European Colonial Shipping Lanes (1700‒1850)
Every year, thousands of ships ferry passengers and transport goods across the world’s oceans and seas.
200 years ago, the ships navigating these waters looked very different. Explorers and traders sailed from coast to coast to expand colonial empires, find personal riches, or both.
Before modern technology simplified bookkeeping, many ships kept detailed logbooks to navigate, tracking the winds, waves, and any remarkable weather. Recently, these handwritten logbooks were fully digitized into the CLIWOC database as part of a UN-funded project by the University of Madrid.
In this graphic, Adam Symington uses this database to visualize the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch shipping routes between 1700 and 1850.
Colonial Shipping Lanes
In the 18th and 19th centuries, the British, French, Spanish, and Dutch empires dominated global trade through their colonial shipping lanes.
All four nations sailed across the Atlantic Ocean with some frequency over that timeframe, but these fleets were also very active in the Pacific and Indian Oceans as well.
The table below reflects the record of days spent by digitized logbooks from each nation.
|Country||N. Atlantic||S. Atlantic||Indian Ocean||Pacific||All Oceans|
Does this mean that the Netherlands had the widest colonial reach at the time? Not at all, as researchers noted that there were thousands of logbooks from each country that weren’t able to be digitized, and thousands more that were lost to time. The days simply reflect the amount of data that was available to examine from each country.
But they can still give us an accurate look at critical shipping routes between European countries, their trade partners, and their colonies and territories.
Let’s now take a closer look at the colonial powers and their preferred routes.
The British shipping map shows a steady presence across the Atlantic and the Indian Ocean. They utilized many of Europe’s ports for ease of trade, with strong pre-independence connections to the U.S., Canada, and India.
One of the most frequented shipping routes on the map seen is a triangular trade route that enabled the trans-Atlantic slave trade. This route facilitated the transportation of slaves from Africa to the Americas, raw materials such as sugar, tobacco, and cotton from the American colonies to Europe, and arms, textiles, and wine from Europe to the colonies.
During this period, Spanish maritime trade with its colonies was an essential economic component of the Kingdom of Spain (as with other colonial empires).
We can see the largest concentration of Spanish ships around Central and South America leading up to the Spanish American wars of independence, as those colonies were especially important suppliers of raw materials such as gold, silver, sugar, tobacco, and cotton. There are some lanes visible to Pacific colonies like the Philippines.
Of the four empires, France’s maritime logbooks were the most sparse. The records that were digitized show frequent travel and trade across the North Atlantic Ocean to Canada and the Caribbean.
The French empire at the time included colonies in the Caribbean, Indian Ocean, and West Africa. Their trade routes were used to transport goods like sugar, coffee, rum, and spices, while also relying on the slave trade to maintain plantation economies. The French colony of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) was one of the world’s wealthiest colonies in the late 18th century.
Dutch shipping routes from the time had the most detail and breadth of any country, reflective of the Dutch East India Trading Company’s position as the world’s dominant company and trade force.
These include massive traffic to the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia), Cape Colony (now South Africa), and the Guianas in South America.
Interestingly, researchers from Leiden University found that the Dutch empire was a “string of pearls” consisting mostly of strategic trading hubs stretched along the edges of the continents and focused on maritime power.
This article was published as a part of Visual Capitalist's Creator Program, which features data-driven visuals from some of our favorite Creators around the world.
The Incredible Historical Map That Changed Cartography
Check out the Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi (c. 1450s), a historical map that formed a bridge between medieval and renaissance worldviews.
The Incredible Historical Map That Changed Cartography
This map is the latest in our Vintage Viz series, which presents historical visualizations along with the context needed to understand them.
In a one-paragraph story called On Exactitude in Science (Del Rigor en la Ciencia), Jorge Luis Borges imagined an empire where cartography had reached such an exact science that only a map on the same scale of the empire would suffice.
The Fra Mauro Mappa Mundi (c. 1450s), named for the lay Camaldolite monk and cartographer whose Venetian workshop created it, is not nearly as large, at a paltry 77 inches in diameter (196 cm). But its impact and significance as a bridge between Middle Age and Renaissance thought certainly rivaled Borges’ imagined map.
One of ‘the Wonders of Venice’
Venice was the undisputed commercial power in the Mediterranean, whose trade routes connected east and west, stretching to Flanders, London, Algeria, and beyond.
This network was protected by fleets of warships built at the famous Arsenale di Venezia, the largest production facility in the West, whose workforce of thousands of arsenalotti built ships on an assembly line, centuries before Henry Ford.
The lion of St Mark guards the land gate to the Arsenale di Venezia, except instead of the usual open bible in its hands offering peace, this book is closed, reflecting its martial purpose. Source: Wikipedia
The Mappa Mundi (literally “map of the world”) was considered one of the wonders of Venice with a reputation that reached the Holy Land. It is a circular planisphere drawn on four sheets of parchment, mounted onto three poplar panels and reinforced by vertical battens.
The map is painted in rich reds, golds, and blues; this last pigment was obtained from rare lapis lazuli, imported from mines in Afghanistan. At its corners are four spheres showing the celestial and sublunar worlds, the four elements (earth, air, fire, and water), and an illumination of the Garden of Eden by Leonardo Bellini (active 1443-1490).
Japan (on the left edge, called the Isola de Cimpagu) appears here for the first time in a Western map. And contradicting Ptolemaic tradition, it also shows that it was possible to circumnavigate Africa, presaging the first European journey around the Cape of Good Hope by the Portuguese explorer Bartolomeu Dias in 1488.
NASA called the historical map “stunning” in its accuracy.
A Historical Map Between Two Worlds
Medieval maps, like the Hereford Mappa Mundi (c. 1300), were usually oriented with east at the top, because that’s where the Garden of Eden was thought to be. Fra Mauro, however, chose to orient his to the south, perhaps following Muslim geographers such as Muhammad ibn Muhammad al-Idrisi.
Significantly, the Garden of Eden is placed outside of geographic space and Jerusalem is no longer at the center, though it is still marked by a windrose. The nearly 3,000 place names and descriptions are written in the Venetian vernacular, rather than Latin.
At the same time, as much as Fra Mauro’s map is a departure from the past, it also retains traces of a medieval Christian worldview. For example, included on the map are the Kingdom of the Magi, the Kingdom of Prester John, and the Tomb of Adam.
Isidore of Seville, Etymologiae (c. 600–625). Source: Wikipedia
The circular planisphere also follows the medieval T-O schema, first described by Isidore of Seville, with Asia occupying the top half of the circle, and Europe and Africa each occupying the bottom two quarters (Fra Mauro turns the ‘T’ on its side, to reflect a southern orientation). Around the circle, are many islands, beyond which is the “dark sea” where only shipwreck and misfortune await.
Fra Mauro’s Legacy
Fra Mauro died some time before 20 October 1459, and unfortunately his contributions fell into obscurity soon thereafter; until 1748, it was believed that the Mappa Mundi was a copy of a lost map by Marco Polo.
In 1811, the original was moved from Fra Mauro’s monastery of San Michele to the Biblioteca Nazionale Marciana, following the suppression of religious orders in the Napoleonic era, where it can be viewed today.
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