In 2007, I inherited my grandmother’s writing desk. Not the big rolltop one that stood in the corner of her living room on a leafy Halifax street — years before, that heirloom had been deemed too valuable for a young girl and was instead earmarked for my eldest uncle. No matter. This new desk of mine had always struck me as immeasurably more wonderful anyway.
A rosewood box crafted sometime in the nineteenth century, it opens on a hinge to reveal a writing surface covered with faded purple velvet. The original ink pots are nestled on either side of a pen tray, which tips upward to reveal a hidden compartment. The angled lids conceal squirrelled-away odds and ends: a pencil stub, two tiny dice, a miniature calendar from 1910. The only sign of the original owner — my grandmother’s great-grandmother — is a small brass plaque that reads “Mrs. P. Crichton.” According to my grandmother, the Crichtons had at one point sailed from Nova Scotia to Australia, bringing with them not only this desk but also an upright piano so that their youngest daughter could practise during the voyage. Grannie claimed it was the same piano upon which my mother and her siblings had dutifully learned to play scales a century later. That always struck me as improbable. Who would have space for a piano on a ship?
This and other family lore formed the backdrop to my childhood summers. My grandmother, a stalwart member of the Halifax Junior League, the Anglican cathedral, and the local Antiquarian Club, was a keen genealogist. She loved telling my gaggle of cousins about our paternal great-grandmother, who was born in a lighthouse and whose family was among the last to tend the Sable Island light. Our maternal great-grandfather published maritime poetry and revived Samuel de Champlain’s banqueting society the Order of Good Cheer up in the Annapolis Valley. There were tragic stories as well: the young boy who drowned on his way back to the mainland to attend school, a niece whose hair caught fire while she combed it. On another branch of our sprawling, flammable tree, a minister’s wife died when a spark of ash set fire to her carriage on the way home from church; her widower quickly married the governess. At the age of three, our own grandfather was blown from one end of his hallway to the other by the Halifax Explosion — but somehow escaped without a scratch.
It was hard to know which of these tales were true. With a lineage stemming primarily from German Protestants seeking religious freedom and Irish fleeing the potato famine, did we actually have a connection to the British royal family? How did the lighthouse keeper end up on a scientific expedition in Hudson Bay? But other scarcely credible stories were well documented: one Scotswoman — my namesake — travelled from Nova Scotia all the way around Cape Horn to reach California and then, unhappy with the climate, insisted that her new husband take her home.
The original owner of my writing desk, Mrs. Peter Crichton, née Isabella Ramsay, also led a life of intrigue. She was one of two daughters born of an “unsuitable” marriage. After their young father died falling from a horse, Isabella and her sister spent time with their uncle in Rosslyn Castle, south of Edinburgh, until they were sent across the Atlantic to seek their fortunes. Each girl was given a pair of heavy silver candlesticks. (Isabella’s pair, like the rolltop desk, went to my uncle.) This tapestry of stories was woven throughout our annual family pilgrimages from Toronto to the Maritimes. Crichtons, Merkels, Thompsons, Uniackes blended with other long-departed names — the rich narrative accompanying sandy picnics and bracing swims, Grape-Nut ice cream cones, and sailing lessons at the yacht club that devolved into knot-tying practice on inclement days.
It is little surprise that, in addition to her writing desk, I inherited my grandmother’s love of history. I went south to the United States for university and for graduate work. Canadian history seemed somehow prosaic, too close to home, so I focused on different parts of the world and on histories far from my family roots. When it came time to pick a dissertation topic, I tried to be savvy. I needed a subject that hadn’t been too thoroughly treated in recent decades, that would appeal to hiring committees, that had archives in tempting locales. I also steered clear of subjects that might unearth personal baggage. As a reluctant churchgoer, I avoided religious history. My father’s passion for politics made that subject intimidating. Having met the woman I would marry and having acknowledged my own sexuality, there was no way I would touch gender history with a ten-foot pole.
I am now a historian of early modern science and technology, and I spend my days studying print culture and seventeenth-century manuscripts. Especially today, with science often under attack, it’s important to help expand the audiences for seemingly dense topics, which is what I’ve tried to do with Sailing School: Navigating Science and Skill, 1550–1800. Despite my determination to steer clear of possible familial ties, my book does have an overt maritime focus: How did navigators learn the complexities of their trade, in classrooms and on the high seas? I explore that question by tracing sailors headed to the Caribbean, Batavia, India. (A few ventured to New France and Newfoundland, but Nova Scotia stories appear nowhere in my book.)
In many ways, Sailing School is closer to my Dutch father’s roots. In researching it, I rummaged through archives in Rotterdam, Leiden, and The Hague, before mining those in Cambridge and Paris. I argue that mariners who took navigation lessons in the Netherlands had substantially different educations than those studying in England or France. Some of this had to do with the economy in each country, but textbook authors and publishers also played crucial roles.
In the final weeks of revising my manuscript — a tedious process of double-checking footnotes and securing permissions to publish images long out of copyright — I turned to the last chapter, about a young Royal Navy officer. In 1789, Edward Riou ventured south through the Indian Ocean and then somehow managed to keep his Sydney-bound vessel afloat for two months after a run-in with an iceberg. My research uncovered records of Riou’s early mathematics lessons, his circumnavigation of the globe with Captain Cook, and even bedraggled notes he kept during several dreary months off the coast of Newfoundland. Even though Captain Riou never made it to Australia, his main logbook is now preserved in the State Library of New South Wales. To check a few last footnotes, I called up the handsomely digitized images on the library’s website.
Australians have made their colonial archives admirably accessible. What else might I find online, I wondered? My grandmother’s writing desk, in the corner of my office, caught my eye, and I mused about the family histories it embodies — about Mrs. P. Crichton sailing “down under’ ” with her husband and daughters. With a few taps on my keyboard, I had it: in 1864, Captain Peter Crichton sailed the schooner Peter from Pictou, Nova Scotia, to Melbourne.
When she set out on that adventure, the Crichtons’ youngest daughter, my great-great-grandmother Elizabeth Amelia, would have been twelve — exactly the right age to have whiled away weeks at sea playing her piano in the schooner’s captain’s quarters. Although I remain skeptical that the rather rickety piano now sitting in my aunt’s house in Connecticut has sailed around the world, I am delighted to imagine the same trajectory for my little rosewood box. Thanks to my grandmother’s wisdom, some teenage inkling of the path I might follow, and a hearty ration of serendipity, I have had the good fortune to inherit a 150-year-old writing desk that belonged to a sea captain’s wife. Who knows what manuscripts she penned on it while on the tossing sea.