Wayback Machine: 18th Century Shipping Routes

19 Apr

It's extraordinary and enlightening when you apply modern data modeling to delve into the mists of history. James Cheshire and Ben Schmidt took 18th century British, Dutch, and Spanish shipping records to produce these spectacular visual representations of the routes being sailed.

Here's what British shipping was up to, 1750-1800 (click image for enlarged version):

Here's what you are looking at: Cross-Atlantic shipping lanes were among the busiest, but the number of

vessels traveling to what was than called the East Indies – now India and South-East Asia – also stands out when compared to Dutch and Spanish records (see below). If you look carefully you can also make out Captain Cook's voyages, including his two global circumnavigations.

Now, here is what Dutch shipping was doing, 1750-1800 (click image for enlarged version):

Analysis: The routes are closely matched to the British ones, although the number of journeys is noticeably smaller. You can also see the scattering of journeys made by Dutch ships to Svalbard, off the North coast of the Norwegian mainland.

Finally, here is what the Spanish were doing over the same time period (click image for enlarged version):

You can see a pretty dramatic difference: Spanish captains crossed the Atlantic further south than their British and Dutch counterparts, and a large number of journeys rounded Cape Horn before continuing up the West Coast of South America.

Amazing how much you can intuit about the history of these seafaring powers (and the history of the world) from just looking at these routes. You can even download all the data yourself. And to top it all off, Schmidt has created an animated version that shows the tracks of ships from all three nations over the same 1750-1800 period, broken down by month, so you can see who was sailing where and in what season.


  1. Graeme Henderson

    I have been researching the voyage and wreck of the Dutch East Indiaman Fortuyn, lost in 1724 on the outward voyage to Batavia. Have you collated log information for 1724?

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