Wednesday, 16 September 2020

Women Navigating the Iberian Empires

In recent years, the historiography of the early modern globalization has given increasing emphasis to the role of women. However, there are still little-known aspects due to the almost totally exclusive male focus. Among these topics, there is the presence of women on board transoceanic voyages. The difficulty of studying the women’s presence on early modern vessels comes mainly from the documentary silence. Indeed, women’s presence on board ships was considered very inconvenient. Women on board could represent an incitement to the ever-burning sexual appetites of the sailors, inducing them to sin. In addition to this, disorders could arise because of jealousy related to potential love affairs between women passengers and the crew.

Nonetheless, some women did travel on ships. We should cite the case of the first women who disguised as men managed to reach India on board Francisco de Almeida’s fleet, in 1505. They were Isabella Pereira, Lianor, Branca and Inês Rodrigues. We can only imagine the marvel in their eyes while reaching the Far East after a dangerous and long journey. Other categories of female passengers traveling to the West or the East were prostitutes and nuns, servants following their masters, or indigenous slaves brought back to Europe, or snatched from Africa for the Americas. The movements, it must be remembered, did not go in one direction only, and thus we cannot be restricted to a Eurocentric view.

A fascinating case is the story of Sor Jerónima de la Asunción, who in 1620, together with her Franciscan Sisters, left her convent in Toledo to go found the first female convent in the Philippines. The group of nuns first crossed the Atlantic and stopped in Mexico. They later embarked the Manila Galleon to cross the Pacific Ocean and reach the Philippines. This journey is narrated in a very rare source written by a companion of Sor Jerónima, Sor Ana de Cristo, a long manuscript account of their fifteen-month odyssey.

This is just one example among many that exist. Women, although unrecognized, paid a great tribute of blood to the global European expansion. These few lines are not enough to exhaust an extremely complex subject but they may serve as a cue to deepen and learn more. [David Salomoni]

Wednesday, 9 September 2020

Artisanal and Theoretical Knowledge in the Renaissance

Who is right, the renowned scholar or the curious traveler?

Reading the 1596 Itinerario by Jan Huygen van Linschoten (1563-1611), Bernard Paludanus (1550-1633) annotations to the main chapters on the several Asian naturalia, like black pepper and pineapple, amongst others, are everywhere. Each chapter starts with Linschoten’s brief description of the product, where to find the best produce and where to sell it better, usually ending with a short description of its medical uses. In practically every chapter, Paludanus wrote his annotations based on his academic knowledge. However, on several occasions, Paludanus contradicts Linschoten. Why did this happen?

Both relied on the book of Garcia de Orta (1501-1568) about the Drugs of India. But, while Linschoten used the Portuguese edition of 1563, adding also his personal observations of several naturalia, Paludanus relied essentially on the Dutch edition by Carolus Clusius (1526-1609). Since the edition by Clusius had several differences from the first Portuguese edition, one could suspect that this would explain the discrepancies between Linschoten and Paludanus.

Nevertheless, what prevails in the Itinerario is the growing importance of artisanal knowledge. This process is one of the distinctive marks of Renaissance, as it has been highlighted in several studies of History of Science. European maritime expansion brought about, for the first time in a wide scale, the direct contact between learned academics and less educated people, as the Iberian case demonstrates. Sailors and pilots had to present their practical problems to theoreticians and academic court officers. There were often contradictions and open conflicts between the two. Still, soon cooperation between both became a reality in institutions like the Portuguese Casa da Índia or the Spanish Casa de la Contratación.

The same exact process is present in the Itinerario. Although contradiction between Linschoten and Paludanus stands out, both collaborated in the writing. The Doctor was delighted to learn from Linschoten’s experience with the naturalia of Asia and Linschoten profited from Paludanus’ public support for the publication. While in several cases Paludanus scientific notes have proved to be unfounded, the interest of this example remains, since it corroborates an on-going process: the growing relevance of artisanal knowledge at the end of the 16th century.
[Nuno Vila-Santa]

Wednesday, 2 September 2020

Italian People and the Iberian Maritime Expansion

No historian would deny the role of the Italians in the great early modern voyages of exploration. However, attention has always been disproportionately focused on the great names, like Christopher Colombus, Giovanni da Verrazzano, Amerigo Vespucci, Giovanni Caboto or Antonio Pigafetta.

Less prominent figures, though, for whom individual narratives were not produced, were far from irrelevant, and it is worth rediscovering them briefly. Among them we find explorers, sailors, and narrators who have contributed to our knowledge of the Iberian maritime expansion.

As early as 1364, the Genoese sailor Nicoloso da Recco and the Florentine Angiolino del Tegghia de’ Corbizzi had arrived to the Canary Islands in the service of Afonso IV, king of Portugal. Less than a century later, in 1455 and 1456, the Venetian Alvise Ca’ Da Mosto, together with the Genoese Antoniotto Usodimare, explored the mouth of the Gambia River, in West Africa, in the service of the Portuguese Prince Henry the Navigator. Later in 1502, it is thanks to Matteo da Bergamo, an Italian commercial agent, almost a forerunner of Antonio Pigafetta, that we have much information about Vasco da Gama’s second voyage to India, including the slaughter of the Arab ship Miri. Another Italian commercial agent was the Tuscan Giovanni da Empoli, who went to India in 1503 on the armada led by Afonso de Albuquerque. Da Empoli left detailed accounts of his journey. Later he went on other Portuguese missions, eventually dying of cholera in 1515.

