Ferdinand Magellan and me (64)

Assassination of MendozaA Singular Captain

Assassination of Captain Mendoza

On Palm Sunday the crews celebrated mass on a rocky island inhabited by sea wolves, penguins and gulls. With a cold wind moaning out of the desert, flapping his vestments about his legs and carrying his voice away, Padre Valderrama retold the story of how the Son of David came to Jerusalem on an ass. The people spread branches in the road and cried, “Hosanna, blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord,” and the Pharisees plotted against Him and conjured up treachery among his disciples.

After the mass, a deputation for the sailors begged leave to speak with the captain general. Their spokesman was San Antonio’s quartermaster, a Genoese, who asked the captain general on behalf of his shipmates to restore the wine and biscuit, to depart from this place and return to Rio for the winter. Magellan heard him out and offered words of encouragement but no way was he going to turn back.

“South is where El Paso lies. It’s not far now, my friends. Once the winter thaws it will be an easy sail.”

The grumbling men returned to their boats drawn up on the shore and it was clear they were far from happy. Magellan’s main concern was that his captains, Mendoza, Quesada, de Coca and Cartagena ignored the Divine Service and also Magellan’s invitation to a meal aboard Trinidad.

The simmering pot came to the boil next morning. De Coca arrived aboard Trinidad and presented a note signed by Cartagena, Mendoza and Quesada demanding the Armada de Maluku return to Spain, where Magellan’s conduct would be subject to an enquiry by the Casa de Contratación. Armed men could be seen on the decks of Victoria and Concepción and others lined the bulwarks. On San Antonio’s poop, Cartagena paraded up and down like a peacock. Magellan crumpled the note and flung it to the deck. This was war.

There had never been a whiff of mutiny aboard Trinidad. Magellan mustered his men and, with the aid of Espinosa, the able master at arms, formed a fighting force of loyal volunteers. Magellan went on the attack. The fighting was furious that day, although only a small minority took up arms against the captain general. This was a mutiny by captains, not deck hands, and Espinosa disposed of Mendoza early in the fray. His bloody corpse was strapped to Victoria’s main-mast as a warning to mutineers.

Concepción posed the risk of escaping through the channel and heading back to Spain once the tide began to ebb. Magellan led a boarding party that clambered up over the bulwark yelling and screaming and slashing the air with their weapons. The resistance faded and the opposing crew backed up, surprised by the ferocity of the attack. Magellan engaged captain Quesada, who threw down his sword, fell to his knees and begged for mercy like the true coward he was. Cartagena, the instigator of all this fury, was similarly meek in defeat but Magellan had a special punishment in store for that bishop’s bastard.

    Mutiny in Port St Julian


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Ferdinand Magellan, A Singular Captain

Magellan names Port St Julian

The inexperience of the Spanish captains became a concern for Magellan as weather patterns changed heading south from Cabo de Santa Maria. No longer were the days leisurely cruises with balmy breezes but constant jousts with shifting winds that sometimes reversed direction twice in a day, ranging in strength from calm to gale. Pigafetta came to recognise the long, dark roll of cloud on the horizon as a harbinger of the sudesta, or southerly buster, with screaming wind that made the ships almost unmanageable and pelting rain that made everything invisible.

If anything, the calms were worse than the storms. Short of breaking out the sweeps or putting down a longboat, the ships were at the mercy of capricious currents. The armada frequently went backwards and Victoria ran aground three times, with the captain general muttering “The man’s an idiot,” and shouting at Mendoza to get the sails off her and run a kedge anchor. Fortunately, Victoria refloated each time, but what damage had been done to her keel?

After two months the armada had made only eight degrees of latitude, less than walking pace. Pigafetta dare not mention Magellan’s light-heartened comment, ‘All we have to do is keep going south.’ Five hundred leagues from Rio, in a land never before seen by Christians, with sails blown out and gear swept away, the ships came to anchor in a narrow inlet bounded by rocky shores and obstructed by sand bars under a leaden sky. It was cold, comfortless, desolate, deserted, depressing and devoid of promise except for the sea wolves clapping their flippers and barking. It was possibly the most God-forsaken place on Earth in the view of most crew. Magellan named it Port St Julian.

The captain general had at last yielded to growing discontent but never would he countenance turning back. They would pass the winter here and prepare for the southwards thrust in spring. The time would be spent salting down slaughtered seals and seabirds, careening the ships, unloading stone ballast so bilges could be cleaned and freed of rats, patching sails, renewing rigging and preparing for the next stage in the search for El Paso.

Magellan said he would sail south as far as seventy five degrees of latitude: an announcement not popular with the crew. At least there was no lack of meat but the men were sick of birds that tasted like fish and of sea-wolf, which tasted like lard. The wine and biscuit were running short. Further swindling in the provisions had been found and rations had to be cut, thanks to Bishop Fonseca.

It was Easter by the Christian calendar only here in the southern hemisphere it was autumn and felt like winter. In Seville the streets would be full of penitents re-enacting the passion of Christ, punishing themselves with crowns of thorns, walking barefoot on broken glass, flogging themselves with whips. Little did the sailors of the Armada de Maluku know that events in Port St Julian would turn out similarly bloody.

    Magellan lays up for the winter


Ferdinand Magellan and me (62)

Magellan's ship replica

Magellan’s Port St Julian

Ferdinand Magellan left his stamp on Uruguay in the name of its capital Montevideo, (“I see a mountain.”), which was no doubt a disappointment for him since he was searching for a strait. Juan de Solís, who became a meal for cannibals, is also remembered in the form of an obelisk at Nueva Palmira. Nowadays the natives are more hospitable and the carnival is nearly as much fun as Rio’s. Not so the crowded boat harbour, sometimes inundated by stormy seas crashing over the breakwater.

There is plenty of yachting activity in the estuary of the River Plate and I took advantage of the facilities for running repairs and an anti-fouling job for Wathara. We sailed about 100 miles up the River Paraguay and were treated as celebrities by the locals. The Magellan story was well alive and I was interviewed on TV a couple of times. Among the many friends we made were Tommy Braithwaite, an English expat, and his family. His 75-year-old mother in law was the matriarch of a large extended family who sat in a wooden chair and beamed upon her offspring. She had some advice for us planning to sail through the Magellan Strait. She had been shipwrecked there 50 years before and spent several days in a life- boat before being rescued.

“You must stay out of the water,” she said, wagging a forefinger. “It is very cold.”
“Yes, thank you,” I said. “We shall certainly try.”

The San Isidro Yacht Club in Buenos Aires was organising a Regatta to Patagonia and our new friends urged us to take part. Although I am not a racing man I eventually agreed. Why not? Nearly 500 years after Magellan showed the way we shouldn’t get lost. A fleet of about 20 yachts crossed the start line with a crowd waving banners, shouting and cheering. A Coast Guard cutter followed the fleet like a sheep dog and an aircraft flew overhead every once in a while keeping an eye on us.

It wasn’t really a race, it was a cruise. The weather was perfect and Wathara loved it. The organisers had arranged hospitality at sailing clubs along the way. In Rio Negro we were treated to TV interviews, a banquet and presentation of trophies followed by a visit to a dance where the queen of some festival was chosen. Next day was a bus tour of the countryside and a visit to a colony of seals and penguins. Magellan never had it like this.

We pulled out of the race at Port St Julian, where Magellan faced the biggest challenge of his career. The entrance is marked by low bluffs on each headland. It appears as no more than an inlet and the fact that Magellan found the spacious harbour inside indicates the thoroughness of his search. There were no trees and the stony earth was speckled with khaki grass and thorny bushes. It is hardly surprising that Magellan’s decision to spend the winter here was unpopular and contributed to the sombre events that followed. I had sailed half way around the world to see this place and it opened my eyes on events nearly 500 years before.

    Magellan reaches Port St Julian


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World map by Martellus

The Dragon’s Tail

Magellan also had to deal with an excess of hospitality in Rio. The local wine was distilled from sugar cane and was very potent. The natives, especially the women, were too friendly for Magellan’s liking. Before departing Rio he sent Espinosa, the Master at Arms, to clear the ships of women including Piratininga, the mother of Carvalho’s son, Joãozito, or Little John, who would sail with the fleet. She and all the others were ferried ashore, where they watched their men climb aloft to shake out the sails from the gaskets. As the black ships slowly gathered way the women began to wail and sob. Some swam after the ships and Joãozito waved goodbye to his mother with tears in his eyes. Pigafetta was beginning to understand what it meant to be a sailor.

Fair weather held as the fleet sailed southwards with low hills and sandy beaches on one side, blue sea on the other and black and white dolphins leading the way. The Captain General’s first task was to dispose of the belief that the large bay south of Cabo de Santa Maria could be El Paso, the strait through to the western sea discovered by Balboa. This was the limit of exploration by Europeans – the end of the known world.

In 1973, Argentinean scholar Paul Gallez raised the possibility that Magellan may have been better informed than previously believed. His argument helps explain Magellan’s dogged conviction of the existence of a strait through or around South America. Gallez had a copy of the world map by Henricus Martellus dating from 1489 kept in the British Library in London. After a careful study of the map and comparison with others of the time such as that by Waldseemuller, Gallez concluded that Columbus certainly had a copy of the Martellus map and Magellan was undoubtedly aware of it. Gallez identified the river systems of South America far to the south on the map.

The Martellus map is one of several derived from the original world map by Claudius Ptolemy of Alexandria. Most depict South America as a vast peninsula joined in the north to Asia, in particular China, which was the main point of interest. With a stretch of the imagination, the maps could be likened to a drawing of a dragon and South America was described as the Dragon’s Tail. At the bottom of the Dragon’s Tail was clear water all the way to China, but it was sheer speculation.

This view was not widely held in Seville and the former Chief Pilot of Spain, Juan de Solís, believed the strait to lie in what we now call the estuary of the River Plate. His exploration of the estuary was cut short by his encounter with cannibals, who literally kept him for dinner.

Magellan did not believe this was El Paso but he needed to prove his point to the Casa de Contratatión and his own captains. He shifted aboard the little Santiago, ideal for survey work, and went exploring much to Pigafetta’s anxiety that he might share the fate of Juan de Solís.

    Magellan sails southwards