Meet the navigators, and the men who taught them…

Student manuscript (Wm. Spink, c.1697-1731)
Student manuscript (Wm. Spink, c.1697-1731) Image Credit: NMM

Schotte’s forthcoming book is a comparative study of navigators in early modern Europe. Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550-1800 (Johns Hopkins University Press, forthcoming Spring 2019) investigates how early modern sailors developed mathematical and technical expertise in the age of exploration and the print revolution. Schotte’s monograph draws upon hundreds of dog-eared textbooks and salt-stained student manuscripts to recreate the experience of learning to sail, a complex apprenticeship that took place not only on board ship but in small classrooms in Europe’s port communities. Sailing School brings together the eccentric teachers, inventive entrepreneurs, ambitious politicos and a host of anonymous sailors to give us a new picture of what it meant to be an expert navigator at a time when knowledge of the natural world was undergoing dramatic shifts–and how these experts in turn contributed to the development of scientific practice in their local communities and beyond.

This research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council, the Princeton Institute for International and Regional Studies, and the John Carter Brown Library Fellows Programme.

Publication costs have been generously underwritten by the Barr Ferree Foundation (Art and Architecture Dept., Princeton University) and a SSHRC Research Opportunity grant.



“Sailors, States, and the Co-Creation of Nautical Knowledge,” in  A World at Sea: Maritime Practices in Global History, 1500-1900 (University of Pennsylvania Press, forthcoming), edited by Nathan Perl-Rosenthal and Lauren Benton. In this chapter, Schotte argues that navigation should be seen as a knowledge-making practice, and highlights how four nation-states, specifically England, the Netherlands, France and Russia, responded to a set of common problems with remarkably different scientific and technical solutions.

“Distilling Water, Distilling Data: Proto-Questionnaires in Dutch East India Company Record-keeping.” A case study for a special issue of the European History Quarterly devoted to the history of the questionnaire. In this analysis of careful reports back to a central authority, we see how the men in charge of day-to-day operations shaped an innovative water-purification technology–and ultimately caused its failure.

“Ships’ Instruments in the Age of Print: Making Markets and Meaning.” An invited chapter on ship’s instruments for The Routledge Research Companion to Marine and Maritime Worlds, 1400-1800, edited by Claire Jowitt, Craig Lambert, and Steve Mentz.


Works in Progress

A Floating Academy: Commerce and Calculation in the Age of Sail. 
This second book-length project centres on the Prince de Conti, a French merchant ship that embarked on a trading venture to India in 1754. Schotte draws upon a cache of archival documents fortuitously preserved in the midst of the Seven Years War. In addition to revealing new insights into the everyday lives of the sailors, merchants, and family members who were caught up in the trade and conflict of the period, this particular archive contains a significant collection of mathematical documents. These ink-spattered student worksheets, hand-copied textbooks, and records of mid-voyage observations and computations, provide unparalleled evidence of how complex new mathematics was not only taught but also applied at sea. Taken together, they offer a rare glimpse into the type of collaborative mathematical work that took place on a true “floating academy” in the Age of Revolution.


Other research interests:

Globes, engineering, history of mathematics, history of education, diagrams and illustrations.

Schotte has also written on Samuel Pepys, Simon Stevin, the Baron de Lahontan, and hydrography lessons in New France.