Wednesday, 2 December 2020

How to Establish a Maritime Route: The Case of the Strait of Magellan (2/3)

Where were we a few weeks ago? Oh yes! The Pelican—renamed as Golden Hind before reaching the Fuegian channel—was entering the waters of the Strait of Magellan on August 21, 1578. Although commanded by Francis Drake, the British fleet counted on the invaluable help of Nuno da Silva—a Portuguese pilot that Drake kidnapped in the island of Santiago de Cabo Verde—to reach and cross the Strait. The corsair held Da Silva in high esteem, and the technical documents written by the Portuguese certify his “top level” sailing skills.

While Drake was beginning his piratical activities in the Pacific, his Vice-Admiral, John Winter, delved into the Strait to return to England. This return journey allowed him to go down in history as the third man to go through the Strait in a West-East direction and as the discoverer of the medicinal virtues of the Drymis winteri bark to deal with scurvy. Supposedly, also a small boat of Drake’s fleet, captained by Peter Curder, would have returned to England by undoing the path through the Strait.

Thus, the Door to the Pacific—and to the Spanish riches it contained—was also opened to English ships. Obviously, this fact set off all the alarms in Philip II’s court. The response to Drake’s boldness was to send a fleet to the Strait under the command of Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa (1579–1580), a man well-versed in nautical issues. His mission was to collect as much information as possible on the Fuegian channel, in order to fortify the passage and to avoid unwelcome guests. The documentary result of the expedition was an outstanding brand new rutter for the Strait and some nautical charts. However, the fortification project never materialized; in light of this, some of Drake’s compatriots began to set a course for the coveted channel. Thomas Cavendish crossed the Strait in 1587, and then completed the third circumnavigation of the Earth; Andrew Merrick tried to follow in his footsteps in 1590, but he did not go past Cape Froward; Cavendish again, in 1592, tried to repeat his own achievement, but he also ran into Cape Froward. Finally, it was Richard Hawkins in 1594 who managed to reach the Pacific again through the Strait, in an interesting journey that can be read in The Observations of Sir Richard Hawkins (1622).

Do not miss the third part of the series to find out which nation took over from the English sailors on the Strait of Magellan! [José María Moreno Madrid]

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

A Salty Satire on Pilots

Travelling through time, the sound of laughter triggered by sixteenth-century comedies brings us echoes of what was considered witty in Early Modern societies. Perceiving the topics that resonated in the imaginary of theatre audiences as jokes allows the historian to grasp what was seen as embarrassing by the public. Thus, it may be of interest for those wondering about the social status of pilots in the Iberian world to listen to the chuckling that Gil Vicente (1465–1535), the forefather of Portuguese theatre, must have provoked with this dialogue from Triunfo do Inverno (1529):

Pilot –
Where do you think we are?
Sailor –
You are asking me
What is yours to know.
You pilot from Alcochete
Used to the river of eels,
To navigate these routes
Requires having a head and a helmet.

Set in the South Atlantic Ocean, this scene displays a very unusual conversation between a pilot who never sailed south of the Gulf of Guinea,and a sailor. The first, unable to calculate latitude, asks for his subordinate’s help. Inverting the hierarchy aboard an oceanic voyage–where the pilot had full control over the route and instructed the sailors–, this tragicomedy ridicules those who were chosen for pilots on the India Run not because of their nautical knowledge, but due to having a benefactor.

Besides this satirical device, Gil Vicente goes the distance to create comicality, and achieves so in the most traditional way: old-style insulting the character. His invective could not have been harsher for an oceanic pilot, since the author is making a salty sailor call him a “pilot from Alcochete used to the river of eels.” That is, a freshwater pilot whose only experience is to sail a fishing boat in the Tagus estuary. That is, someone without the “head and helmet”, the intelligence and skills necessary for oceanic navigation, where the ability to calculate latitude is crucial—altogether different from roaming around in a river calmly fishing eel. Certainly, one of the worst insults a pilot could hear.

Evoking a society where astronomical knowledge was crucial for navigating the globe, the laughter following this dialogue–and the occurrences of this exact insult in later theatre plays by different authors–will have something to say about how pilots were perceived in Iberia. It is a sound yet to be fully recorded by the History of Science. [Joana Lima]

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

How to Establish a Maritime Route: The Case of the Strait of Magellan (1520-1620)

The Strait of Magellan, with its cold temperatures, unexpected geography, and unpredictable currents and winds seemed to be a great challenge for sailors and pilots at the beginning of the 16th century. Magellan's inaugural voyage had made it clear that this sea passage was the Door to the Pacific that Charles V had longed for, so getting to know and mastering its navigation appeared to be the key to systematizing access to the Moluccas. Consequently, between 1522 and 1540, the Spanish crown promoted a series of expeditions aimed at crossing the Strait and entering Pacific waters, either to reach the desired Spice Islands—Garcia Jofre de Loaísa and Sebastian Cabot—or to populate and make profitable the current Chilean territory—Simão de Alcazaba and Alonso de Camargo. It seems that in the 1520s, in addition to the Spanish fleets, other vessels flying Genoese, French and Portuguese flags clandestinely approached the Strait. All these expeditions, despite sharing an essentially commercial and economic motivation, advanced substantially in the knowledge of the navigation conditions of the Strait of Magellan. Proof of this are the many documents with technical-scientific content that they produced, among which stands out the rutter written by Martín de Uriarte, one of Loaísa’s fleet pilots.

