Navigation in the age of Robinson Crusoe


As NPR reported in February, the US Navy wants to bring back the practice of celestial navigation, the antiquated art relying on complex calculations that has been handily replaced by GPS technology. Since electronically assisted navigation over land and sea (and space) has become the norm, it is easy to forget how difficult traveling from point A to B was in centuries past.


William Webster’s ciphering book, MSS 399, Box 12, Folder 2, undated, circa 1764 -1770. Photo courtesy of the author.

Getting lost at sea was such a tremendous problem for the British Empire in the eighteenth century that navigational struggles inspired government intervention and new forms of literature. It is no coincidence that Robinson Crusoe (1719), the book that many consider to be the first realist novel in English, was published amidst Britain’s quest to find its way throughout the world. In 1714, just five years before Daniel Defoe wrote Robinson Crusoe, British Parliament passed the Longitude Act, offering the public a large reward for an instrument that could accurately calculate longitude at sea.

Latitude is comparably easy to determine since the parallels are fixed in relation to the Equator regardless of the earth’s rotation, but the meridian lines of longitude shift throughout the day, making it difficult to estimate one’s precise location aboard a moving vessel. One of the main incidents that prompted the passage of this act was the 1707 wreck of four British Royal Navy ships in the Scilly Isles off the southern coast of Britain; on account of foggy weather and the miscalculation of longitude, nearly 2,000 troops died when they crashed into the rocky shores of these islands. The British Empire faced tremendous losses from these kinds of shipwreck, so finding an accurate way to determine longitude was of grave importance.


Diagram illustrating a sample calculation of the difference in latitude and longitude of a sailing vessel conducting the technique of “Mercator’s Sailing.” Stephen Jenkins’s ciphering book, 1823. Photo courtesy of the author.

Examining a range of atlases, coast pilots, navigation treatises, guidebooks, ship logs and ciphering books in my fellowship term at the Phillips Library, I sought to uncover some of the literary traditions that were formed around the problem of getting lost at sea. Most surprising to me, and especially enlightening for my dissertation research on Robinson Crusoe and navigation, was my finding on one of the final blank pages of the Phillips Library’s copy of Atlas Maritimus Novus by John Seller, a large English sea atlas in its third edition in 1721.

One of the book’s owners, Woodbridge “Wood” Grafton, has likely scrawled “Robinson Cruso” in black ink next to his name. The following page displays his handwritten name again, and next to it is “Hon. Robinson Late of Salem.” Son of a sea captain, and eventual captain himself in Salem in the late eighteenth century, Wood Grafton’s apparent identification with the adventurer Robinson Crusoe, imagining himself as the Robinson of Salem, offers us a glimpse into how 18th-century British American sailors engaged with contemporary literature. By 1776, the year Grafton acquired the atlas, Daniel Defoe’s The Life and Strange and Surprizing Adventures of Robinson Crusoe had achieved legendary status on both sides of the Atlantic. That a young sailor would picture himself as a “Robinson” documents not only the transatlantic legend of Defoe’s character, but also Defoe’s material connections to the practical maritime literature of his time.


Inscription in Atlas Maritimus Novus (1721) by John Seller. Photo courtesy of the author.

The “Robinson Cruso” inscription is only one example of evidence I found at the Phillips Library of how intertwined literary and navigational practices actually were in the 18th-century Atlantic world. Though one of the main ideals of maritime literature is simplicity and plainness of style, many sailors rendered their experiences in surprisingly eloquent and artful ways. In some of the ciphering books, navigation treatises and ship captain’s logs I viewed, authors used poetry and verse on unexpected occasions. The ciphering book belonging to Rueben Pinkham, for instance, contains what appears to be a rather somber three-page poem to a friend back on shore.

In addition, the first page of Stephen Jenkins’s ciphering book includes a hand-painted illustration of a compass along with the verse, “This is the compass of my soul which steers My heart from pole to pole.”


Nathaniel Bowditch’s ciphering book, MSS 399, Box 13, Folder 5, undated, circa 1800. Photo courtesy of the author.

Maritime metaphors like the compass of the soul were commonly employed in religious works from the 17th century onward. The fact that sailors gravitated toward them as well in their unpublished logs and ciphering books (and did not just add them at the time of publication to please readers) raises exciting questions for me about the relationship between the spiritual and the physical in the age of imperial navigation. By paying closer attention to the overlaps in religious and practical renderings of shipwreck and seafaring, I seek to explore the material origins of the religious symbolism of journeying and lostness as they come into play in Robinson Crusoe, a barometer and influencer of eighteenth-century transatlantic culture.

Headshot-225x300Jamie Bolker is a PhD candidate in English at Fordham University, where she is working on her dissertation, “Lost and Found: Wayfinding in Early American Literature.” Her dissertation considers how getting physically lost shaped notions of individual identity from 1704-1854, a period in which selfhood was shifting from Puritan notions of wilderness as inimical to selfhood toward Transcendentalist ideals of finding oneself in nature. Each chapter centers on figures whose identities were made or unmade throughout their journeys, such as lone female travellers, shipwrecked adventurers, frontiersmen, fugitive slaves, and land surveyors. Jamie has received research fellowships from Fordham University, Omohundro Institute for Early American History and Culture, Phillips Library, and Winterthur Museum and Library. In fall 2016, she will work as a TA in Fordham’s Study Abroad program in London and research at the National Maritime Museum; in spring 2017 she will complete a residential Dissertation Fellowship at Winterthur in Delaware. Email:

Editor’s Note: This post first ran on Conversant, the blog for the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Leave a Comment