Beyond the horizon

Long ago, Greek scholars had calculated that the world was round, and even predicted its dimensions fairly precisely. Nobody, however, had dared to venture far out into the ocean, beyond the horizon, to open a new route to the riches on offer in Asia.

The future America was already known to the Vikings, who had reached Labrador and even the coastline of Nova Scotia with their longboats, but they paid little attention to the New World. The east coast of this new-found land – or Newfoundland, as it eventually came to be known – was not identified until the arrival of Venetian explorer John Cabot on June 24th, 1497, commissioned by King Henry VII of England In the meantime, however, Christopher Columbus had discovered the Caribbean on October 12th, 1492.

The land that emerged from the horizon beyond the bows of La Pinta was not India, the country they were looking for. Instead, they had discovered a whole New World – a barrier blocking the path of boats trying to reach the spice-rich Maluku islands. The discovery of America led to an explosion in the number of expeditions, which travelled to even more distant lands. The Spanish and Portuguese shared the spoils, as they sought to Christianise the New World.

The spice trail

In the 15th century, sailors were extraordinary men: often scholars, sometimes noble, but most importantly, experienced. First, the Venetians ventured to the Pacific, since all the riches from China, India and distant islands passed through the Mediterranean. Next, the Genoese broke the monopoly, then the Portuguese were the first to sail around the Arab territories to reach Black Africa. The Spanish also got in on the act, conquering land across an ever-growing world. Cartographers, astrologers, cosmographers, and, of course, sailors brought honour, fortune and recognition to Seville or Lisbon. But the reality of these events was very different to the idealised portrait painted by Renaissance artists. The piercing gazes on the paintings hide strong characters fuelled by ambition, money, promotion, stubbornness, and even vengeance, though their wrinkles, carved by the ocean spray, also reveal a touch of humanity and adventure.

For the sailors of the day, the Moluccas (between New Guinea and Borneo), the Philippines and Malaysia were a Promised Land flowing with pepper, cloves, cinnamon, ginger, chillies, saffron and other spices that had become essential seasoning for the game dishes of the late Middle Ages. Not to mention the abundance of perfumes, which were useful to attract the favour of women, as well as incense and balms used for religious ceremonies. European food was dull, bland, insipid and tasteless... The black gold of the day took the shape of a peppercorn. Maritime traffic, however, was in the hands of the Arabs and the Persians, who controlled the hubs of Hormuz, Baghdad, Aden and Alexandria. A sea route opened to the west: but all Columbus found was a New World. To the east, the only alternative was to follow Vasco da Gama’s footsteps and sail around Africa before crossing the Indian Ocean. Nevertheless, since the Earth was round, so was the sea…

The Cantino planisphere (1502), or map, toured the courts of Europe. A sea lay between China and America, but how large was it, and more importantly, how did you sail around this new continent? Vasco Núñez de Balboa was the first European to see the “Mar del Sur” (i.e. the Pacific Ocean) at the other side of the Isthmus of Panama. Now all they needed was to find a passage. Ice impeded navigation to the north, but what about the south? ?

Convincing the kings

Several decades earlier, it had taken Christopher Columbus a long time to convince the ruling elites. King John II of Portugal rejected Columbus’s plans, while Queen Isabella of Castile spent many years changing her mind one way then the other, before finally lending her approval and her fleet to the intrepid Genoese explorer. Ferdinand Magellan was primarily a soldier, a warrior and a sailor who was part of the great armada that left Lisbon on March 25th, 1505 to extend the influence of the Portuguese empire from Madagascar to Calicut and from Mombasa to Malacca. He became friends with Francisco Serrão during countless battles they fought against the Malays. However, Serrão reached the Moluccas first and suggested to Magellan that the sea continued east, beyond the Asian islands.

