Book of the Day: Sextant

Sextant Cover

Today’s book represents another element of my essential education required to enable me to write Captain Thomas Bowrey’s biography. I was fortunate to have been able to do a year’s sailing whilst at school. For me, anything was better than running round a hockey pitch in the mud but I actually found that I enjoyed it. We prided ourselves in not being fair-weather sailors, like the other schools in the area, and my claim to fame was that I was the only person who never capsized during the whole year. This was probably due more to my determination to stay out of the water than my sailing skills. Unfortunately, navigations skills required on Ricky Aquadrome were nil. I was familiar with Longitude and knew that Harrison’s solution  post-dated Thomas’ death and this book was my attempt to understand navigation during his life time.

David Barrie’s Sextant: A Voyage Guided by the Stars and the Men Who Mapped the World’s Oceans sets out a history of navigation interspersed with a personal tale of his own transatlantic solo voyage. Barrie starts his story with a reminiscence of watching Mutiny on the Bounty at the age of nine and, immediately, ensures that his readers understand the difficulties of navigation in the days before GPS and the immense skill of Captain Bligh – whatever his other failings. His description of Fletcher Christian’s despair at the sextant being destroyed along with the Bounty puts it all in perspective. Once hooked by this start, my education was painless.

It became clear to me just why Thomas’ knowledge of the East Indies, especially of the Malay Archipelago was so valued by other sea captains once he returned to England. His time in the region predated even Isaac Newton’s reflecting quadrant, the precursor of the sextant. We know little of the equipment carried on Thomas’ ships in the Indian Ocean but his papers contain a great deal of information about the fitting out of his ship after his return home. None mention the earlier seaman’s quadrant although there are accounts for the purchase of replacement glasses and cards for compasses. The quadrants may have been the personal possessions of those employed to navigate the ships but, if so, they were not included in the essential equipment of a young midshipman educated in navigation.

When Thomas’ drew up a catalogue of his books as he neared the end of his life, he included the 1699 Seller’s Practical Navigation. My recently acquired copy is currently being rebound so I am unable to check what was considered cutting edge navigation at the time but I am looking forward to comparing notes once it is in a readable condition.

Sextant Publisher


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