It took guts... and often everything else

Say, is that battered wreck the Victoria? Hip hip hooray. Where’s the boss? Oh dear. Dead on the other side of the world. So why the cheering? Because the Victoria was, on September 6 of 1522, the first ship ever to complete a trip all the way around the world.

We call it the Magellan expedition. And perhaps rightly so, even though he personally expired part-way through, like most of those who set out with him. In Magellan’s case the cause of death, on April 27, 1521, was being repeatedly hit by sharp things by Lapu-Lapu’s warriors in the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines. But the voyage was his idea after all so it makes sense to call it the Magellan expedition rather than the Elcano expedition for the last captain standing, on the deck of Victoria on September 6 1522.

The expedition, and Magellan’s fate, certainly indicate the courage it took to be part of the so-called Voyages of Discovery. This name has come in for much derision in recent years on the grounds that what Europeans discovered already had people living in it. Whaddaya mean, you “discovered” my house? I’ve been here for years. But they did discover much about how one part of the world connected to another and how to get there half-alive that was unsuspected by, say, Lapu-Lapu, who had no more idea there was a Europe than he did that anybody could possibly object to chronic low-grade warfare as a way of life. (Incidentally he’s now a national hero in the Philippines with several monuments and his image is used by the Philippine National Police and the Bureau of Fire Protection. But virtually nothing is known about his life including what his real name was or when and how he died.)

One problem with the PC fuss about “Voyages of Discovery” is that it tends to whitewash the conduct of anyone on the wrong end of them. The Noble Savage myth lives on, with suitably updated terminology. But the inhabitants of Mactan, or of North America, would cheerfully have conquered and mistreated everybody else if they’d been able to. The Europeans, in fact, had more qualms about it than most, part of the dynamism of an open society that explains why it was them “discovering” the Philippines not the other way around. But I digress.

The point is that taking part in these things took incredible bravery whatever its other qualities. If you’re wondering why the Victoria, an 85-ton “carrack,” whatever that might be, was the first ship, in the singular, to get all the way around the globe, it’s because the Concepcion, Santiago and Magellan’s flagship Trinidad were all shipwrecked or scuttled while San Antonio deserted during the horrendous trip through the “Strait of Magellan” between the South American mainland and Tierra del Fuego. I like the chutzpah of deserting with a ship instead of from one. And I do understand that discretion is sometimes the better part of valour. Though of course you could stay in Seville and die too.

Magellan started out with roughly 265 men. Victoria staggered home with just 18 of her original 42 or perhaps 43 although some of the others, from that ship and the expedition generally, deserted rather than taking the standard route of dying, from disease, wounds or by execution after a mutiny in Patagonia, including the slow capital punishment method of marooning the captain of San Antonio, an accountant by profession, who was dumped on some desolate island along with a priest and some biscuits and never heard from again. No. I would assume not.

After the Battle of Maclan in which Magellan perished, the survivors were invited to a banquet by the guy they’d been fighting for, Rajah Humabon of Cebu, who naturally had most of them poisoned or otherwise killed including both the new leaders. You’re welcome.

The pilot of Victoria somehow survived, and became its captain until he was deposed. He doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia entry of his own, but his name does not feature on the short list of those still alive when Victoria limped into Seville Harbour and the pages of history. From which she limped out again in 1570, vanishing with all hands somewhere in the Atlantic.

At least they built a replica in 1992 and another in 2011. Because you do have to admire the guts it took to get all the way around the world or die trying. Even if all else being equal you’d rather admire it from the dock than the deck.

So long, guys. Good luck with, you know, the typhoons, dysentery, treacherous allies, rocks, currents and stuff.

P.S. A carrack turns out to be a three- or four-masted sailing ship, a mainstay of the Voyages of Discovery. All Magellan’s ships were carracks except Santiago which was a caravel, a nimble vessel with triangular or “lateen” sails.

It happened todayJohn Robson