Magaland

You’ve been led astray by my title—a poor attempt at humor, as we watch the USA pitch and roll towards election day like the Trinidad, flagship of Fernão de Magalhães.

I’ve predicted over the last weeks that America will bid adieu to the orangutan on Nov 3rd, and nothing’s happened to change my mind. If anything, I’m more convinced now, with all debates done and a whopping fifty-six million votes already cast, compared to one hundred thirty-eight million in total in 2016 (58% of voters).

Of the fifty-six mil, 50% are registered democrats, 30% republicans, and 20% unaffiliated. Worst case, it’s fifty-fifty; best case? eighty-twenty. I’ll keep you posted, if you excuse the pun.

The US voter registration system differs from others. Some nations don’t need one—if you hold a national ID, as you would in Germany or Italy, then you’re automatically eligible to vote when you turn eighteen. But in the US, that isn’t the case, so you fill out a form. That form allows you to register as a democrat or republican, which gives you the right to vote in the primaries. Of course, just because you registered as a democrat doesn’t mean you’ll vote that way, but it is a general indicator.

Just in time to add a touch of mayhem to the race, comedian Baron Cohen released a movie pranking various aspects of US daily life, and showing Rudy Giuliani with ants in his pants.

That’s enough maga talk until after the election—let’s talk about the other maga—the one who sailed round the world. The Portuguese captain was called Magalhães—a man who provoked the wrath of King Manuel I of Portugal by sailing under the Spanish flag, but in fairness Manuel himself had treated the captain very poorly indeed, which created the conditions for Magellan to offer his services to Charles I of Spain.

Magellan was killed in the Philippines on April 27th, 1521, which has led to an argument about whether he circumnavigated the world—technically, since he died along the way, he did not.

His slave Henrique spoke the local Filipino language, which suggests he was a native of that region, although Portuguese documents describe him as a Malay from Malacca, originally from Sumatra.

Since Magellan purchased him in 1511 during the siege of Malacca—when Henrique was fourteen and the explorer was still fighting for his native country—that area of the world was already well known to the Portuguese.

Henrique sailed west back to Portugal after the siege, so National Geographic states that he qualifies as the first person to sail around the earth, albeit with a ten year gap—but of course, that logic also applies to Magellan, who sailed the western route with his slave from Malacca to Portugal between 1511-1512, so the only thing Magellan didn’t do was travel from the Philippines to Malacca—ten days’ plain sailing.

Magellan therefore deserves full credit, since the great feat of the expedition was to round the tip of South America and sail west across the Pacific, which was the missing link in circumnavigation.

The rest of the voyage home was difficult but not uncharted—line of sight navigation around Indonesia, including a stop at the Moluccas, which was the object of the expedition, and then the long trip southwest to the Cape of Good Hope, followed by the ‘torna-viagem’ discovered by Bartolomeu Dias and Vasco da Gama.

The armada sailed a more southerly route between Indonesia and Australia, then took advantage of the south equatorial current, a feature of all three major oceanic gyres in the southern hemisphere. By doing so, it avoided the pitfalls of the Indian Ocean monsoon, which killed half of Vasco da Gama’s crew.

The completion of the trip by Juan Sebastian Elcano will have pleased the Portuguese captain’s Spanish enemies, who were both numerous and powerful.

Most distinguished among these was Juan Rodríguez de Fonseca, bishop of Burgos—he had been the chaplain of Isabel la Católica and managed the expeditions of Columbus. By the time Magellan arrived in Spain, Fonseca was the head of the Casa de Contratación in Seville, where I spent some happy days researching Clear Eyes.

Fonseca’s son—sorry, ‘nephew’—was forced onto Magellan as a crew member, along with many other Spaniards whose single purpose was to sabotage the voyage. When the whole business came to a head in Argentina, after the five ships has crossed the Atlantic using the great circle route discovered by Gama, the small but fearless Magellan was confronted with a mutiny of vast proportions, involving the captains of three other vessels.

The Victoria, Concepción, and San Antonio formed the base of the revolt, which took place at Puerto San Julian, located 49o south of the equator—the equivalent of Vancouver in the northern hemisphere.

Their captains underestimated the iron will of the Portuguese navigator—one was killed and two captured, as Magellan displayed a combination of courage and subterfuge matched only by his ruthlessness when the time came to punish the mutineers.

A XVIth century engraving provides an allegorical image of Magellan’s journey. The image appears in a NatGeo piece that questions whether the explorer can be credited with circumnavigating the globe.

This benign and somewhat psychedelic picture of the voyage—all the humanoids have their private parts concealed, an eagle pounces on an elephant in the background, a cherub ringed by St. Elmo’s fire hovers above the captain, and Magellan himself seems to be using a pair of dividers as a microphone to deliver a Karaoke tune—belies the barbary inflicted on the Spanish captains.

Mendoza, master of the Victoria, was fortunate because he was already dead, but that didn’t stop Magellan meting out the same torment as he inflicted on Gaspar Quesada, captain of the Concepción, who was very much alive.

Both were hung, drawn, and quartered. The common practice in the XVIth century was to lower the victim from the gibbet while moribund, stretch him to partly detach the limbs, and then quarter the body. Prior to drawing the half-dead Quesada, his abdomen was opened, and his entrails were removed and burned in front of him—this was before the days of post-traumatic stress.

Both corpses then had head and limbs removed—these were boiled with herbs for preservation so they might be displayed to the crew.

…In the immortal words of the French revolution during the guillotine period, ‘pour encourager les autres…’

The India Road, Atmos Fear, Clear Eyes, and Folk Tales For Future Dreamers. QR links for smartphones and tablets.

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