August 2008


In the wake of magellan

By Simon Leys
In the wake of magellan

Magellan and his fleet discover the strait leading to the Pacific Ocean, 1520. © ClassicStock - Alamy.

The voyage of globalisation’s forefather

What do you know about Magellan?

Ask this question of any educated person - a person (according to John Cowper Powys) whose culture is made of what remains after one has forgotten all one set out to learn - and you will probably receive the answer: Portuguese navigator who demonstrated that the Earth is round when he achieved the first circumnavigation of the globe, in the early sixteenth century.

This answer is incomplete and partly mistaken.

First, though Magellan was indeed Portuguese, he sailed for Spain - personally commissioned by Charles V. His foreign origin provoked suspicion and resentment among his Castilian officers; some of them detested him, and their hostility was to climax in a mutiny that nearly brought the entire expedition to a premature end.

Secondly, Magellan died halfway through the voyage, killed in an absurd fight with Filipino natives whom he was recklessly attempting to teach a lesson. The circumnavigation was not achieved by him, but by his lieutenant Elcano (one of his earlier enemies).

Thirdly, it had been known since the time of ancient Greece that the Earth is round. A classical mathematician had even calculated - quite accurately - its circumference. A majority of the Fathers of the Church inherited this knowledge and shared it with many medieval scholars. What the expedition actually demonstrated - turning Magellan into the unwitting forefather of globalisation - was the circumnavigability of the globe: oceans all communicate; contrary to what early cartographers imagined, they are not inland seas surrounded by impassable continental walls.

Finally, the circumnavigation was improvised under the pressure of circumstances; it never was the purpose of the expedition. The original objective was quite different: it was, in fact, an attempt to find an alternative route to the spices of the East. And indeed, the royal instruction had clearly prescribed that the expedition should return by the very same way they came.

At the beginning of the Renaissance, the first great voyages of discovery were accomplished by Portuguese navigators; their daring and seamanship remained for a long time unequalled in the Western world. First, they succeeded in sailing round Africa; then they pushed further east to India, and finally they reached the Malay Peninsula. The initial impulse of these prodigious voyages had been religious and strategic: the idea was to establish a direct link between Western Christianity and the mythical Prester John, who (it was first believed) would be found in Ethiopia, and then was supposed to have settled in India. In this way, it might become possible eventually to encircle Islam. However, in the course of this elusive quest, it was very quickly realised that the venture could also generate fabulous commercial profits through the importation of spices.

Together with gold, spices constituted for several centuries the main value standard in the economic life of Europe. Pepper was sold by the grain (and it was the same in China: during the Ming dynasty, imperial civil servants were paid partly in money and partly in measures of pepper). Besides pepper, there were also cloves and nutmeg: their sole production centre was in the Moluccas; Westerners merely knew the names of these islands, but had not yet reached their shores. For a long time, Eastern spices were brought westwards by Arab traders, up to Egypt; then, from Alexandria, their distribution throughout Europe belonged to the monopoly of Venice.

Yet, once the Portuguese settled on the Malabar Coast, and then, more importantly, in Malacca, they began to deal directly with Malay coastal traders who were bringing spices from the Moluccas straight to their factories. Thus bypassing the old Arabo-Venetian monopoly, Portugal suddenly found itself in control of an inexhaustible source of riches. Spain soon wished to imitate its example. To prevent their commercial competition turning into armed conflict - which would dangerously weaken the Christian world - the two kingdoms adopted a solution originally proposed by the Pope: by treatise, the world would be divided into two halves: the eastern one belonging to Portugal and the western one to Spain. Since this agreement forbade Spanish ships using the traditional eastern sea route to the Spice Islands, the idea of trying to reach them by a westward route became increasingly attractive. Actually, this had already been the dream of Christopher Columbus: until his death (in 1506) Columbus remained convinced that he had landed in the Far East - and he believed that, had he sailed a few hundred leagues further north, he would have reached Hangzhou, the former capital of the Chinese empire!

However, by the early years of the sixteenth century, an awareness grew that between Western Europe and Eastern Asia there stood a continental barrier. The breadth of this "Terra Firma" was grossly underestimated, and its length was still unknown; also, it was soon realised that an unknown sea, the "South Sea" (Pacific Ocean), did lie on its other side: Balboa saw it after crossing on foot the Isthmus of Panama (in 1513). But how could this sea be reached by boat?

Two years after Balboa's discovery, a Portuguese navigator followed the Brazilian coast southwards and eventually reached the vast estuary of Río de la Plata. He sailed into it, believing it was the entrance of a passage leading to the South Sea. He realised the mistake too late: local Indians killed and ate him (in 1516).