However, the journey to which the Italians perhaps made the greatest contribution was the first circumnavigation of the world led by Ferdinand Magellan. In addition to the famous chronicler Pigafetta, twenty Italians were on board the five ships that left Seville in 1519, almost 10% of all participants. Among them was the helmsman of the Nau Trinidad, Leon Pancaldo from Savona, a family friend of Christopher Columbus.

The Italian participation in the Iberian discoveries was not limited to the 16th century. Between 1786 and 1788, another Tuscan, Alessandro Malaspina, made a voyage around the world as a captain in the service of the Spanish crown. From 1789 to 1794, Malaspina also undertook a scientific expedition throughout the Pacific Ocean, exploring and mapping much of the west coast of the Americas from Cape Horn to the Gulf of Alaska, crossing to Guam and the Philippines, and stopping in New Zealand, Australia, and Tonga.

Even today the Marina Militare Italiana, the Marinha Portuguesa and the Armada Española continue to collaborate in international missions in the Mediterranean and the Atlantic, for example through the EUROMARFOR naval force created in 1995, renewing in the present the ancient fellowship of these queens of the sea. [David Salomoni]

Wednesday, 26 August 2020

Handbook for a Proper Rutter: What Cannot be Missing

When reading an early modern rutter nowadays, one can be overwhelmed by the amount of information of various kinds contained in it. For a twenty-first century historian of science these documents are a spectacular source of information, used to deepen knowledge of the biology, geography or meteorology of that time. However, what a sixteenth-century pilot expected from a rutter was that it would facilitate his voyage between point A and point B. For such a critical task, any available information would be welcome, but there were some elements which became really indispensable.

Latitude measurements, for example, were invaluable. Any worthwhile rutter had to include them. It should also include information on the behavior of the winds and tides, as these were the “fuel” for the early modern vessels. Accurately providing the depth of the waters was equally crucial, since running aground on an unnoticed sandbank could be the last mistake a ship ever made. With the same aim of avoiding misfortunes and facilitating the pilot’s labor, the courses also became an obligatory element of any proper rutter.

Excerpt from the Derrotero hecho por el piloto Isidro de la Puebla desde la barra de Sanlúcar hasta San Joan de Ulúa…1579. Biblioteca Nacional de España, Mss/4541.

When the ship was approaching the coast, a careful description of its geographical features, such as capes or gulfs, was very helpful. The specifics of natural harbors, bays and beaches were detailed with special care, since these were the favorite places to stop over. Conventionally, the distances between the aforementioned locations were specified. They were preferably given in leagues, but more rudimentary distance measures were also used, such as the well-known “just a stone’s throw away”.

If this is “just” the essential data that a standard rutter had to include… Can you imagine the amount of knowledge on the natural world that is gathered in the thousands of rutters written during the Modern Age? Just thinking about it makes one dizzy!
[José María Moreno Madrid]

Wednesday, 12 August 2020

Pigafetta’s Thesauri, a Small Nautical Treasure

On their way to the Moluccas, golden land of spices, the Magellan expedition found a way to the treasure chest of mace, clove and nutmeg. Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) followed the well-established route to Brazil, but the passage to the Pacific, its crossing, and the path from the Philippines to the Moluccas were achieved without any nautical documents. Thus arose the need to create them, and they stand as a precious trove of information in the form of rutters and travel diaries written by the crew as they navigated the Strait of Magellan, the Pacific Ocean, and the Sulu, Celebes and Molucca seas.

This new “treasure map” is partly to be found in the Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo by Antonio Pigafetta (1491–1534), one of the few who survived the circumnavigation. Like a vault keeping the secrets of this transoceanic voyage, this travel diary allows us to follow the path of the unexplored route from Seville to the Moluccas and back. Typically conceived as a product from astronomical observation, this route was also created from cultural interactions between expedition members and indigenous people.

Pigafetta’s thesauri of Tupi, Tehuelche, Visaya and Malay languages give us a glimpse of new words and worlds, and illustrate how local knowledge was used in creating the route. While the Tupi words refer to trade, and so tell us that material exchanges were common in Brazil, the documented Tehuelche words show a different phase of the voyage. In Patagonia, where Magellan had no geographic or nautical information about the route to the Moluccas, the linguistic exchanges indicate his interest in navigation topics; this interest is represented by expressions like “water” (holi), “sun” (calexchen), “stars” (settere), “sea” (aro), “wind” (oni), “storm” (ohone), and “to go a long distance” (schien).

