Of ship tracks and constrained mobilities

Photo of Sara Caputo

Sara Caputo

There has been much discussion of the personal and practical ways in which the global catastrophe of the past year and a half has impacted on our work as historians. My second book, Tracks on the Ocean, forthcoming in late 2023 or early 2024, is most thoroughly and bizarrely the offspring of these times. It is, first of all, the economic offspring of privilege – of my position as a lucky ECR, in the first year of a three-year research post when the music stopped and the job market switched off. It is the practical offspring of archival closures, which derailed and relegated what was originally meant to be my second book project, and made me fall back onto materials I had already hoarded. And it is the intellectual offspring of the constrained mobilities which have chopped us off from our families, friends, and hobbies.

Tracks on the Ocean tells a cartographical and environmental history of maritime travel, Western colonial mobility, instrumental science, and ‘modernity’. It looks at the ‘journey lines’ which began to appear on European maps and charts at the start of the sixteenth century, and at the ways in which this simple representational device has gradually transformed our understanding of the world, and of our own movement across its surface.

The first seeds of this project were planted many years ago, during my Master’s, when I first began researching the ‘ship tracks’ of ‘explorers’ on Enlightenment charts. In providing an ‘accurate’ graphic record of journeys, tracks also unwittingly highlighted the insufficiency and failure of imperial technologies. In 2019, during the last hectic months before the end of my PhD, parts of that work made their way into a conference paper, and later into an article. That autumn, I had the enormous luck to spend nearly two months examining maps and charts at the Deutsches Schifffahrtsmuseum, in Bremerhaven – all crowned by a visit to the fantastic archives of the Gotha Perthes Collection. I left with many sprouting ideas for what I thought would be another article.

Further inspiration came along a few months later. In the middle of March 2020, I had just begun a period of research at the dreamlike Huntington Library in California. It was my first ever visit to the US. Then the world suddenly shut down, and I literally had to escape Los Angeles on one of the last available flights – facing the very real danger of being stranded, on my own, five and a half thousand miles from home. Two weeks earlier, who could have imagined a scenario with no flights going between the US and London, for the indefinite future, and at any cost? As a maritime historian, it occurred to me, I should have been especially aware of the fragility that is intrinsic to our privileged mobilities, especially when we build ‘routes’ on (mostly) pathless mediums like water and air.

Much hinges on these largely imaginary lines, whether we see them as marking ‘tracks’ or as prescribing ‘routes’: colonial connectivity and appropriation, surveillance, idealised perceptions of technology, individual permanence, the tension between human agency and the material world, and ultimately our environmental footprint. My book tries to explore how all these themes are entangled through the thread of the cartographical journey track, and its evolution between the sixteenth and the twentieth century.

As the project developed, I rather casually sent off a proposal to the Ideas Prize (then Profile-Aitken Alexander Non-Fiction Prize), certainly not rating my chances very high. Yet Tracks on the Ocean somehow won, a staggering notion which I have not yet fully processed. So here I am, writing the book. With the help of vaccines, we are now cautiously starting to redraw our journeys around the world, and mine have been frantically shuttling back and forth from London archives (with foreign archives hopefully to follow). However, it’s still nearly a year since I last saw my family – for millions of people it will be two years, or much more. Movement itself is a privilege, which a large part of humanity only shares on a small scale. Much like privilege, mental constructs and representational devices become especially easy to deconstruct when reality itself is deconstructed under our feet.