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]