The voyage of Captain John Narbrough to the Strait of Magellan and the South Sea in his Majesty’s Ship Sweepstakes 1669-1671

The Hakluyt Society is pleased to present its newest publication: The Voyage of Captain John Narbrough to the Strait of Magellan and the South Sea in his Majesty’s Ship Sweepstakes, 1669-1671, edited by Richard J. Campbell, Peter T. Bradley, and Joyce Lorimer. Purchased in 2009 by the British Library, John Narbrough’s fair copy of the journal of his voyage through the Strait of Magellan and north to Valdivia in the Sweepstakes (1669-1671) is now published for the first time, together with an incomplete and somewhat different copy of the journal, held in the Bodleian Library. The Hakluyt Society publication furthermore contains previously unpublished records made by members of Narbrough’s company, as well as reproductions of the charts on which he relied and those he produced. In this blog post, Captain Richard Campbell explains the circumstances of Narbrough’s voyage and the scholarly significance of the new edition.


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In May 1669 Captain John Narbrough was appointed to command HMS Sweepstakes for a voyage to the West Indies, Shortly thereafter an adventurer who has gone down in history as Don Carlos (he gave different versions of his name, nationality and accounts of his life to virtually everyone with whom he came in contact) submitted a proposal to King Charles II for a voyage to South America with an apparent view to establishing trading relation with the native inhabitants and stirring up a rebellion against the Spanish authorities. The King, having had this proposal investigated, agreed to sending a frigate with a pink in company on a voyage of discovery with a view to investigating the prospects of trade.

Cover Narbrough

Narbrough, whose ship was by this time anchored in the Downs, was recalled to London where he was personally instructed by the King and the Lord High Admiral, James, Duke of York to embark Don Carlos and sail for South America, south of the Río de la Plata and discover the coast round through the Strait of Magellan as far north as Valdivia, making contact with the native inhabitants and ascertaining what the prospects were for trade, with the evident unwritten aim of trying to encroach on the Spanish access to the gold in the area. It is quite clear in Narbrough’s instructions that the King did not trust Don Carlos, but Narbrough was ordered to take his advice if he found him to have any knowledge of the area they were to visit.

An account of this voyage was published in 1669 with a second edition in 1711. This is an abbreviated version of a manuscript in the Bodleian Museum, augmented by the journal kept by Lieutenant Peckett, one of Narbrough’s officers.

The voyage resulted in a series of charts of the harbours visited and of the Strait of Magellan, which became the basic standard of all subsequent charts of the Strait for the next hundred years, together with the knowledge that trade in that area would be impracticable. While in Valdivia, a Lieutenant and three members of Narbrough’s company were detained by the Spanish Governor who refused all requests for their release. Narbrough, whose company by this time was reduced to about 70 people, with a garrison of over 600 Spaniards ashore, and having been expressly forbidden by the King from taking any military action against the Spanish, was forced to leave them there (together with Don Carlos who had been secretly landed at his own request and subsequently surrendered to the Spanish).

On his return to England, Narbrough was well received by the King and immediately re-employed. He went on to have a very distinguished career, being knighted and serving as Commander in Chief in the Mediterranean and a Commissioner of the Navy.

Narbrough map
‘A Draught of Porte San Julyan’ (British Library, BL, Add MSS 88980C)

In the nineteenth century, largely as a result of Admiral Burney’s very unfavourable account of the voyage, it came to be considered a complete disaster – he wrote “It might ironically have been said, that the business of Narbrough’s voyage was to set four men ashore at Baldivia. The persons landed were left to their fate without interference being made on their behalf by the British Government.”[1] This view of the voyage has largely persisted until the present day.

In 2009, the British Library launched a successful appeal to purchase Narbrough’s own manuscript of this voyage, which in the current Hakluyt Society edition is now published in full for the first time, together with the complete Bodleian manuscript; the journal of Lieutenant Peckett; the “short accompt” of Richard Williams, and the journal of William Chambers, who was mate of the pink which accompanied the Sweepstakes for the first part of the voyage. There are also extracts from John Woods’ account and sailing directions, which were abbreviated, combined and published by William Hack in 1699 (of which there are modern reproductions available).  It has also been possible to locate Don Carlos’ original proposals in The National Archives and make use of various other Spanish archives to fill out the picture of his activities.

