In the days before quartz crystal clocks one of my jobs as third mate of an ocean going tramp was time officer. Whenever the old man decided to flog the clocks for a new time zone I had to go around and alter the hands of every clock in the ship except the chronometer, which was kept in a locked cabinet on the bridge. Only the captain and I had a key. The chronometer was my responsibility. I had to wind it every day with seven turns of the key after receiving a radio time signal at noon Greenwich Mean Time. I recorded any error from GMT in a book called the rate book and analysed the rate of change, which was affected by variations in temperature as the ship steamed northwards or southwards.
The chronometer was the most important instrument on board. Without the chronometer shipwreck was a real possibility. It was the only means of determinig the longitude. For many centuries sailors had been getting wrecked because they didn’t know here they were. The problem came to a climax in 1707 when four British warships were wrecked on the west coast of England with the loss of about 2000 men, one of the worst maritime disasters in history. The British government were so enlivened by this event that they offered a huge prize for anyone could solve the problem of longitude at sea. An amateur clock-maker named John Harrison won the prize but had to fight to actually collect the prize money and then only got part of it. Dava Sobel’s book Longitude tells the story.
Saint Augustine in the Middle Ages asked himself “What is time? If no one asks me I understand the passage of time but am unable to explain it to he who asks.” The mystery of time has engaged me ever since those days and in these posts I attempt to cast a light on the subject especially through the medium of Fibonacci numbers.
Pigafetta travelled back along the road to Valladolid to complete the circumnavigation of the world and try and make sense of it. Perhaps the most vivid memory was the image of the severed heads of Mendoza and Quesada impaled on spikes and staring sightlessly at the Patagonian wilderness. Writing his memoir from the journal so meticulously maintained brought back the nightmare of men wasting away to skeletons, slashing their gums and leaping over the side screaming with pain and madness. He recalled the childlike curiosity and gleeful laughter of naked people, savages, pagans and heathens making their first encounter with foreigners and perhaps paying for it with their lives. He mourned his pet giant, Paul, and their struggles to understand one another.
Along with Diogo Barbosa, Magellan’s father-in-law, he was riding in Cristóbal de Haro’s coach heading for a reception with Don Carlos. De Haro was the biggest investor in the Armada de Maluku and the king’s main creditor, subsidising the wars with the French. Despite the loss of four of the five ships, Victoria’s cargo of spices had returned a profit, although not enough to satisfy La Senora de Haro.
“If only the other four ships had come back full of cloves the profit would have been at least tenfold, as Magellan predicted,” she
“A tragedy, Senora,” Pigafetta agreed.
La Senora also had advice for Pigafetta’s memoir. She had got wind of another document on the voyage being prepared by a distant relative, Maximilian, natural son of the Bishop of Salzburg, The bishop had great influence with His Majesty and suggested that to receive a reward from the king Maximilian should write a story about El Cano being the first man to circumnavigate the world.
“El Cano is not the first man to circumnavigate the world,” Pigafetta said. “Henrique, the captain general’s slave is.”
“Yes, yes, yes, I know all that but Maximilian is a little too friendly with El Cano. El Cano contributed nothing to the expenses of the expedition; why should he partake in the profits?”
“I can only write the truth, Senora.”
“Ah, the truth. A wonderful thing, the truth. Wonderful. Just make sure El Cano does not get too big a slice of the profit.”
It appeared to Pigafetta that his diary was to become a political document and it contained no mention of El Cano, whom he despised for his participation in the Mutiny against Magellan and his piratical adventures in the South China Sea. So when he returned to the throne room in Valladolid where he had first encountered Ferdinand Magellan, his memoir was the only thing he had to offer.
“Your Majesty, I have no gold or precious things worthy of Your Honour, but pray you may accept a book written by my on hand , in which I set down all the things that happened to us day by day.”
“A book?” said the king.
“A book, Your Majesty, that the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time.”