In the exhibition The Golden Age of Dutch Seascapes at the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts (through September 7, 2009), there is just one portrait. Like all but three of the works in the show, it comes from Britain’s National Maritime Museum, Greenwich. Painted between 1667 and 1669, it depicts the great Dutch naval commander Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter (1607-1676), and is one of six near identical versions commissioned by the governors of the regional admiralties of the United Provinces (the Dutch republic). The admiral stands before a deep red curtain of honor, and a balustrade beyond which we see his flagship, the Zeven Provinciën (named for the seven provinces of the republic), and other men-o’-war at anchor. He holds his baton of command in his right hand, resting his forearm on a celestial globe placed on a table covered in a plain red pile cloth. Curling over the table’s edge is a nautical chart, beside which is a pair of dividers. The dividers’ legs similarly overhang the table edge, casting a descending shadow onto the cloth. Another, slightly larger pair lies directly behind. Light catches both of the tips as well as the tops of the legs near where they spread to form an ellipse. Standing before the near life-size portrait, I felt as though I could reach out and grasp this familiar tool. I readily imagined its heft in my hand.
Ferdinand Bol, Lieutenant-Admiral Michiel de Ruyter, oil on canvas,
National Maritime Museum, Greenwich
(Artwork in the public domain. Source: Wikimedia Commons)
We are so used to technology changing at a swift rate—last year’s cell phone is already obsolescent—that to see a tool depicted in a 340-year-old painting identical to one I regularly use comes as a surprise. Even outside the electronic realm, most hand tools have changed since the seventeenth century—or even since the nineteenth century—as visits to museums with tool collections, such as the Shelbourne Museum in Vermont, and the Musée de l’Outil in Troyes, France, confirm. Not so nautical dividers.
I love my nautical dividers. They are designed to be “opened and closed with one hand while performing your chart work,” as the description on the website of their makers, Weems & Plath of Annapolis, Maryland, has it. When measuring distance on a chart, especially in a heaving swell, or when your sailboat is well heeled over in a stiff breeze, the distance between the tips, set from the latitude scale on the side of the chart, simply must not change. These never slip. The hinge screw at the head permits controlled but never inadvertent movement. The curved form allows the navigator to grasp one side between third and fourth fingers, and the other between first and second, the hinge nestling against the base of the thumb. Being made of brass, the whole is corrosion resistant. Perhaps the one significant difference between my dividers and the admiral’s is that the lower part of the tapered legs and the tips of mine are made of what the website calls marine alloy.
To use these dividers is a consistent and repeated pleasure. Additionally, as a historian, I value the idea that I and my contemporaries use the same internalized hand and eye movements as Admiral de Ruyter and his contemporaries when performing the same task. Here, at least, is one basic somatic experience that we share among so many that differ, most of them considerably, almost unimaginably. For instance, his clothes—in Bol’s portrait gorgeous outer layers of black velvet and gilt brocade—constrain him and mold his comportment in ways quite different from how mine constrain and otherwise affect me.
Of course, navigation has changed radically for most mariners in recent years, as they rely increasingly on electronic charts and Global Positioning Systems (GPS) that use orbiting satellites. Although I use GPS, I never rely on it exclusively, or even primarily. I like the relative reliability of tools that work without electricity. The sun and the stars don’t run on batteries. I also like the craft of navigation itself, though my own skills are admittedly rudimentary. One reason for that liking is that the craft connects me with people like Michiel de Ruyter. As I handle those brass dividers—my own—or look at the pair placed so temptingly in Bol’s portrait, I feel an affinity with him and with his fellow mariners before whose nautical and naval skills I stand in awe.