Ferdinand Magellan and me (46)

Don Carlos-king of Spain

Charles, King of Spain.

Don Carlos V or Charles V inherited the Spanish Empire at the age of 17 and would soon inherit the Holy Roman Empire making him the most powerful king in Europe. He also inherited heavy debts along with the prognathous jaw of his Hapsburg ancestors and so Ferdinand Magellan’s proposition to find a sea route to the fabulous Spice Isles seemed very attractive.

There was the matter of the Line of Demarcation, however, dividing the world between Portugal and Spain and the fact that this Magellan was himself Portuguese. Originally drawn up by Pope Alexander VI in 1493 and revised the following year it established the Spanish sphere of influence to the west of a meridian 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. New lands discovered east of it might be claimed by Portugal. Spain was expanding to the west and Portugal to the east. Sooner or later they would come up against one another on the other side of the world. Magellan had spent several years on the far side of the world in the service of Portugal. He presented a powerful argument that he was the best person to settle the question of the line of demarcation.

There was also the problem that 15th and 16th century navigators had no way of finding their longitude with any accuracy. This does not seem to have troubled the bishops and other courtiers advising the king, who could not even speak Spanish, having been reared in Flanders. Suffice to say that Magellan promised a tenfold return on any investment in the voyage. He was backed by Cristobal de Haro, one of the richest men in Europe and a financier of Don Carlos.

Others, under the influence of Bishop Fonseca, the influential head of the Casa de Contratation, or Board of Trade, were not so congenial. Fonseca was responsible for all Spanish ships on foreign voyages. He had been personal chaplain to Ferdinand and Isabella, the sovereigns who approved Columbus’s voyage. He had a reputation for supplying short stores to ships, including those of Columbus, which explains why starvation and scurvy were serious threats in Spanish ships of the age. Magellan would have been warned to check his stores coming aboard.
Magellan was granted five ships, Trinidad, Victoria, San Antonio,Concepción and Santiago. They were not the grand, well-found galleons that sailed to the Spanish Main but, according to a Portuguese spy sent by Dom Manuel, they were rotten, full of worm and unlikely to survive the voyage across the Atlantic, then known as the Ocean Sea. Many Spanish ships of this time were works of art, with highly decorated and sculptured upper works, particularly around the raised poop at the stern, which housed the captain and officers.

Portugal tended to favour the caravel, of which there were two types – the caravela redondo and caravela latina – having respectively square sails and fore-and-aft sails. Caravels were intended for exploration, being relatively smart and handy ships. Columbus’s ships were caravelas redondo but one of them was converted to a caravela latina in the Azores. Square rigged ships are more efficient running downwind but fore-and-aft rigged ships are more efficient going into the wind. Bigger ships, called carracks or galleons were usually square rigged.

Magellan had a battle on his hands to get his ships refitted, stored and manned. Being Portuguese, one of his main difficulties was overcoming the hostility of the Spaniards, especially Fonseca. His captains were chosen for him by Fonseca, who thrust forward his favourites, including his own bastard, described as a nephew Juan de Cartagena. He was appointed captain of San Antonio, the biggest ship in the fleet: a pretty boy, a strutting, head-tossing, posturing boy all but useless aboard ship. Main distinction of Luis de Mendoza, Victoria, was his kinship with the Ponce de Leons, a prominent family of Seville. Gaspar Quesada, Concepción, was the son of a Granada grandee, more at home on a horse than a ship. None of these so-called captains had ever made a voyage even as far as the Canaries and all came aboard with retinues of useless eaters. Cartagena had ten servants. Ten! Magellan knew he had his work cut out for him.

Magellan presents voyage plan to King of Spain


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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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