Lost at Sea exhibition material

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This article offers descriptive list of some of the items included in Lost at Sea: The Ocean in the English Imagination, 1550–1750, one of the Exhibitions at the Folger. When possible, related content from the exhibition audio tour is also included.

Tools for Finding Yourself at Sea

These exhibition materials focus on the tools English mariners and writers used—from atlases, sextants, and star charts to prayer-books, symbols, and stories—to find themselves on changing oceans.


1588 map of part of the Duchy of Pomerania's coastline in The Mariner's Mirrour. Folger Digital Image 42485.

Charts and maps were among the most basic tools for locating oneself at sea.

The Mariner’s Mirrour began as a groundbreaking Dutch atlas, but Anthony Ashley’s translation transformed it into an English book. The image on the title page shows many tools of the mariner’s trade, from upward-oriented celestial instruments including quadrants and astrolabes to downward-oriented lead lines that were used to measure the depth of a harbor. The English edition also places the English nation at the center of the maritime world by mentioning Sir Francis Drake. The Folger’s hand-colored copy, which is currently unbound and undergoing conservation, would presumably have been intended as a lavish gift, perhaps for one of the wealthy private families who helped underwrite English navigation.

Early modern maritime atlases were not used only by navigators and pilots. They were also aesthetic objects, designed to display early modern Europe’s changing vision of the world. This engraving of the New World was first published in 1617, and it was revised over the years. The example shown here comes from a Dutch atlas published in 1642, and hand colored at a later date. Close-up maps along the top feature major cities such as Havana, Cartagena, Cusco, and Rio de Janeiro. The vertical columns framing the map provide a mini-ethnography of native peoples, including Brazilians, Mexicans, Floridians, Virginians, and Greenlanders.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss the navigational elements in the title page of The Mariners Mirror.

Listen to Steve Mentz discuss the oversized Atlas maritimus & commercialis and explore an interactive version of the atlas here.

Items included

  • Lucas Janszoon Waghenaer. Spieghel der Zeevaerdt (The Mariners Mirrour: wherin may playnly be seen the courses, heights, distances, depths, soundings, flouds and ebs, risings of lands, rocks, sands and shoalds, with the marks for th’entrings of the harbouroughs, havens and ports of the greatest part of Europe: their several traficks and commodities: together wth. the rules and instruments of navigation). London: John Charlewood, 1588?. Call number:STC 24931 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Samuel Purchas. Purchas his pilgrimes. London: William Stansby, 1625. Call number: STC 20509 Copy 2 Vol.3 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • FACSIMILE. Atlas maritimus & commercialis; or, a general view of the world, so far as relates to trade and navigation. London: for James and John Knapton, William and John Innys; John Darby; etc., 1728. Call number: HF1023.A8 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Luke Foxe. North-west Fox, or, Fox from the North-west passage. London: B. Alsop and Tho. Fawcet, 1635. Call number: STC 11221 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Willem Janszoon Blaeu. Americae nova tabula. Amsterdam: Joan Blaeu, 1642. Call number: ART 252264 (size XL) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Edward Barlow. Meteorological essays, concerning the origin of springs, generation of rain, ... In two treatises. London: for John Hooke; and Thomas Caldecott, 1715. Call number: QC859.B3 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Cuningham. The cosmographical glasse, conteinyng the pleasant principles of cosmographie, geographie, hydrographie, or nauigation. London, 1559. Call number: STC 6119 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Martín Cortés. The arte of navigation. Contayning a breife description of the spheare, with the partes and circles of the same: as also the making and use of certaine instruments. Very necessarie for all sortes of sea-men to understand. London: Edw. Allde, 1596. Call number: STC 5803 and LUNA Digital Image.


Determining one’s position at sea required expertise in using many complex instruments, including celestial, magnetic, and mechanical devices.

John Davis, captain of three Arctic voyages, combined mathematical skill with practical nautical experience. In 1594 he invented the “Davis Staff,” an important instrument which would be widely used for measuring the altitude of the sun. Davis reversed the traditional cross-staff, so that the sailor measured the shadow the sun cast on the staff rather than staring directly at the sun itself. This image in Davis’s book of maritime instruction represents a fairly simple early version of the staff, which would be refined and used into the eighteenth century.

Samuel Sturmy intended his lively volume to educate his brothers, sons, and any other young men who wanted to go to sea in seventeenth-century England. Drawing on his own experience in a career spent traveling from Bristol to Virginia and the West Indies, it presents clear instructions that could be used with no greater mathematical knowledge than arithmetic. The volume also contains instructions for using navigational instruments, such as this nocturnal, which was designed to use the altitude of a given star to compute time at night.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss the "Davis Staff."

