In honour of today’s Museums Week theme of favourites (#favMW) – reviving the voice of my favourite longitude projector, Jane Squire! During our Greenwich/Cambridge project on the Board of Longitude, we dealt with many fascinating people who worked to improve the finding of the longitude coordinate of a ship at sea during the early modern period. This ranged from the big guns like Nevil Maskelyne and John Harrison to a vast number of people around the world who put forward proposals or contacted the Commissioners of Longitude but had varying, if any, impact on the search for longitude at large. This included people with relevant knowledge such as mariners and mathematicians, but also many shades of armchair philosopher and/or charity-seeker.
Jane Squire was unique as the only woman to ever openly champion a longitude scheme – as I first noted in a previous blog post and explain at greater length at the longitude digitisation site. This makes her important to the historical record because her life sheds light on the role of gender in longitude and early ‘science’, and because her uniqueness helped to preserve her description of years of work and interactions with relevant experts and officials. Hers is one of the most detailed surviving accounts from the British search for longitude before the Commissioners started meeting communally (1737) and especially regularly (1760’s) in addition to acting as individual experts.
However, Squire is also simply fascinating as a person. She bucked expectations for how an early modern woman should behave – investing in risky maritime salvage projects and suing important men over their outcome before dedicating herself to longitude – and for how open Catholics could be about their religion at a time when that still brought persecution and prosecution in Britain. She sometimes endured great hardship as a result, including three no doubt scarring years in prison. Her book, published in two editions in 1742 and 1743, reveals her to have been learned and eloquent (if verbose) and firmly dedicated to both her religion and the search for longitude. She fought far harder than most male projectors to try to get a hearing from the Board of Longitude, and it is when she is most outspoken about such struggle (here and in her lawsuit depositions) that she is most engaging.
Squire complained the most about the Commissioners, whom she thought should be meeting to consider every proposal, and about opposition to her participation in mathematical and ‘scientific’ pursuits like the longitude because she was a woman. In 1741, Sir Thomas Hanmer – a rare surviving original Commissioner of 1714 – agreed that this sexism was part of her problem: ‘your good Sense I am sure will tell you that you are to expect to lye under some Prejudice upon account of your Sex. Man, arrogant Man, assumes to himself the Prerogative of Science, and when a Woman offers to teach them in any of the abstruse Parts of it they are apt to turn a disdainful Ear.’
Squire railed against such attitudes – but did not believe that in doing so, she was straying from her proper place as a woman. The author argued that everyone including women should contemplate and could help to shed light on God’s creation, and that in doing so they did not challenge the place of (male) intellectuals such as the university professors. Against the objection that ‘Mathematicks are not the proper Study of Women’, she asserted that ‘to count, to measure, &c. which are now generally suppos’d to be included in [Mathematics]; are so naturally, the Properties of every reasonable Creature, that it is impossible to renounce them’.
Squire continued, ‘Hence, Sir, it has ever appeared to me; that to study the Law of God Day and Night, is my proper Business; Philosophy, my Amusement; and Mathematicks, my Play-things. [ . . .] I do not remember any Play-thing, that does not appear to me a mathematical model; nor any mathematical Instrument, that does not appear to me a Play-thing: I see not, therefore, why I should confine myself to Needles, Cards, and Dice’. Revealing the adventurous attitude which (in addition to her religion) had led her to pursue the longitude and before that risky maritime investments, she also deemed the massive longitude reward of up to £20,000 ‘as fair a Prize, as any Plate given to be run for at Newmarket or elsewhere; the Pursuit more entertaining, the Victory more glorious, and the Attempt free to all’.
You can peruse Jane Squire’s entire book for yourself here!
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