Ferdinand Magellan and me (63)

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


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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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