Tag Archives: Magellan

September 26, 1519 – Magellan’s Fleet Arrives in the Canary Islands

In late summer, trade winds blow from Spain to the Canary Islands. This made the Canaries a frequent stop for mariners, including Columbus, headed to the New World. Magellan’s fleet arrived there after six days. The short voyage served as a shakedown cruise for the ships’ crew, most of whom had never sailed together before. Some of the grumetes, apprentice seamen, had never been out of sight of land.

Magellan spent three days at the port of Santa Cruz on Tenerife refilling his water barrels, loading more firewood, and purchasing salt cod. He also hired more men. Recruitment was a challenge for Magellan. The Spanish bureaucrats favored staffing their ships sailing to the New World. The multinational composition of Magellan’s crew is testimony to the recruiting challenges he faced. Apart from Spaniards and Portuguese, sailing with him were Italians from Lombardy to Venice to Sicily, Greeks, Frenchmen, an Englishman, a Norwegian, Dutchmen, an Irishman, and an Austrian as well as a few slaves or servants from India and Africa.

Also aboard was Magellan’s slave Enrique, purchased in Malaya seven years earlier at age fourteen, and listed as an interpreter. Once in the Philippines he played a major role in the armada’s fate. Interestingly, Enrique received a handsome salary of 1500 maravedis per month. That’s more than an able-bodied seaman and as much as a skilled cooper or gunner. Since he appears to have had a close relationship with Magellan, perhaps the money was indeed his.

Leaving Santa Cruz, the ships sailed to Monte Rojo on Tenerife, where they spent four days loading pitch. This prosaic substance was essential for keeping the ships seaworthy. At least twice during their voyage they careened the fleet, replaced rotten planks, and caulked seams.

An ominous visit occurred in Monte Rojo that foreshadowed the problems what would plague the fleet over the next year. A caravel arrived bearing a message from Magellan’s father-in-law. It warned him that the Spanish captains intended to kill him and take over the armada. Magellan fashioned a diplomatic reply despite diplomacy not being his strongest trait. Unfortunately, the warning was all too justified.

At midnight on October 3rd, the fleet raised anchor and sailed south.

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Wednesday, September 21, 1519 – Magellan Sails!

magellan-kindle-113016Five hundred years ago on this day the Armada of the Moluccas sailed from Spain on what was to be one of the epic voyages of the Age of Exploration. Five ships sailed with over two hundred and seventy men commanded by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan. Its objective? To find a westward route to the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the sole source of cloves in the world.

The Portuguese Vasco da Gama’s pioneering route around Africa to India in 1497-1499 had reshaped the lucrative spice trade from a land and water route ending in Venice to a water route to Portugal. To date this had brought more riches to Portugal than Columbus’s discovery of the New World had to Spain. The ambitious King Charles of Spain, recently elected Holy Roman Emperor, coveted the potential gold a new route to the Spice Islands could bring.

Magellan had years of experience in the Portuguese spice trade and for a long time had dreamt of this expedition. Failing to convince his own king to commission the fleet, he successfully captured the imagination of King Charles and signed a contract with the young sovereign in early 1518. Magellan spent eighteen months purchasing and overhauling the ships, meticulously loading them with food, supplies, and trade goods, and recruiting a crew. This was done while hampered by suspicious Spanish bureaucrats.

It all sounded good. However, even Magellan didn’t knew how to get around the New World to the Spice Islands. Also, Balboa, after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, had sighted a new ocean. How far across this ocean were the Spice Islands? Consensus was that they weren’t far. This last assumption was to almost doom the expedition.

However, a more immediate problem would first arise: the flawed command structure of the fleet. On the one side was Magellan and his crusty veterans of the Portuguese spice trade. Opposing him stood three Spanish captains plotting to displace him. Between them stood the majority of the crew, men simply trying to stay alive.

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Magellan’s Fleet is about to Sail (Five Hundred Years Ago.)

Magellan_1810_engravingJune, 1519. Final preparations are underway for the sailing of Magellan’s fleet to find a route to the Molucca Islands, the sole source of cloves in the world. Over a year earlier, on March 22, 1518, the Portuguese Magellan signed an agreement with young King Charles of Spain to pioneer the route. Five ships purchased in Cádiz were towed up river to Seville, and there fully refurbished. Francisco Albo, first mate of the flagship Trinidad, works by Magellan’s side on the myriad of details necessary for a successful expedition.

Things haven’t gone smoothly. Officials of the Casa de Contratación de las Indies, which oversees Magellan’s expedition, spend as much time on their own illicit dealings as readying and provisioning the fleet. Nonetheless, Magellan is only months away from sailing. Manning the fleet is a special concern. Portuguese/Spanish rivalry has led to severe restrictions on the number of Portuguese on the fleet. Cliques within the Casa want it manned by Spaniards, but recruiting Spanish sailors isn’t easy. The plague has produced manpower shortages in Spain, and with the discoveries of gold in the New World, it’s more attractive to sign on to sail there than on some unknown route to a place a sailor has never heard of and under command of a foreigner. As a result, Magellan’s fleet will sail with a dysphoria from across Europe, including men from Norway, England, France, and Greece as well as a host of Italians.

