In the Wake of Weather…

In the 18th century, the editing and the publication of the shipboard journals written during official Royal Navy expeditions were most often mandated by the Admiralty, although unauthorised, sometimes anonymous, accounts regularly appeared in print. These journals were then frequently translated into French, German, Italian, undergoing adaptation and reworking in the process. Journals were also kept on East Indiamen, or written during commercial voyages. Some of these were published, depending on how much heroics they contained. One of several reasons for this drive toward publication in the 18th century was that it constituted a means of publicising, and thus establishing and validating, imperial claims in the eyes of potential foreign competitors. Other more prosaic but prime, material considerations consisted in tapping into the enthusiasm of the educated public who made up the majority of the buyers of such publications, through subscription for example.

With the rise of theoretical interest in travel writing over the last fifty or so years, it is of course now widely recognised that these sources have proved extremely useful in deconstructing master narratives of discovery and the attending cultural monologues. For example, the pinpointing of the lacunae related to the texting of the recurrent violence of exploration, dispossession and colonisation progressively has to some extent dislocated prevailing histories of exploration like John Beaglehole’s The Exploration of the Pacific (1934). The histories of contact are retold and re-negotiated, thanks to these manuscripts and published journals.

The practice of science onboard ship was also refracted into the journals in terms for example of astronomical strategies deployed as aids to improving the navigators’ and navigational aptitude and scope. Maritime endeavour obviously contributed to the advancement of the sciences and arts in Enlightenment environments, and the shipboard journal was central in documenting that progress.

The documentary identity of a voyage was not only invested in journals, but also in logbooks, which were never published. Logs contained a wealth of data and hourly recorded the weather, temperature, wind direction and speed, distance travelled and position. Incidents or important events were also recorded in non narrative, note-like form. When material from the logs was integrated into the journals, it was adapted first by the author-navigator, but it was also considered by editors as “dry” and unpalatable. It was strategically eliminated from the published accounts, unless it had a degree of entertainment value. Thus, events like storms, hurricanes, water spouts, water fluorescence were considered as significant markers of narrative attractiveness and were worked into the print versions.

Clive Wilkinson et al[1] though are very clear on the research potential of such “indigestible” or ‘dry” contents of logs. They make a convincing case for a better understanding of the …the vastness and emptiness of the oceans which in fact improves historical insights into routes and times of sailings. We have argued elsewhere that elision of time and distance is a marked characteristic of journals and published accounts which derive from the former. Wilkinson also makes it clear that in areas such as medical history (relationship of climate variability and infectious disease) as well as environmental history, the study of logbooks can be of great value.

In addition to environment and medical history, Dennis Wheeler (in collaboration with Wilkinson) has suggested that climatology may be another potential beneficiary of logbook research.[2] Projects like  CLIWOC, RECLAIM have been based on accessing the mass of data which logbooks contain with this perspective in mind.


  • Within the framework of this seminar, would tracking, unpicking and comparing the methodologies of representations of extreme weather conditions at sea, firstly in logs, then in manuscript journals, and finally in edited volumes, contribute in meaningful ways to the above discussion in the field of climate studies?
  • Could examining shipboard iconography of cloud formations, storms, hurricanes, ice, volcanic eruptions (sketches, engravings, paintings, material culture) further inform climatological perspectives?
  • To what extent have French logbooks been integrated into the databases mentioned above? Would cataloguing and then examining the unpublished French archive constitute useful, comparative source material?

Sandhya Patel (Université Clermont Auvergne)

[1] See “The Non-Climatic Research Potential of Ships’ Logbooks and Journals”, Climatic Change, 73 (2005). 55-167.

[2] See Wheeler, Dennis & Garcia-Herrera, Ricardo, “Ships’ logbooks in Climatological Research”, Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1146 (2009). 1-15. Wheeler, Dennis, Garcia-Herrera, Ricardo, Wilkinson, Clive & Ward, “Atmospheric circulation and storminess derived from Royal Navy logbooks. 1685-1750”, Climate Change, 101 (2010). 257-280.Pfeifer, Katrin, “On the Representation of an early Modern Dutch Storm in Two Poems. Culture Unbound”, Journal of Current Cultural Research, 7 (2015). 433-454.

1 réflexion sur « In the Wake of Weather… »

  1. We would like very much to use French journal de bord for climate research. We have a large inventory of naval and merchant shipping moments but can find no logbooks. French museums and archives have been very unhelpful, either ignoring our enquiries, or not reading our messages carefully and just assuming we are just interested in family history!!! We have used logs from Chile, Argentina, Germany, Finland Norway, Russia, UK and USA. The French should be represented, and would be if they could only be persuaded to co-operate

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