During the 1550s both the driving force and the port of departure of the expeditions changed; now it was the governors of Chile, first Pedro de Valdivia and then García Hurtado de Mendoza, who sent two fleets from the ports of Concepción and Valdivia respectively, with the sole objective of exploring and recognizing the Strait. The expedition promoted by Valdivia departed in 1553, and had as its main protagonist Hernando Gallego, who commanded his ship to enter the Strait for the first time from the western mouth, reached the Atlantic entrance, and returned to Chile as the first man to travel the Fuegian channel in both directions. The enterprise sponsored by Hurtado de Mendoza raised sails in 1557, with Juan Ladrillero at the command; he became the second man to cross the Strait in both directions, and left for posterity an outstanding rutter which surpassed the one produced by Martín de Uriarte. Thanks to this document, the Door to the Pacific looked much more open to the Spanish crown, but the discovery of the Pacific Tornaviaje in 1565 pushed the Fuegian channel into the background… until the entrance onto the stage of the Pelican, captained by Francis Drake. To be continued… [José María Moreno]

Wednesday, 11 November 2020

The Untold Story of Acrobatic Relief on Board Sixteenth Century Ships

When we think of the early modern globalization process kickstarted by oceanic explorations, the mind easily runs towards romantic ideas of great adventures in exotic paradises or bloody battles between enemy ships and against ruthless exotic populations. However, as it is easy to imagine, life aboard the vessels that sailed the seven seas in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was not only made of adventures but also of a very uncomfortable daily life due to the narrow spaces and the cramped living conditions. In such an environment a proof of true dexterity was given by the mere accomplishment of daily physiological needs.

The ways to meet such needs could vary significantly. For example, the beautiful carved and decorated bows of the ships, works of art for nowadays observers, contained simple holes used by common sailors as toilets. To use such primitive means required great physical skill since these rudimentary bathrooms were but holes above the open sea, where sailors could easily fall into the water if a strong wave pushed the ship a little harder than expected. While evacuating, the sailors would hang on to a simple rope to avoid falling into the sea. As time went by, these spaces became more sheltered, to avoid unpleasant incidents, but the privacy we cherish today would have seemed then an illusion, and it took a long time to come true.

Of course, naval officers had much more comfortable places where they could take care of their needs. In the aft of the ships there were often double deck and well-equipped toilet rooms with real baths, sinks and latrines.

This post, although it may rightly provoke a little laughter, just wants to shed some light on an aspect of everyday life aboard early modern ships that is fully part of the history of the body and medicine (just think about the conditions on board a ship during an epidemic of dysentery!). The hope is that in the history of navigation, medicine, and naval archaeology too, this important aspect can be more considered. [David Salomoni]

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Translating and Updating Iberian Knowledge in the Renaissance

Was Jan Huygen van Linschoten a genius traveller and writer?

Reading the Itinerario, the massive operation of knowledge transmission becomes patent. Maritime, commercial, botanical, political, economic, social, ethnographical and nautical knowledge are mixed to such an extent that one wonders about the sources used in such a detailed encyclopedia.

In order to write the Itinerario, Linschoten was assisted by his editor Cornelis Claesz, who ensured him access to several non-Dutch books. Such are the Spanish cases of Arte de navegar by Pedro de Medina, Compendio de la arte de navegar by Rodrigo Zamorano, Historia de las Indias by Bartolomé de Las Casas, Historia natural y moral de las Indias by José de Acosta, Historia del gran reyno de la China by Juan González de Mendoza and Historia general y natural de las Indias by Gonzalo Férnandez de Oviedo. On the Portuguese side, Linschoten also relied on Colóquio dos simples by Garcia de Orta, a book he owned. He also “discovered” other books at Goa such as Lusíadas by Luís de Camões, História do descobrimento e conquista da Índia by Fernão Lopes de Castanheda, Décadas by João de Barros and Desengano de perdidos by D. Gaspar de Leão Pereira. As for Italian sources, he consulted Relatione del reame di Congo by Filippo Pigafetta, Decades by Peter Martyr and Della navigatione et viaggi by Giovanni Baptista Ramussio. On the French side, he accessed Historia navigationis in Brasiliam by Jean de Léry.

