A Disc on the Seabed of History: Vasco da Gama’s Astrolabe and the Beginning of Empire

The discovery of a late 15th century astrolabe on a Portuguese shipwreck off Oman provides a fascinating insight into an exciting period of the Age of Discovery.

Found within the wreckage of the Esmeralda, a carrack that sailed in Vasco da Gama‘s 1503 fleet to India, it is one of the most unique of more than 3,000 bronze artefacts so far found on the vessel since its discovery in 2015. Indeed it is reckoned to be the oldest such instrument found to date.

Laser scanners have revealed the etches on the astrolabe

Better known as an astronomer’s tool, the astrolabe was miniaturised and adapted for navigational purposes in the 15th century, at a time when mariners and explorers began plying their trades further and further from home. No longer safe to rely on their navigational experience and dead-reckoning, these pioneers began to turn to ‘scientific’ instrumentation to supplement their knowledge of the treacherous seas.

Early attempts at measuring the position of a ship away from the coast relied on the Pole Star, ‘the most easily observable heavenly body…The altitude of the Pole Star – its angle above the horizon – grew less as a ship sailed further south, and so gave an indication of how far south she had sailed’. (Parry, 1963, p.107)

Initially calculated by rough-eye estimates, these ‘measurements’ were enhanced during the 15th century by the popularisation of the mariner’s quadrant.

A mariner’s quadrant

The quadrant was soon superseded, amongst the Portuguese at least, by the astrolabe, which:

Consisted of a brass disk engraved with a stereographic projection of the heavens and a rotatable grill, by means of which the movements of the more conspicuous heavenly bodies could be followed. It was principally intended as a calculating device for the use of astronomers; but on its reverse side it was graduated in degrees round the perimeter and fitted with a rotating sight bar or alidade for observing altitudes…Only the reverse side of the instrument was useful – or indeed comprehensible – to seamen. (Parry, 1963, p.108)

That said, da Gama is recorded to have used a larger astrolable on his breakthrough voyage to India than the one found on board the Esmeralda. This was primarily for use on shore to determine his latitude. How much benefit he derived from the device is not wholly clear, its limitations in uncharted lands and inclement weather unlikely to have filled him with confidence.

It is not even clear how skilled a navigator da Gama was, for little is known of his life prior to setting off on that historic voyage around the Cape of Good Hope in 1497. There are snippets of information suggesting that he studied mathematics and navigation at an inland school in the 1480s, which may have enabled some familiarisation with instruments such as the quadrant and astrolable.

Yet one of the most enduring stories of da Gama’s voyage ironically centres on him dispensing with all of his navigational tools, when a mutiny broke out amongst his fearful crew. It is worth repeating the account in some detail, if only in the words of da Gama’s chronicler:

Crew: We have had enough. This is indeed a terrible and evil place as we were told.

Da Gama: No! We go on! We go to India.

As the crew threatened open rebellion, da Gama slipped away to his cabin, returning with a bundle of his charts and his navigational instruments.

Da Gama: What are these?

Crew: Your charts and instruments, Captain.

The Captain stepped forward and threw his possessions into the sea.

Da Gama: Now there is no returning! We go on with da Gama and with God!

That was the last of the dissension in the ranks.

Ordering his men to trust in God – not to mention in his own divine leadership – da Gama freed himself of the burden of science, his successful landfall near Calicut in 1498 testament to the holy honour bestowed upon him by his patron Dom Manuel I.

At least that’s how the chronicle portrays it, for such a foolhardy act would surely have been beyond even a man of da Gama’s fiery temperament.

Dom Manuel I of the House of Aviz

In addition to being able to read and compile maps and charts as a way of plotting their course, the late medieval mariners needed to adapt to the new tools of their trade and this required some schooling.

For many it was a case of learning on the job, the seaman’s apprenticeship an invaluable if brutal introduction into life on the open ocean. The Portuguese developed navigational schools in the 15th century, with Prince Henry the Navigator’s semi-mythical institution at Sagres both a practical training centre and a somewhat primitive think tank at the same time.

Vasco da Gama’s voyages to India encompassed all of this 15th century learning, not to mention the personal characteristics that mattered; an explorer possessed of a character befitting of his mission, a master whose ambition for the House of Aviz was unbounded, and the navigational tools that guided the way.

The discovery of the astrolabe points to a time when maritime culture was undergoing profound changes, enforcing a level of exactitude and professionalism previously unattainable. This in turn opened up the globe to the processes of mercantilism and imperialism, with the benefits and detriments these brought to so many far-flung peoples.

A fleet of the Carreira da India departs Lisbon in a 1593 engraving by Theodor de Bry

Beautiful and beguiling, the astrolabe has stood the test of time, a marker in the ocean upon which Portugal, that impoverished cousin of Spain, created the first global maritime empire.