Items included

  • John Davis. The seamans secrets. London: John Dawson, 1626. Call number: STC 6370 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Mariner's astrolabe. Replica of an instrument from Valencia, ca. 16th–17th century. Call number: na.
  • Thomas Blundeville. M. Blundevile his exercises, containing eight treatises, the titles whereof are set downe in the next printed page: which treatises are verie necessarie to be read and learned of all young gentlemen, that have not beene exercised in such disciplines: and yet are desirous to have knowledge as well in cosmographie, astronomie, and geographie, as also in the arte of navigation, in which arte it is impossible to profite without the helpe of these, or such like instructions. London: John Windet, 1606. Call number: STC 3148 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Samuel Sturmy. The mariners magazine; or, Sturmy's mathematical and practical arts. London: E. Cotes, 1669. Call number: 151- 383f and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Edmund Gunter. The description and use of the sector, crosse-staffe, and other instruments. London: William Jones, 1636. Call number: STC 12523 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Blagrave. The mathematical jewel, shewing the making, and most excellent use of a singuler instrument so called: in that it performeth with wonderfull dexteritie, whatsoever is to be done, either by quadrant, ship, circle, cylinder, ring, dyall, horoscope, astrolabe, sphere, globe, or any such like heretofore devised. London: Walter Venge, 1585. Call number: STC 3119 and LUNA Digital Image.

Sermons and Prayers

Early modern believers and theological writers represented the sea as a space of divine power and revelation.

The clergyman James Janeway’s publications typified seventeenth-century efforts to combine realistic sea-stories with Providential theology. In A Token for Mariners, Janeway brought together accurate historical narratives with Providential interpretations. He also provided ready-made prayers and sermons for events at sea, from shipwreck to victory in battle. This image shows a shipwreck in the Providentialist view: the ship is in danger, the men are clinging to a broken mast, but the eye of God looks unblinking down to control everything.

Preachers often sought to reveal the secrets of the deep, and one anonymously published volume took the claim literally. Vox Piscis, or The Book–Fish consists of three theological treatises supposedly discovered in the belly of a recently-caught codfish. The tracts were actually reprints of radical writings by the sixteenth-century martyr John Frith. Placing Frith’s words in the fish’s belly transformed them into divine wisdom from the bottom of the sea. From the belly of the cod came a nonhuman voice proclaiming God’s will to an England that was again becoming divided by religion.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss Janeway's theology of salvation on the sea.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss The Book–Fish.

Items included

  • James Janeway. A token for mariners, containing many famous and wonderful instances of God’s providence in sea dangers and deliverances. London: for T. Norris, and A. Bettesworth, 1721. Call number: BV4590.J3 1721 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Thomas Jackson. The raging tempest stilled. London: John Haviland, 1623. Call number: STC 14305 Bd.w. STC 14319 Copy 3 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Davenport. The saints anchor-hold in all storms and tempests. London: Benjamin Harris, 1661. Call number: BV4253.D2S2 Cage; displayed frontispiece.
  • John Frith. Vox piscis: or, The book–fish contayning three treatises which were found in the belly of a cod-fish in Cambridge Market, on Midsummer Eve last, anno Domini 1626. London: [Humphrey Lownes, John Beale, and Augustine Mathewes], 1627. Call number: STC 11395 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Flavel. Navigation spiritualiz’d: or, A new compass for seamen consisting of XXXII points of pleasant observations, profitable applications, and serious reflections: all concluded with so many spiritual poems. London: for Tho. Parkhurst, 1698. Call number: F1173.2; displayed sig. A3.

Science and Mathematics

Advances in cartography and navigation helped drive new scientific understandings of the maritime world.

A self-educated writer and mathematician who lived among sailors at Gravesend on the Thames, William Bourne wrote A Regiment for the Sea for practical mariners. His text was not original; Bourne adapted Richard Eden’s Arte of Navigation, which itself was a translation of Martín Cortés’s Arte de Navigar. But unlike both Eden and Cortés, Bourne wrote for sailors, not navigators. By using his book, all mariners could learn to orient themselves by the stars and other maritime technologies.

After being appointed the first surgeon-general of the East India Company, John Woodall published The surgeons mate, or, Military & domestique surgery in 1617 as a comprehensive reference manual and teaching guide for maritime surgeons. The book contained the first suggestion that scurvy could be prevented by using lemon juice, though this practice did not become widespread until the end of the eighteenth century, much to the detriment of English sailors.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss William Bourne's book, A Regiment for the Sea.

Listen to Steve Mentz discuss the first modern work on ocean science.

