Trading Expertise: Sebastian Cabot between Spain and England*
Sandman, Alison, Ash, Eric H., Renaissance Quarterly
The example of the Spanish empire loomed large in Elizabethan England, as the English worked to broaden their maritime trading networks throughout the world. Spain, after all, controlled a mercantile network that was truly global in reach, extending through Central and South America to the spice markets of Asia, which brought specie and other valuable commodities into Iberian ports in unprecedented quantities. One of the most important factors in making the Spanish Empire so successful and profitable, the English believed, was the superior training received by the ships' pilots of their merchant marine. In particular, the institution of the Casa de la Contratacion (House of Trade) in Seville was thought to ensure--through official examination and licensing--that Spanish pilots possessed both practical experience at sea, and a degree of learned instruction in the more theoretical aspects of their art, including the use of cosmography, mathematics, and astronomy. By the middle decades of the sixteenth century the English attributed Spanish maritime success to their pilots' training, which was designed to unite navigational theory and practice.
The younger Richard Hakluyt (1552-1616)--compiler, editor, and translator of so many documents intended to help guide the English in building their own trading empire--emphasized the need to follow Spain's example, particularly in offering formal instruction in both the theory and the practice of navigation. As he explained in 1598 to the Lord High Admiral Charles Howard, "the late Emperour Charles the fift, considering the rawnesse of his Sea men, and the manifolde shipwracks which they susteyned in passing and repassing betweene Spaine and the West Indies, with an high reach and great foresight, established not onely a Pilote Maior, for the examination of such as sought to take charge of ships in that voyage, but also founded a notable Lecture of the Art of Nauigation, which is read to this day in the Contractation house at Siuil." (1) Hakluyt believed that adopting Spain's approach of supplementing maritime experience with cosmographical instruction would encourage English sea captains to link theory with practice, leading to "almost incredible results." (2)
Nor was Richard Hakluyt alone in his opinions. The renowned English navigator Stephen Borough (1525-84) argued in 1562 that the greatest losses of life, ship, and cargo at sea were caused "through ingnoraunce of the Arte [of Navigation], and the presumption of the vnskilfull," a problem that could be remedied only through "the appointinge and Aucthorisinge of a lerned and a skilfull man in the arte of navigacon to teache and instructe the said ingnoraunte[s] in the same." Requiring formal instruction for all mariners who wished to become pilots "gevithe occacon to make p[er]fect marinors," he wrote, "wheras otherwise the navigante[s] shold have remained in their accustomed ingnorauncye." Allowing only properly trained pilots, duly examined and licensed by the appointed pilot major, to take charge of English shipping would not only prevent "losse[s] of shippes or shipwrake through ingnoraunce of mariner craft," but also bring "greate benefyte, honor, and fame" to the realm. In urging the appointment of an English pilot major, Borough emphasized that this would but bring England into line with common practice in "Spaigne, Portingale, and other place[s] wheras Navigacon florishethe." (3)
However, the English perception of Spanish navigational training was actually an idealized distortion, bearing little resemblance to the internal strife that often characterized the Casa de la Contratacion during the sixteenth century. In fact, the union of theory and practice in navigation, and the correct balance between the two, were very much in dispute in Spain between 1500-50, as many pilots doubted the relevance of mathematics and cosmography in helping them to navigate successfully. How did the English get such a distorted view of the Spanish approach to training their pilots, especially with respect to the controversial relationship between theory and practice? The key to the English misinterpretation may be found in the contentious and often confusing career of a figure central to both contexts, the explorer and cosmographer Sebastian Cabot (d. 1557). (4)
In 1548, after spending more than thirty years in Spain--the bulk of them as pilot major at the Casa de la Contratacion--Sebastian Cabot moved to England. He received a warm welcome there: money to pay his travel expenses, a comfortable pension, and a leading role in restoring England's diminished maritime expertise. He was soon appointed the governor-for-life of a new association of English merchants known as the Muscovy Company--England's first joint-stock trading company--incorporated in part to foster maritime exploration for new markets. According to a diplomatic report from the group of imperial ambassadors in London, "the people in London set a great value on [Cabot]'s services, and believe him to be possessed of secrets concerning English navigation." (5) In short, Cabot was perceived to be a conduit through which the fruits of Spanish expertise in navigation might pass to England.
Yet the Sebastian Cabot who departed Seville after more than three decades as captain, explorer, and pilot major differed in crucial respects from the Cabot who arrived in Bristol in 1548 to revive English exploratory navigation and overseas trade. Somewhere in the transition, the conservative pilot and champion of practicing seamen became instead a master of cosmographical theory and proponent of the latest navigational techniques. In bringing his knowledge of Spanish methods and institutions to England, Cabot reshaped them to suit the mid-century English context, and made uniquely English the Spanish system that they sought to emulate. Cabot interpreted Spanish navigational training for the English according to his own particular perspective, and adapted his skills and knowledge to suit both his own inclinations and goals and those of his new patrons. As a result, the English strove for the rest of the century to compete with a Spanish system of navigational instruction and practice that never really existed as such in Spain.
This essay is not, however, simply the story of a misunderstood chapter in the life of a self-promoting navigator, or a plea for the importance of looking beyond national boundaries. The peripatetic career of Sebastian Cabot serves as a case study illustrating the growing importance of expert mediators in sixteenth-century Europe. (6) England's ability to break into the Iberian monopoly on overseas trade and exploration--and so the very existence of their nascent seaborne empire--depended to a considerable degree on acquiring the sort of expertise they hoped to gain through Cabot. Yet the transfer of expertise from one context to another was rarely a simple matter of translocation; just as the expertise in question was developed to meet a particular set of circumstances, so changing those circumstances required that the expertise itself be adapted to the new conditions. Cabot's efforts to reshape his own image, and redefine the nature of the skills and knowledge he had to offer as he moved from Spain to England, required him to mediate--between different countries and their divergent national traditions and expectations, between the different interests involved in voyages of trade and exploration, and between various attempts to define what it meant to be an expert in navigation. This process, in turn, can tell us much about the larger difficulties involved in the transfer and mediation of expertise.
1. CABOT IN SPAIN: THE PRACTICAL NAVIGATOR
In Spain, Sebastian Cabot was in many ways the epitome of the practical navigator. He was hired for his maritime experience, successfully pursued his dream of leading a voyage of exploration, and as pilot major took the side of the pilots against a group of reforming cosmographers, who wanted to privilege their new astronomical methods of navigation and so turn it into an applied science. He spent his last fifteen years in Spain battling the reformers, insisting on the primacy of empirical experience at sea and the worth of the practical skills possessed even by uneducated pilots. In the process, he railed against the increasing influence of the Casa's cosmographers and the corresponding attention paid to celestial navigation. In the end the conflict left him embittered, impoverished, and ready to move on.
Little is known about Cabot's early