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In 1587, an ambitious colonial bureaucrat in Mexico City published a handbook titled Instrucción náutica. Although navigational books were common throughout the 16th century, the Instrucción náutica was the first printed volume that included an extensive discussion of ship construction and design, and its publication was thus a significant event in the history of early modern nautical technology. While the work is frequently cited in discussions of 16th-century Spanish ship construction and seafaring, little in-depth analysis of the text has been undertaken to verify its accuracy. In order to understand the significance of the book, a critical evaluation was undertaken of its context and content and of the motivations and background of its author. Analysis of documents written by, about, and to Diego García de Palacio reveals that he held positions of academic, religious, and political power in New Spain, that his motives for publishing the book were complex, and that he consulted a range of disparate sources. Significantly, archival correspondence suggests that García de Palacio was an observer and administrator of navigation and ship construction, rather than an expert practitioner. Nonetheless, comparison of the technical content of the book with other sources of information for 16th-century ships and seafaring, including contemporary treatises, iconography, and archaeological materials confirms the overall accuracy of the text. The navigational materials included in the Instrucción náutica reflect information adapted from existing texts, providing a solid overview of the most common techniques of navigation in use at the time. While useful, García de Palacio’s discussion of ship design was clearly intended for a non-specialist audience. Perhaps the most original technical contributions are his descriptions of the rigging of Spanish ships. The brief discussion of naval strategy is historically significant due to its juxtaposition between the last of the great naval battles fought primarily with boarding tactics, and the movement toward increasing reliance on the broadside. By comparing García de Palacio’s text to other sources of information, this study has confirmed the reputation of the Instrucción náutica as one of the most comprehensive and accurate written descriptions of 16th-century Spanish seafaring practices.
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