Some of these works were translated into Dutch by Claesz, while Linschoten was working on the Itinerario. Such are the cases of the books by Mendoza, Las Casas, Pigafetta, Léry and the reedition of Medina. Linschoten also translated into Dutch Acosta’s book. In the Itinerario, information from these books was mixed with Linschoten’s narrative. This massive operation of translation helped trigger the Dutch overseas expansion, exactly as it had happened with the French and the English since the beginning of the sixteenth century.

The transformations that scientific knowledge went through in these processes meant that it lost its original “nationality” and became increasingly European, spreading like wildfire the Renaissance appetite for knowledge. Iberian books on the marvellous New Worlds and sailings gave a boost to these translations and shaped decisively European identity. [Nuno Vila-Santa]

Wednesday, 28 October 2020

The Columbian Exchange II. Animals

Abraham Ortelius, a Dutch cosmographer, was the first to observe the matching coastlines of the Old and New Worlds in his Thesaurus Geographicus in 1596. Centuries later, the continental drift theory was formulated, stating that America and Europe originated from a single supercontinent many millions of years ago. Since then, flora and fauna of the two new landmasses evolved separately, until 1492. We recently mentioned the consequences of the Columbian Exchange of plants, but the effects were no less dramatic when we look at the animal component. Many domesticated species existed in Europe at the time of the oceanic voyages, making the transfer of animals almost unidirectional. Horses, pigs, cattle, goats, sheep, and several other species found optimal conditions in the vast American prairies and plains.

The new introduced animals provided Native Americans with new sources of hides, wool, and animal protein. Horses, donkeys and mules, a new source of pulling power, could be used to improve transportation, both through riding and wheeled vehicles, with important economic developments. Hunting buffalos on horseback became easier too.

If horses helped in peace, they also helped in war: “One of the early advantages of the Spanish over the Mexican Aztecs, for instance, was that the Spanish had the horse. It took the American Indians a little while to adopt the horse and become equals on the field of battle” (Alfred W. Crosby on the Columbian Exchange). That changed not only the political equilibrium among the Native Indian tribes but influenced the next conflicts for the defense of the Indian territories. [Silvana Munzi]

Wednesday, 21 October 2020

“There is no land unhabitable nor sea innavigable”

With this widely quoted phrase, in the 1520s, the merchant Robert Thorne the younger encouraged the English Crown to become actively involved in oceanic explorations. Thorne’s idea was to invest resources on a northern route to the East. The letter was addressed to Edward Lee, Henry VIII’s ambassador to Spain. We know that Thorne belonged to a Bristol circle of wealthy merchants, and that his family, especially, was deeply engaged in trade with the Iberian market. The close contacts established with Portugal and Spain over the years brought him extensive knowledge of new discoveries. It is indeed likely that his adventurous father, Robert Thorne the elder, had even boarded a ship to cross the Atlantic.

All these factors encouraged the younger Thorne to spend an important period of his life in Seville, a privileged port for oceanic navigation, where he became acquainted with the piloto mayor Sebastiano Caboto. Thorne could not remain indifferent to the cornucopia of treasures carried from the New World by the Iberian expeditions. Everyday life in Seville allowed him to touch with his hands images of undreamed-of lands full of riches. Thorne’s efforts seemed to vanish with his death in 1532, but his words were not forgotten. At the end of the 16th century, Richard Hakluyt printed Thorne’s letter three times.

Between Thorne’s death in 1532 and the first edition of his letter in 1582, England developed an increasing interest in opening trade to faraway places. In this slow process of awareness, the reception of Iberian nautical treatises and accounts of the new discoveries played a key role. The most relevant texts were circulating in their original editions as well as in translation.

Among others, the Breve compendio de la sphera (1551) of Martín Cortés de Albacar was particularly appreciated by English seamen. Translated first into English by Richard Eden in 1561, it went through many editions and was still being published in 1630. The same translator published in 1555 an English version of Pietro Martire’s book, which contained additions including a large part of Fernández de Oviedo y Valdés’ work (The Decades of the New World or West India). Some authors believe that Sir Francis Drake was navigating with Pedro de Medina’s Arte de navegar in hand. The book was very popular, but it was not translated into English until 1581. Martín Fernández de Enciso’s Suma de geographia (1519) was translated into English by John Frampton in 1578. Enciso’s way of writing has echoes of the textual genre of those sailing directions which were among the first ever printed for overseas travelling. While in a pathless ocean, as navigators, explorers, pilots and common people were trying to trace long-distance routes, improving their navigational know-how, Iberian books were the ones setting the framework for a world-scale change of mentality. [Luana Giurgevich]