Time: the new paradigm

The Journey Begins- In the days before quartz crystal clocks one of my jobs as third mate of an ocean going tramp was time officer. Whenever the old man decided to flog the clocks for a new time zone </a> I had to go around and alter the hands of every clock in the ship except the chronometer, which was kept in a locked cabinet on the bridge. Only the captain and I had a key. The chronometer was my responsibility. I had to wind it every day with seven turns of the key after receiving a radio time signal at noon Greenwich Mean Time. I recorded any error from GMT in a book called the rate book and analysed the rate of change, which was affected by variations in temperature as the ship steamed northwards or southwards.

The chronometer was the most important instrument on board. Without the chronometer shipwreck was a real possibility. It was the only means of determining the longitude. For many centuries sailors had been getting wrecked because they didn’t know where they were. The problem came to a climax in 1707 when four British warships were wrecked on the west coast of England with the loss of about 2000 men, one of the worst maritime disasters in history. The British government were so enlivened by this event that they offered a huge prize for anyone to solve the problem of longitude at sea. An amateur clock-maker named John Harrison won the prize but had to fight to actually collect the prize money and then only got part of it. Dava Sobel’s book Longitude tells the story.

Saint Augustine in the Middle Ages  asked himself “What is time? If no one asks me I understand the passage of time but am unable to explain it to he who asks.” In these posts I attempt to cast a light on the subject from a sailors viewpoint.


Time-the new paradigm

In the days before quartz crystal clocks one of my jobs as third mate of an ocean-going tramp was time officer. Whenever the old man decided to flog the clocks for a new time zone I had to go around and alter the hands of every clock in the ship except the chronometer. The chronometer was my responsibility. It was kept in a locked cabinet on the bridge and only the captain and I had a key. I had to wind it every day after receiving a radio time signal at noon Greenwich mean time. I recorded any divergence from GMT in a book and  analysed the rate of change . The rate could change depending on variations in temperature as the ship steamed northwards or southwards.

The chronometer was the most important instrument on board. Without the chronometer shipwreck was a real possibility. It was the only means of determining the ship’s longitude. For many centuries sailors had been wrecked because they didn’t know where they were, with only Sun, Moon and stars to guide them.  The problem came to a climax in 1707 when four British warships were wrecked on the west coast of England with the loss of about 2000 men; one of the worst maritime disasters in history.

The British government were so enlivened by this event that they offered a huge prize for anyone who could solve the problem of longitude at sea. An amateur clock-maker named John Harrison won the prize but he had to fight to actually collect the money, and then only got part of it. Dava Sobell’s  book Longitude tells the story.

The mystery of time has occupied the rest of my life. Saint Augustine in the Middle Ages asked himself “What is time? If nobody asks me I understand time but if someone asks  I cannot explain it to he who asks.”



Ferdinand Magellan and me(96)

First circumnavigation

The End

Pigafetta travelled back along the road to Valladolid to complete the circumnavigation of the world and try and make sense of it. Perhaps the most vivid memory was the image of the severed heads of Mendoza and Quesada impaled on spikes and staring sightlessly at the Patagonian wilderness. Writing his memoir from the journal so meticulously maintained brought back the nightmare of men wasting away to skeletons, slashing their gums and leaping over the side screaming with pain and madness. He recalled the childlike curiosity and gleeful laughter of naked people, savages, pagans and heathens making their first encounter with foreigners and perhaps paying for it with their lives. He mourned his pet giant, Paul, and their struggles to understand one another.

Along with Diogo Barbosa, Magellan’s father-in-law, he was riding in Cristóbal de Haro’s coach heading for a reception with Don Carlos. De Haro was the biggest investor in the Armada de Maluku and the king’s main creditor, subsidising the wars with the French. Despite the loss of four of the five ships, Victoria’s cargo of spices had returned a profit, although not enough to satisfy La Senora de Haro.

“If only the other four ships had come back full of cloves the profit would have been at least tenfold, as Magellan predicted,” she
“A tragedy, Senora,” Pigafetta agreed.