Items included

  • William Bourne. A regiment for the sea, containing verie necessarie matters for all sorts of men and travailers. London: T. Est, 1592. Call number: STC 3427; displayed title page.
  • Euclid. The elements of geometrie of the most auncient philosopher Euclide of Megara. London: John Daye, 1570. Call number: STC 10560 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Gilbert. Guilielmi Gilberti Colcestrensis, medici Londinensis, De magnete, magneticisque corporibus, et de magno magnete tellure; physiologia nova, plurimis & argumentis, & experimentis demonstrata. London: Petrus Short, 1600. Call number: STC 11883 Copy 1; displayed p. 203.
  • John Searle. An ephemeris for nine yeeres, inclusive, from the yeere of our Lord God 1609. to the yeere 1617. London: John Windet [and Elizabeth Allde], 1609. Call number: STC 22142; displayed ff. O5v–O6r.
  • John Woodall. The surgeons mate, or, Military & domestique surgery. London: Rob. Young, 1639. Call number: STC 25963 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Everard Maynwaringe. Morbus polyrhizos & polymorphæus. A treatise of the scurvy, examining opinions of the most solid and grave writers, concerning the nature and cure of this disease. London, 1669. Call number: 163- 868q; displayed title page.
  • George Sinclair. Natural philosophy improven by new experiments. Touching the mercurial weather-glass, the hygroscope, eclipsis, conjunctions of Saturn and Jupiter. By new experiments, touching the pressure of fluids, the diving–bell, and all the curiosities thereof.. Edinburgh, 1683. Call number: 182– 563q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • William Barlow. Magneticall advertisements: or Divers pertinent observations, and approved experiments concerning the nature and properties of the load-stone: very pleasant for knowledge, and most needfull for practise, of travelling, or framing of instruments fit for travellers both by sea and land. London: Edward Griffin, 1616. Call number: STC 1442 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Isaac Vossius. A treatise concerning the motion of the seas and winds. London: H[enry]. C[ruttenden], 1677. Call number: 155– 695q; displayed title page.

Ships and Captains

Frontispiece from The legend of Captain Jones, a parody of the life of John Smith, 1671. Folger Digital Image 42058.

Maritime heroes and famous vessels were themselves orienting devices which helped make sense of the disorderly world of the sea.

This image of King George I surrounded by English ships represents the relationship between the crown and the Royal Navy. The author William Sutherland was a shipwright, and this book provides “a general director, for building and compleating the said machines,” so his personal interest in emphasizing the value of the navy seems clear. But by representing the king encircled and protected by ships, the image also crystallizes the relationship between national expansion and maritime force.

One translation of Simon Stevin’s Dutch treatise on navigation was done by the English map-maker Edward Wright. Wright and Stevin were both mathematicians more than sailors, but this table, which continues onto the next page, also lists the names of the ropes and stays which constitute the ship’s rigging. Combining Stevin and Wright’s interest in geometric precision with the technical terms that practical sailors needed to handle a ship’s sails, this diagram and table display the interface between mathematical knowledge and practical seamanship.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss the amazing adventures of Captain Jones.

Items included

  • William Sutherland. Britain’s glory: or, ship-building unvail’d. Being a general director, for building and compleating the said machines. London, 1717. Call number: VM142.S9 Cage; displayed frontispiece.
  • LOAN courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Robert Boissard. Sir Humphrey Gilbert. Line engraving, circa 1590-1603. NPG Number: NPG D20541.
  • LOAN courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London. John Smith. Line engraving after Simon De Passe, 18th century. NPG Number: NPG D32914
  • David Lloyd. The legend of Captain Jones: relating his adventure to sea: his first landing, and strange combat with a mighty bear.. London: E. Okes and Francis Haley, 1671. Call number: L2633; displayed frontispiece foldout.
  • Simon Stevin. The haven-finding art, or The way to find any haven or place at sea, by the latitude and variation. London: G. B[ishop] R. N[ewberry] and R. B[arker], 1599. Call number: STC 23265; displayed second foldout after p. 27.
  • Ship model of The Sovereign of the Seas. Call number: na.
  • Willem Janszoon Blaeu. The light of navigation. Wherein are declared and lively pourtrayed all the coasts and havens of the West, North and East seas. Amsterdam: William Johnson [Blaeu], 1622. Call number: STC 3112; displayed sig. A2.
  • Edward Russell. Report of the character of captains that served in the fleet the previous summer. Manuscript, November 1691. Call number: X.d.451 (98) and Guide to the Papers of the Rich Family and LUNA Digital Image.


Sometimes placing one’s self in an oceanic world relied more on familiar narratives than technical expertise.

