GSR-Global Sea Routes. A historical geodatabase of European global navigation (1500-1900)

Guido Abbattista's picture
Call for Volunteers
December 31, 2021
Subject Fields: 
Digital Humanities, World History / Studies

Project web interface: GSR-Global Sea Routes

Project description: 

GSR objectives
• to analyse and represent global maritime connections
• to understand globalisation as a function of overseas expansion and the connected voyages, explorations and transportations from the late-15th century to the beginning of the 20th century
• collecting data from printed travel accounts and manuscript ship logbooks
• building a relational online database to be accessed on the Web.

Theoretical Background, State of the Art and Methodology
Based on the premise that the history of navigation can provide an effective evidence of the modern globalization processes, GSR aims to answer the question: how can we represent the historical evolution of the duration time of different sorts of early-modern and modern European transoceanic sea voyages on a synoptic and comparative scale? We imagined to give an answer based on the most advanced online IT representation techniques and drew inspiration from important digital history projects of a similar kind.
The project originates from a global-history research perspective and, in particular, from interests related to the process of European expansion, to exploration sea-voyages and to scientific, military and commercial sea expeditions overseas that have taken place with increasing intensity in the centuries of the modern age up to the end of the 19th century.
The history of European overseas navigation at the time of the first globalization, between the late 15th and the late 19th century, is still lacking a comprehensive and comparative quantitative, cartographic and visual synthetic representation. We have several partial historical reconstructions of this phenomenon in narrative or historical-cartographic formats. Computer technology allows us to create a tool capable of representing visually historical data by a geodatabase accessible online.
In order to achieve this, we rely mainly on two kinds of sources: printed voyage accounts - a genre of primary importance for the history of Western culture in the modern era - and manuscript logbooks, of which there are considerable archival repositories in various national contexts, albeit with important differences in terms of abundance and temporal continuity (England, France, Holland, Spain, Portugal, Italy, USA). Both kinds of sources are obviously well known, but their use has so far been for purposes other than our own. The former, thanks to their essentially narrative character, have served above all for the reconstruction of the history of geographical explorations, for the history of shipping and navigation, for the history of navigators, for the history of the encounter between Europeans and non-European peoples and cultures and thus for the history of ethno-anthropological knowledge, for the history of natural sciences.Logbooks - a more technical type of documents, lacking the narrative character of voyage reports - have received comparatively less attention and have been used either for controversial purposes (Henry Wise, 1839) or in specialised fields for the study of climate (e.g., see the CLIWOC project), or of certain types of navigation, such as those of tea clippers in the 19th century (Lubbock, 1914, 1921, 1924) or for the analysis of the speeds of naval communications in limited periods (Solar, 2013, 2015).  Only in one case (Dutch-Asiatic Shipping in the 17th and 18th centuries, edited by J. R. Bruijn, F. S. Gaastra and I.Schöffer, with assistance from A. C. J. Vermeulen and E. S. van Eyck van Heslinga, The Hague, Martinus Nijhoff, 1987, 3 vols.) an attempt was made to make a systematic collection of logbooks, those of the Dutch VOC, even going as far as to create an online database, albeit with limited search capabilities. In none of these cases, however, was it considered necessary to use the voyage reports and logbooks 1) in order to derive navigation data and to reconstruct on this basis the actual routes (and consequently the voyage times) and the navigation methods adopted in the three centuries of the early modern age; and 2) in order to construct from these data a geo-referenced cartographic representation of the routes of global navigation. The method adopted here, on the other hand, makes it possible to achieve precisely this objective, taking into consideration a great variety of voyages, selected on a chronological, geographical, typological and national basis, which, through a large and significant sample, makes it possible to obtain a cartographic and georeferenced online visual representation of the phenomenon studied. From this point of view, the project has a twofold methodological objective: to enhance a source of exceptional value and interest for the history of navigation, but largely underused, and to carry out an advanced experiment in the field of digital history.

What GSR covers
In 2019-2020 GSR developed a prototype of the geo-database and tested it by entering data on a small selection of voyages. Current ongoing developments include – but are not limited to - data entry on voyages of the English East India Company and Royal Navy, the French Compagnie française pour le commerce des Indes orientales, the Dutch Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie.
The database includes data concerning each ship name, type, construction details (measures, tonnage or displacement, propulsion), the crew, available navigation instruments on board, name of the captain, fleet typology and nationality, departure and arrival dates and place names, sea routes including stopovers, distances covered (nautical miles) and average speed (nautical miles/duration in days), as well as data on maps used and/or perfected during the voyage, and references to secondary and primary sources.
A feature of GSR is modularity. The database is created by additional expansion modules, by including new voyages, and by introducing new typologies and nationalities of voyages (an expansion including non-Western – Arabian, Turkish, Indian, Malese, Chinese – navigations would be most desirable as part of future developments), and by extending the time frame for data collection.

As already pointed out in a previous section, GlobalSeaRoutes is based on data collection from both primary, unpublished archival sources, such as manuscript ship logbooks, and from published accounts of specific voyages, and secondary sources whenever available, such as catalogues and published collections of multiple voyages.
For a detailed list of primary and secondary sources used for specific voyages see the References section of the database.

Main ongoing developments
• data entry
• development of the web application

Web application
• enables final users to obtain comparative synoptic visualisations, e.g. dynamic maps and comparative quantitative tabulations,
• designing routes according to specific research interests and needs search options based on series of variables, such as:
- time periods
- geographical areas and relations
- vessels nationality and purpose of the voyages
- technical characteristics of vessels and propulsion systems
- navigation techniques, relating to nautical, astronomical and cartographical knowledge and skills.

GSR is copyright protected with some rights reserved, published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) license. Material is made available free of charge and may be printed for private use or for the purposes of teaching and academic research. No commercial use is intended or allowed. The intellectual authorship and ownership of GSR is asserted by the editor and individual contributors and must be duly acknowledged by source references. For uses outside this license you may request specific permission to the authors through the contact details (see section Getting in Touch).
See also section How to Cite and Terms of Use, Copyright and Legal Disclaimer.

Contact Info: 

Guido Abbattista

Professor of Modern history and Global history at the University of Trieste, Department of Human ities

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