Before there was seamless connectivity, before there was one global electronic currency and instantaneous global debt creation, before there was the internet, supply-chain "logistics", World Bank, IMF, and economic hitmen, there were... ships. Because in order to allow modern Ricardian economics to flourish (we would be curious to read some/any scholarly papers probing the failure of Ricardo's theories in a ZIRP regime, unfortunately there are none, as never before has the cost of money been zero essentially until regime end), and before money could be printed with impunity, backed solely by full lack of faith and eroding credit, nations had to actually trade with each other, and money was simply a means to facilitate said trade, which in turn allowed the formation of wealth and subsequent asymmetric power relationships. Needless to say, any nation that imported itself to death would be promptly wiped out by its heretofore friendly neighbors who would simply invade it when the money to buy stuff and to fund armies ran out: sadly TARGET2 was not available during Victorian times. So where are we going with this? Ben Schmidt, a Princeton graduate student, using ship logs has conceived of this tremendous time lapse of every single major known ship route taken by Dutch, Spanish and English vessels during the "age of transition", the period between 1750 and 1850, which set the stage for today's "global economy." The result is a fantastic insight into the early stages of globalization.
The first video above shows a time-lapse of 100 years of ship routes. As Schmidt explains:
It shows about 100 years of ship paths in the seas, as recorded in hundreds of ship's log books, by hand, one or several times a day. I haven't watched the whole thing at once, but skipping around gives a pretty good idea of the state of the database (if not world shipping) at any given moment. This shows mostly Spanish, Dutch, and English routes—they are surprisingly constant over the period (although some empires drop in and out of the record), but the individual voyages are fun. And there are some macro patterns—the move of British trade towards India, the effect of the American Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and so on.
Some notable comments on voyages of interest and limitations of the process:
- You get some individual voyages of interest. The Battle of Saldanha Bay (1796), when a contingent of Dutch ships sail south and engage with the British in August by the Cape, is clearly visible on the map; so is much of the Resolution's route on Captain Cook's second voyage (1772-1775) through the South Pacific, including its southernmost point. Some other events--the massive Spanish convoys in 1778 leaving from Peru, for example--I can't place as easily. The Beagle, unfortunately, is not represented.
- The Pacific is, as I said, almost completely ignored in the records. Still, I'm amazed at how consistently the voyages end around Singapore/Batavia rather than proceed up to China and Japan. Dael's the expert on Pacific shipping, maybe he has something to say on this.
- Relatedly, so are the United States--possibly since this is biased towards naval vessels, and the US was mostly trading, possibly since this is an EU project. But French ships are almost as poorly represented.
And for those with time constraints, Schmidt created the following condensed video breaking one century of data into its seasonal constituents.
There aren't many truly seasonal events, but a few stand out. There are regular summer voyages from Scotland to Hudson's Bay, and from Holland up towards Spitsbergen, for example: both these appear as huge convoys moving in sync. (What were those about?) Trips around Cape Horn, on the other hand, are extremely rare in July and August. More interestingly, the winds in the Arabian sea seem to shift directions in November or so. I also really like the way this one brings across the conveyor belt nature of trade with the East.
And the abbreviated video: