Ferdinand Magellan and me (60)

Marina da Gloria

Marina da Gloria

There is little to distinguish one day from another in the doldrums and no sense of time. We might have been there all our lives with nothing but a ring of cloud around the horizon and an occasional bird. As we approached landfall, I recalled the story of a French sailor, Bernard Moitessier, competing in the first Around the World single-handed yacht race. After months of solo sailing he was in a winning position but apparently decided he could not face the fuss and fanfare at the finish line. He abandoned the race and sailed around again, all the way back to Tahiti, where he took up residence and became almost as famous as another French expatriate, Paul Gauguin.

Unlike Magellan, I had no fear of being attacked by warships. We made landfall at Recife and hopped down the coast from port to port. It was never my ambition to be the fastest to sail around the world but the slowest, and on the coast of Brasil we met kindred spirits in the travelling village of cruising yachts. We caught up with a Dutch yacht called Passat, last seen in Tenerife, an Australian yacht Voodoo and a South African couple in Aries. They had spent two years in South America, as far south as the Falklands, and were heading for the USA, where they planned to open a bar and grill.

In Salvador we were accosted on the street by four school girls, excited to find we were foreigners. Through an interpreter, we learned they had some kind of competition going at their school. Next day, we travelled by bus to the school and were put on display at the assembly as specimens of the species Australiano and Inglesa. I don’t know what prize the girls won but later we met one of their teachers, who tried to convert us to Hare Krishna. I don’t know what kind of school that was.

Near our anchorage in the Paraguaçu river, women of the nearby village gathered shellfish, and men in a canoe sold us prawns which they dished up in the shattered crown of a plastic hard hat. They started at 20,000 escudos, about 7 dollars, but came down to 5,000 with a bit of haggling.

Native sailing craft, savieros were loaded to the gunwales with fruit or vegetables, bags of maize flour, sweet potatoes and squealing pigs. They had no rigging but set a hand-sewn cotton sail on a gaff and a handkerchief for a jib. Half the crew were musicians who played drums and guitars and sang as they cruised down the river. By contrast, Marina da Gloria, in Rio, was full of big fancy boats but the music was absent. The natives were friendly, however, and we were just in time for the Carnival.

Rio is a hard place to tear yourself away from and a couple of months slipped by. The social life took its toll on Helen, however, and I realised she had a serious problem; not that she drank to excess but she couldn’t handle more than a couple of drinks. More than once I almost had to carry her back aboard Wathara after a dinner with friends. It came to a head one night when she tripped on the marina gangway and broke her arm. I got her to a hospital, where they patched her up, but for the next leg of our voyage she would have her arm in plaster.

    sailing Brazil


Ferdinand Magellan and me (59)

Rio de Janeiro

Rio de Janeiro

It was one thing to execute a couple of sodomites but the bastard of Bishop Fonseca was another matter. Despite mutiny being a capital offence, Magellan ordered Cartagena released from the stocks, gave him a stern dressing down and extracted a promise of loyalty. He relieved Cartagena of his command of San Antonio and ordered him to transfer to Concepción under Captain Quesada, who was to be held responsible for Cartagena’s conduct. By trumpet fanfare, Antonio de Coca was proclaimed the new captain of San Antonio and all returned to their respective ships, still drifting in the doldrums. Magellan sent his pilot, Gomez across to San Antonio with de Coca, who was an accountant and no seaman at all.

He promoted Albo, the assistant, into Gomez’s place and brought Carvalho, Concepcion’s pilot, across to Trinidad. This was a strategic move on Magellan’s part because Carvalho had spent four years in the New World, setting up a factory harvesting brasil wood and establishing a profitable trade for Dom Manuel. The native plant that would give its name to the Portuguese colony was highly prized in Europe for its rich, red dye, which brought five ducats the quintal in Lisbon.

Pigafetta also welcomed Carvalho aboard as a source of information for his journal. He was keen to learn about the customs of the natives, reputed to be cannibals of the worst kind. Carvalho was dismissive of such stories. He had lived among them without problems and had nothing but scorn for Juan de Solís, former chief pilot of Spain, who had been careless enough to get himself eaten a couple of years before and ungodly enough to let it happen on a Friday, when red meat is prohibited.

Carvalho warned there was now a Portuguese base at Pernambuco, where the shoulder of Brasil bulges into the Ocean Sea. When land was sighted, the captain general altered course southwards and sailed along the coast so far off that nothing could be seen of cannibals or brasil wood except a faint blue smudge from the masthead.

It was another two weeks and over two months from Tenerife before Carvalho judged it safe to approach the land without fear of Portuguese warships. With leadsmen chanting the depth and a boat ahead sounding the channel, the Armada de Maluku, under reduced sail, groped through an opening between a low stretch of jungle on one side and a remarkable cone-shaped rock on the other. Once through the entrance a huge almost land-locked bay appeared where the sun sparkled on the water and strange, harsh cries hung in the warm, still air.

As soon as the anchors went down, chattering natives emerged from the forest, launched log canoes or swam out and invaded the ships. Pigafetta was enthralled by these outlandish creatures with bodies daubed in bright colours and only a few feathers to cover their shame. Some wore stones dangling from pierced lips, which were hideously distorted as a consequence. The girls were short and plump with olive or brown complexions and with breasts just the right size to cup in the hand. Trinidad’s deck was transformed into a bizarre and riotous market. For a knife or fish hook a man could buy a brace of fowl and for a hatchet, a wench. Pigafetta watched in astonishment as a girl loosened an iron nail as long as his finger from the woodwork, pushed it into her private part and carried it in a crouching walk back to her canoe.
Rio continues its exotic lifestyle up to the present day.



Ferdinand Magellan and me(58)

drifting in the doldrums

Adrift in the Doldrums

Until you have been becalmed in the doldrums you have no idea of the meaning of the word ‘isolation.’ There is no silence like the silence of the ocean when it sleeps and no terror like the ocean’s roar when it is angry. In either case, the ocean is free from trivia except for the plastic junk dumped in it by uncaring humans. In both of these scenarios it is apt to contemplate your navel, from which you emerged. It is a time to question what is really important.

Waiting for the wind to blow again I found myself reminiscing on my childhood. I remembered the day I found my dog dead on the carpet in the living room with a pool of blood around his mouth. He was my best mate. Someone had fed him a bait of ground glass. The grief took a while to fade and then I wondered why anyone would want to do that. There was still no answer forthcoming in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean not far from where Magellan had executed a boy for the crime of sodomy. Times change, or do they really? An owl arrived on board and took up residence on deck, exhausted from flying at least 100 miles or so. It cheered me up a bit. We put out water and bread-crumbs for him. He was shy at first but eventually took the offering.

Helen wasn’t coping well with the heat, the lack of progress and the savage squalls that often began as waterspouts, like snakes that rose out of the sea. Fortunately, none of them scored a direct hit on Wathara but we lived in trepidation. I decided we needed fortitude. Before leaving Spain we had stocked up on several bottles of duty free Chivas Regal and Johnny Walker. Not my favourite tipple but the price was right, and you would be surprised what a bottle of Scotch can buy on the waterfront. They were stored under the bunk in the aft cabin. I lifted the mattress and peered in, only to discover the stock had diminished by at least half. Helen must have moved them somewhere else, I thought.

I poured a couple of tots and took them up to the cockpit where she was sitting in the shade of an awning we had rigged over the boom.
“What did you do with the rest of the booze?” I asked her.
“We seem to have lost about half a dozen bottles of Scotch.”
To my astonishment, she grimaced, squirmed and made a curious noise somewhere between a snort and a grunt.
“Yes, really. Did you put them somewhere else, or what?”
“Yes, I put them somewhere else.”
She tossed her glass overboard and descended the ladder into the cabin.

Suddenly, it all came clear. There had been several occasions when I thought she was behaving strangely, but eating out in restaurants or with friends I had never seen her drink more than two or three glasses of wine. I had noticed glazed expressions on her face, which she blamed on what she called bile, and she did have an assortment of medications. I doubted if Scotch whisky was going to improve her condition anyway.

    Adrift in the doldrums


Ferdinand Magellan and me (57)

Mutiny and sodomy

Magellan’s tactic to avoid Dom Manuel’s warships took him into the doldrums where the breeze grew fitful and then petered out. The tropical Sun reflected off the shimmering sea so the same furnace twice scorched the gasping sailors. Sails and running rigging slatted against the masts with a maddening, irregular rhythm. The pitch in the deck seams melted and stuck to their feet. Brief, furious squalls screamed out of nowhere, whipping the sea to spray, thrashing sails to ribbons before they could be secured.

At the height of these storms a glow like a halo hovered over the mastheads. Led by the chaplain, Padre Valderrama, men fell to their knees and offered thanks to God for this portent of their deliverance. This was the spirit of St Elmo, a sign of grace from Our Saviour. When the storm passed, the wind fell calm and the fleet drifted again, lost and aimless it seemed to the crew and especially to the pilot, Gomez. Concepción,Victoria and San Antonio lowered their longboats and Magellan watched sourly as his captains made social calls on one another. He knew the talk in those great cabins would turn to treachery and mutiny.

It was important to keep the men occupied in longboats towing the ships. One day a boat pulled across from Victoria to Trinidad with Captain Mendoza in her stern sheets. He climbed aboard to a trumpet salute befitting his rank and crossed himself before the shrine of the Virgin Mary.
Magellan must have wondered whether this was the next move on behalf of the conspirators but it was a different matter that brought Mendoza aboard: a foul, unnatural act of bestiality in breach of the king’s regulations and teaching of the Church. Two of his men had been found in the very act of sodomy and Mendoza requested a court martial be convened to award appropriate punishment. A court martial required at least three captains and the thought crossed Magellan’s mind that this was merely a ruse to further their plot. He agreed to the request, promising himself to be well-prepared.

When Mendoza left, Magellan instructed Espinosa to erect two sets of stocks by the foremast to accommodate the criminals. The big, burly master-at-arms inspired confidence with the way he went about his duties but it was not necessary to tell him any more than the bare facts. When the court convened, Magellan instructed him to stand by outside the great cabin with half a dozen of his men while the court martial was in progress. He was to hold himself in readiness to intervene in any unruly behaviour, not specified.

The court consisted of Magellan, Cartagena and Quesada. Mendoza, as the accused men’s captain, was prosecutor. There was no counsel for the defence and the trial was brief. Victoria’s quartermaster and one of the ship’s boys were brought in with hands bound behind their backs, bare-chested and wearing sarongs as affected by men in the tropics. Even had there been counsel for the defence there was no denying the evidence of several witnesses to naked bodies and erect penises when the upturned boat under which they were conducting their disgusting deed was lifted. The guilty verdict was inevitable and sodomy, like mutiny, being a capital offence, the boys were marched off and locked in the stocks to await their execution.

Barely had they been taken away when Cartagena raised the matter of the course alteration to south by west leading them into the doldrums. Everyone knew Columbus had had no wind in this area. Was Magellan so stupid, Cartagena wanted to know, that he didn’t know this most basic fact of seamanship? By ignoring the advice of his captains in Tenerife, Cartagena asserted, Magellan had exceeded his authority. Cartagena and the other captains had no intention of following his orders any more.

These were the words Magellan was waiting to hear. “Rebel,” he cried, whipping out his short sword and grabbing Cartagena by the shirt front, “this is mutiny. In the name of the king you are my prisoner. Espinosa,” he shouted, “arrest these traitors.”
Espinosa and his men burst into the cabin with drawn swords as Cartagena babbled “Mendoza. Quesada. Kill him. Kill him as we agreed.”

But Cartagena’s accomplices deserted him and threw down their weapons before the onslaught of the master-at-arms. They were frogmarched from the cabin out on deck , where Trinidad’s astonished crew watched the spectacle of their captain general manhandling the captain of San Antonio up to the foremast, where one of the sodomites was released from the stocks and Cartagena installed in his place. Mendoza and Quesada, cowards that they were, begged mercy from the furious captain general.

“Not us, captain general. Not us. It was all his idea.”

Magellan had nothing but contempt for them but first the homosexual lovers had to be despatched and then he would take care of Cartagena.

    Mutiny and sodomy in the Armada de Maluku


Ferdinand Magellan and me (56)

Magellan's fleet of five ships

Mutiny in the wind.

Magellan’s main concern on leaving Tenerife was the Portuguese fleet sent by Dom Manuel to intercept him. He had no intention of suffering the fate of Columbus, who had been sent back to Spain in chains in his own ship. In Seville, Bishop Fonseca had tried to extract from him his proposed course across the Ocean Sea. Apart from being absurd, since no sailor knows what course he is going to steer until he knows the direction of the wind, Magellan believed Fonseca to be in league with Portuguese spies. His intended course was secret.

The usual route across the Ocean Sea was a little south of west, which enabled ships to hang on to the trade wind until clear of the doldrums, and then harden sheets to clear Cape San Roque before being carried too far north by the incipient Gulf Stream. Magellan was entirely familiar with the Spanish and Portuguese sailing directions so he decided to do something different. He calculated a course that would take him to the east of the Cape Verde Islands, the track followed by Wathara, a few centuries later.

“Steer south by west” he ordered his pilot, Gomez, and instructed the boy of the watch to signal the rest of the fleet. Gomez questioned the order since sou-west had been agreed by all the captains.

“Shut up and do what you’re told,” Magellan said, or words to that effect in medieval Spanish.

Trinidad came around to the new course and sails were trimmed for a slight flutter on the lee. Concepción, next in line, followed suit and then Victoria and Santiago, but San Antonio laced bonnets to her main course, increasing sail area, pulled out of line and began drawing ahead. Within an hour or so San Antonio had drawn abreast of Trinidad, Cartagena pacing her quarterdeck dressed as if for a court reception.

“What means this course change?” he called across the water. “The agreed course is sou-west.”

“Follow me and ask no questions,” Magellan bellowed back at him, and left the deck.

Next evening his four ships drew alongside in turn to make their salute to the captain general and receive their orders for the night. When it came to San Antonio’s turn, the formal words of the hail and salute were delivered not by the captain, as required by standing orders, but by the quartermaster, who omitted Magellan’s full title and addressed him only as captain.

“Cartagena,” Magellan called across to the dandy on San Antonio’s quarterdeck, “I have told you before that my correct title is captain general or admiral, and the salute is to be made by yourself and not your crewman.”

“I have sent my best man to salute you,” Cartagena replied, “but next time, if you wish, I shall send my valet.”

And then he laughed, foolish fellow. He clearly underestimated Ferdinand Magellan. That laugh would prove fatal.

    mutiny looms