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Inheriting a mission

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John Henry Davis was a man in his early sixties. If he had been younger, he would have been serving in the war, on any of His Majesty’s Ships deployed in the European seas, in the Atlantic or in the Pacific, as he was a reputed sailing master. The wars were never ending, requiring new blood aboard the ships, and he had done his share. Now, he was teaching at the Royal Naval Academy. Better than staying at home and longing for the sea.

Unfortunately, his late wife had given him only daughters, to raise a dowry for and to marry them well. Once this was done – and he had found for all three of them landlubbers, so that they wouldn’t know what loneliness is and, hopefully, neither early widowhood – what remained in store for him, than to keep living how a lifetime at sea had taught him? Actually it was in his blood, and he was carrying also the sadness of being the last of the line of the famous explorer John Davis, highly esteemed by Queen Bess.

Now, the years of specialized studies allowed a young man to take his exams sooner, but not everybody liked the midshipmen by order, graduates of the Royal Naval Academy, no matter how good their teachers were. When John Henry Davis had taken to sea, there was no Academy yet. It had been set up when he was already in his thirties, and some years ago he wouldn’t have thought that he would become a teacher. He had been sent to sea at twelve, like all his ancestors, to make his apprenticeship under his uncle’s command. He had taken the lieutenant exams at eighteen, like most young officers, and before thirty he was already post captain. He knew what to do with the backstaff invented by his explorer ancestor (and called Davis’ quadrant for this reason) better than any of the sailing masters.

But a professor needed to attend the presentation of new technology too. This is what he had done this morning. The sextant presented at the conference today, in 1757, by a certain John Bird, was impressive, and the longitude watch exhibited by John Harrison was even more extraordinary. He was experienced enough to understand his importance, and he explained it to young Peter Melville, one of the students of the Academy he was mentoring closely. The fourteen years old was, from his Scottish mother’s side, a distant relative of his, and he got persuaded to take him under his patronage. This helped the boy get into the Naval Academy, even if his father was a Dutch noble. The boy was looking at him in wonder, asking more about the new inventions presented:

“Why is the sextant better than the octant which I saw aboard the HMS Dover? Because I can see its advantages compared to the backstaff you taught me to use.”

“It allows studying directly the stars, unlike the other instruments you mentioned, Henry. This allows excellent precision. However, unlike the backstaff, the sextant allows direct observations of stars. This permits the use of the sextant at night when a backstaff is difficult to use. Besides, for solar observations, filters allow direct observation of the sun. And it is far more accurate, since the only error can be given by the angular accuracy of the instrument, while all the others had the quadrant dimensions as main source of errors. But the main advantages are that it can be used well at night too, unlike the previous navigation instruments. Have you used the backstaff while at sea?”

“Not yet, only in the Academy,” the boy confessed, slightly ashamed. “But I guess it is more difficult when the waves are bigger.”

“True. The sextant is easier to use in these circumstances too, because it doesn’t require a steady aim like the backstaff and the octant. The images of the horizon and of the Sun – or Northern Star, if you do the measurement at night – are moving with the ship, but as long as your sight is good and you can establish for sure when the sun or star touches the horizon, your accuracy is guarranteed.”

Each word of the explanation pained him, exactly because he could see its importance. It would spread. His ancestor’s work, considered revolutionary compared to the cross-staff and astrolabe used by Marco Polo, by those who had discovered the New World and the route to the Indies, was useful until now; from now, it would be in vain.

The boy’s curiosity passed to the longitude watch.

“But, Sir, the Board of Longitude is trying for forty years to award prizes and stimulate research on the calculation of longitude, and everybody, including you, said that it won’t be succeeded, that the longitude can’t be ascertained! Why is it possible with this mariner’s watch?”

“We have to see again how it functions exactly. I admit that I hadn’t understood from this presentation as much, or probably Mr. Harrison was glossing over it on purpose, not to divulge too much of his discovery,” he answered sincerely.

It wasn’t only about his ancestor’s discovery. Not anymore. It was now about his own usefulness. How long would he be able to teach henceforth? How long his own knowledge of a good captain and navigator would be relevant?

“My dear Henry, we are passing to a new era, which you are witnessing. The next discoveries will be yours. You have to learn both from me and from what the scientists had shown you today, then go further them and make your own discoveries. My ancestor, Captain Davis, was not entirely content on how the rutters, astrolabe and cross-staff functioned; after him, others perfected the quadrant into the octant and other instruments. What was deemed impossible in Marco Polo’s time, now is. What is impossible now, it is up to you to make it possible, don’t forget this! This is your mission in life!”

“It’s a difficult mission, Sir, but I promise to take the challenge!”

Captain John Henry Davies could die in peace; despite having only daughters, there was somebody who had promised to take his heritage, his mission further. Little did he know that his little protégé wouldn’t keep his word in the field of discoveries, but, with his studies here and with the upcoming experience, he would become rear admiral of his father’s country, Peter Melville van Carnbée. In exchange, he would pass further the mission to his own grandson, a renowned cartographer and geographer, who had also been in the Dutch Navy.


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