La Senora also had advice for Pigafetta’s memoir. She had got wind of another document on the voyage being prepared by a distant relative, Maximilian, natural son of the Bishop of Salzburg, The bishop had great influence with His Majesty and suggested that to receive a reward from the king Maximilian should write a story about El Cano being the first man to circumnavigate the world.
“El Cano is not the first man to circumnavigate the world,” Pigafetta said. “Henrique, the captain general’s slave is.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I know all that but Maximilian is a little too friendly with El Cano. El Cano contributed nothing to the expenses of the expedition; why should he partake in the profits?”

“I can only write the truth, Senora.”

“Ah, the truth. A wonderful thing, the truth. Wonderful. Just make sure El Cano does not get too big a slice of the profit.”

It appeared to Pigafetta that his diary was to become a political document and it contained no mention of El Cano, whom he despised for his participation in the Mutiny against Magellan and his piratical adventures in the South China Sea. So when he returned to the throne room in Valladolid where he had first encountered Ferdinand Magellan, his memoir was the only thing he had to offer.

“Your Majesty, I have no gold or precious things worthy of Your Honour, but pray you may accept a book written by my on hand , in which I set down all the things that happened to us day by day.”

“A book?” said the king.

“A book, Your Majesty, that the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time.”



Ferdinand Magellan and me (95)

world map

All the way round.

Eighteen emaciated men staggered ashore at the Dock of Mules three years after their departure, barefoot in their shirts and carrying lighted candles. Some recited the 23rd Psalm ‘yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death I will fear no evil…but others were unable to speak. Pigafetta could not control the tears leaking from his eyes and saw only a blur, heard only a babble, felt only the pain in his chest. The Hapsburg Eagle was a rag hanging from the masthead, sails hung in tatters from the yards and Victoria’s timbers were bleached and split.
News of their arrival had travelled up the river from Sanlùcar but the watching crowd was silent, not joyful. Some crossed themselves, some reached out as if to touch and women in black searched the faces for a husband, son or lover and, finding none, bit their bottom lips.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain



Ferdinand Magellan and me (94)


Cargo onboard

Rajah Almanzor of Tidore could hardly have been more different from Rajah Siripada of Brunei although both were Muslim kings. Where Siripada was aloof and withdrawn, Almanzor, wearing silk robes and a silk scarf on his head surmounted by a garland of flowers, came out to meet them in his royal prau.

“You have come to buy cloves. It is the only reason big ships come to my land but you are not Portuguese. You have different

“One of our friends who lives here is Portuguese,” Pigafetta said. “Francisco Serrano.”

The smile vanished and Almanzor glared at him.

“Serrano is dead. You should not have such friends.”

Pigafetta was shocked. Serrano, Magellan’s cousin, had been the reality of the almost mystical Spice Isles and a partner in the enterprise of the Armada de Moluccas. Over the next couple of weeks it became clear the Armada had blundered into a political situation as complex as the one in Cebu and Mactan, with all five of the islands rivalling one another. There was one Portuguese resident, Dom Pedro Affonso de Lorosa, who warned them not to get involved. Almanzor of the big smile had killed Serrano. Lorosa begged a passage home when the fleet sailed and was accepted.

Trading posts were set up ashore on Ternate and Tidore islands and the precious cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon began filling the holds in exchange for Turkish robes, Venetian glass, knives, scissors, Chinese porcelain, and jewel-studded weapons looted from junks in the Sulu Sea.

To celebrate the first slings of cargo coming aboard, Trinidad and Victoria fired their cannons. Men in the holds packed each sack into the smallest space, sweating in dusty gloom and often climbing out to breathe clean air and douse themselves with buckets of water.

