Trading Expertise: Sebastian Cabot between Spain and England*

Article excerpt

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? …