Rat-a-tat-tat

Magellan suffered the death of a thousand cuts. Indigenous Filipinos still celebrate his death at the hands of Chief Lapu Lapu’s native fighters—some describe the captain-general cynically today as the Philippines’ first tourist. When I say a thousand cuts, I mean it—the Portuguese explorer was literally filleted. The Venetian Antonio Pigafetta, who chronicled the voyage and worshiped Magellan, wrote:

Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.

Magellan believed that a few dozen men armed with medieval weapons could defeat a vastly greater number of natives armed with iron-tipped bamboo spears—he put this theory to the test on the beach at Mactan, as fifty Spaniards faced off three divisions totaling one thousand five hundred men—bad odds. The reason for the battle was simple—Lapu Lapu understandably refused to recognize Charles I of Spain (later the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) as his seigneur.

The killing of Fernão de Magalhães by the Mactan people.

After the great mariner fell, the natives proceeded to hack him to bits, displaying and hanging Magellan’s body parts for days after the battle.

The perfectly stupid death of the captain-general, who refused help from two potential native allies—Rajah Humabon from the island of Limasawa, and Chief Datu Zula, from Mactan itself—ended his great adventure.

To quote from the T-Shirt on a Russian girl in Bali last February, ‘bad choices make good stories.’

The merit of the circumnavigation voyage lies in the parts of the world that were hitherto undiscovered—the navigation around the tip of South America, and the Pacific crossing. The rest had all been done by the Portuguese. Vasco da Gama crossed the Atlantic in 1497 on his way to India and subsequent navigators pushed further east through the Indian Ocean, reaching Thailand and then Singapore in the early XVIth century—Afonso de Albuquerque conquered Malacca in 1511.

In essence, three Portuguese captains closed the planetary circle, if you can accept that the stretch between the Philippines and Malacca is not a big ask. In any case, the Strait of Malacca is called that for a reason—it’s narrow (duh)—and any vessel sailing east in those waters has Sumatra visibly to starboard.

The width of the strait is about thirty nautical miles, or ten leagues, so the Portuguese sailors who discovered Malacca by definition also discovered the largest island in Indonesia.

Once Sumatra is at hand, simple line of sight navigation takes you to Java and Bali, and onward to the eastern end of the Indonesian chain. In Bahasa, the word for east is timur, so the former Portuguese colony of East Timor is actually called east-east.

In 1514, a man named Rui de Brito Patalim, captain of Malacca, wrote to Afonso de Albuquerque, governor-general of the Indies, to describe the discovery of East Timor—the letter was passed on to King Manuel I of Portugal.

Digital copy of the 1514 letter written by Rui Patalim announcing the discovery of East Timor.

Given that (a) Magellan reached the Philippines in 1521; (b) the Portuguese had sailed west across Asia to the eastern tip of Indonesia by 1514; and (c) Mactan is at longitude 123.96 E but East Timor is at 125.73 E, i.e. further east; the case is unequivocally made for the Portuguese circumnavigation of the globe—quod erat demonstrandum. QED.

I had a math teacher when I was seventeen who translated QED as ‘quite easily done’. She used to announce this regularly in a broad Yorkshire accent, which caused much mirth. Aye.

What is not QED is the Pacific crossing in three naus, or carracks, even though Magellan profited from the southeast trades, just as his Portuguese brethren did when sailing back from the Cape of Good Hope and riding the Benguela current up to the equator.

Pacific it might have been, after the thirty-eight day crossing of the Strait of Magellan, which the man himself had named Estreito (or Estrecho in Spanish, if I must) de Todos (l)os Santos.

As we all know, Magalhães christened the Pacific Ocean, but due to minor geographic misconceptions dating back to Ptolemy, Pierre d’Ailly, and more recently Columbus, the Portuguese explorer thought the crossing would take a couple weeks, perhaps less—it took ninety-nine days, as celebrated in the Hendrix tune.

As per the standard playbook, the expedition ran out of food pretty early on, even though they had stocked up on penguin meat in South America. Following tradition, the crew ate anything they could get their hands on, including the leather off shoes and tools.

Rats were prized. Caught, sold, and eaten. Not only were rats nutritious, but by this time scurvy was widespread among the sailors—like dogs, rats can synthesize vitamin C, which is why you don’t give your pooch a fruit smoothie and those meeces always have a glint in their eye.

Rat vitamin C is just as yummy as the one in lemonade, and it went a little way to reduce the scourge of scurvy—by then, rats were a bit thin on the ground.

Magellan and his officers didn’t get scurvy—they thought they were made of sterner stuff than the common sailors, and therefore remained in good health, presumably without nibbling Jerry.

The reason is much simpler, but no one ever made the link.

Every morning, the officers were given a ration of quince—a little something the Portuguese call marmelada.

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

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