With sailing day now in sight, riggers tended rigging, sailmakers inspected sails and patched where necessary, carpenters built extra pens for livestock and all worked towards the consummation of dreams of wealth and glory after so much pain. But, when Espinosa ordered the well to be sounded it was found she had about a metre of water in the bilge. The pumps were manned. Espinosa and Punzarol, the master, climbed down into the hold but couldn’t see anything. When Almanzor learned of the problem he ordered his boat’s crew over the side to search for a hole. They swam for about an hour, coming up for breath and spouting like whales but found no hole. Trinidad took on a list and was in danger of capsizing. The men on the pumps worked furiously, with sweat streaming from their bodies.

Clearly, the most likely cause of the leak was that, strained by the load, she had sprung the caulking out of her seams. In that case, the only remedy was to beach the ship and recaulk the hull, a job that would take weeks. Almanzor promised 250 carpenters to help with repairs but what if the Portuguese arrived before Trinidad was seaworthy.

Pigafetta was offered the option of staying with Trinidad or shifting to Victoria and he chose Victoria despite the risk of her falling in with Dom Manuel’s spiteful fleet. He said goodbye to Lorosa, a man he had come to like in their brief acquaintance, and shifted his precious diary and few other possessions across to the smaller Victoria, where he occupied an even more dismal cabin.
Of the 270 who had sailed from Seville, 43 departed the Spice Isles in Victoria together with 16 natives to help them work the ship. Trinidad, listing badly, fired a gun salute and Pigafetta raised his hand to say goodbye.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain


Ferdinand Magellan and me (93)

Magellan's armada

The Spice Isles

The armada was now well practiced in piracy. Usually, a few rounds of cannon fire was enough to subdue native craft but sometimes it was necessary to grapple and board them. As they blundered around half-starved in uncharted seas it was not only food they sought but also someone to show the way to the Spice Isles. They boarded one boat with a cargo of rice, coconuts, urns of palm oil and bags full of little black sticks with a strong scented smell. A man in the hold passed up a handful.
“What’s this?”

Pigafetta crushed one in his fingers, smelled it, tasted it, chewed it and said almost in wonder.

“Cloves. Espinosa, these are cloves. This ship has been to the Spice Isles.”

Espinosa tasted one for himself and broke into a smile.

“Black gold. Tell the captain if he shows the way to Maluku I will not sink his ship. If he refuses, I will sink his ship.
Pigafetta relayed the threat to the captain, who made no response.

“Tell him again.”

Still no response but then a young boy came forward and took the captain’s hand.
“Ah; your son?” Pigafetta asked.
With an almost imperceptible nod, the captain acknowledged this.
“Tell him if he does not show us the way I will take his son anyway.,” Espinosa said.
For the first time he got a reaction from the captain, who put his arm around his son’s shoulders.
“It is far.”
“How far?
“In my ship seven days. In your ship, I know not.”

Now at last the armada was put on a southerly course to skirt around the many hazards. To the east was the open sea and out of that sea a few days later came a great storm more ferocious than any yet.The spirit of St Elmo appeared at the masthead and they prayed to St Helen, St Clare and St Nicholas.The pilot prayed to to his god, Allah, and his son also and when the storm ended no one knew which god had saved them.

Although the sky cleared and the wind eased it stayed in the wrong direction and the ships could make no headway to the south, tacking back and forth. For a day and a night the pilot never left the deck, saying ‘Maluku’ and pointing into the eye of the wind that made his goal impossible. One time, as the ship approached the shore, requiring her to haul off yet again, he cried ‘Maluku,’ pointed to the south, gathered up his son on his back and leaped overboard. With his son clinging to his back he struck out for shore but his little son could not hold on and was lost to the sea and the pilot was seen no more.

On 6 November 1521, 27 months since leaving Seville, Trinidad and Victoria anchored off the Spice Isles – perfect conical shapes wearing hats of cloud. El Cano ordered the cannons fired for joy and all gave thanks to God. He also ordered the flag of Castile hoisted at the masthead to signify that Spain claimed possession.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain


Ferdinand Magellan and me (92)


Women aboard ship.

Carvalho was roundly criticised for the debacle of the attack on the local fleet and called upon Pigafetta for advice with his letter of apology.
“Dear Rajah,” he said, beginning his epistle out loud. “Is that the right way to address him do you think, Pigafetta?”

