Reader question: Time travel

A reader is curious to know of good sources on early modern time travel. More precisely: how much time did it take to travel to various places in the early modern period, say circa 1700? I think the request particularly relates to travel times between European capital cities and colonies overseas.

Offhand, I don’t have a good answer. I know Geoffrey Parker has a chapter on the tyranny of distance in his Grand Strategy of Philip II, influenced by Fernand Braudel. Perhaps more germane to the request, I also recall a map in the first volume of the Oxford History of the British Empire that includes routes and average times on it. Undoubtedly various textbooks and monographs include examples and anecdotes, but I’m wondering if there’s a more systematic source of information out there? (We’ll preface the discussion with the recognition that travel times over great differences could vary dramatically depending on weather, accidents, pirates…).

So I’m hoping that someone will give some suggestions in the comments so I don’t have to try to find out myself.


4 responses to “Reader question: Time travel”

  1. Pat Speelman says :

    T. C. W. Blanning’s “The Pursuit of Glory” deals with the issue of travel times, etc. It is a good place to start.

  2. Erik Lund says :

    It depends on the weather? And how you’re travelling? (Walking, riding, droving, caravaning…) And allowing that it’s not high summer and all the fords are dry, on the bridges? It’s a glorious subject to get into, and there’s any number of old-timey itinerary books, but having just wasted entirely too much time looking for a Defoe book that evidently doesn’t exist, I am not going to press it further,

    Another (to me) fascinating point is that our conception of topography is so different from that of early moderns. Do you know why Dr. Syn’s Dimchurch counts as remote? Because it’s on the other side of the Weald from London. It is 67 miles by road, but you have to climb a monstrous 700 feet. Which isn’t just old-time English being fey. It was actually hard in those days, mainly because of the condition of the roads.

    Again, speaking of tiny differences of elevation and their overarching importance, did you know that it is actually downhill from Boulogne to Cologne? (That is, from the citadel of Boulogne, not the seaside.) You want to know why military historians draw big red arrows from Cologne to Boulogne? It is because of that 180ft of cumulative difference in elevation –not because it is so hard to climb, but because it shapes the watersheds such that if you pick your route carefully, you can walk from Boulogne to Cologne and only cross two rivers.

    So, uhm, pick out the places that you’re interested in, find a contemporary itinerary book that links them, and follow them? There tends to be spotty coverage of books of this kind on Project Gutenberg, but it is getting easier all the time to just find these editions online.

    For western Europe and America, anyway. Good luck for the Balkans or the Maghreb, for example.

  3. Wienand Drenth says :

    Thanks for putting forward this question. There is a website,, that allows one to calculate distances between ports, and, given a certain speed, the duration of the voyage.
    For example, Portsmouth — Bombay via Cape Hope is about 10,500 nautical miles. With a speed of 6 knots per hour, this would take 73 days.
    However, the voyage of the battalion raised to garrison the newly acquired property of Bombay, took about 6 months in 1662 (the convoy left in April 1662, and arrived in September and October).

    So, though I can understand that the ships would make some stops for getting fresh water, and new food. And the winds may not always be favourable. So, is the difference of 2-3 months realistic or not?

    Did people in the 1700s have a notion on how long such a voyage would take? For example, Hey, let’s ship a regiment to Jamaica, how much water do we need, how many biscuits. Was there any rule of thumb that the quarter-master used?

    Yes, looking into contemporary journals would be something to do too.

  4. Erik Lund says :

    Winds. A trip from London to Jamaica could easily be stretched out by contrary winds before the ships even got away. Laying-to in the Downs for a week or more was hardly uncommon. This is one of the reasons that the Irish establishment was preferred for Western Hemisphere service. The further west you start, the more likely you are to sail on favourable winds.

    In the case of the voyage from Britain (where?) to Bombay, Planning begins with a whole series of weather systems that need to be juggled. Leaving Britain in winter is out. So is arriving on the west coast off the monsoon. As I sit at my desk, I cannot for the life of me recall whether ships fled the Malabar coast in winter or in summer. But, in either case, onshore winds and a lack of all-weather harbours made it a difficult coast for part of the year.

    I am not sure how helpful this answer is, but I am going to point to contemporary sources that are alive to these kinds of quotidian issues again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: