“¿Qué ruta podrán llevar más acertada que por donde guio tan experimentado piloto?
(“What route could be more certain than the one led by such an experienced pilot?)”
This quotation comes from the Spanish book Diálogo sobre la necesidad y obligación y provecho de la oración y divinos loores vocales (Dialogue on the need, duty and benefit of vocal prayer and praises), authored by Fray Juan de la Cruz (Saint John of the Cross), and published in Salamanca in 1555. While the sentence may initially evoke imagery of maritime routes, its meaning in context differs significantly, as it is part of a broader discourse on seeking spiritual perfection.
The metaphorical essence of the sentence is intriguing, as it employs specific nautical imagery, such as guiding a ship and tracing a route. These associations prove how encounters with the sea were normalized and integrated into various aspects of life, even in unexpected contexts. The author employs the experience of a pilot as an effective means to describe the actions of God in relation to human life, implying a long and arduous journey towards perfection.
Throughout the centuries in which society lived immersed in a reality where the human and the divine, the visible and the invisible, blended seamlessly, oceanic long-distance voyages became embedded in everyday language and permeated European culture. Within this framework, I wanted to draw attention to the indirect testimonies of oceanic pilots, or at least their end applications.
Texts from the 16th century, spanning various genres, abound with expressions related to experienced Iberian pilots. The Jesuit Father José de Acosta, for instance, referred to them as “masters of art” and engaged in fruitful conversations with them. Furthermore, Father Acosta sought to understand the technical aspects of navigation and devoted a substantial portion of his book, Historia natural y moral de las Indias (Sevilla, 1590), to discussing the variation of the needle. He based his explanations on insights provided by an anonymous but highly skilled Portuguese pilot. Similar assertions are given also by the cosmographer Andrés de Céspedes in his Regimiento de navegación (Madrid: 1606) regarding terrestrial magnetism and the northeasting of the needles. His primary sources were pilots, especially the renowned pilot major Vicente Rodrigues. In Céspedes’ words:
“Vicente Rodrigues, a Portuguese pilot who excelled in the India Run and had made fourteen voyages to the Portuguese India, told me that from the moment they passed the Cape of Good Hope until they reached Goa, the compass needle always northeasted with increasing angles. And this is what all the other pilots say.”
While there is no factual confirmation of the specific conversations Father Acosta had with pilots, these affirmations acknowledge, on a deeper level, the commonly accepted reputation of pilots as reliable eyewitnesses. Whether considered as myth, a literary trope, or not, it is likely that many of the keys to the treasure chest of oceanic knowledge were transmitted through informal and unwritten channels. Returning to the initial excerpt, the parallelism between the maritime journey, the spiritual path, and the turbulent waters of life may not have been a novelty, yet the metaphorical power of the skilled pilot’s voyage grew increasingly profound with each passing decade of navigating the vast oceans. [Luana Giurgevich]