“Probably something more like ‘Most illustrious and venerated Son of Heaven, before whom kings tremble in awe of Your Majesty..” Pigafetta said, “or words to that effect.”

Before he was done, they heard a hail from the deck, indicating approach of a vessel and soon after one of the Greek seamen left ashore to set up the trading post, appeared in the doorway.
“Begging your pardon, Captain, I have a message from the Shahbanda.”


He says the rajah is not pleased. He says you have killed his people. He says the junk you captured belongs to his friend, the rajah of Luzon. Until you release it your officers, Espinosa and El Cano, will remain his guests.

Carvalho crumpled his letter, in its fifth draft, and buried his face in his hands. He had put a prize crew aboard the junk to which he laid claim and now he took a boat to get them off. He returned within the hour with the men-at-arms and also three slave girls. Pigafetta was astounded, and so was Master Andrew, the gunner, and others of the Council.

“Carvalho, why have you brought the girls?” Master Andrew asked.
“A present for Don Carlos. We shall turn them into Christians and take them back to Spain.”
“When did you become a missionary? I think you are more interested in their bodies than their souls.”
Mendez, the fleet accountant, raised the issue of primage. If Carvalho claimed primage on the girls as legitimate spoils of war their value should be assessed so the tax owing to the king could be calculated.

“I mean, are they worth as much as cloves or pigs or red hats or do we have to wait until we get them to the slave market and see how much they fetch.?”

Magellan would never allow women aboard ship and Carvalho’s action was the last straw for members of the council. Also, Trinidad was leaking badly and required hauling down for recaulking. Carvalho had lost whatever respect he ever had. As the ship sailed in search of a suitable location a meeting of senior officers decided he was unfit for the role and elected Mendez the Armada’s fifth captain general; the fourth in the three months since the death of Magellan. Espinosa, former master at arms, became captain of Trinidad and Carvalho reverted to pilot.
“As for the slave girls,” Mendez said in his new official capacity, we have a spare cabin they can live in. I suggest Master Andrew should be their guardian. He is perhaps too old to be tempted.”

“Not that old, Mendez,” Master Andrew said with a scowl.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain


Ferdinand Magellan and me (91)



On the morning after their reception by the rajah, Pigafetta was awakened by a rapidly ringing ship’s bell and Carvalho’s frantic cry “All hands on deck.” He scrambled into some clothes and tumbled out on deck to a scene of chaos, with men rushing here and there, arming themselves and shouting at one another. Magellan’s practice drills had fallen into disuse under Carvalho and confusion had taken over instead.

“What is it?”

“Mother of God it’s an armada,” Carvalho cried, pointing towards the west.
The Sun had barely risen but sufficient to see a fleet of praus and junks, more than a hundred Pigafetta guessed, with heavily armed men bearing down on Trinidad and Victoria. A vision flashed before his eyes of Lapu-Lapu’s horde attacking in their frenzy. Magellan had faced them with cold deliberation. Carvalho panicked.
“Heave away on the anchor,” he shouted at no one in particular. “Set the staysail. Set the spanker. Men-at-arms arm the side.”
Some sense of order began to appear as men turned to their tasks but for Carvalho it was not fast enough. “The anchor is too slow. “Pigafetta, go and cut the cable.”


“Cut the anchor cable. Get yourself an axe and cut the cable.”

Pigafetta rushed forward past men cocking crossbows or priming muskets, retrieved an axe from the bosun’s store and climbed to the fo’c’sl head where men trudged around the capstan.

To cut the anchor cable seemed to Pigafetta an extreme thing to do. He hesitated, wondering if Carvalho really meant what he said.
“Pigafetta, cut the cable,” Carvalho screamed all the way from the poop.
Three or four blows severed the heavy, plaited rope, which whipped away over the cathead. Now the ship was free and able to manoeuvre against the enemy.
Although the invaders had superior numbers their native craft were relatively flimsy and they lacked the heavy ordnance of Trinidad and Victoria. They were also faster and a couple of broadsides sent them scuttling away like flying fish, to Carvalho’s satisfaction. He complimented Master Andrew, the gunner and others of the crew.

