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Book Review

 

Pérez-Mallaína, Pablo E., translated by Carla Rahn Phillips. Spain's Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005). 304 pp, $19.95.

 
     First published in translation in 1998 and issued in paperback last year, Pablo Pérez-Mallaína's Spain's Men of the Sea is an outstanding contribution to the study of maritime life in the sixteenth-century. As director of the Department of American History at the University of Seville, the author has mined rich veins in the Spanish archives and other sources to present a portrait of the transatlantic shipping industry and its people (not all of them Spanish) that is at once orderly and intimate. The book is divided into six chapters, each with between three and five subchapters: The Land Environment of the Men of the Sea; The Origin and Social Condition of the Men of the Sea; The Ship as a Place of Work; The Ship as a Place of Life and Death; Discipline and Conflict; and The Mental Horizons of the Men of the Sea. 1
     By men of the sea, Pérez-Mallaína means not only the common seamen, but everyone within the hierarchies of ships and fleets: pages and apprentices; boatswains and pursers; the officer corps of pilots (navigators), masters (merchants or merchants' representatives), and captains responsible for the defense of the ship; and the "ship lords," who were owners or part-owners of ships. He also considers the officials aboard the royal warships charged with escorting merchant fleets, a practice begun in the 1520s as the threat of attack by corsairs intensified. These included constables, officials responsible for financial transactions, gunners, and the admiral (second-in-command) and general (supreme commander) of the fleet. Also accounted for are religious and lay passengers. Among these passengers he includes stowaways„known as "raindrops" (166)„many of whom were girlfriends or women of liberal affection. 2
     Pérez-Mallaína's work is illuminating on many levels. Most obvious is his nuanced depiction of mariners' lives, which he paints from a rich palette of legal proceedings, accounts of voyages, sailors' testaments ("dramatic expressions of poverty" (121) ), memoirs, letters, and contemporary literature. In so doing he peels away several centuries of historical grime to bring into high relief the stark reality of life on the Spanish Atlantic, people's motives for going to sea, and the myriad paradoxes with which contemporaries contended in their lives. 3
     In the author's deft rendering, the establishment of the route to the Americas was not incidental to Spain's imperial expansion. It represented a revolutionary moment in history, not simply for the obvious reasons having to do with the confrontation of the Eurasian-African world with that of the Americas. It also resulted in transformations in the working relationships between sailors, masters, and merchants„specifically the increasing marginalization of common sailors in the face of incipient capitalism, the efforts of merchants and officers to assert themselves through collective action, and the increasing systemization of the navigator's art. 4
     The decline of common sailors' status in this period was signaled by changes in both remuneration and nomenclature. Whereas in the medieval period the ship's "company" shared in the financial and physical welfare of the ship„having a say in when it could sail and sharing in the profits of the voyage„by the end of the sixteenth century they were for the most part poorly salaried "crew," (195) exploited solely for their physical strength and routinely cheated. Inadequate pay and the attractions of the silver and gold of the Americas help account for desertion rates that sometimes exceeded twenty per cent. Somewhat higher on the social scale (both afloat and ashore) were the officers who, seeking to secure prerogatives that would help differentiate them from the mass of common sailors, established in the 1560s the Brotherhood of Our Lady of the Fair Wind and the related University of Seafarers. At the same time, there were new technological challenges to deal with. For navigators this meant the application of cosmography (with a requisite knowledge of geometry and mathematics) to navigation. Whereas in the past mariners had been dependent on "personal knowledge about the coasts, winds, and currents," (232) now they needed to master still imperfect tools such as the compass, cross-staff and astrolabe. Reliance on these "novelties" was hastened in part by the desperate need for pilots, which grew in direct proportion to the number of ships in the trade, about 200 per year by century's end. 5
      Many of these themes have been addressed before, but Pérez-Mallaína brings several strengths to his work that will appeal to students and researchers alike. Foremost is his ability to visualize the physical world he describes, beginning with the foreshore of the port of Seville (the nerve center of Spanish western trade were the population grew from 40,000 to 150,000 during the sixteenth century), the laborious route down the shallow Guadalquivir to Sanlžcar de Barrameda, and crossing the treacherous sandbar that separated the port from the Atlantic proper. Readers whose images of shipboard life are based on studies (or movies such as Master and Commander) about the latter centuries of the age of sail will be fascinated by the conditions aboard these ships, where the majority of the passengers and crew slept on the open deck, contending„sometimes violently„for space with fellow humans as well as with chickens, pigs, goats and sheep, not to mention uninvited shipmates like weevils and vermin. A characteristically helpful modern comparison illuminates the wretched circumstances: the passengers and crew aboard a ship of 106 toneladas "enjoyed a habitable space of between 150 and 180 square meters [1,600-1,900 square feet], that is to say, the surface area of what we would consider a good-sized urban apartment. Into that space between 100 and 120 persons crowded together for months at a time, without using water for anything but drinking!"„and only a liter a day, at that. (130-131) 6
     No bland statistician, Pérez-Mallaína animates his discussion of sailors' wages with brief but illustrative tables comparing them with those of skilled craftsmen and common laborers, and he shows the cost of various medical procedures and prescriptions in terms of a sailor's daily wage. The least expensive of these were salves and medicinal oils, which equaled the cost of a day's work, while the most expensive was a concoction of "powders made of sandalwood, emeralds, and coral for strengthening the limbs" (28.6 days of work). We also learn that a doctor's visit cost less than that of a nurse (5.4 and 8.2 days, respectively), while a shave, extracting a molar and "1 mass said in the house" all cost the equivalent of 1.5 days of work. In sum, he observes, "A sailor could not let himself fall ill, because medical treatment was almost as high in price as it was ineffective." (117-118) 7
     While the author is willing to draw apt comparisons between life today and five centuries ago, he does not hesitate to address and explain aspects of life otherwise alien to modern sensibilities„for example, the prevalence and acceptance of nepotism and favoritism, the dramatic distinction in world view between men of the sea and their rural contemporaries, and the pervasive influence of religion as both as a positive spiritual force (largely ignored) and as a source of laws and punishments that most would find petty. Indeed, blaspheming„"For the life of God and his Holy Mother"„ netted a group of seamen a month in the stocks in 1571. In appealing their punishment, the sailors observed that "the prison that the law allows for similar offenses is to be behind iron grills . . . and not the stocks, especially on a ship that is already jail enough by itself." (129) 8
     Spain's Men of the Sea is a work of scrupulous scholarship leavened by an unpretentious sense of humor and a keen awareness of the limitations of the sources. Pérez-Mallaína's conclusions are further distinguished by his sympathetic understanding of human nature and the mores of the time. Readers cannot fail to come away with a new appreciation for the social dynamic of the world that produced Spain's world-girdling enterprise of the sixteenth century. Viewed strictly as a work of maritime history, the book is an excellent companion to Six Galleons for the King of Spain whose author, Carla Rahn Phillips, has done a great service in rendering this into easy, jargon-free English. 9
Lincoln Paine
Series Editor, Praeger Explorations in World Maritime History

 
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