More ominously, jockeying for the fleet’s final command posts is in process. Magellan ends up saddled with several mistrustful Spanish captains with no sea experience. That sets the stage for next year’s mutiny in Patagonia and later dire consequences.

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Magellan’s Navigator’s Sales Hit a Record

January was my best month ever for Magellan’s Navigator. Thank you readers!

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Many Thanks to My Readers of Magellan’s Navigator

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Writing is scary. You spend months conceiving, writing, and editing your book. Quite frankly, you aren’t sure how good it is when you are finished. Then you publish it and wait for a reaction…and it is so wonderful when readers like your book, as has happened with Magellan’s Navigator. It has recently gotten some great reviews on Amazon and Goodreads. Thank you reviewers for taking the time to share your thoughts. Also, each month’s sales have surpassed the previous month as more readers learn about Magellan’s Navigator.

The next book of Albo’s ‘memoirs’ will be of his piloting a Spanish galley in the Mediterranean against the ships of the infamous Barbary pirate Barbarossa. Albo also finds a little romance that’s almost as dangerous as Barbarossa is.

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QUINCE PRESERVES: MAGELLAN’S ANTIDOTE FOR SCURVY?

quince marmeladaScurvy took its deadly toll on every long voyage during the age of exploration. Twenty years before Magellan left Spain, Vasco da Gama lost over half his men to scurvy on his return voyage from India. In comparison, Magellan lost only eleven percent of his crew when sailing across the immense Pacific Ocean.

Many authors I have read claim quince preserves accounted for Magellan’s low losses to scurvy. Quince preserves were a medicinal item during the Renaissance, as opposed to a tasty accompaniment to hardtack. Magellan’s quince preserves or marmelada probably were not like grocery store cherry or blueberries preserves. Instead, it was more likely the aged quince marmelada still sold today in Portugal, which has a firm texture. (Please see the accompanying photograph of quince marmelada purchased by my wife last year in Portugal.) Quince in this form should have stood up well to the rigors of Magellan’s long voyage. We know Magellan still had his quince preserves after sailing across the Pacific and reaching the Philippines as he gave it to the sick brother of the Cebu rajah per Antonio Pigafetta in his book Magellan’s Voyage. That Magellan still had the preserves confirms that he considered it medicine, as the crew consumed anything remotely edible in the long voyage across the Pacific Ocean.

Quince preserves has only about a third the vitamin C as citrus fruit, but it still packs enough punch to ward off scurvy. The importance Magellan attributed to quince can be measured by the 5,779 maravedis he spent on it in Seville, as compared to the 23,037 maravedis he spent on hundreds of pounds of beans. Did quince account for the relative healthiness of Magellan’s crew?

It probably helped, but a deep dive into the data gives us a better answer.

Deaths for all reasons because of the Pacific transit were as follows*:

Trinidad                                                     4 of 60-70       6%

Victoria                                                    14 of 45-52     29%

Concepcion                                                1 of 44-52       2%

Total                                                            19 of 174      11%.

These figures raise several questions. First, the bulk of the deaths are on the Victoria. Furthermore, these deaths started a month after leaving the strait, while scurvy usually takes three months to develop. The fleet took 94 days from raising anchor in the Straits of Magellan to landfall on Guam, where fresh food was procured. So, the fatalities on the Trinidad and Concepcion are as might be expected, but why was the Victoria so savaged by scurvy and why did in occur so soon?

The key can be found in Pigafetta’s book, where we learn the Victoria spent two weeks searching the Straits of Magellan for the San Antonio, which had defected back to Spain. Meanwhile, the other two ships spent some of that time anchored in the “Bay of Sardines.” There Pigafetta says, “…we found…a very sweet herb called appio, of which there is also some of the same sort that is bitter. And this herb grows near springs, and (because we had nothing else) we ate of it for several days.” Appio is believed to be a wild celery rich in vitamin C.

Mystery solved. Those aboard the Trinidad and Concepcion had ample vitamin C stored in their bodies on leaving the strait, except for a few finicky eaters, like the Englishman Andrew of Bristol, who died soon after leaving Guam. The last fresh food eaten by the crewmen of the Victoria, on the other hand, was over a month earlier before Magellan even entered the strait. By landfall at Guam, 132 days at sea had elapsed for these men, and so the terrible death toll on the Victoria.

Perhaps the quince preserves had a role in preventing scurvy, but it was not the deciding factor during the crossing of the Pacific. In my novel Magellan’s Navigator, I built in a role for quince on the return voyage to Spain. My protagonist Albo remains scurvy free until he exhausts his last supply of quince marmelada. Soon afterward, his teeth start to loosen.

*The exact crew size of each ship is uncertain because around twenty-two of the crew of the wrecked Santiago transferred to these three ships. Some deaths occurred weeks after arriving in the Philippines, but are documented as being from effects of the Pacific transit

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