Shakespeare’s plays often employ the ocean as a literal setting and metaphor for instability. This framework appears most dramatically in the opening of The Tempest. This illustration in Nicholas Rowe’s edition of Shakespeare represents the storm as pure disorder and maritime crisis. The mariners cling in terror to the masts while Ariel and his fellow spirits shoot fire and lightning into the rigging. The wizard Prospero, barely visible standing on shore, controls both order and chaos in the play, but he does not dominate this image.

Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, published in April 1719, was a near-instantaneous best-seller, and the book’s quick success spurred Defoe to publish a sequel by August. This map of Crusoe’s voyages appeared in a combined edition of parts 1 and 2 that was also printed before the end of the year. The second part of the story extended Crusoe’s voyages beyond the Atlantic. The former castaway sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to the Indian Ocean, the Spice Islands, and eventually China, from where he returned to England overland.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz on the importance of stories. For more of his talk, visit the page on Scholars' insights on Lost at Sea.

Listen to actor Maury Sterling in a dramatic reading of the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe.

Items included

  • William Shakespeare. The works of Mr. William Shakespear. Edited by Nicholas Rowe. London: for Jacob Tonson, 1709. Call number: PR2752 1709b Copy 1 v.1 Sh.Col.; displayed title page and frontispiece.
  • Samuel Purchas. Purchas his pilgrimes. London: William Stansby, 1625. Call number: STC 20509 Copy 2 Vol.1.; displayed title page.
  • William Shakespeare. Shake-speares sonnets. Neuer before imprinted. London: G. Eld, 1609. Call number: STC 22353; displayed G4v H1r.
  • Daniel Defoe. The farther adventures of Robinson Crusoe, being the second and last part of his life, and strange surprizing accounts of his travels round three parts of the globe. London: W. Taylor, 1719. Call number: 166– 097q; displayed foldout before title page.
  • Daniel Defoe. The storm: or, a collection of the most remarkable casualties and disasters which happen’d in the late dreadful tempest, both by sea and land. London: G. Sawbridge, 1704. Call number: PR3404 S8 Cage and LUNA Digital Image.
  • LOAN courtesy of the John Carter Brown Library, Brown University. Alexander Selkirk Makes his Cats and Kids dance before Captn. Cook and his Company. From An historical account of all the voyages round the world performed by English navigators. Volume the second. [London: F. Newberry, 1774].

Images and Emblems

The ancient tradition of emblems and emerging techniques of Dutch maritime painting both created resonant images of humanity’s fate amid turbulent seas.

Faith in Providence assured believers that deaths at sea were part of the divine plan. But for families left behind, Providential thinking was difficult. Lacking physical remains, some survivors created memorial objects. This ring reformulates Providence on a human scale. The short verse or “poesy” inscribed inside the band reads, “The cruel seas, remember, took him in November.” The lines focus on the dead man’s past; the skeletal image and initials “R.C.” represent the missing corpse’s present; and the gold gestures toward a heavenly future.

Maritime oil paintings first emerged in Holland and expanded throughout Europe during the seventeenth century. These works created detailed and realistic maritime images for a landed audience. This painting foregrounds a ship with her mainsail loose, perhaps representing helplessness, or (more likely) the skill of the sailors, who have intentionally loosened the sail to decrease the vessel’s forward momentum and keep her under control.

Listen to curator Steve Mentz discuss one memorial poesy ring.

Listen to Steve Mentz discuss Henry Peacham's visual use of the sea.

Items included

  • [The cruell seas, remember, Took him in November, 92]. Memorial poesy ring. Ring in memory of one who went to sea. Gold, rock crystal and textile, [1592?]. Call number: H–P Reliques no.9 (realia) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Medal commemorating the defeat of the Spanish Armada. [Netherlands], 1588. Call number: ART Inv. 1001 (realia).
  • Stephen Batman. A christall glasse of christian reformation, wherein the godly maye beholde the coloured abuses used in this our present tyme. London: John Day, 1569. Call number: STC 1581 bdw STC 1585 c.2; displayed sig. N3r.
  • LOAN courtesy of the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London. Jan Porcellis. Dutch Ships in a Gale. Oil on Panel, ca. 1620. Object ID: BHC0721.
  • Henry Peacham. Minerva Britanna or A garden of heroical devises, furnished, and adorned with emblemes and impresa’s of sundry natures, .... London: Wa: Dight, [1612]. Call number: STC 19511 Copy 1; displayed p. 165.
  • George Wither. A collection of emblemes, ancient and moderne: quickened with metricall illustrations, both morall and divine: and disposed into lotteries, that instruction, and good counsell, may bee furthered by an honest and pleasant recreation. London, 1635. Call number: STC 25900 Copy 2; displayed p. 13.

