Magellan’s Geodrama

September 15th, 2013 by

“Make no small plans, for they have no power to stir the soul.”
Niccolo Machiavelli 1469-1527

In 1519, the Magellan expedition left the west coast of Spain with five ships and approximately 270 souls in pursuit of a westward route to the Spice Islands. Three years later, one ship with 18 Europeans, a handful of Malays and a hold full of cloves and nutmeg, worth their weight in gold, arrived back in Spain.

It was spices that got the earth circumnavigated. Nutmeg, mace and cinnamon were then what crude oil is today; a means to wealth and power. (Maybe 500 years from now the slimy crude will be as valuable as a spice rack from Wal-Mart.) Spices, along with the human desire for fame and fortune (power and greed) and evangelical zeal spurred the start of the Age of Exploration.

Magellan was a short, swarthy fellow who walked with a limp from an old war wound, sustained while fighting in the service of the King of Portugal in Morocco. He was a driven man, and so he approached the king and queen with his proposal to find a western route to the Spice Islands.

Columbus, after all, got distracted. His failed pitch to find a back way to the Spice Islands led to Magellan’s. The King and Queen didn’t seem to mind. It would fall to their grandson to sponsor the successful expedition.

The expedition Magellan organized had in its ranks Spaniards, Portuguese, Irish, English, French, Italians, Flemings, Greeks, Orientals, Africans and a Moor. Even patron saints were listed on the crew manifest, the Holy Catholic Church got to collect their pay.

This “Fleet of Babel” sailed into the annals of history. The expedition had intrigue and mutiny, desertions, storms, shipwreck, starvation and disease. Fighting, dining, copulating, kidnapping, killing, trading and collaborating with locals along the way was the order of the day.

The Santiago went down first; she was driven onto the coastal rocks of southern Argentina by a storm just outside the entrance to the Santa Cruz estuary.

The San Antonio was the next to leave the fleet. Her crew mutinied against the loyal Captain Mesquita, in the straits while on a reconnoiter assignment. They turned tail and took the big provision ship running back home to Spain.

The Captain General, himself, wouldn’t complete the circle. When the expedition approached the central Philippines in March of 1521 from the Pacific Ocean for the first time, Magellan’s slave Enrique, much to everyone’s surprise, could converse fluently with the Visayan speaking occupants of the pirogue paddling out to greet them.

Enrique’s speaking ability provided Magellan with an interpreter to forge an alliance with Rajah Humabon, the ruler of Cebu. This alliance led to a mass baptismal of Rajah Humabon and thousands of Philippine natives by Magellan and his fleet chaplain, Pedro de Valderrama.

This alliance also led to Magellan’s death on April 27th after he injected himself into a local squabble between Humabon and a local chief named Lapu Lapu. National pride, and evangelical zeal got the best of him; he was certain God was on his side.

After Magellan’s death, Humabon and his men turned on the surviving officers of Magellan’s fleet leaving only enough men to sail two of the three remaining expedition ships. The Conception was scuttled and burned to the waterline. After cramming their holds with cloves, the Trinidad and the Victoria sailed south.

The Trinidad tried going home the way they came and failed. The Victoria foundered back to Spain going west, wallowing its way to close the circle.

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