The new Hakluyt Society edition presents a much fuller account of the voyage than that published in 1694, together with detail of its advent, and seeks to demonstrate that Narbrough carried out his instructions to the letter, and that despite the loss of his men in Valdivia the voyage fulfilled the Kings orders. It also aims to reinstate Narbrough as the exceedingly competent and courageous naval officer he undoubtedly was, and give the voyage its proper place in the hydrographic history of the Strait of Magellan.


Captain Richard J. Campbell, OBE., Royal Navy, joined BRNC Dartmouth as a Cadet in 1946. After service in submarines he specialised in Hydrograhic Surveying. He worked in various regions round the world including Antarctica and the Falkland Islands when he visited the Strait of Magellan. His last command was HMS Hydra serving as a Hospital Ship in the Falkland War in 1982, after which he served in the UK Hydrographic Office until his retirement in 1994. His previous publications for the Hakluyt Society include: The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands / The Voyage of the Brig Williams, 1819-1820 and The Journal of Midshipman C.W. Poynter (3rd series, no. 4); and ‘The Journal of HMS Beagle in the Strait of Magellan, by Pringle Stokes, Commander RN 1827′, in: Four Travel Journals / The Americas, Antarctica and Africa / 1775-1874 (3rd series, no. 18).

[1] Burney, James, A Chronological History of the Voyages and Discoveries in the South Sea or Pacific Ocean (5 vols, London 1803-17), Vol III, p. 375.


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Grant, the Nile Expedition and Colonisation

The latest Hakluyt Society publication,  ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this third post, he reflects on the theme of post-colonial readings of exploration, seeking to provide a more historicised portrayal of Grant that challenges popular views of him as a ‘colonialist explorer’.


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In the early twenty-first century, much popular and academic opinion tends to roundly condemn anything to do with Britain’s past activities in overseas regions as ‘imperialism’ or ‘colonialism’. These activities are, by definition, reprehensible exploitation of non-Western peoples.

It is not politically correct to write about the so-called exploiters. An explorer like Grant is clearly, it is supposed, part of the exploitation processes. His ‘false modesty’ and ‘false philanthropy’ must be exposed. Hence, to give only one example, what I believe was intended as a little joke to be played on Grant by his companion Speke, has been interpreted by post-colonial writers and commentators as an assertion of cultural superiority over the inferior Africans.

The two pictures here (figures 1 and 2) tell the story. Grant attempted to depict a dance as shown in figure 1. The picture was adapted by the engraver working on Speke’s 1863 book to show Grant – drawn as a comic book Scotsman complete with deerstalker – dancing with a bare-breasted African female, called Ukulima as shown in  figure 2. I believe Speke arranged to have the picture so engraved in order to play a little joke on his fellow Indian Army officer.

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Figure 1. The Dance at Doondah in Ukuni, 23 June 1861. This is the original version of the picture which was misrepresented in the version which appeared in Speke, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile p. 138, with Grant wearing Scottish-style clothes inserted as dancing with a female.

 

Figure 2 blog 3 dance engraving
Figure 2. How Speke’s book, p.138, showed the dance with Ukulima who has been transformed into a female and Grant into a comic-book Scot.

In fact, Ukulima was an elderly Nyamwezi chief who was undoubtedly male. Grant’s original picture, as may be noted, does not show Ukulima or himself.

It seems to me absurd to read into Speke’s joke picture serious assertions about the expedition as an exercise in cultural imperialism. Grant, the representative of an advanced civilisation demonstrates his superiority by contrasting himself with the ‘primitive’ African woman. There are other examples, such as Grant drawing what he noted might one day be a steamboat on Lake Victoria (figure 3). This has been seen as an example of Grant demonstrating that he was ‘monarch of all he surveyed’. But Grant drew the picture to amuse his African porters. At the time, incidentally, as for most of the trip, he was entirely at the mercy of the African peoples he encountered, not in any sort of position of power.

This is not to deny that Grant was an imperialist of a kind and moreover someone who after 1864 did his best to promote activities which he believed would ‘redeem’ Africa and provide African peoples with a happier future. His imperialism was probably of a kind which reflected Palmerston’s mid-century brand of ‘free trade imperialism’, with everyone recognising that no British government would be willing to take over new territories to rule.

In other words, one should attempt to provide an accurate and understanding account of Britain’s overseas activities in the past and the assumptions that were made about them at the time. At the period of Grant’s expedition and for the next twenty years, no-one could have foreseen that the Scramble for Africa would take place in the 1880s and 1890s. Even if the details of what occurred were moulded by African events, that it happened at all was probably for global international relations reasons as new powers arose to challenge the previous hegemony of the Europeans, notably as far as Africa was concerned, Britain and France.

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Figure 3. Grant’s first view of Lake Victoria at Mwengaruka Bay on the 9th May 1862 when he was at the north west corner looking towards the Sese Islands. The steamship and two other large vessels were imaginary: Grant inserted them to amuse his African companions and to forecast what he hoped would be the future.

The final part of the Introduction to my Hakluyt Society edition of Grant’s Walk surveys the actual historical situation in East Africa in the middle of the nineteenth century and goes on to survey the literature which has dealt – or failed to deal — with Grant and the other explorers of East Africa.

Grant was certainly not a colonialist explorer but a distinguished and worthy traveller. He was, nevertheless, one who was inevitably a child of his time who cannot be held responsible for the deplorable outrages which were later sometimes perpetrated by those seeking to impose their brand of alien rule on Africa.

If anything, Grant was part of a continuing tradition of attempts to improve the lot of some of his fellow men even if that was in what may be regarded as an over-paternalistic manner. He deserves to be remembered with at least considerable respect and his activities examined, not in the light of some easily-assumed contemporary superior morality, but in the light of the actual situation of his time.


Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.


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‘A Walk Across Africa’: The Nile Source Problem

The latest Hakluyt Society publication,  ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this second post, he goes deeper into the central problem behind the 1860 expedition led by John Hanning Speke and James Augustus Grant: the 2000-year old question about the source of the Nile.


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When, in 1860, the Royal Geographical Society decided to send Speke and Grant to search for the source of the world’s longest river, the Nile, they were asking the two men to settle not only a series of arguments and disputed information which had arisen during the 1850s, but also arguments and speculations which had interested the learned world for over two thousand years or more.

The immediate problem was that the RGS, founded in 1830, had become a powerful almost quasi-official institution keen to garner accurate geographical information but also perhaps to use that information in the service of especially British overseas interests. A knowledge base would be provided for the officials and service personnel who operated around the world, and not least those concerned with the Middle East and the sea approaches from the Indian Ocean to the all-important India. Hence East Africa began to be seen as part of that interest.

In East Africa itself, developing economic activities in the Indian Ocean region had begun to attract Africans to go down to the coast to sell their ivory or their own labour. Soon Arab and Swahili traders from Zanzibar and the coast towns began more frequently to penetrate inland. As a result, uncertain information filtered out to Europeans about lakes and mountains in the interior and this stimulated speculation on the Nile source which surely had to be somewhere in that region.

In 1856, the RGS commissioned Richard Burton, who already had a great reputation as a traveller in India, Arabia, and Somaliland, to go inland and search for the lakes and the Nile source. Burton chose as his companion, John Hanning Speke, the fellow Indian Army officer who had been with him in Somaliland. Travelling along the ‘caravan’ route from the Zanzibar Coast to Tabora, the two men went on to reach Lake Tanganyika in 1858. They were unable to discover the lake’s outlet. Whether the lake had any connection to the Nile remained in doubt.

On the way back to the coast, while Burton was ill, Speke made a ‘flying trip’ northwards and reached a lake which he named Lake Victoria and claimed must be the source of the Nile. Burton was less certain of this and was angry and mortified when on his return to England, Speke persuaded the RGS to send him on another expedition to prove his Nile theory. He chose yet another India Army officer, James Augustus Grant, the subject of this book, to accompany him.

Hoping to be met on the Upper Nile by a Welsh trader called John Petherick, the two men travelled on to Buganda and, controversially and unfortunately, only Speke himself visited the spot where the Nile does indeed debouch from Lake Victoria, on 28 July 1862.

Back in England in 1863, Speke found that his old companion Burton now threw doubt on his discovery: Burton insisted that his discovery – Lake Tanganyika – must be the western lake reservoir of the Nile, as shown on maps which interpreted the information on the river’s source provided by the 2nd century AD astronomer Claudius Ptolemy (figure 1). Thus the old and the new arguments and speculations about the Nile were brought together.

Grant map 4
Figure 1. Sir Harry Johnston’s Interpretation of Ptolemy’s Information on the Nile. In his Uganda Protectorate of 1902, Johnston provided this map showing what he claimed was Ptolemy’s concept of the Nile source. Note that the two lakes are designated as Albert and Victoria. Given the fact that he had lived in the region, it is difficult to know where Johnston thought the ‘Lunæ Montes’ could have been.

In the end, Speke was right, but he had died in a shooting accident in September 1864. Argument went on. Perhaps, some people argued, Speke’s discovery was Ptolemy’s Eastern lake reservoir while the Western was actually not Tanganyika but another lake discovered by S.W. Baker in 1864, after he had been directed to it by Grant’s map. Incidentally he, Baker, named his discovery, perhaps inevitably, Lake Albert.

It is my contention in the Hakluyt Society edition of Grant’s Walk that the information from Ptolemy is nonsense and that the credulity about it that was displayed in the 1860s and has continued to be demonstrated, even in the twenty-first century, is badly misplaced, to say the least. Rather, I argue, the Nile source problem should be examined not in terms of the arguments between Burton and Speke or the alleged information from Ptolemy (which incidentally helped to push Livingstone to his death), but in terms of geography and, more particularly, the geomorphological history of the Upper Nile.

In this respect, the book offers a major new insight into the Nile problem and so provides an important perspective on the expedition of which Grant’s information and pictures provide such a vital record.

Grant map 9
Figure 2. Grant’s February 1863 map showing the Result of the Expedition. As reproduced in the Illustrated London News of 4th July 1863 shortly after the return of Grant and Speke, this gave the RGS and others in Britain an immediate idea of what the expedition had achieved. Most notably, the map identified the source of the Nile as being in Lake Victoria. However, it also showed how Grant interpreted the general layout of lakes and rivers in East Africa and the upper Nile whilst the Expedition was still in progress.

Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.


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Introducing the Hakluyt Society Edition of Grant’s Walk across Africa

The latest Hakluyt Society publication,  ‘A Walk Across Africa: J.A. Grant’s Account of the Nile Expedition of 1860-1863’, edited by Roy Bridges, has now been distributed to members. In a series of blog posts, Professor Bridges, a past president of the Society and expert of African history, shines his light on the new volume. In this first post he tells about his own 60-year engagement with the Speke and Grant Nile Expedition which eventually led to his remarkable and beautifully-illustrated Hakluyt Society edition.


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I first became acquainted with the story of the Speke and Grant Nile Expedition of 1860-63 when I began research on the history of the Expedition’s sponsor, the Royal Geographical Society, in the late 1950s. James Grant did not seem to have any particular interest for me. Like earlier commentators, I assumed he was just a loyal second-in-command to Speke. When I went to work at Makerere University in Uganda in the early 1960s, I wrote a long article for the Uganda Journal about the Expedition to mark the centenary in 1962 of Speke’s actual visit to the source of the Nile on 28th July 1862.  This article concentrated very much on Speke and his problems and his relationship with the RGS.

My understanding of the situation might have remained as it was, as far as the two explorers were concerned. However, the early 1960s was a period when much scholarly effort was being made to develop understanding of truly African history and this began to make me think much more seriously about the African context in which explorers like Speke and Grant had operated. The situation changed again for me in 1979 when Grant’s descendants put his papers on the market and, fortunately, the National Library of Scotland (NLS) acquired Grant’s incredibly detailed journal, the sketches and watercolours he executed on the journey, and his correspondence.

Grant in 1863
Figure 1. Captain James Augustus Grant from a photograph taken in Dingwall after his return home in 1863. He is wearing what was said to be the dress as worn in Africa. However, when S.W. Baker met him at Gondokoro in 1863, he said Grant was in ‘honourable rags.’ From Speke, Journal of the Discovery of the Source of the Nile, p. 420.

I wrote a short biography of Grant for the beautifully-produced portfolio of some of Grant’s pictures which the NLS published in 1982. I began to realise that Grant was a much more important figure than I had realised. He was a better observer and scientist than his leader and developed a more informed and sympathetic understanding of the African peoples among whom he moved in 1860-1863. And what fortitude he showed when an extremely painful ulcerated leg laid him up in what is now Karagwe in north-west Tanzania. When the all-powerful Mutesa of Buganda sent for him, Grant had to be carried on a litter – an experience he found not only painful but frustrating as he could not easily survey the country through which he was being carried.

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Figure 2. Grant leaving Karagwe in April 1862, after Mutesa of Buganda sent for him as he suffered from an ulcerated leg. He found the shaking gave him intense pain and he was upset that he could not see where he was going.

As my interest in Grant developed, my first instinct was to try to transcribe his journal for a possible printed edition but I came to realise that, given its length, detail and semi-note form, it would have been impossible easily to read and understand the result. The solution was to reproduce Grant’s 1864 publication, A Walk across Africa, to annotate the text in the light of more recent knowledge and to supplement that text with extracts from the journal. I also felt strongly that because Grant had endeavoured to create a visual as well as a verbal record of the Expedition, his sketches and watercolours showing the people and places he had encountered must be shown in their original form – not the doctored versions of some of them featured in Speke’s book. This will explain the character of this new Hakluyt Society edition.


Roy Bridges is Emeritus Professor of History in the University of Aberdeen. He joined the Hakluyt Society in 1964 and became its President from 2004 to 2010. With Paul Hair he edited Compassing the Vaste Globe of the Earth (1996) for the Society’s 150th anniversary. His edition of Jacob Wainwright’s ‘A Dangerous and Toilsome Journey’, in Four Travel Journals (2006) was the first Hakluyt text by an African. He has now produced an edition of Grant’s A Walk across Africa (2018). Among other books and articles are several studies of the Society’s founder, W.D. Cooley.


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Navigation: An Even Shorter Introduction

A combination of historians, literary scholars, naval captains, archivists, curators, and even the odd former explorer, the Trustees of the Hakluyt Society collectively represent a wide range of expertise on travel and navigation. Yet few are as uniquely qualified to speak on the topic as Professor Jim Bennett, former Director of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford and, since 2016, President of the Hakluyt Society. This year, his Navigation: A Very Short Introduction was published by Oxford University Press. In this blog, Professor Bennett reflects on the joys and challenges of discussing thousands of years of navigational development in a short book – or even a brief talk at a literary festival.

JB: My little book Navigation: A Very Short Introduction was published earlier this year and, as a more commercial work than my usual brief, I’ve had unfamiliar opportunities to speak at a few promotional events. I always accept, not because I imagine selling lots of books, but because it’s a nice experience that may never come again. So, I’m one of those speakers on the festival fringe, where the venue is a pub or bookshop, and a few people turn up because they want to fill their schedules and these tickets are free. Still, it’s fun – nice to feel part of the larger occasion and briefly to wear a badge marked Author.

But what to say? No-one really wants to understand position-line navigation, even if I could explain it in the time I have – perhaps as little as 20 minutes. I even did one so-called ‘speed dating’ event, where speakers circulated between groups with 10 minutes for each. These ‘VSIs’, as Authors learn to call their books, are, of course, heroic condensations in themselves – in my case of navigation at sea from the Bronze Age to post-GPS in 35,000 words – so how to distil that further into 20 minutes?

vsi cover

Navigation at sea is a very big story, spanning all historical epochs, cultures and oceans – a story of world history but told though a technical narrative. It was necessary to give some account of all the big players – from the Minoans in the Mediterranean, Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, &c, sailing (usually) in a large but relatively enclosed sea, to the Pacific Islanders in the vast expanse of Oceania.

With my European history background, I was already comfortable with navigation in the Atlantic from the Norse to the Portuguese, Spanish, English and Dutch, with their introduction of techniques codified in mathematics and the use of instruments. But there was a great deal to say about the Indian Ocean with the overlapping and intersecting activities of the Egyptians, Arabs, Indians and Chinese – and eventually the Europeans. I also had to cover the growing convergence of technical resources into the modern age.

Cultural differences needed addressing as well as the geographical and technical. It struck me that Europeans marvelled at the navigational feats of Polynesian sailors, seeing their far-flung islands separated by great tracts of ocean, when Pacific peoples might insist that this is how they are connected.

Among the range of motivations for voyaging, I was pleased, for reasons that may be obvious when we meet, to devote a paragraph or two to the Irish of the early Middle Ages, who could represent an ascetic or devotional impulse. The plan was to settle in places where life would generally be considered impossible – with some success, before they were displaced from the Faroes and from Iceland by the very different strategy of the Vikings.

I should be careful not to mislead potential readers here. My narrative is driven by the technical development of navigation. I manage to mention Richard Hakluyt on page one, by using his Principal Navigations to illustrate the general meaning of ‘navigation’, in contrast with the technical definition of his associate, the mathematician John Dee, where it refers to the means of locating a position and setting a course. But the technical is entangled with geography, history and culture.

When OUP invited me to write the book, I thought I should explain frankly that I am a historian, not a navigator. They explained in turn that a historical account of this technical topic was what they wanted and this proved to be wise, I believe. I have to deal with technical matters, however superficially, but readers unfamiliar with the business of navigation pick this up gradually, through its evolution over time.

Experienced navigators, on the other hand, will not be satisfied with the technical content of so short a book, but they probably know little of how their discipline evolved and who was responsible for its development.

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Spanish mariner’s astrolabe, c.1600. Museum of the History of Science, Oxford.

If the subject is large, how am I to bring it within the compass of 20 minutes? One unifying notion I’ve been using is ‘the shared sky’. As I worked through how sailors in their different epochs, peoples and oceans dealt with the challenges of knowing where they were and of moving on towards their landfall, something that should have been obvious from the beginning dawned with increasing force. On the open sea, the sky was the same for everyone.

Different techniques were used to codify and utilise the sky, with different vocabularies and instruments (or with none), but the principles that everyone applied were broadly similar. They shared the same sky. Of course it looked different from different places and at different times – that was what gave the sky navigational purchase – but a grasp of the patterns and movements recurred within every formulation.

A further thought links us to all these different peoples and is the emotional hook I deploy to move my listeners to an empathy with my subject. We share this same sky. However remote we may seem from the Phoenicians or the Vikings, for direction and for what we call ‘latitude’ they used a ‘north star’, which they identified in the same whirling pattern as we observe today. I am always affected by this thought – a feeling perhaps shared by my modest audiences. They seem to leave happy to have ticked off another talk in the programme, some even with copies of my little book.

Professor Jim Bennett is a historian of science who has held curatorial posts in national museums in London and in university museums in Cambridge and Oxford, where he was Director of the Museum of the History of Science. He has been President of the British Society for the History of Science and is currently President of the Hakluyt Society. His books include The Divided Circle: a History of Instruments for Astronomy, Navigation, and Surveying (Phaidon-Christie’s: 1987) and Navigation: A Very Short History (Oxford University Press: 2017).


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Professor Jim Bennett waiting to speak at Chipping Norton Literary Festival

The Armada of the Strait, 1581-1584: Disastrous beginnings of an ill-fated enterprise

The latest Hakluyt Society publication, The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581-84, edited by Professor Carla Rahn Phillips, documents the story of The Armada of the Strait which sailed under Don Diego Flores de Valdés in 1581–4. The armada set out from south-western Spain in the fall of 1581, with twenty-three ships and 3,500 people on board. During its three years’ voyage, hundreds of people would drown in shipwrecks and hundreds more perished from disease and privation.

The first of such shipwrecks occurred in October 1581, just a few days after the departure of the armada from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, bound for Brazil. In this post, Professor Rahn Phillips introduces us to one of the most thrilling passages of the Relación of chief scribe Pedro de RadaThe excerpt is a translation from fols 4r–5r of the original manuscript, now held in the Huntington Library [1].


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[f. 4r] … Tuesday, the 3rd of October [1581], the eve of San Francisco, when we had sailed about 35 leagues from San Lucar, there began to be such strong wind from the south and south-west, with much shifting of the cargo, and things looked bad, so that it was indispensable that the armada take down its sails and heave to, until Friday, the 6th of the aforesaid, when the weather had such force that the galeaza capitana had to jettison some things, which was done.

And the weather worsened so much on this day that eight navios from the armada could not be seen. And the next day, Saturday the 7th, we found ourselves so off course that, though we were not ten leagues from the Baya de Cadiz, the pilots did not know where they were, and thus there were a thousand variations amongst them, until the capitana saw the land of Rotta downwind, and we found ourselves blown so far to leeward that, given the force of the weather, it was greatly feared that we would not be able to enter the Bayya de Cadiz.

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And thus we sailed toward it with great difficulty, close to the wind because the wind and sea were excessive, the galeaza capitana entering with another fifteen naos that were going with her. In sight of the city of Cadiz, the nao named Nuestra Senora de Guia whose captain was Martin de Quiros, went to the bottom in a trice, and all who were on her drowned, which was the greatest misfortune to see without being able to succour even a single man, although it was four in the afternoon; and 150 men and some women and children settlers were on this nao.

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[f. 4v] This day, the navio named Nuestra Señora de Buena Esperanza, on which Pero Estebanez de las Alas sailed as captain, was lost near Roctta, which it could not get round. The captain himself and one hundred other persons from this navio were drowned. This same day the navio named San Miguel was lost, whose Captain Hector Abarca was drowned with another eighty persons. This same day the nao named Sancti Yspiritu was lost near the Rio del Oro in El Picacho. The captain and owner was Juanes de Villaviciossa Lizarza, who had remained in San Lucar and did not go on the expedition, because he was given too little money as subsidy; and Captain Alvaro Romo sailed in her and was drowned with another 120 persons.

The nao almiranta, in which Diego de la Rivera sailed, entered into the bay the next day, Sunday the 8th of October, after nearly being lost next to Arenas Gordas. Another two naos entered San Lucar with great difficulty, one in which Don Alonso de Sotomayor sailed, and the other with Captain Gutiere de Solis. The latter was taken to the Cassa de la Contratacion in Seville under arrest, because he had left the nao before it entered into the port. Another nao entered Guelba, with its captain Jodar Alferez.

This incident and misfortune caused great pain and grief to all in the armada, and General Diego Florez felt it very much, because, besides the loss of so many people, provisions, artillery, and other munitions, many captains and [f. 5r] high-ranking dependents of his were drowned.

[1] Note that the spelling of place names, etc. follows the original manuscript. Spanish words that should have accents do not have them in the original text, so they are not added in the translation. Ship names and types are, however, placed in italics, for the sake of clarity if not consistency.

Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor  in Comparative Early Modern History (Emerita), retired from the University of Minnesota in 2013. She has  published numerous books, articles, and book chapters on the social and economic history of Spain and its maritime connections in the early modern world, including Six Galleons for the King of Spain (1986)The Treasure of the San Jose (2007), and (with William D. Phillips Jr.)The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1993), and A Concise History of Spain (2010, 2nd ed. 2015).


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Personal conflict in the Armada of the Strait: Sarmiento versus Flores

In The Struggle for the South Atlantic: The Armada of the Strait, 1581-84, Professor Carla Rahn Phillips provides the first edition in any language of Pedro de Rada’s Relación, the hitherto unknown report written by the chief scribe of the Armada of the StraitThe Struggle for the South Atlantic contains a detailed eyewitness description of this ill-fated expedition, yet it contains more. In a recent interview, the Hakluyt Society Blog asked Professor Phillips about the troubled relationship between Don Diego Flores de Valdés, the Captain General of the Armada, and Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa, governor-designate of the future colony at the Strait, as well as about the importance of the discovery of Rada’s manuscript.