This concern intensifies in the Philippines, after a grueling crossing of the Pacific and the death of Magellan in Cebu, when the expedition is unable to reach the Moluccas, given the lack of nautical information about Southeast Asia. The Visaya words display linguistic novelty regarding spices, numbers and navigation, which shows a local maritime culture, a connection to the Moluccas, and the need for the expedition to invent the latter stage of the route. Words like “sun” (adlo), “moon” (songhot), “star” (bolan binthun), “small boat” (sampan), “large boats” (balanghai), “small boats” (boloto), “ship” (benaoa), “captain-general” (raia) illustrate this concern.

The word-gathering reaches its climax during several failed attempts to reach the Moluccas from the Philippines, when native pilots are kidnapped, maps of islands are drawn, and a comprehensive thesaurus of Malay is written, which must have helped the expedition reach Ternate and Tidore. What was of interest in this exchange of information is preserved in words like “seaport” (labuan), “galley” (gurap), “ship” (capal), “stern” (biritan), “to navigate” (belaiar), “sail” (leier), “anchor” (sau), “boat” (sapan), “wind” (anghin), “sea” (lait), “north” (iraga), “south” (salatan), “east” (timor), “west” (baratapat). A seemingly small nautical treasure, these thesauri shine some light on the process of creating a nautical route, made from science, technology and such cultural gems as these encounters.
[Joana Lima]

Wednesday, 5 August 2020

Dogs, Sympathy and Longitude Measures

The longitude problem had been a serious issue for centuries, and it became a paramount concern in the Early Modern period, following the Treaty of Tordesillas (7 June 1494), when longitude was the parameter chosen to divide the newly discovered lands all over the world between the Portuguese and Spanish Empires.

Cantino planisphere (1502) with the Tordesillas line depicted (Biblioteca Estense, Modena, Italy).

Despite its importance, however, sailors and explorers struggled to determine longitude, and practical accurate measurements onboard only became possible much later, with Harrison’s marine chronometer, in the late 18th century. Before that, countless attempts were made to solve the longitude problem, using strictly scientific and, sometimes, more imaginative approaches. Among the creative solutions proposed, my curiosity was caught by the anonymous idea (Curious Inquiries, 1687) of using Sir Kenelm Digby’s “powder of sympathy” (unguentum armarium or weapon salve).

This was a preparation made of green vitriol (sulfuric acid), dissolved in water and recrystallized or calcined in the sun, that was supposed to cure a wound by being applied not to the wound itself, but to the weapon that inflicted it. The inventor suggested taking advantage of the long-distance effect of the powder for sailing purposes.

So, a ship should take on board a wounded dog. A trustable helper on shore, provided with a precise clock, would immerse a bandage previously soaked in the dog’s blood in a solution of the powder of sympathy, at a previously agreed time of day. That would cause the dog to complain at the same moment on board the ship, where people would then know the exact time and would be able to determine the longitude.

Although it is unknown if the method was ever tried (hopefully not!), the idea inspired the Italian writer Umberto Eco, who recreates this painful situation in his novel L’isola del giorno prima (The Island of the Day Before).
[Silvana Munzi]

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Nautical Knowledge Exchanges at the Dutch Nautical School

Lucas Waghenaer’s (1534-1606) works had a great impact in the late Renaissance. Waghenaer’s first book, the two volume-edition of 1584-85 of the Spieghel der zeevaerdt (Mariner's Mirror), was the first compilation of nautical knowledge regarding Western Europe as a whole. It was composed as a pilot guide with nautical rutters and an atlas of charts. The 1592 Treasure of Navigation is usually considered as an update of the Mariner’s Mirror. The representation was extended from the Adriatic to the Baltic Sea, and smaller charts were made to be carried on board. But, how did Waghenaer come up with these detailed rutters and charts for such a huge area?


A former pilot in the Northern Seas during the 1550-70’s, Waghenaer exchanged nautical knowledge with Portuguese, Spanish, English, French and Italian seafarers. Based on this experience, he founded a Dutch nautical school to train pilots and hydrographers. He also benefited from several close contacts with the Dutch elite. The relevance of his books is proved by their swift translation into other languages. Above, we can observe the English translation of the Mariner’s Mirror. Alongside is a map of Western Europe and a chart of the Portuguese coast, from the same book. Becoming acquainted with Fernando Álvaro Seco’s first known map of Portugal of 1561, Waghenaer used it to update the depiction of the Portuguese coast. This chart influenced later Portuguese developments.

The Dutch ability in acquiring nautical knowledge was matched by their capacity to update and transform it, firstly regarding Europe, and later including other far away locations. The Dutch school became the trading-zone between different nautical traditions (Iberian, Mediterranean, Northern, Baltic), and this explains why Waghenaer’s books became the international standard during the seventeenth century for producing new charts of Europe. Now, could such developments have occurred without the nautical and cartographical developments taking place at the Portuguese Armazéns da Índia and the Spanish Casa de la Contratácion since the beginning of the sixteenth century? History of Science studies have already shown how quickly nautical knowledge circulated across Renaissance Europe, making scientific developments possible in different places. Still, further historiographical enquiries are needed in order to address this question in detail. [Nuno Vila-Santa]