Their compatriot and astrologer Rui Faleiro convinced Serrão he had found a foolproof method to work out the longitude: the difference in the azimuth between the pole star, indicating the true north, and the compass, indicating magnetic north, could be used to calculate the meridian. But the theory was total nonsense! Ferdinand Magellan also had maps and, as Las Casas wrote in 1518, a “well-painted globe showing the entire world”. Dom Manuel of Portugal and the Algarves dismissed the requests of the navigator, who instead went to conquer the Kingdom of Spain! After several interventions by the noblemen of the court, Magellan met the young, future Charles V of Spain, who offered Magellan everything he needed for the expedition.

Trust and uncertainty

On September 20th, 1519, five boats left Spain: the Victoria, the Concepción, the San Antonio, the Santiago and the Trinidad, under the command of Magellan. 237 men embarked in Seville and four more joined them in the Canary Islands, which they left on October 3rd. Two months later, they moored up in the bay of Rio de Janeiro. From there, they commenced their descent south. On January 10th, 1520, the fleet entered the River Plate, a gulf previously explored by Spaniard Juan Díaz de Solis, before it was taken over by natives “in this land of cannibals”. Could this huge opening be the famous passage to the Mar del Sur discovered by Núñez de Balboa?

No such luck! Ferdinand Magellan criss-crossed the gulf with his ships in search of the strait drawn by Martin Behaim, who was on board. The idea of a passage took a major blow, especially as the other Spanish captains were strongly suspicious of this adventurer, who was rough, boorish, talkative, self-assured, and more significantly, Portuguese! Moreover, with the southern hemisphere summer coming to an end, bad weather and strong winds were the order of the day. But nothing could hold back the dogged Captain General, and the armada sailed further down the coast, reaching the San Matías Gulf on February 24th. Cue another failure. Still further south, they reached San Julián Bay, where they made some incredible discoveries: “a giant dressed in animal skin,” the first “Pathagon”, a name believed to be inspired by a medieval novel.

A forced five-month stop in the wintry weather of the Furious Fifties made the crew crabby and the commanders mutineer-like. Luis de Mendoza was stabbed to death. The ships continued to 51°S, anchoring at Santa Cruz Bay on August 26th, 1520 and staying for two months! They left Santa Cruz on October 18th, nearly 400 days after their triumphant departure from Seville, later discovering a snowy promontory, Cape Virgenes, and the entrance to a strait.

Calm sea

In this virgin territory, the Patagonians burned fires to signal the presence of this incredible event, hence the name Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire)! Only four of the five ships plunged into this labyrinth of canals and fjords, with the captain of the San Antonio deciding he had had enough and returning to Spain without telling Ferdinand de Magellan! The latter continued his voyage, and on Wednesday November 28th, 1520, “we left the strait and entered the Pacific Ocean” (Pigafetta). The new ocean was so “pacific” that they did not reach the Philippines until March 1521!

Ten years earlier, Magellan had bought a Malay slave for a few maravedis during a military expedition to Malacca (Singapore). When he reached the Philippines, he discovered that his slave, whom he had rechristened Enrique (because he was bought on Saint Henry’s Day), understood the language of the Filipino natives! This made tThe Malay the first person to travel around the world. Margellan, meanwhile, was unable to complete his tour. He decided to spend time teaching a local king, and he and his entourage were massacred off Sebu, on Mactan Island, on April 27th, 1521.

Only the Victoria ship, commanded by Sebastian del Cano, reached Seville on September 7th, 1522, having stopped in the Moluccas to load the holds with spices, then at the Cape of Good Hope, before making a final stopover in Cape Verde to fill up on water and fresh food. They spent seven months at sea avoiding the fleet of the Portuguese king Dom Manuel, who was sent in search of these Spanish mercenaries who had landed in his Asian kingdom! Antonio Pigafetta, the journal writer for the expedition, and seventeen other sailors also made their first circumnavigation: “From the day when we left this bay of San Lucar until our return thither, we reckoned that we had run more than fourteen thousand four hundred and sixty leagues, and we had completed going round the earth from East to West.” After three years at sea, including stopovers, the first tour around the world was complete.

Copyright of the illustrations
Le voyage de Magellan (1519-1522)
La relation d’Antonio Pigafetta & autres témoignages (édition Chandeigne)