The division of the world into two hemispheres was largely theoretical: in practice, the boundary could not be drawn with precision. Unlike parallels of latitude (running horizontally) which refer to astronomical data - they can be calculated by observing the position of the sun and other celestial bodies - the meridians of longitude (running vertically) are an abstract convention: before the invention of the marine chronometer, in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was impossible for a ship to determine accurately its position.

Therefore, this global division merely translated into one vague general practice: expeditions that set sail eastwards belonged legally to the Portuguese, whereas those that sailed westwards pertained to the Spaniards. Besides this broad principle, there was also another rule: all unknown lands should belong to the country of the discoverer. In the first half of the sixteenth century, the theologians of Salamanca started to question the ethical validity of a division of the world that made no reference to natural law nor to the rights of natives. A more irrefutable objection arose in the second half of the century, with the irresistible ascent of two new sea powers: England and Holland. When a Spanish ambassador demanded that England compensate the damages caused by the raids and lootings of Sir Francis Drake, Queen Elizabeth replied:

The South Sea like all other oceans is common property of all mankind. The awarding by the Bishop of Rome of a country that does not belong to him is a fantasy. Spaniards have no more rights than any others over what they themselves usurped, and no one owns a country simply because he erected some huts there, or gave the name of some saint to a cape or to a river.

Still, let us not anticipate. In Magellan's time, things had not yet reached this point, and when the navigator presented to Charles V his idea that there must be somewhere in the southern parts of Terra Firma a passage leading directly to the Spice Islands, the great monarch grasped at once the extraordinary benefit which Spain might draw from such a discovery: the possibility of securing a legitimate shortcut to the source of Portugal's prosperity. Earlier on, Magellan had vainly tried to get the Portuguese Court interested in his project. Now this same court realised too late that such an expedition, under the Castilian flag, was going to endanger its own eastern trade. Eventually, the Portuguese navy attempted to obstruct the progress of Magellan's ships, with only limited success.

Charles V entrusted Magellan with the supreme command of a flotilla of five ships, with a total crew of 237 men. Of Magellan himself, we know very little. His original name was Fernão de Magalhaes; he was probably born around 1480 in northern Portugal. It seems that he was a soldier much more than a seaman. He served for seven years in the Portuguese possessions in India and in the Malay Peninsula; there, he acquired his knowledge of the East and his experience of the sea; he distinguished himself for his bravery in battle. His officers and crew were in the main subjects of the Kingdom of Castile (mostly Andalusians and Basques); there was also a strong cosmopolitan component: some 30 Portuguese, 20 Italians (mostly Genoese), a few Frenchmen, some Greeks, a few Flemish. The ships were fairly small, three-masted, 20-odd metres in length - barely the size of a modern super-yacht. On board, the men were crowded into a minuscule space.

Provisions comprised wine, oil, vinegar, sea biscuit, anchovies in barrels, smoked fish, smoked bacon, beans, lentils, flour, garlic, onions, casks of cheese rubbed in oil. These provisions were to prove insufficient during the crossing of the Pacific, the immensity of which no one could have foreseen. What is worse, they did not include any food that could have prevented scurvy, a dreadful illness whose actual cause was still not understood, though in fact it is fairly simple: it results from a vitamin deficiency that can easily be remedied by drinking lime juice and eating sauerkraut (as Captain Cook successfully instructed his sailors to do some 250 years later). Scurvy was to kill half the crew - more than military engagements, accidents and all other diseases combined.

Detailed inventories of the supplies and equipment have been preserved; for instance, there were "eight chamber-pots and three rat-traps for each ship; five large drums and 20 small drums for entertainment". There were also various presents and goods for barter: "200 red caps, 200 red handkerchiefs; 20,000 small bells of three different sorts; 400 dozen German knives of very inferior quality; 50 dozen scissors; 1000 mirrors; 1000 combs."

Sea charts and navigation instruments were wretchedly inadequate; longitude could not be calculated; speed and distance covered were assessed through crude and grossly inaccurate estimation. And even if the navigators had been able to determine the exact co-ordinates of their position, most of the time this could hardly have amounted to more than a tiny point in the middle of a huge blank.

Finally, it should be noted that two chaplains, with all their equipment (sacred vases, liturgical vestments, altars), were attached to the expedition, which had a significant religious and apostolic character - as we shall see later on.

The flotilla left Spain in September 1519. In December, it reached Brazil, where it dropped anchor. The crew proceeded ashore for the execution of a ship's master (each ship was under the command of a captain, seconded by a master and a pilot or navigator): on the way, Magellan had sentenced him to death for sodomising a ship's boy.

