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Phillip Reid (independent historian) – Rational Strategies for Managing Maritime Risk in the Early Modern Atlantic

"But our seafaring people are brave, despite danger, and reject such precautions of safety, being cowards only in one sense, that of fearing to be thought afraid."
--Benjamin Franklin
Europeans began to establish overseas maritime empires in the Atlantic basin in a liminal zone, chronologically-speaking, between what we traditionally call medieval and early-modern epochs. The state of nautical and cartographic knowledge was developed enough to permit successful, if arduous and deadly, circumnavigations of the globe, and the establishment and sustenance of colonies separated from their ruling countries by a vast and dangerous ocean. Columbus’ mistakes did not surprise the most careful of cartographers of his own time, and with more and more experience sailing the Atlantic, from northern Europe to the Grand Banks, from West Africa to the Caribbean, navigators, mariners, and cartographers filled in their knowledge of the Atlantic world and the risks it posed. Despite increased development of risk-management strategies, the risks themselves remained constant and grave. This is reflected in the strong continuities in Atlantic-world ship technology throughout the early modern period, and the evolutionary rather than revolutionary approach to technological adaptation. Even as “science” developed its methods and insights in important ways, it played a much larger role in navigation than it did in ship design and construction. A tension between traditions based on generations of experience on the one hand, and an Enlightenment-inspired impatience with “hidebound conservatism” on the other, characterizes early modern Atlantic risk management. Mariners imbibed a culture of hardy risk-acceptance, even as their employers accepted a level of commercial risk as daunting in its own way as the hazards of the sea were to sailors afloat. The ships sailed by the former and owned by the latter are perhaps best understood as products of complex risk mitigation.

Germán Jiménez Montes (Groningen) – Belonging to the Sea: Migration and Trade in Early Modern Spain

This paper deals with how temporary migrants traded in early modern Spain. It focuses on the commercial activity of north European shipmasters operating in Seville, which at the time was the economic capital of the Spanish seaborne empire.

This paper aims at challenging a long-standing historiographical consensus on Spain’s peripheral position in the institutional transformations that boosted long-distance trade in pre-modern Europe. This consensus is based on the assumption that Early Modern Spain was a centralist monarchy, which was not efficient enough to cope with the institutional changes that allowed international trade. In this paper, I will present my future line of research, which builds on the premise of a polycentric model, in which urban powers had a great influence regarding warfare and trade.

In the sixteenth century, Seville was the only Castilian port allowed to navigate with the Americas, and concentrated the largest population of foreigners in Spain. A royal census conducted 1596 revealed at least 352 foreigner who resided permanently in the city. This number does not include temporary migrants, whose number must have been significant, too. North European shipmasters constituted a majority of this floating population. They only stayed in Andalusia for a few weeks; just enough to download their cargo, upload a new one and collect the payment for their service in American silver.

Shipmasters were not just passive actors in long-distance trade. They were main intermediaries of information between important commercial centres in the continent. And they were risk-takers, too. For their operations to succeed, they needed a good understanding of commercial opportunities abroad, as well as of the institutional mechanisms of trade there. This project examines how they were attracted by efficient open-access institutions, which did not exclude on the basis of origin or guild membership, namely the public notaries and the royal justice. To do so, this project analyses how north European shipmasters coped with risk and uncertainty abroad, using notarial solutions available in Seville.

All welcome, this seminar is free to attend but booking is required.

Please note that bookings for this seminar will close 24 hours in advance to allow the meeting link to be distributed.