Additional items exhibited

The following items are listed chronologically according to the Hamnet catalog.

  • Robert Record. The castle of knowledge. London: Reginalde Wolfe, 1556. Call number: STC 20796 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Richard Hakluyt. The principall navigations, voiages and discoveries of the English nation, made by sea or ouer land, to the most remote and farthest distant quarters of the earth at any time within the compasse of these 1500. yeeres. London: George Bishop and Ralph Newberie, 1589. Call number: STC 12625 Copy 1 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Edward Wright. Certaine errors in navigation, arising either of the ordinarie erroneous making or using of the sea chart, compasse, crosse staffe, and tables of declination of the sunne, and fixed starres detected and corrected. London: Valentine Sims [and W. White], 1599. Call number: STC 26019.
  • Walter Raleigh. The history of the world. London: [William Stansby] for Walter Burre, 1614. Call number: STC 20637 Copy 1.
  • John Wood. The true honor of navigation and navigators: or, holy meditations for sea-men. London: Felix Kyngston, 1618. Call number: STC 25952.
  • Nathanael Carpenter. Geographie delineated forth in two bookes. Oxford: Johh Lichfield for Henry Cripps, [1635]. Call number: STC 4677 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Giovanni Botero. The cause of the greatnesse of cities. Three bookes. With certaine observations concerning the sea. London: E. P[urslowe] for Henry Seile, 1635. Call number: STC 3396 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Robert Hues. A learned treatise of globes, both cœlestiall and terrestriall: with their severall uses. London: T[homas] P[urfoot] for P. Stephens and C. Meredith, 1639. Call number: STC 13908.
  • Henry Manwayring. The sea-mans dictionary: or, An exposition and demonstration of all the parts and things belonging to a shippe: together with an explanation of all the termes and phrases used in the practique of navigation. London: G. M. for John Bellamy, 1644. Call number: M551.
  • Edward Hayward. The sizes and lengths of riggings for all the states ships and frigats· As also proportions of boatswains and carpenters stores, of all kinds, for eight months sea-service upon the coast of England. London: Peter Cole, 1655. Call number: H1229 and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Baltharpe. The Straights voyage, or, St. Davids poem. London: E.C. for T. Vere, 1671. Call number: 265– 228q.
  • Indentured servant contracts for the colonies of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania and Barbados. Manuscript, January 3, 1682 – December 1683. Call number: V.b. 16 (1) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • This indenture, according to the method made and provided, and by the order and directions of His Sacred Majestie, King Charles the Second ... declaring that what persons ... to be retained to serve in any of His Majesties foreign plantations in America, are to be duely examined and bound .... [London, 1683]. Call number: V.b. 16 (62) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • John Smith. The sea-mans grammar and dictionary explaining all the difficult terms in navigation. London: Randal Taylor, [1691]. Call number: 239– 591q.
  • William Hodges. Great Britain’s groans: or, An account of the oppression, ruin, and destruction of the loyal seamen of England, in the fatal loss of their pay, health and lives, and dreadful ruin of their families. London, 1695. Call number: 151- 358q.
  • England and Wales. High Court of Admiralty. Certificate of freedom granted from the Court of Admiralty to Arthur Holdsworth for the Nicholas (Sailing vessel). Manuscript, August 17, 1697. Call number: Z.c.9 (305) and LUNA Digital Image.
  • A. B. Gloria Britannica: or, The boast of the Brittish seas. London: for Samuel Clark, 1696. Call number: B8.
  • William Dampier. Voyages and descriptions. Vol. II. In three parts. London: for James Knapton, [1699]. Call number: D165.
  • Edward Cooke. A voyage to the South Sea, and round the world, perform’d in the years 1708, 1709, 1710, and 1711. London: H. M. for B. Lintot and R. Gosling, A. Bettesworth, and W. Innys, 1712. Call number: 155– 849q and LUNA Digital Image.
  • Woodes Rogers. A cruising voyage round the world: first to the South-Seas, thence to the East-Indies, and homewards by the Cape of Good Hope. London: for A. Bell and B. Lintot, 1712. Call number: G440.R7.
  • James Love. The mariner’s jewel: or, a pocket companion for the ingenious. London: for H. and J. Tracy, 1724. Call number: V115.G7M3 Cage.
  • William Shakespeare. The works of Shakespeare : in seven volumes. Edited by [Lewis] Theobald. London: for A. Bettesworth and C. Hitch, J. Tonson, F. Clay, W. Feales, and R. Wellington, [1733]. Call number: PR2752 1733 copy 3 Sh.Col..