Then the flotilla sailed south, for as long as the season allowed. Days became shorter; the weather turned cold and rough. Discontent developed among the Spanish captains, as Magellan refused fully to disclose his plans to them.

Magellan decided that the ships should lie up for winter in a desolate cove of the Patagonian coast. A mutiny broke out; one captain involved in the rebellion was killed on the spot; another was captured, sentenced, beheaded and quartered ashore. As to the true leader of the rebellion and his main accomplice - one of the priests - they were both marooned on a deserted beach, having been provided with, in total, one sword and a bottle of wine. They were never heard of again. This false clemency - more cruel, in fact, than death - was probably due to the fact that the first was related to a Spanish grandee (he was the illegitimate son of an archbishop) and the other was a man of God.

After a grim wintering of five months (in that latitude, winter days have only four or five hours of light), from early April to the end of August, the flotilla - which, by then, had lost one ship, when a sudden gale drove it ashore and destroyed it - pursued its southward course. In October 1520, one year and one month after leaving Spain, Magellan finally discovered the entrance of the passage for which he had searched with such obstinate passion, and which was to carry his name. The Magellan Strait is some 600 kilometres long; for the most part, it is wide and deep, but also scattered with reefs; it follows a meandering course at the foot of tall snowy mountains from which blasts of icy winds blow down with sudden violence. Near the end of the strait, when the crew of the longboat that had been sent to reconnoitre returned and reported they had seen the open sea, "Magellan in his joy began to cry." It is the only display of emotion that was ever recorded of him.

Magellan had taken 34 days to sail the length of the strait. A good half-century later, Drake made the same crossing in 16 days - in winter! - with the help of a favourable wind. However, after this time it was seldom used, as the strait is so hazardous and difficult to negotiate. For sailing ships, the best way is further south; it was discovered in 1616 by a Dutch navigator, the first ever to go round Cape Horn - which he named after his native town, Hoorn.

The flotilla - which by now was reduced to three units (one ship had deserted at the entrance of the strait and returned to Spain, where, on arrival, its crew was thrown in jail) - entered the Pacific Ocean, which it took nearly three months to cross, following a diagonal course, south-east to west-north-west, from the exit of the strait to the island of Guam. The crossing was horrendous. Having exhausted their food supplies, the men were in their hunger gnawing the baggy-wrinkle of the rigging. Pigafetta, the Italian secretary who kept a record of the voyage, described their wretched condition:

Wednesday, 23 November 1520. We came out of the Strait and entered the Pacific Sea, on which we remained three months and ten days without having any fresh supplies. We were eating old biscuit that had turned into dust, all full of worms and the urine stench of rats which had eaten the better part of it; for drink, we only had a stinking yellowish water. We also ate the oxen hides that serve as chafe-guard on the mizzen antenna; having been long exposed to the sun and the weather, they had become very tough; we marinated them in sea water for four-five days and grilled them before eating. We also ate sawdust and rats ...

The worst horror was the rottening scurvy, which turned its victims into walking corpses before killing them: "their gums became so swollen, they could not absorb any food and starved; those who survived washed their mouths with urine and sea water."

Blindly missing the Polynesian archipelagos, the ships crossed the vastness of the Pacific Ocean without seeing land, with the sole exception of two tiny islands - uninhabited and unapproachable. Modern commentators have attempted to identify them as various atolls; but their original descriptions suggest forbidding cliffs of volcanic origin. I wonder if they could have been the islands of Pitcairn and Henderson?

After a short stop in Guam, where fresh supplies revived the crew, the ships sailed to the Philippines. There, on the island of Cebu, Magellan established friendly relations with the local king. After one week, the king expressed his desire to become a Christian. He was thus baptised, together with the queen and 2000 of their subjects. A makeshift church was promptly built; big crosses were erected on top of hills nearby. Magellan then suggested imposing the authority of the "Christian king" over all of his neighbours. When one of them rebuffed his interference, Magellan decided to punish him - and to use the opportunity to show the Christian king the invincible military superiority of his new friends and protectors. Taking only 40 men with him in the longboat, he landed on the island of the recalcitrants; there, ambushed by a large army, he was killed with six of his companions after a brief and desperate fight.

The remnants of his little troop re-embarked in disarray. This unexpected rout gave the Christian king food for thought: these strangers were, after all, only temporary visitors, whereas he had to live permanently with his neighbours - it would therefore be wiser to accommodate the latter. He invited to a feast some 26 officers and sailors and, in a surprise move, massacred them all. He failed, however, to overtake the three ships; in panic, they lifted anchor and set sail at once, abandoning ashore their dead and dying. Thus ended the stay in Cebu; it had lasted only 23 days.

