Repository logo

Human tales on the pathless sea?: Imperial subjectivities and exploration ship tracks in European maritime mapping, c.1500-c.1800

Accepted version



Change log



During the Renaissance, Europeans began to mark sea journeys on maps and charts as lines or dotted lines – ‘ship tracks’. This new graphical depiction of voyages, which flanked and often replaced verbal itinerary descriptions, ultimately lies behind present-day route-marking devices, but it has hardly been investigated by historians. Tracing its development between the sixteenth and the early nineteenth century, through cartographic sources, hydrographical manuals, and voyage accounts, this article argues that ship tracks constituted a fundamental turning point in European understandings of human movement and influence in the world. In particular, the tracks of late eighteenth-century imperial explorers, built through novel accuracy claims, established a unique cognitive and ontological link between representation and reality and between human agency and the natural world, and explicitly embedded the perspectival subjectivity of storytelling into the alleged objectivity of ‘scientific’ geometrisations of the globe. As such, tracks are useful tools to understand and deconstruct the roots of modernity/coloniality. They also reveal the extent to which maritime history holds important keys to the past: as a representational and directional device, the modern journey track owes much of its ancestry to confrontation with the liquid and supposedly ‘pathless’ sea.



Journal Title

The English Historical Review

Conference Name

Journal ISSN


Volume Title


Oxford University Press (OUP)

Publisher DOI

Publisher URL