La Tinaja

Abstract: Making the Ocean: Global Space, Sailor Practice, and Bureaucratic Archives in the Sixteenth-Century Spanish Maritime Empire

28 Oct 2014

This week I’ve finally submitted the abstract of my PhD dissertation for the History department at UT-Austin:

This dissertation is about the long-distance navigators who constructed a global marine world as agents of the sixteenth-century Spanish maritime empire. The hard-won pragmatic and empirical expertise on which they relied developed in an uneasy tension with the priorities of the bureaucracy centered at the Casa de la Contratación in Seville. In the Atlantic, bureaucratic standardization driven by the Casa made commercial ocean travel increasingly routine, while exploratory sailors, particularly in the Pacific, continued to apply their expertise in unknown and unpredictable waters. The quotidian and the pragmatic defined these long-distance mariners’ relationship to their environment. They organized space into networks of knowable pathways that connected places identified by names and markers that communicated the sailors’ experience to future navigators; they interpreted local conditions based on inferences from distant stimuli and ocean-scale systems; and they introduced their natural and human surroundings to metropolitan and colonial scholars and administrators. The resources and instruments developed by the Casa informed these practices, but voyages of discovery always remained outside of direct institutional control from Seville. This relationship—between the local, individual, and contingent on the one hand and the universal, bureaucratic, and synthetic on the other—not only defined the dynamics of intellectual authority governing scientific endeavors under the Spanish monarchy, but also shaped strategies for projecting imperial claims across areas of uneven and limited physical control, whether marine or terrestrial. Reevaluating the balance between marine and terrestrial territorial claims recasts the Americas as a waypoint into the Pacific and beyond for the globally-aware westward gaze of Spanish imperial ambition. More fundamentally, it highlights the multicentric and networked arrangement of power in the early modern period by refocusing our attention on those islands, whether literal or figurative, of physical Spanish presence surrounded by spaces of hypothetical control. The Spanish empire’s maritime orientation during the sixteenth century developed the intellectual, political, and institutional strategies to balance and resolve these tensions between embodied and archival knowledges, local contingencies and universal frameworks that defined the distribution of power under the Spanish monarchy.