Wednesday, 12 May 2021

Hanc Freti Magvalanici descriptionem nouam. From the Low Countries to Spain via Brazil.

As regular readers of this blog will have noticed, our team is very interested in the circulation of nautical knowledge throughout the Early Modern period. Following in the footsteps of the posts recently published by my colleagues Nuno Vila-Santa and Silvana Munzi, today I bring you the story of a map based on Dutch information, but drawn by a native of Antwerp in Brazil at the service of Philip III of Spain. Let us start by getting to know the author better. As I was saying, Gaspar de Mere was born in Antwerp sometime in the sixteenth century. Also at an uncertain date he moved to Pernambuco, where he stayed for at least two decades working on the sugar business; indeed, he managed to set himself up as a Senhor de Engenho in Cabo de Santo Agostinho. But his luck changed at the beginning of the seventeenth century, due to the conflicts between the Hispanic Monarchy and the United Provinces and suspicions of illegalities in his sugar dealings. This led to an order being issued for De Mere to be arrested and taken to Lisbon. Such an order would never have been executed, as the accused remained in Brazil throughout the 1610s decade.

Meanwhile, the expeditions led by Joris van Spielbergen and Jacob Le Maire had crossed with impunity the Strait of Magellan and the waters south of Cape Horn, prompting Philip III to collect updated information about the Fuegian channel. To this end he turned to Luís de Sousa, governador-geral of Brazil, ordering him to send an expedition to the Strait of which, if it ever took place, no records have survived. But the governador did not leave his monarch empty handed. Somehow, he had managed to obtain the invaluable rutter compiled by Jan Outghersz, but he still needed someone to translate it… And here enters the picture again Gaspar de Mere, holding the linguistic skills needed to produce a Portuguese translation of the Dutch pilot’s work. Fruit of such an unusual collaboration is the real protagonist of our story: this spectacular map of the Strait of Magellan, signed in 1617. [José María Moreno Madrid]

Wednesday, 5 May 2021

The Incredible Modernity of Orbis Terrarum Maps

When we look at a medieval planisphere, like the beautiful Mappa Mundi kept at Hereford in England or Ebstorf in Germany, or even the more sophisticated Fra’ Mauro’s map, the first thing that strikes us about it is the very archaic and imprecise appearance, not respectful of what for us is familiarly the image of the continents and seas that make up the earth’s surface. What makes these globes even more eccentric is their sometimes exaggeratedly geometric shape, made of half and quarter circles, which are often populated by mysterious animals and mythological monsters, and represented on a kind of plate that strongly recalls our mistaken belief that men of the Middle Ages believed in a flat earth.

However, if we look more carefully at these kinds of representations of the world, we might perhaps notice some features of surprising modernity. Among the most paradoxical aspects of the world we live in today, in fact, which we habitually call global, is the difficulty we still have in considering the world as a unity. In the medieval Orbis-Terrarum maps the most striking thing is their conceptual effort in representing and conceptualizing the earth globally. In most of these representations the observer is given a universal and unitary conception of the earth. The physiognomy of this is obviously very different from how we know it today, but the lucidity of its global representation, which like every planisphere is a conceptual abstraction, remains surprising.

Certainly their representation of the world reflects a theological vision of reality, for these instruments responded to different needs from those we have today, but they certainly share with modern planispheres the fact that they wanted to embrace the entire surface of the earth, while at the same time trying to respond to the needs of their time, which were essentially of eschatological nature. When we look at one of these representations of the earth’s surface in the future, let us remember that it is precisely in their theological universalism that are the foundations of the modern concept of a global world. [David Salomoni]

Wednesday, 28 April 2021

Jean Nicot and l’herbe à la Reine

Jean Nicot stayed in Lisbon as the French ambassador from 1547 to 1559 under Henrique II, under king Francis II from 1559 to 1560, and from 1560 to 1574 under Charles IX. In 1559 he was responsible to negotiate the marriage of princess Margaret of Valois to King Sebastian of Portugal. Besides any possible political and diplomatic value, his name is eternalized thanks to the tobacco plant, whose scientific name is Nicotiana tabacum.

Tobacco is a native plant in tropical and subtropical areas of America, and at the time of European colonization it was already spread and in use across the entire continent. Seeds of the plant arrived in Europe in 1559 thanks to transoceanic voyages, and in France in 1556 thanks to André Thevet.

Nicot spread tobacco seeds and leaves from Portugal to the French court for its medicinal properties. Among the many effects of this drug, it seems that the ability to cure headache was particularly appreciated by Caterina de’ Medici and the royal family, earning the plant the name of herbe à la Reine.

That was a great success, to the point that in 1586 the botanist Jaques Dalechamps named the plant Herba nicotiana, later retained by Linnaeus. Eventually, the alkaloid extracted from the plant acquired the name of nicotine. [Silvana Munzi]

Wednesday, 7 April 2021

The Invasion of the Figs

We already mentioned how plants of economic interest travelled from the New to the Old World in the Early Modern period, spreading through Europe and beyond. In his rutter of Brazil of 1587, Gabriel Soares de Sousa describes two species native to central America, the Indian fig or prickly pear (figueira da India), Opuntia ficus-indica, and Hell’s fig (figueira do inferno) or thornapple, Datura stramonium, which arrived in Portugal onboard transoceanic vessels.

“Monduruqu is neither more nor less than a fig tree that is planted in the gardens of Portugal, which has succulent leaves and that they call the fig tree of India. These have the leaves of a span of length and four fingers width, and a stalk, and the leaves are born on the tips of the others which are all full of thorns as big and hard as needles, and as sharp as they are, and bear fruit on the tips and sides of the leaves that are figs as big as the lampo figs, red on the outside with a thick peel that you don’t eat. It has thousands of white and black kernels, pure white, and black as jet, the flavor of which is very appetizing and fresh and which is created in the areas along the sea.”
“This herb gives the fruit in bunches full of berries big like hazelnuts all full of beaks, each of these berries has inside a brown grain like a bean, that if mashed unravels producing an oil that is used in candles, and drunk it serves as much as a purge of golden shower, and drunk by colic patients this oil cures their accident soon, the leaves of this herb are very good to relieve wounds, and abscesses.”

Of particular interest is how quickly an exotic plant like the Indian fig became commonly planted in Portuguese gardens, considering that less than a century had passed between Columbus’ voyage and the production of Soares de Sousa’s rutter. While Opuntia was consumed as food, Datura was used in traditional medicine and recreationally due to the high level of alkaloids as atropine in all parts of the plant.

Like many other changes brought by the oceanic navigation, the introduction of these two species had a long-lasting and profound impact on the old continent—these two species are considered invasive weeds in temperate climates across the world. Climatic conditions in the Mediterranean Basin were so favorable for the Indian fig that it has become naturalized, becoming part of the vegetation of regions like Southern Italy. [Silvana Munzi & Luana Giurgevich]

Wednesday, 17 March 2021

The Captain’s Ship, a Light in the Night

In the darkness of the night, the stars guide oceanic navigation, mapping in the deep blue heavens a maritime route that glimmers in the pilot’s mind, sailing down below. While celestial navigation may be enough for one ship to follow a route, with the Iberian Maritime Expansion came larger fleets and more complex routes. Thus, the need of seamanship techniques that allowed several ships to follow the same path without getting lost in nocturnal waters.

These techniques included light-signaling practices between the captain’s ship, where the pilot travelled, and the rest of the fleet, where response signals in the form of fire were given to the leading vessel. A previously agreed symbolic code enabled the ships to remain together at night. It became common for long-distance travelling, and it ignited in the Early Modern imaginary an idea of what it was to sail in the gloom of the ocean.

While these amazing images of ships communicating in the dark by means of light captured European readers’ imagination in mid-sixteenth century thanks to travel narratives such as Pigafetta’s Relazione (7–17), they can be found much earlier. Specifically, in fifteenth-century Portuguese courtier poems like this one, by Duarte de Brito:

Like fleets trying to know
where they are going,
those that at night, to avoid going astray,
follow the captain’s torch,
we pursued meaninglessly
through our fate,
as if following a fire,
but being lost in the night
without a route.

Probably written during the reign of King John II of Portugal (1481–1495), when transoceanic navigation was yet to be achieved, it shows how familiar the Portuguese court already was with the importance of seamanship techniques and organizational skills in successfully following a route. This existentialist comparison of two people feeling lost on their life paths with fleets lost in the darkness of the night ocean portrays a society where the experience of maritime life was so pervasive that the despair of feeling lost could only be expressed by such a situation, distant in space and yet so relatable to a courtier audience. While total despair is expressed by this extreme circumstance of finding no guiding light at sea, the nautical metaphor of the route conveys feeling safe and following a meaningful life path. An example of the literary topos of the route, this small poetic jewel shines some light on a constellation of documents centered around this nautical metaphor, one yet to be drawn in mind of the historian of science.
[Joana Lima]

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Iberian Nautical Knowledge in the Renaissance: a Connected History

Portuguese and Spanish navigations and discoveries aroused huge curiosity through Europe at the beginning of the 16th century. The case of France and its maritime awakening provides a striking example of this Iberian impact.

