverse, interdisciplinary and inter-institutional aims
  • There was a pluralistic approach to navigation. While contingent on access to particular instruments, texts, skills or locations, any and all methods were used in complementary ways.

The use of maritime voyages for a combination of goals, including a variety of scientific projects as well as trade or military objectives, clearly had a longer history than that tackled in the conference. Nick Dew illustrated this by outlining some late 17th and early 18th-century French expeditions, and I was reminded of the fact that the Royal Society and other national academies made it their business from the outset to instruct those travelling to collect and bring back all kinds of information.

Papers by John Gascoigne, Simon Werrett, Ilya Vinkovetsky and Neil Safier were useful to the project team in providing different national contexts for these themes: French, Russian and Spanish. It was clear that the activities and perceived successes of one nation would encourage another to take action - with Cook's voyages being a spur, for example, to the Russian expeditions - but another recurring theme was international cooperation, or even a cosmopolitan approach to sharing knowledge and resources. Russian cadets trained with the Royal Navy, Baltic Germans in Russia encouraged Hanoverians to communicate with English diplomats, French writings inspired the projects of the British Astronomer Royal, and so on.

Together, all the papers complicated the well-known form of the longitude story, adding wider geographical, social and temporal frames. In addition, several papers gave attention to the complexity of creating and using navigational tools, particularly the apparently self-contained timekeeper. David Miller reminded us that the timekeeping method relied on wide networks, including the use of astronomical observations to find local time at sea and land-based observatories for rating and provision of reference time. Eoin Phillips emphaised the problems surrounding the early use of timekeepers, which stopped and broke and were "more trouble than any real use".

Throughout the conference, there was an emphasis on the need to recover details of practice and experience at sea. Richard Dunn used the correspondence of William Gooch to good effect in capturing the novelities, frailties and inexactitude of what aimed to be the production of precise knowledge. Joyce Chaplain provided a picture of how many people on board ships were there unwillingly, even though attitudes to the reliability of information provided by captives changed dramatically around the start of our period, reflecting moral debates about slavery and new approaches to Euro-Indian diplomacy in the Americas.

Another theme emerging from the papers was the way in which context and experience changes the meaning of objects. Adriana Craciun showed this through the relics of the La Perouse voyage, researched in the 21st century through the prism of 19th-century attitudes to the 18th. Phillips discussed  the changing meaning of chronometers for makers, different classes on board ship and for historians. Vinkovetsky showed how views of eastern Russia depended on whether western Russians reached it by land or sea. Safier discussed how precision was laid on top of old and imaginary views of the Torrid Zone.

In his paper, Miller had, somewhat playfully, identified the 'hardware' (instruments etc), 'software' (books, charts, logs etc) and 'wetware' (people) that were necessary to the deployment of navigational regimes. It was clear in discussion that these tags and concepts could be moved around. Were books not hardware? Can people be instruments? Might change of perspective act as 'software' that reprogrammes understandings of 'hardware'? There was plenty of food for thought, with important questions about practice, negotiation, trust and control to be explored, and the extent to which the period under discussion was one of change or continuity, and whether the scientific voyages can be characterised as a project of precision or (/and) one of opportunism.

Food was obviously on the mind of one participant, which is unsurprising given the wonderful hospitality extended by the Huntington. Simon Werrett penned his "Huntington Oceanic Enterprise conference dinner menu" on the flight home:

Harris on toast, with dip, or
Moules mariners

Beef Bougainville or Lamb Pérouse

Desert (island):
Chocolate log (& line) with Michael Topping
Coastal sorbet (Cook’s speciality) or Dava Sorbet (may leave slightly bitter taste)
Nevil Marscapone

To conclude:
Petit H-fours
Cheese board of longitude

To drink: (lunar) table wine

That Huntington Oceanic Enterprise conference dinner menu in full: