Commission for the History of
Nautical Science and Hydrography
Universidade de Lisboa
The first International Conference on the History of Nautical Science
took place in Coimbra in 1968, resulting from the coming together of two
quite distinct processes that nonetheless met on this occasion to open
up a new thematic area for research.
On the one hand, the 1950s had witnessed the birth of one of the main
scientific research projects in this area in Portugal, culminating in
the publication of the Portugaliae Monumenta Cartographica (Cortesão;
Mota 1960-2). Armando Cortesão was already one of the leading names
in the history of cartography, with a reputation that had been firmly
established through the publication of two monumental volumes entitled
Cartografia e Cartógrafos Portugueses dos Séculos XV
e XVI (Cortesão 1935), and of subsequent works in English that
had been given international exposure due to his years in exile and his
connections with the Hakluyt Society. On his return to Portugal, he met
Avelino Teixeira da Mota, a naval officer who had written hugely important
works on Guinea (Valentim, undated), but who was increasingly interested
in the history of nautical science and cartography. In turn, the collaboration
between these two authors on the above-mentioned research project gave
rise to the creation of the Ancient Cartography Studies Group of the Overseas
Research Board, initially divided into two sections: the Lisbon section
headed by Teixeira da Mota, and the Coimbra section headed by Armando
The Coimbra section was joined by a university professor who was to play
a fundamental role in later years: Luís de Albuquerque (Guerreiro
1998). Being interested from early on in the scientific component of the
history of the Discoveries, he later devoted himself, in the early 1960s,
to following a tradition that had already borne fruit with the works of
Luciano Pereira da Silva and Duarte Leite Pereira da Silva, both of them
full professors of mathematics at the same university. Luciano Pereira
da Silva was responsible for such fundamental contributions as the biographies
of the two Doctors Pedro Nunes, studies on 16th-century astronomy, and
the dismantling of the myth of the School of Sagres. This theme as well
as related topics were later worked on by Duarte Leite, who perhaps exaggerated
in his spirit of criticism, and entered into a keen controversy with Jaime
Cortesão. Jaime Cortesão was a remarkable historian and
the scholar responsible for drawing attention to the important question
of the technical and scientific component of the voyages of the Discoveries,
even though he was occasionally prone to an overly free imagination, as
when he developed his theory of the existence of a policy of secrecy.
The institutional framework provided by the Overseas Research Board, which
provided this group with important publishing resources, made it possible
to begin two series of publications that were very soon to achieve great
prestige: Memórias, in which Luís de Albuquerque
published several books on seamanship in elegantly presented editions
with excellent introductory studies; and the so-called Separatas Verdes
(Green Offprints), in which articles and conference papers were kept apart
and disseminated in this way.
The work of Cortesão and Albuquerque in Coimbra, as well as that
of Teixeira da Mota in Lisbon, operating in close collaboration with the
others, was in itself sufficient to guarantee the relaunching of the history
of nautical science in Portugal. But the 1968 meeting certainly gave this
process a fresh impetus.
The second factor to which we referred above had to do with the fact that
maritime historiography did not give due importance to this type of inquiry,
namely in the Colloques dHistoire Maritime that had been
started by Michel Mollat du Jourdin in the 1950s; these conferences were
a forum for the discussion of the aspects most closely connected with
the economic component of maritime trade, with some occasional contributions
about ships and routes, but without any reference to the art of navigation,
as has always traditionally been the case under the heading of Maritime
History. And even with an identical subject of study, the different
approaches can reflect widely varying points of view. This is clearly
shown by the study of the ship: the historian of economics seeks to investigate
tonnages and cargo capacities, or crew-cargo ratios, in order to estimate
freight costs or profitability margins; the historian of nautical science
(in the broad sense) studies morphology or functionality, when not actually
reconstructing the vessels geometrical design.
These were complementary perspectives, but ones that required their own
spaces for development. Whilst one was relatively common, the other still
remained on the fringes of the preferred themes of historiographic discourse.
And it was the realisation of this fact that led Cortesão and Albuquerque
to decide on the 1968 conference, chaired by the former but, in his own
words, largely indebted to the latter:
I must, however, say in all fairness that, although the convenience
and possibility of holding the meeting arose during the many conversations
that I naturally had with Professor Luís de Albuquerque on these
matters, the original idea came from him more than it did from me. In
fact, much of the good that has perhaps been done in this Section [of
Ancient Cartography] is due to the astounding intellectual activity of
this exceptional man (Cortesão 1971: 4).
A brief look at the book of Proceedings immediately highlights the fact
that the organisers succeeded in bringing together the cream of the crop
of specialists in the subject at that time, many of whom later maintained
contacts that helped to give a structure to the meetings. Leaving aside
the Portuguese authors, one may highlight (if, indeed, anyone should be
highlighted in particular) the names of Guy Beaujouan, Emmanuel Poule,
Ursula Lamb, Ernst Crone, Marcel Destombes, Wilcomb Washburn, G. R. Tibbetts,
David Waters, R. A. Skelton, Max Justo Guedes, Reyer Hooykaas, or Rolando
Laguarda Trías. It might be said that nobody was missing: all the
top names were at the Coimbra conference in 1968.
This is clearly shown by the works presented: O. Vietor2 reported
on the existence of the oldest signed and dated Portuguese chart, Jorge
de Aguiars nautical chart of 1492; Marcel Destombes referred to
two nautical astrolabes from the early 17th century, both of them unknown,
just like Diogo Homems chart of 1566, which was the subject of a
second paper; Teixeira da Mota presented an overview of the evolution
of Portuguese sailing directions in the 16th century; Ursula Lamb presented
a pioneering study on Alonso de Chaves; Luís de Albuquerque spoke
of terrestrial magnetism, Martins Barata of Vasco da Gamas ship,
and Maria Emília Madeira Santos of the India Line.
The list could go on, but it is not worth the trouble, because the papers
that have already been mentioned exemplify the future themes of the conferences,
grouped around five main areas, with the core subjects being nautical
science and the art of navigation, astronomy and scientific instruments;
nautical cartography; naval architecture and shipbuilding; the history
of science (in its broadest sense, which later on naturally spread to
the history of scientific ideas), and voyages and voyagers, with shipping
routes and navigational resources being included here, although from a
more technical standpoint than usual.
Continuity was not numbered amongst the goals of the meeting, but it was
decided upon from the outset, being linked to events that might facilitate
funding by future organisers: the model was biased towards this point
of view, since the sponsoring body paid the full expenses of those attending
the conference. This is why it was not easy to guarantee the holding of
new conferences other than on specific occasions, normally connected with
commemorative cycles, which is when official institutions tend to have
more substantial material resources available.
The definition of the group of participants also continued to follow the
example of Coimbra, oscillating in general between a direct invitation
addressed to them all or one addressed to a significant majority (responsible
for the so-called basic papers). In some cases, this allowed the programme
to be completed with papers presented on open themes, although these were
allotted less time for their exposition. At some of the meetings, namely
those organised by Luís de Albuquerque, the themes of the basic
papers were specifically requested from guest speakers to ensure that
there was a suitable coverage of the general theme right from the outset.
Other important aspects that distinguished these meetings from traditional
conferences: the number of participants was generally around thirty (ranging
between a minimum of twenty-two and a maximum of forty-five). They met
in plenary sessions, which, together with the concentration of papers
on the same themes, generally led to discussions of the highest level.
Although it was decided to promote new conferences, it was another eight
years before the second one was organised. It was held in Brazil in 1976,
with the central theme being extended to include hydrography; in other
words, also dealing with the navigation of large rivers. This was followed
by the third meeting held at Greenwich, which, unlike the previous two,
covered a much wider time span, reaching well into the 19th century, and,
in the 1980s, three more conferences were held in quick succession: Sagres-Lagos
in 1983; Rio de Janeiro in 1984; and once again Sagres in 1987. The principle
was established that meetings would not be held on a regular basis and
that they should be linked to commemorative events, for the reasons invoked
above. And from the fourth meeting onwards, albeit timidly at first, but
increasingly so thereafter, there was a clear opening up of the central
themes, achieved through the efforts of scholars from related areas, or,
more precisely, from quite distinct areas but engaged in related research
projects: the reports of voyages, for example, ceased to be analysed solely
as if they were reservoirs of information about the techniques of navigation
and were subjected to approaches that were more characteristic of literary
or cultural studies. Collections of documents were made known, whilst
the production and circulation of information about the Discoveries
in the broadest possible sense in the world of that time became
a relatively common theme. In other words, the 1980s recentred the preferred
time span of the meetings (15th17th centuries, occasionally the
18th century), simultaneously expanding the scope of the themes that were
dealt with therein.
The scientific interest of such a choice does not need to be commented
on, but looking back more than twenty years later, it should be asked
whether this was really an option rather than an imposition. In fact,
it would have been very difficult to again bring together a group of scholars
such as the one that met in Coimbra: the history of nautical science had
not become unfashionable, but the chronological scope of the meetings
was not a very popular one.
In naval and maritime history, there is a preponderance of Anglo-Saxon
historiography, whose chosen field is the golden age of sailing vessels,
from the mid-seventeenth century to the early nineteenth century. In other
words, the period when the mastery of the seas was disputed between the
Dutch, English and French, after the Iberian powers had been reduced to
the status of minor actors on the worlds naval stage. This is why
French historiography concentrates most of its attentions on this period.
In this latter case, the reading of academic dissertations that consider
Richelieus navy as an introduction to or even the first part of
the history of the French navy is sufficiently revealing. In the case
of Anglo-Saxon historiography, the chronology is (even today) determined
by Alfred Mahans The Influence of Sea Power Upon History
(Mahan 1890): Sea power has been a historical problem since 1660 (Domingues
Navigation in the 15th and 16th centuries became a particular area of
interest for historians writing in Portuguese and Spanish, but for very
few others. Despite the limitations of simplifications of this type, such
a separation is undeniable, as can be seen precisely in the case of nautical
science. This period is considered by some as the formative period or
even as the very beginning, since they see in it the establishment of
the most important procedures and techniques. Others, however, see it
as no more than a preliminary phase before the period of technical perfection,
which ranged from the production of printed nautical charts to the rigorous
determination of longitude.
Underlying this question is a cultural problem. The study of the origins
of nautical science is given scant attention in a historiography that
has produced an immense wealth of studies, both in qualitative or simply
quantitative terms, but whose authors are far too often incapable of reading
Portuguese and Spanish authorswho traditionally publish very little
in English and much less so the sources. There are exceptions,
as is proven by the undeniable standard work of reference written by David
Waters (Waters 1978), or the cartographic works of Armando Cortesão
in his time. More than anything else, however, such works are precisely
thatexceptions. But there are too many studies on European nautical
science that show the lack of knowledge of their authors about the matters
dealt with in the books on Portuguese seamanship published by Luís
de Albuquerque, to name but one example.
This situation has been manifest at the meetings on the history of nautical
science, as can be easily seen by consulting the contents of the respective
Proceedings (Domingues 1992; undated), with Anglo-Saxon historians most
evidently writing about the more recent period and the Iberian historians
writing about more distant times.
At the same time, however, it can be seen that although the popularity
of the history of nautical science has not diminished, as has been said,
it has not grown either, even in those countries where one might have
expected this to happen. The conferences also reflect this, namely those
that were held in the 1990s (Manaus, 1992, Viana do Castelo, 1994, Aveiro,
1998): once again, there has been an enriching diversity of themes spreading
into marginal areas, with the impact of the specific theme becoming diluted
over time, even though there has remained a strong bias towards different
sectors, as can be seen by the excellent set of papers on naval architecture
and shipbuilding in the 1998 Proceedings, to again give just one example.
Diversification of the themes and the recentring of the time span, with
a certain tendency for this to be stretched on occasions, these then seem
to be the lines of force emerging from the period surrounding the 1968
conference in Coimbra. Basically, they marked out what had already been
done, since, in the final analysis, Coimbra was almost an exception in
terms of the compact density of the themes and the period that was dealt
with. The most recent meetings have confirmed this tendency, which will
undoubtedly become the hallmark of the future. But it is also already
possible to detect the emergence of new generations of historians whose
work is focused on nautical science (continuing to use the term in a broad
sense). In Portugal, several academic dissertations in this area are being
prepared or have been presented in recent years3, whereas these
were rare occurrences in earlier years, contrary to what might have been
expected. It is hoped that old subjects may be given an entirely new treatment
and analysis, or that new problems may emerge.
On a very informal basis, the participants at the first conferences joined
together to form an International Committee for the History of Nautical
Science and Hydrography, chaired by Luís de Albuquerque. In 1987,
he was succeeded by Max Justo Guedes, followed in 2000 by Inácio
Guerreiro. As the need was felt to strengthen the links between the group
of possible participants in the intervals between scientific meetings,
and there was also a clear advantage in promoting other initiatives that
might lead to the promotion of this research area, a formal proposal was
made to this effect at Greenwich, which was unanimously approved but unfortunately
had no immediate consequences.
