Mapped: British, Spanish and Dutch Shipping 1750-1800

I recently stumbled upon a fascinating dataset which contains digitised information from the log books of ships (mostly from Britain, France, Spain and The Netherlands) sailing between 1750 and 1850. The creation of this dataset was completed as part of the Climatological Database for the World’s Oceans 1750-1850 (CLIWOC) project. The routes are plotted from the lat/long positions derived from the ships’ logs. I have played around with the original data a little to clean it up (I removed routes where there was a gap of over 1000km between known points, and only mapped to the year 1800). As you can see the British (above) and Spanish and Dutch (below) had very different trading priorities over this period. What fascinates me most about these maps is the thousands (if not millions) of man hours required to create them. Today we churn out digital spatial information all the time without thinking, but for each set of coordinates contained in these maps a ship and her crew had to sail there and someone had to work out a location without GPS or reliable charts.

These maps were produced with the latest version of R‘s ggplot2, maptools, geosphere and png packages. Formatting the data took the most work (it was a very large MS Access database). I used ggplot’s annotation_raster() to add the compass rose and title.

Update: For some nice animations and a much better critical analysis of the data see Ben Schmidts blog.


  1. Devin Johnson

    Great map! I work a lot with satellite telemetry locations of marine mammals and this would be a great visualization. Would you consider posting the code?

  2. Kay

    Beautiful map!

    ..some wiggly waggly routes indeed – a few of them captains must have had too much rum, I guess!

    Is there a chance to view the code?

  3. SteveL

    That is a fascinating map, but what saddens me is that the atlantic triangle was still active at that time, from UK ports to africa, the west indies and back. I fear that some of those journeys are what the map shows.

    1. XK

      I agree with you, Steve: it’s very fascinating, but important to realize that embedded in this data is one of the greatest holocausts in history. I wonder if there’s any data from Portugal? From what I understand, the slave trade between Angola and Brazil during this period was far heavier even than what Britain was doing.

      It would be amazing if someone could animate this, to show how it changed over time?

  4. Einar

    not that much code needed to get the data into R and make a quick plot the “uncleaned” data. try this:
    require(Hmisc) # need also mdbtools installed
    path <- "YOURWD"
    URL <- ";
    PATH <- "cliwoc/download/"
    FILE <- ""
    dir <- unzip(paste(path,"",sep=""))
    file <- substr(dir,3,nchar(dir))
    dat <- mdb.get(file)
    tmp <- dat$CLIWOC15[,c("Lon3","Lat3")]
    geom_point(alpha=0.01,size=1) +
    coord_map() +

  5. Some fascinating mapped data. It shows visually how both Spain and The Netherlands had different overseas priorities (as you said) and if you look carefully, it coincided with the former colonies of these countries (sort of obvious, but worth mentioning).

    I am quite surprised to see how the Spanish concentrated pretty much on the Americas though, seeing how the Philippines were Spanish until 1898.

  6. kike

    Could you please provide bigger resolution versions, or a tutorial to recreated this data?
    I think its quite useful and interesting, I’m thinking of printing it as a decorative map.
    Thanks in advance

  7. Matt

    Very interesting presentation. It would be useful to know which courses are E-W and which are W-E. That is, are the Spanish course heading N from Cuba to FL to catch the Gulf Stream, or is that E-W traffic.

    Not so much Spanish/ Portuguese slave traffic in late 1700s as it was often carried in “British” (but actually, American, esp Rhode Island) ships. I wonder, does the data set include American ships as part of the British data?

    Nice job, anyway. Look forward to seeing more.

  8. clive wilkinson

    A point about the Atlantic Triangle. The British logbooks were entirely East India ships or naval vessels. The Dutch likewise were VOC plus a few naval vessels. The Spanish were mostly the postal service ships with a handful of naval vessels. No slave ships were used, and very few logs from these are extant anyway. Please be careful how you interpret this data. CLIWOC selected in the British case at least, the best of thousands of potential logs, based mainly on, long voyages and temporal and geographic data gaps. The choice was very selective.

  9. sho

    Hi there,
    thanks for the amazing posts, I have been trying to plot them in Mapinfo. I have no knowledge and experience in processing information, it has not been able to plot a point let alone paths taken. Would you have any advise?
    Thank you.

  10. Clinton Winant

    These maps make a wonderful introduction for a lay audience to the wind system over the oceanic gyres. Retired, I know give lectures, ashore and on cruise ships, and I would like permission to show one or two of these figures. Can you advise me how I might obtain such permission?

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