- Spain's Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleet in the Sixteenth Century
Pérez-Mallaína has written a fascinating and comprehensive study of the lives of the Spanish seamen of all ranks who sailed the route from Spain to the Indies in the sixteenth century. His primary documentation is the vast holdings of the Archivo General de las Indias in Seville, from which he uses sources from the chronicles of fleets down to the minor legal complaints of individual sailors.
The book is divided into six chapters. They consider "the land environment," "the origins and status of men of the sea," "the ship as a place of work," "the ship as a site of life and death," "discipline and conflict," and "the mental horizons of seamen." Each chapter is broken down into specific issues of interest or importance; and the different ways in which they affected the diverse ranks of seamen on board are considered when appropriate.
The ships to the Indies were organized into fleets as early as 1543, but such organization became systematic only in the 1560s. The Spaniards generally regarded these fleets as less threatened by corsairs than by violent weather. Departures were timed to minimize encounters with storms. Spain was linked to the Philippines through Mexico.
Though a large number of seamen began their service after being seized in a levy or while in a drunken stupor, many voluntarily joined in the hopes of bettering their fortunes. While it was certainly difficult to rise in rank and become rich in the fleets, it was no more so than working on land. The sons of pilots, masters, and admirals tended to follow the careers of their fathers. Admirals never traveled alone but rather with a coterie of family members and dependents. For centuries, work at sea was considered ignoble, and a gentleman could lose his standing in society by choosing this career.
Many of the lowest jobs at sea, such as apprentices and sailors, were held by blacks and mulattos, both slave and free. The highest occupational rung that a working man at sea could attain was pilot. Cooks were absent on board. Anyone wanting heated food had to make it for himself. About one in five crewmen were not Spaniards. Of these, the Portuguese made up fifty percent. Italians composed twenty-five percent. The remaining twenty-five percent was split almost equally between levantiscos, Flemings, and Germans. Few English or French sailors served in Spanish fleets. Many sailors had signed on board with the idea of deserting once they had reached the Indies.
Once ships reached the route of the trade winds, their crews could pass entire days without having to change the set of the sails. Most days required the crews to perform the boring work of repairs, cleaning, and cargo inspection. But if a ship was attacked, the entire crew had to aid in its defense, manipulating the sails in quick order and defending the decks against an attempted boarding.
The best way for common seamen to earn more than their salary on a voyage [End Page 168] was by shipping articles of European clothing to the Indies, where they were much in demand. Being illegal, this act ran some risk.
Gambling and song were common entertainments aboard ship. The only sexual options available, fornication and sodomy, were both condemned by the Church and the government. Strict punishments befell any crewmen found guilty of either act.
Pérez-Mallaína has written a book that will interest scholars who do not study maritime affairs as their primary focus. His coverage of the various topics is thorough and compelling. I am pleased to give it my strong recommendation.