Spain's Men of the Sea: Daily Life on the Indies Fleets in the Sixteenth Century
by Pablo E. Pérez-Mallaína,
trans. Carla Rahn Phillips,
Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998, 289 pp.
Published in the Economic History Review, 2000
Pablo E. Pérez-Mallaína has written a vivid, well-researched study of the thousands of maritime workers
who made possible Spain's grand accumulation of American wealth in the sixteenth century. Based
primarily on documents in the Archivo General de Indias in Seville and supplemented by sources as diverse
as travelers's accounts and the fictional writings of Miguel de Cervantes, the book offers a rich and
illuminating account of the lives of those who sailed the "Carrera de Indias," the route of the Indies. By the
late sixteenth century some 7,000 to 9,000 yearly made eight-to-nine month voyages aboard Spain's
transatlantic merchantmen and naval vessels.
The book consists of six chapters. The first, "The land environment of the men of the sea," surveys Seville,
a major hub in the Atlantic commercial system, the "port and gateway to the New World." Sailors
departed maritime neighborhoods such as Triana for Veracruz, Portobelo, and Havana. Chapter two, "The
origin and social condition of the men of the sea," shows that sailors were the poor and, to a lesser extent,
the restless - dispossessed peasants, desperados, homeless children made apprentices, altogether "the
disinherited of the earth" (218). One of Pérez-Mallaína's most interesting findings is that sailors in the
transatlantic Spanish fleet were international from the beginning. About half of the sailors on the ships of
Magellan and Cabot were not Spanish but rather Portuguese, Italian, Greek, Venetian, Fleming, German,
French, Irish, English, and African. The third chapter, "The ship as a place of work," treats the deep-sea
vessel as "the most complex machine of the epoch" (63) - a "warehouse-vehicle-fortress" (65) - and
explores the division of labor required to run it. Chapter four, "The ship as a place of life and death,"
evokes everyday existence in the wooden world - the crowding and utter lack of privacy, the rats, the
tedium, but also the sex, the games, and even (thanks to Inquisition records) the specific books of sailors,
which were read aloud because two of three were illiterate. He notes the high mortality of life at sea, and
emphasizes the role of "human greed" in creating it (185). The fifth chapter, "Discipline and conflict,"
situates the development of Spanish seafaring within an overarching transition from "colleagues to
proletarians." Pérez-Mallaína details the rigid discipline, the liberal use of the rebenque (the boatswain's
rope), but also notes that the Spanish state restrained the shipowner's ability to exploit and abuse maritime
workers, who also defended themselves by desertion, mutiny, and other forms of resistance. The final
chapter explores "The mental horizons of the men of the sea," their language, their communal shipboard
organization (the camarada), and their heterodox religiosity.
Spain's men of the sea deserves a wide readership, for Pablo E. Pérez-Mallaína has produced a major and
lasting contribution to the social and economic history of Atlantic seafaring. The author and the publisher
are to be commended for the 32 illustrations, 12 of which are in brilliant color, but where, o where, are the
University of Pittsburgh