Academic journal article Naval War College Review

FERNANDO OLIVEIRA'S ART OF WAR AT SEA (1555): A Pioneering Treatise on Naval Strategy

Academic journal article Naval War College Review

FERNANDO OLIVEIRA'S ART OF WAR AT SEA (1555): A Pioneering Treatise on Naval Strategy

Article excerpt

The era of maritime discoveries was a period of expansive exploration, one that prompted the emergence of a range of maritime thinking in the sixteenth century, mainly in the countries of southern Europe. Of all the insightful and innovative works written at that time, as shown in table 1, Fernando Oliveira's Art of War at Sea has two distinctive features.1 First, it went beyond the usual operational and tactical perspectives and entered the domain of strategy. While Art of War at Sea is certainly a period piece, it is unusual in foreshadowing some aspects of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century naval strategic thought in the works of Alfred Thayer Mahan. Second, as evidenced in table 1, Oliveira's volume was the only one to be published at the time of writing.2 As a matter of fact, it was the first printed treatise on naval strategy. However, it was written and published in Portuguese and never translated into another language.3 Therefore, this article aims at presenting Art of War at Sea to English-reading audiences, with a focus on its strategic aspects, thus contributing to the international naval canon.


Fernando Oliveira was born in the small hamlet of Gestosa, in Portugal, in 1507 and entered a Dominican convent at age ten.4 He was a disciple of one of Portugal's most important humanist scholars, the noted Dominican André de Resende, who educated him in Scholastic philosophy and theology. Oliveira learned to read and write fluently in Latin and studied the most prominent classical authors. When he was twenty-five, he broke with his order and escaped to Spain, where he continued linguistic studies and may have acquired his interest in shipbuilding.5

After returning to Portugal, Oliveira published a grammar of the Portuguese language in 1536. This was his first book and also the first Portuguese grammar ever published.6 It is not clear when and where Oliveira learned navigation, but it may well have been during this time, as nautical matters were then popular in Portugal.

By 1541, he was again in Spain and embarked from Barcelona on a ship bound to Genoa. Oliveira's ship was captured by the French and taken to Marseille, but he soon went from prisoner to pilot of French galleys in the Mediterranean, because of his navigation knowledge and the high regard afforded to Portuguese pilots. He returned to Portugal in 1543, where he stayed for two years. In June 1545, a twenty-five-ship naval force, headed by the baron de La Garde, called at Lisbon to replenish stores on its way to Le Havre to join the two-hundred-ship armada that planned to invade England during the naval war of 1544-46. Oliveira was recruited to serve as a pilot on board the galley of the baron de Saint-Blancard and won his confidence, as well as that of La Garde, by virtue of some very useful suggestions about ship design.7

Saint-Blancard's galley was captured after a skirmish between French galleys and an English squadron in May 1546. Oliveira was taken to London, but it seems he was never imprisoned. Most probably, he "was employed as an ambassador in the negotiations over the French galley and its crew" and became well known in the court.8 Some historians believe that he gained the esteem of Henry VIII, probably because of his "professional knowledge [as] . . . a pilot" and his "experience in galley construction and warfare, [which were] of immediate interest to Henry at the time."9

The quickness and apparent ease with which Oliveira gained the respect of La Garde and King Henry VIII are indicative of his profound erudition and culture, qualities that made him valuable to those powerful men. Oliveira stayed in England for almost a year during a period preceding the rise of the country to mastery of the seas under Queen Elizabeth I. By then, Oliveira was certainly well aware that sea power was crucial for the integrity of the Portuguese empire. Nonetheless, during his stay in England he became acquainted with the English merchant classes (which were engaged in extending their overseas trade), consolidating his beliefs on the importance of sea power for the livelihood of maritime nations. …

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