Friday, June 30, 2017

Around the world in three years

The first circumnavigation of the world was a Spanish expedition headed up by a Portuguese commander.

The Portuguese was Ferdinand Magellan and his Spanish financed ships left Seville on 10th of August, 1519: Magellan had five ships -Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago.

Magellan's goal was to find a westward route to Spice or Maluku islands to reinforce Spain's territorial claim there. He never intended to go all the way round. The idea was to find a passage into the “South Sea” that avoided the treacherous Cape of Good Hope and Portuguese ships.

Crossing the Atlantic was, by 1519, reasonably routine but as the ships sailed down the eastern side of South America and made landfall at the town we now know as Rio de Janeiro, they were right on the limit of the known western world. I have used modern names but all these places were new, and unnamed, to Magellan and his crews.

They sailed along the Brazilian and Uruguayan coasts and reached the River Plate. Magellan had no maps, and didn't know it was a river estuary. He turned to starboard. The detour cost him three months. Worse than that, the futility of the journey caused a mutiny among his cold, hungry and demoralised men. Magellan was no softy and he put down the mutiny mercilessly. But the delay meant that it was now autumn and Magellan had to wait seven months for the weather to improve. Soon after starting out Magellan lost one of his ships when the Santiago ran aground and sank.

On the 21st of October 1520 the four remaining boats made another right turn hoping to find a route linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. On that Spring day nobody could be sure that there was a way out of the mountains that surrounded them. On the San Antonio the sailors lost heart, they rebelled and they turned for home taking lots of the expedition's supplies with them. It took the three remaining ships a month to clear the straits. That same 570km passage, now named the Straits of Magellan, between Chile and Tierra del Fuego, avoids sailing around the southernmost tip of South America. It was to be used by shipping for the next 400 years until the opening of the Panama canal.

In November of 1520, as they finally sailed into open water, the sea was millpond calm. The sailors called it pacifico, a word that in Spanish and Portuguese means peaceful. The Pacific Ocean.

The remaining ships sailed and sailed and sailed – their fresh water was tainted, their food was exhausted, they ate rats and even shoe leather to try to stay alive. When they finally found the Philippines it must have seemed like paradise. Magellan claimed the islands for Spain.

Magellan was killed on the Philippines when he chose the losing side in a tribal dispute. His body was never recovered. There were more battles and ambushes whilst the Europeans were on the islands. Leadership of the fleet changed hands several times but, eventually, the expedition pushed on to their original goal, the nearby Spice Islands. The Concepción didn't go with them – there were so few sailors to sail her and she was so riddled with woodworm that she was abandoned and burned.

The Victoria and the Trinidad needed repairs before they were seaworthy. The idea was to refit, load up with immensely valuable spices and head back to Spain. The Trinidad, now commanded by Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa took longer to repair than the Victoria. When the Trinidad eventually put to sea she headed back east. She didn't make it. She was captured and destroyed by Portuguese ships.

The Victoria, commanded by the Juan Sebastián Elcano, left before the Trinidad. She headed west, into uncharted waters. Despite sickness and horrid conditions on board she rounded the Cape of Good Hope and made it home, to Sanlucar de Barrameda, in September 1522. She completed the circumnavigation by sailing into Seville a couple of days later on September 8th. Just eighteen of her crew were still alive. One of them was Elcano. A Spanish captain on a Spanish ship

Those sailors never got their share of the sale of the cargo. The King kept the money as payment for the loss of his four ships. And Elcano? Well he died of scurvy on a later voyage to the Spice Islands but at least he got the Spanish Navy's tall ship training vessel named after him.

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