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


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Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

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