Since 1998, the Committee has had its own website, where some information
is made available about the founders and the contents of the books of
Proceedings. The committees organisational process was initiated
by the current president, Inácio Guerreiro, with the appointment
of a Secretary General, a Board of Directors, and National Delegates (two
per country). An organisational and scientific support group was set up
for conferences, the holding of which is the committees main aim.
The recent creation of a permanent headquarters (which has been in operation
at the Portuguese Naval School since 2002) has made it possible to organise
a permanent centre of documentation and logistics.
Conferences have continued to be organised in the same tried and true
fashion. It is normally decided at each meeting where the next one is
to be held, who will be responsible for its organisation and scientific
programme, and what measures will have to be taken in the future. Judging
by what has happened in recent years, such measures include the maintenance
of a certain regularity (every two years) along pre-existing lines, with
roughly thirty papers being presented at the plenary session and occasional
papers at parallel sessions. A balance should continue to be found between
ensuring the openness of both the themes and the time span covered, and
reinforcing the study of the technical component of the navigations, which
is, after all, what has ensured the scientific specificity of these meetings.
Today it seems more possible to guarantee this specificity than it was,
let us say, ten years ago, without prejudice to the need to approach old
themes from new perspectives and with new focuseswhich is, at the
same time, an essential condition for a renewal of the historiographical
The completion of the Committees organisational process should be
the main step in a development that must open up in new directions, especially
with regard to the elimination of one evident lacuna, the lack of a specialized
scientific journal, an essential vehicle for publishing studies in this
area, together with the development of contents for the webpage, making
(at least) the earliest conference proceedings available online. These
Proceedings contain works that are still considered to be essential references
today. In this way, we will be able to continue along the paths leading
to an indispensable renewal.
Internacional de História da Náutica e da Hidrografia
(23-26 de Outubro, 1968). Discursos e Comunicações,
Coimbra, Universidade de Coimbra Estudos de Cartografia Antiga,
1970; and also in Revista da Universidade de Coimbra, Vol. XXIV,
Coimbra, 1971, pp. 1-614.
2 Who was not there personally, so that his paper had to
be read aloud at the meeting.
3 A list of academic theses in naval and maritime history
defended at Portuguese universities is being prepared and will be placed
on our webpage Portuguese Naval and Maritime History 1400-1800,
which is currently being redesigned. It is due to be moved to a different
address from the current one, which can be located by normal search
Armando (1935). Cartografia e Cartógrafos Portugueses dos Séculos
XV e XVI, 2 vols. Lisboa: Seara Nova.
Cortesão, Armando; Mota, A. Teixeira da (1960-2). Portugaliae
Monumenta Cartographica, 6 vols. Lisboa: Comissão para a Comemoração
do V Centenário da Morte do Infante D. Henrique. 2nd ed.: 1987.
Lisboa: Imprensa Nacional-Casa da Moeda.
Cortesão, Armando (1971). Discurso
da Universidade de Coimbra, XXIV: 4-7.
Domingues, Francisco Contente (1992). História da náutica
e da hidrografia. Bibliografia das reuniões internacionais (I-VI).
Studia, 51: 191-218.
Domingues, Francisco Contente (2004). A guerra no mar. In
Manuel Themudo Barata e Nuno Severiano Teixeira / António Manuel
Hespanha (eds.), Nova História Militar de Portugal, vol. II.
Lisboa: Círculo de Leitores, 151-169.
Domingues, Francisco Contente (s/d). Participantes. http://www.ars-nautica.org/Participantes.html
Guerreiro, Inácio (1998), Introd. Luís de Albuquerque
Historiador e Matemático. Homenagem de Amizade a um Homem de
Ciência. Lisboa: Chaves Ferreira Publicações.
Mahan, Alfred T. (1890). The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783.
London: Sampson Low, Marston & Company.
Valentim, Carlos (s/d). Avelino Teixeira da Mota (1920-1982). http://www.ars-nautica.org/Biog/Mota.html
Waters, David W. (1978) . The art of navigation in England in
Elizabethan and early Stuart times. Greenwich: National Maritime Museum.
2004, ISSN 1645-6432
e-JPH, Vol.2, number 1, Summer 2004