The expeditions by Giovanni da Verrazano, the Parmentier brothers, Jacques Cartier and Jean-François de Roberval, all taking place during the reign of Francis I (1515-1547), are intimately connected with previous Iberian nautical achievements. Verrazano’s and Cartier’s expeditions to North America during the 1520s and 1530s, in search of the Northern Passage to Asia, were decisively influenced by the impact of the first circumnavigation of the world (led by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan and the Spanish Juan Sebastian Elcano). The French attempts to reach the Indian Ocean in the 1520s and 1530s, like the Parmentier brothers’ expeditions, were also connected with the previous impact of Portuguese navigations to Asia and the hiring of Portuguese pilots in France.

Portuguese pilot Jean Alphonse played a critical role in the transmission of Portuguese nautical knowledge to France. In the service of France during Cartier’s and Roberval’s expeditions to Canada, Jean Alphonse made contributions to the cartographical school of Dieppe, created to support the onset of French maritime expansion. Based on his personal experiences with the Portuguese and French, Alphonse wrote the report of his voyages and a cosmography, both in French. Alphonse’s case alarmed the Portuguese authorities, who tried to convince him, without success, to return to Portugal.

Worried with the circulation of Iberian cosmographical knowledge to France, the Spanish and Portuguese ambassadors in France were tasked with preventing any Iberian pilot or cartographer to work for France. They resorted to private negotiations, bribery, espionage at Court. Throughout the 16th century, Iberian ambassadors also had spies in several ports and they tried to block the departure of any significant French fleet. This story was later repeated with Elizabethan England. In order to prepare successfully any oceanic expedition, knowledge was crucial. Both Portugal and Spain built the first global maritime empires by learning how to master nautical knowledge. Analysis of the Iberian nautical rutters circulating to France, England and the Netherlands during the Renaissance, and studies on the impact they had for the preparation of French, English and Dutch expeditions are goals of the RUTTER project. [Nuno Vila-Santa]

Wednesday, 3 March 2021

How to Establish a Maritime Route: the Case of the Strait of Magellan (3/3)

Previously on the Trilogy of the Strait of Magellan… Richard Hawkins had crossed the Strait with considerable difficulty in 1594, after which England put on the back burner its interest in the Fuegian channel. Meanwhile, in the Netherlands, the idea of using the Strait as a stable communication path with the East Indies was gaining momentum. To make such a project come true, two “Magellanic companies” were created, one in Rotterdam and another one in Amsterdam, which gathered the money and resources needed to send two expeditions to the Strait in 1599. The Rotterdam one, which departed first, was commanded by Jacob Mahu first, and after his death, by Simon de Cordes; he managed to cross the channel between April and September of the said year. As a result of this expedition, one of the most important technical documents on the navigation of the Strait was produced, which continued to be used for two centuries: the rutter compiled by the pilot Jan Outghersz.

The fleet defrayed by the Company of Amsterdam was led by Olivier van Noort, who struggled to cross the Strait on a long journey between November 1599 and February 1600. It was the most violent expedition to the Strait so far, with several episodes of aggression against the natives. The difficulties suffered by both fleets in crossing the channel deterred other companies from sending expeditions down the same route until 1615, when Joris van Spielbergen succeeded in running through the Strait in less than two months, between March and May of that year. The Dutch incursions in the Fuegian passage ended up arousing the concern of Philip III of Spain and II of Portugal, who in 1618 sent a small squadron of two vessels to explore the Strait. In command of the fleet were the brothers Bartolomé García de Nodal y Gonzalo García de Nodal, accompanied by the cosmographer Diego Ramírez de Arellano. The expedition was a resounding success, returning to Lisbon in July 1619 after circumnavigating for the first time the Tierra del Fuego and carrying new and important technical information on the navigation of those waters. Besides, it became the first expedition to the Strait that did not record any casualties.

This voyage marked the end of the first century of navigation in the Strait of Magellan, completing a fascinating story of accumulation and circulation of technical nautical knowledge that made the feared Fuegian channel a much more accessible passage for the navigators of the time.

And if you still want to know more about this story, don’t miss the book Atravessando a Porta do Pacifico. Roteiros e Relatos da Travessia do Estreito de Magalhães, 1520-1620 (José María Moreno Madrid & Henrique Leitão, ByTheBook, 2020)! [José María Moreno Madrid]