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To start, could you say something about the personal conflict at the heart of the Armada of the Strait?

CRP: Like any large enterprise, the Armada of the Strait was bound to have a range of personalities and a certain amount of disagreement and friction among its participants. Nonetheless, one ongoing clash all but defined the Armada of the Strait: the enmity between Pedro Sarmiento, governor-designate of the colony to be planted at the Strait, and Don Diego Flores de Valdés, captain general of the armada as a whole. Their continual wrangles began during the planning stages of the armada in 1581 and continued after the expedition ended in 1584.

Historians know quite a bit about their disagreements, and virtually everyone who has written about the voyage has taken the side of Sarmiento. The likely reason is that Sarmiento wrote much of the documentation published up to now, endlessly arguing his own side of the story; praising his own actions; and accusing Flores of numerous character flaws, mistaken judgment, evil intent, incompetence, and fraud. In the published historical accounts that mention the voyage and the attempt to plant a colony at the Strait, Sarmiento emerges as a hero — flawed, as all heroes are — but a hero nonetheless. Flores emerges as a villain — or at best, as an inept foil for Sarmiento’s heroic actions.

Yet until recently Pedro de Rada’s ‘Relación’ has remained unknown..

CRP: Exactly! As the expedition’s chief scribe, Pedro de Rada wrote thousands of pages of official documentation. Philip II requested all of these records shortly after Flores returned to Spain in July 1584. However, Rada had also written a Relación or report covering the entire voyage, with copies of various official documents appended. This detailed first-hand account remained in private hands until 1999, when it was acquired by the Huntington Library and made available to the research community. 

Rich in detail and human drama, Rada’s Relación provides a unique perspective on the events and personalities involved in the Armada of the Strait. Until it surfaced, the Armada  was known largely from the point of view of Sarmiento, whose version of events overwhelmed all other voices regarding the armada and influenced generations of historians. Important in this respect was that, in 1895, the Hakluyt Society published translated excerpts from Sarmiento’s voluminous writings, edited by Clements R. Markham. By contrast, Pedro de Rada’s Relación provides the reader with an official, dispassionate voice to contrast with the self-serving accounts by Sarmiento.

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Luís de Texeira, Map of the Captaincies of Brazil (c. 1574). Biblioteca de Ajuda, Lisbon

Reading Rada’s Relación against existing documentation, what new conclusions can be drawn about the Armada of the Strait?

CRP: Rada’s Relación clearly shows how the most meticulous plans for overseas ventures could be wrecked by the hazards inherent in sailing into largely unknown waters, yet also how those plans could  be jeopardized by personal conflicts that had entirely human causes. In modern histories of early exploration and colonization, mention of personal antagonisms is generally avoided as a petty distraction from the central, heroic narrative. Likewise, Rada’s laconic account only hints at the ongoing clash between Flores and Sarmiento. Nonetheless, by reading Rada’s journal in the light of the extensive Spanish documentation about the preparations for the voyage, we can understand the difficulties posed by the enmity between Sarmiento and Flores and appreciate what the expedition was able to accomplish despite that enmity.

The Relación chronicles an expedition that was launched with extraordinary effort at a critical period in Spanish exploration and colonization. Despite all the careful planning that preceded its departure, the armada suffered more calamities than many other expeditions, partly due to chance, but also due to the irrational schemes of Pedro Sarmiento, whom so many historians have praised as a visionary hero.

Pedro de Rada’s Relación, together with a selection of instructions and reports pertaining to the Armada of the Strait, are now made available for the first time, in English translation, by Professor Carla Rahn Phillips for the Hakluyt Society. Order your copy here.


Carla Rahn Phillips, Union Pacific Professor  in Comparative Early Modern History (Emerita), retired from the University of Minnesota in 2013. She has  published numerous books, articles, and book chapters on the social and economic history of Spain and its maritime connections in the early modern world, including Six Galleons for the King of Spain (1986)The Treasure of the San Jose (2007), and (with William D. Phillips Jr.)The Worlds of Christopher Columbus (1993), and A Concise History of Spain (2010, 2nd ed. 2015).


@HakluytSociety – Become a member at www.hakluyt.com – #Hakluyt400