Please welcome Colin Falconer to the House!
SPACE TRAVEL IN THE 17th CENTURY
Imagine you’re on a flight from Amsterdam to Jakarta. Flying time is around 14 hours. Let’s face it, you would probably be annoyed if the flight was delayed for an hour; two would leave you furious.
Yet imagine making that same journey in 1628. The one that takes you less than a day would take them eight months. That’s how long it currently takes for an unmanned space ship to travel to Mars.
If you were on of the 4,000 hardy souls to undertake the trip on a Dutch East India ship every year, it would in fact be very much like traveling to a distant manned space station. After a seemingly endless and extremely hazardous journey you would arrive at your company’s outpost – in Batavia, now Jakarta – to be greeted by a sour and hard-bitten community of singular individuals, in an alien and hostile environment.
But that is if you arrive. First, you have to survive the journey, which is so tedious and so uncomfortable that you will wish cryogenics had been invented. Imagine over three hundred people living and sleeping for eight months in a space not much larger than an interstate bus and you have some idea.
As part of my research I went on board a replica of one of those seventeenth century spaceships, the retourschip Batavia. I couldn’t even stand up straight below decks. And then there are the bathroom arrangements; the best you can say about them is that they were … novel.
The bathroom was a platform extending from the hull below the stern, the toilet paper a long piece of rope with a frayed end. You pulled it up to use it; you dropped it back down into the ocean to activate the self-cleaning mode.
During that eight months between Amsterdam and the Spice Islands you would travel through a dangerous and uncharted world. It would be actually less hazardous than going to Mars today: our navigational systems today far exceed Dutch capabilities in 1628.
For example, skippers then could calculate latitude with the aid of an astrolabe but had no reliable way to calculate longitude – distance east or west – and relied on experience and dead reckoning.
Often the skipper’s dead reckoning was out by some considerable distance; it was how one East India Company ship came to shipwrecked on the Houtman Abrolhos, off the western coast of Australia, over 1400 nautical miles to the south of its intended destination.
Now I’ve visited the Houtman Abrolhos. It’s a great place if you’re a sea eagle or a reclusive seal. But if you had come from the bustling port of Amsterdam in the seventeenth century and then found yourself abandoned there, it must have seemed like being stranded on – well, the moon.
And rescue? As unlikely as Matt Damon getting off the space station in The Martian.
But they did, somehow. What was left of them.
You have to hand it to our ancestors, they were a tough bunch. They had to be, because as they say – in space, no one can hear you scream.
East India by Colin Falconer
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