Within a few years of its inception the Carreira da India was in full flow, exotic spices and magnificent beasts flowing back to Lisbon along with troves of gold and treasure. A template had been created for Western Europe to grow rich, to upend its backward and unenlightened reputation and propel its states towards a glory hitherto unseen.

The world was truly never the same again.

Source

Parry, J. H. The Age of Reconnaissance: Discovery, Exploration and Settlement, 1450-1650 (1963)

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Barcelona vs Madrid: on the streets and on the pitch, history and politics magnified

The case of Catalan independence has taken a new turn, with the Spanish government of Mariano Rajoy now vowing to restrict the autonomy of the restive region in a bid to enforce Madrid’s rule. 

A series of pro- and anti-independence rallies have taken place throughout Catalonia after the illegal referendum of October 1, notably in its major city Barcelona.

Pro-independence supporters clash with police in Barcelona

Barcelona is perhaps better known world over not for its separatist inclinations, nor for its cultural or economic merits, but for its soccer team. Along with the team of the capital, Real Madrid, Barca comprise part of a sporting duopoly whose rivalry has almost become a symbol of the internal divisions between Spain’s historic powerhouses.

In the build-up to the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939) Catalonia became a hotbed of Republicanism. Barcelona FC were seen as the sporting representatives of a ruling elite who favoured greater regional autonomy, a political class intent on reviving the glory days of Aragonese democracy.

James I overseeing the Cortes of Aragon, an early institution of political representation

Real Madrid, meanwhile, were bastions of conservatism, the team of King and Church.

The General Election of 1936 saw the Popular Front (a leftist alignment of communists, socialists, republicans and regionalists) sneak victory over the Popular Front (a right-wing amalgam of Carlists, Christian Democrats and black-shirt Falangists). Part of the political reform ushered in by the Popular Front was increased autonomy for Catalonia, a reward for years of Republican support.

A strike by the Army in July 1936 set the country onto a wartime footing and a military uprising in Madrid against the Republican government was led by General Adolfo Melendez, a former Real Madrid player. A now-armed Popular Front repulsed the uprising and Real’s stadium and training facilities were soon turned over to public use; a socialist recreational arena.

Meanwhile, Josep Sunyol, president of Barcelona FC, was executed by Falangist militia on his way to Madrid.

Josep Sunyol, friend of the political left, became a Barcelona martyr

The civil war would ultimately turn sour for the Republicans. General Franco’s Nationalists seized Madrid in March 1939, having already received the blessing of FIFA for their proposed football federation in 1937, long before the outcome of the war was clear. One of Franco’s more prominent soldiers was Santiago Bernabeu, a legend of Real Madrid whose stadium still bears his name.

For Barcelona FC, synonymous with Republicanism and the cause of Catalan independence, the ascendancy of Franco was a period to forget. Bullied and harassed into accepting the authority of Madrid, they were made to pay for their treachery.

Of particular note was a 1943 national cup semi-final – renamed the Copa del Generalisimo for obvious reasons – in which Barca had won the first left of their tie against Real Madrid 3-0. Prior to the return leg in the Spanish capital, the Barcelona dressing room was visited by Jose Escriva de Romani, the notorious Director of State Security. He made it clear what the result should be.

Santiago Bernabeu. Real Madrid legend…Francoist stooge?

With free whistles handed out to the Madrid supporters so that they could show their displeasure every time their opponents had the ball, Barca lost 11-1. An historical enmity, already strong prior to the Civil War, was cemented.

For many fans, Barcelona vs Real Madrid is about football and nothing else. For many others, it is political, it is cultural. Progress vs tradition, liberalism vs conservatism.

When Barcelona defender Gerard Pique – an outspoken supporter of Catalan independence – offered to retire from the Spanish national team, there were howls of derision from Madrid. Both Pique and his predecessor, former club captain Carles Puyol, went so far as to play for a Catalonia ‘international team’, much to the disgust of their Spanish colleagues at Real Madrid. Indeed, with the two clubs supplying the bulk of the players for the national squad, it is little wonder that Spain’s footballers took so long to live up to the promise their undoubted talent merited.

Barca fans make their feelings clear

Despite the unrest, an independent Catalonia remains a distant dream for those who desire it. What Madrid’s latest move will provoke is unclear but with the ‘silent majority’ still reluctant to throw their support behind the separatists, it would take a violent reprisal of national police heavy-handedness to swing their support towards independence.

For Barca and Real, however, these developments will simply add an extra degree of spice to an already charged and hostile atmosphere when they next meet. Sporting and political affiliation, enveloped in the shadow of a dark and divisive recent history, has rarely been more significant.

Additional Reading

Goldblatt, D (2006), The Ball is Round: A Global History of Football