Barely had they gone back and let go the spare anchor, regretting the loss of the other, when the Shahbanda came out from shore and climbed aboard. Shouting angrily and shaking his fist he confronted Carvalho with a stream of abuse. The gist of it as far as Pigafetta could tell was that the flotilla of boats was part of a force going to fight the aforementioned pagans who refused to accept the teachings of the prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him.

As realisation of his error dawned upon him Carvalho buried his face in his hands and quietly wept. Members of the executive council gathered round clucking their teeth. Pigafetta retired to his cabin to add another interesting page to his journal.

see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain


Ferdinand Magellan and me(90)

Magellan's ships

Old fashioned diplomacy

Pigafetta was riding an elephant. The great beast walked with a swaying motion, swinging its trunk while a man wearing a turban sat astride its neck and steered by poking one big ear or the other. Pigafetta’s elephant was one of a convoy led by the Shahbanda along a winding road towards the fortress with the king’s palace inside. Each bore a crew member of the Armada de Maluku carrying gifts of Turkish robes, red caps, bolts of fine cloth and glass goblets that Carvalho judged suitable for a native rajah.

They passed through the fortress gate into the palace compound guarded by no less than 300 foot soldiers with swords, lances and shields. The driver ordered the elephant to squat and Pigafetta hung on as the beast went down on its knees so they could disembark. The Shahbanda led them into a large room full of priests and nobles, some dressed all in white and others in gold embroidered silk robes. Many wore curly-bladed daggers adorned with pearls and rubies. Suddenly, the gifts brought by the visitors seemed paltry and Pigafetta was almost ashamed.

The old fat rajah sat on a platform with a young boy. Both chewed betel nut and red juice ran down their chins. Behind them, many women sat in silence. The Shahbanda explained they must bow to the king three times with their hands on their head , raise each foot off the floor one at a time and then kiss their hands to the king.
This they did.

“You must not speak to the king directly. If you wish to say anything, tell it to me and I will pass the message to the king’s brother, who will tell it through a speaking tube to the prime minister, who will tell it to the king if appropriate.”
It fell to Carvalho, as spokesman for the Armada, translated by Pigafetta, to explain that the ships wanted nothing but to trade in peace with the great Rajah Siripada, to stock their ships with food, water and firewood.
This message passed along the tortuous line of communication, was received and acknowledged with a nod. The gifts passed along the same path, placed at the king’s feet and also acknowledged with a nod. Then a curtain was drawn across the stage and the king disappeared from view. The audience was over. The king would consider their request.
The elephants took them back to the big house on the shore where the Shahbanda lived and that night they were treated to a feast of goat, fish, chicken, peacock and rice wine but no pork and no women.
After morning prayers next day, the Shahbanda announced he was going to make war and they were invited, if they chose. Startled, they followed him to the stone ramparts overlooking the harbour where Trinidad and Victoria lay at anchor. Thirty six bronze and six iron cannons pointed their muzzles out at the harbour. The Shahbanda displayed them proudly. Each cannon was engraved near the touch hole with the Five Wounds of Christ, the Portuguese coat of arms. These cannons came from the royal foundry of Lisbon. The Shahbanda explained they traded gold and spices with Malacca in exchange for guns to enable them to fight the heathens inhabiting the interior.

“These people do not believe in Allah and reject the teachings of the prophet Mohammed. (Peace be upon him.) We have tried every way to enlighten them but they continue to worship their pagan idol.”
Suddenly, the hospitality of their hosts took on a different context. With the memory of the disaster in Cebu and the death of Magellan fresh to mind, Pigafetta was not the only one to express uneasiness. Were the Christian invaders being softened up like lambs for the slaughter?


see:A Singular Captain

A Singular Captain



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    1. <description=”Magellan was not the only religious crusader in the South China Sea.” ./>