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.