The expedition had not only lost its leader, it did not have enough crew now to man the three ships. It was decided to burn one of them; her crew and equipment were divided between the two remaining units, Trinidad and Victoria.

For the following eight months, from May to December 1521, the search for cloves resumed; the ships wandered through the Indonesian archipelago, now trading, now indulging in occasional piracy. At long last they reached the Moluccas, where they spent six weeks on the island of Tidore, the main producer of cloves. Loaded with this precious cargo, the Victoria set sail for Europe under the command of Elcano. It was out of the question that her crew - so reduced and exhausted - could face again a crossing of the Pacific, followed by the hazards and rigours of the Magellan Strait; therefore, Elcano had no choice but to follow the traditional Portuguese route. The Trinidad could not set sail immediately: its hull, eaten up by shipworms, had turned into a sieve. After various mishaps, the Trinidad was eventually to fall into the hands of the Portuguese. Her crew spent a long time in the Portuguese jails of Malaya, India and Africa; a few last survivors eventually returned to Spain many years later.

The Victoria took seven months to cross the Indian Ocean, to go round the Cape of Good Hope and finally reach the islands of Cape Verde, on the west coast of Africa. Another 13 men died on the way, of illness and exhaustion. The hull leaked badly; pumps had to be manned all the time. At Cape Verde, Elcano wished to buy some African slaves to work the pumps, which the crew was now too weak to operate. Twelve men were sent ashore to negotiate this purchase; as they were offering cloves in payment, Portuguese authorities immediately suspected that the Victoria had trespassed into the trading preserve of Portugal. They arrested the 12, and prepared to take possession of the ship and confiscate her priceless cargo. Elcano had barely time to lift anchor and escape; his crew, further depleted, scarcely managed to hoist at half-mast a mainsail that was now too heavy for them.

On 6 September 1522, the Victoria returned to that same port of Sanlúcar de Barrameda she had left three years earlier. Of the original crew only 18 men remained. On Tuesday, 9 September, "they all entered Sevilla, barefoot, each only in his shirt, with lit candle in hand, to thank God for having brought them back alive into port." And just as Phileas Fogg was to observe at the end of his journey around the world in 80 days, they discovered with amazement that their calculation of the date was mistaken by one day - "and therefore they had eaten flesh on Fridays and celebrated Easter on a Monday."

The above narrative should not lead you to believe that I am very knowledgeable on this particular subject. Actually, regarding Magellan, I knew hardly more than the hypothetical educated person quizzed at the outset. However, I have just finished reading a monumental work, Voyage de Magellan (1519-1522): La relation d'Antonio Pigafetta & autres témoignages, edited by Xavier de Castro, Jocelyne Hamon and Luis Filipe Thomaz, and published in Paris last year. It gathers in two volumes (1000 pages) all the documents pertaining to this extraordinary expedition, as well as contemporary records of participants and witnesses (with the addition of notes on various questions of history, geography, linguistics and anthropology). It is a model of lucid, rigorous and exhaustive scholarship.

In what I have written here, I have barely touched on what makes the reading of this book such a disturbing experience. The feeling of absolute outlandishness, of extreme exoticism, does not result from the evocation of remote tribes in faraway lands speaking incomprehensible tongues and practising bizarre religious rituals or weird sexual customs - no, it is in fact the way in which Magellan and his companions appear to us utterly unknowable. In a letter addressed to a woman who wrote historical novels, Henry James pointed out (very courteously) what appeared to him the essential impossibility of her activity:

You may multiply the little facts that can be got from pictures and documents, relics and prints as much as you like - the real thing is almost impossible to do, and in its essence the whole effect is as nought: I mean the invention, the representation of the old CONSCIOUSNESS, the soul, the sense, the horizon, the vision of individuals in whose minds half the things that make ours, that make the modern world, were non-existent. You have to think with your modern apparatus a man, a woman - or rather fifty - whose own thinking was intensely otherwise conditioned, you have to simplify back by an amazing tour de force - and even then it's all humbug.

What gives such an overwhelming power to this book is precisely the fact that it is the "real thing", in all its mystery.

One last word, regarding the Christian king (and his subjects, all converted in one week and baptised en masse): the Western navigators had vested much hope in him, yet did not seem particularly surprised by his eventual betrayal - after all, Christian kings in Europe did not behave differently. There are still in Indonesia - precisely in the Moluccas area - some old Christian communities whose fidelity is all the more heroic that it is maintained against a tide of Islamist persecution. It is remarkable to learn that the Jesuits welcome more novices there than they do in their neighbouring Australian province. One can almost foresee the day when Indonesian missionaries might be sent to preach the Gospel in a largely de-Christianised Australia ...

As the Portuguese say: God writes straight with crooked strokes.

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