Nicolaes Witsen, Architectura Navalis et Reginem Nauticum (1671)

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Background

The works of Nicholaes Witsen (1671) and Cornelius van IJk (1697) are essential sources for the study of 17th-century Dutch shipbuilding. Their works are the earliest and only two Dutch manuscripts on shipbuilding from the 17th century. Nicolaes Witsen's book Architectura navalis et regimen nauticum was first published in Amsterdam in 1671.

The author was a true Renaissance man; a scholar, writer, cartographer, and ethnographer. Being a diplomat, he traveled through all of Europe, and published a book on his journeys to China through Russia, and to North-Africa.

He held several high offices as a clerk for the church, maritime affairs, and matters of shipbuilding. He was one of the governors of the Dutch East India Company in Amsterdam, and eventually became the mayor of this city. As he was active in practical matters, he was much more than an armchair thinker. Witsen was involved in several projects as a hydraulic engineer, and he may also have been involved with the placement of lighthouses along the Zuiderzee. His interests finally resulted in his book on shipbuilding, although he never was a shipwright himself. In his manuscript, he gives an historic overview of shipbuilding and extensively discusses 17th century shipbuilding and related matters.

Witsen not only provides an historic overview on shipbuilding techniques from Noah's ark until the 17th century but he also writes about ships types and shipbuilding in many different countries over the entire world and extensively discusses, for example, galley construction, and contemporary French, English, Spanish, Swedisch, Turkisch, Russian and Chinese shipbuilding. Some of these foreign descriptions are based on his own experiences and contacts with foreign shipwrights; he also had access to foreign sources on shipbuilding and mentions famous treatises as Joseph Furttenbach's Architectura Navalis, Fernando Oliveira's Ars Nautica, Thomas Miller's manuscript and many more. Witsen even publishes plates from these manuscripts in his own work. Other than a remarkable and valuable historic source for shipbuilding and seafaring, Witsen's book is full of interesting informative tidbits about foreign and ancient cultures and customs.

In addition, Witsen published one extra volume with 28 plates with drawings of foreign ship types, which he probably made during his travels or commissioned other travelers to make for him (these plates are very rare and have never been re-published).

Witsen's book is above all a valuable source for Dutch shipbuilding and naval architecture, particularly in regards to 17th century Dutch practices. The text is interesting for those who want to gain knowledge on Dutch shipbuilding in the 'early' 17th century. The chapters on Dutch 17th-century shipbuilding may have been entirely based on his father's (Cornelis Witsen) notes, who was an influential Amsterdam merchant. In Chapter XI, Witsen describes the design and construction sequence of a 134 feet long pinas step by step and basically explicates the principles of bottom-based construction. It has been suggested that this bottom-based construction method discussed by Witsen was exclusively employed in the Noorderkwartier shipyards (Amsterdam, Enkhuizen, and Hoorn). This suggestion is based on a remark by Cornelis van IJk in his book Nederlandse scheeps-bouw-kunst open gestelt (1697) in which he states that some people in the Noorderkwartier are still using a bottom-based construction method to build their ships. In the latter building method, the bottom planking of the hull is assembled first, without the benefit of a framework on which the planking can be fastened. Only after the completion of the hull was the framework installed. This method of building is closely related to that of Medieval Northern European ships. Frame-based construction, on the other hand, was first introduced to Northern Europe from the Mediterranean in the late 15th century and involves the erection of the ship s framework first to which the planks are fastened.

The Dutch were the first Northern Europeans to adopt flush-laid planks but they did not adopt the frame-based design-methods of the Mediterranean carvel-built vessels. Dutch shipyards continued to use bottom-based construction as described by Witsen until the mid-17th century. Around this time, the Mediterranean frame-based construction method makes its way in to the Lowlands. It seems that the new shipbuilding technique was first introduced to the southern parts of the Netherlands and eventually made its way up north. This new shipbuilding technique replaced the bottom-based tradition in most Dutch shipyards during the 17th century. The works of Witsen and Van IJk represent this change in contruction method, and form the theoretical foundation of Dutch naval architecture in the 17th century.1

References

1. Wendy van Duivenvoort ShipLab Website Nautical Archaeology Program, Texas A&M University


Further Reading

Anonymous. 1719. L'art de batir les vaisseaux et d'en perfectionner la construction : de les ganir de leurs apparaux, les mettre en funin, les manoeuvrer, &c. . . . outre les pavillons de divers etats. Le tout tire' des meilleurs auteurs Hollandois, comme Witsen, van Eyk, Allard, &c. Amsterdam: David Mortier.

Anonymous. 1671. "I. Scheeps-Bouw en Bestier, that is, Naval Architecture and Conduet; by N. Witsen, printed at Amsterdam, 1671. in Fol" (An Account on Some Books). Philosophical Transactions Vol. 6: 3006-18.

Anonymous. 1929. "Plates of Drawings by Nicolas Witsen." MM 15.2: 192-6.

Hoving, A.J. 1988. "A 17th-century Dutch 134-foot Pinas: A Reconstruction After Aeloude en Hedendaegse Scheepsbouw en Bestier by Nicolaes Witsen 1671." IJNA 17: 211-22 and 4: 331-8.

Hoving, A.J. 1991. "A 17th-Century 42-feet Long Dutch Pleasure Vessel: A Research into Original Building Techniques." In Carvel Construction Technique Skeleton-first, Shell-first. Proceedings of the Fifth International Symposium on Boat and Ship Archaeology, Amsterdam 1988, ISBSA 5, edited by R. Reinders and K. Paul, 77-80. Oxbow Monograph 12. Oxford: Oxbow Books.

Hoving, A.J., and G.A. de Weerdt. 1994. Nicolaes Witsens scheeps-bouw-konst open gestelt. Franeker: Van Wijnen.

Hoving, A.J., and R. Parthesius. 1994. "Hollandse scheepsbouwmethoden in de zeventiende eeuw." In Batavia cahier 3: Herbouw van een Oostindiƫvaarder, 5-11.

Roeper, V., R. Parthesius, and L. Wagenaar. 1995. De Batavia te water. Amsterdam: De Bataafsche Leeuw.

Van Loon, F.N. 1980. Beschouwingen van Nederlandsche scheepsbouw.- Handleiding tot den burgerlijken scheepsbouw. Buitenpost: Jansma.

Witsen, N. 1671. Architectura navalis et regimen nauticum. Ofte Aeloude en hedendaegsche scheeps-bouw en bestier: waer in wijtloopigh wert verhandelt de wijze van scheeps-timmeren, by Grieken en Romeynen, scheeps-oeffeningen, strijden, tucht, straffe, wetten, en gewoonten: beneffens evenmatige grootheden van schepen onses tijts ... verschil van bouwen tusschen uitheemschen en onzen landaert, Indisch vaertuygh, galey-bouw, hedendaegsche scheeps-plichten, verrijckt met een reex verklaerde zee-mans spreeck-woorden en benamingen ... Amsterdam: Casparus Commelijn, Broer en Jan Appelaer.

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