Ferdinand Magellan and me (31)


Martellus world map

The Martellus map of the world

The word Mediteranean means middle of the Earth and for many centuries that’s how it was depicted on maps. In Magellan’s time the most authoritative map of the world was that by Claudius Ptolemy, the great astronomer and geographer of second century Alexandria. No doubt Magellan knew it from his studies at the Portuguese Institute of Navigation sponsored by Prince Henry, known as the Navigator although he never went to sea.
As the Portuguese extended their empire they added to their knowledge. Map-making was a growth industry and maps of new worlds were guarded as State secrets. Magellan had access to a number of maps and globes, some more accurate than others. None of them featured the strait at the tip of South America that was later to bear his name.
The problem was not only the lack of information about distant lands but also the difficulty of rendering a spherical Earth on a flat sheet of paper. Men of science no longer doubted the world is round but the mathematics and techniques of cartography were in their infancy. Prominent Portuguese mathematician Pedro Nunes was the first to produce a formula representing a rhumb line, or loxodrome, by a straight line on a map. The importance of this is that the rhumb line is a constant compass direction as steered by a ship. Gerard Mercator extended the technique and his name now describes the familiar map of the world seen in atlases and elsewhere. The Mercator chart is still an idealised representation of the world. It suffers from severe distortion in high latitudes and the latitude or distance scale is not uniform.
A great difficulty facing medieval navigators was that maps of their day truncated or omitted the Pacific Ocean. They knew the circumference of the Earth was 360 degrees but no one knew how many miles or leagues there were in a degree of longitude. Columbus and Magellan both underestimated the circumference of the Earth by about one third. This almost led to failure of Magellan’s expedition due to death by starvation and scurvy. No one had previously imagined the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

In 1962 an anonymous donor presented Yale University, USA, with a long lost map drawn by German cartographer Martellus in the late 15th century. It was in very poor condition but new techniques enabled researchers to peel away layers of dirt and enhance images with electronic scanners. Historians speculate Christopher Columbus may have known of this map and, if so, Magellan would have known of it too. It is thought to have been influenced by information brought back from China by Marco Polo. It is intriguing for the inclusion of considerably more detail of Asia than other maps of the time. It features an image of a castle supposed to represent Paradise. Columbus claimed to have discovered Paradise on his final voyage but historians believe that Columbus’s Paradise was the Orinoco River. The Martellus map shows a greater extent of South America than contemporaneous maps. If Magellan did know of it, this could explain his utter conviction that a strait lay at the tip of South America known as The Dragon’s Tail.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (19) Goa

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Albuquerque-the Lion of Portugal

Affonso de Albuquerque did more than any other individual to establish the Portuguese empire in the east. Known in his time as the Lion of Portugal, among other names, he rampaged across the Indian Ocean from Africa to Malaya fighting sea battles, building fortresses and leaving behind many dead people, mainly Muslims. Considering the motivation for this expansion was the little black berry of the clove tree, the cost in human lives of a spicy dinner in Europe was huge.

Ferdinand Magellan participated in a number of Albuquerque’s adventures, including the conquest of Goa. An important staging point in the Arab spice route to Europe, Goa was a prosperous city with a large Muslim population. Albuquerque underestimated his foe. Although he easily took control of the port city, the Muslim king of Bijapur rallied his troops and laid siege to the invaders. With his food supplies running low, Albuquerque was forced to retreat; not something within his nature.

Returning to Cannanore he raised a fleet of 34 ships with about 2000 men and within three months made his second assault upon the city, this time successfully. He ordered the entire Muslim population – men, women and children- be put to the sword. Estimates of the slaughter range between 6,000 and 9,000. Albuquerque secured Goa as part of the Portuguese empire and it remained so for 450 years. Only in 1961 did the Indian Army reclaim it.
 

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The monsoon died soon after we left Calicut and started drifting with the Bhaktal lighthouse winking at us through the velvet night. Every once in a while a fishing boat came by and shouted at us and Bucko barked back but then the perfect silence of the placid sea descended. It was a magical night with a near full moon casting its glow in a path across the water. We were both so entranced that we sat up all night in the cockpit counting the stars. The breeze returned in fits and starts but it was a slow trip to Goa.

The anchorage in the Mandovi River was hopelessly busy with barges, ferries and ships crowding in behind the breakwater. Most of our two weeks in Goa were spent near the scene of Albuquerque’s slaughter but now it seemed a cheerful enough place and a tourist destination.

We visited the hospital seeking a cure for our lingering constipation. When we explained our problem and the cause of it to the duty doctor he burst out laughing. Then he took pity on us. He handed over his business card. He was a member of the British College of Surgeons, which seemed to me an acceptable credential. I had been reading news stories of a body organ trade in India.

“We don’t need surgery,” I said, and there may have been a note of panic in my voice.

“No, of course not but you are visitors to our town all the way from Australia. If I can be of any assistance…?”

“We’re just sort of interested in Ferdinand Magellan, you know, about 500 years ago. Actually, he blasted this place with cannons.”

“Ah, Magellan. An interesting man. First man to sail around the world.”

“Not really. His was the first ship but he never made it.”

One thing that amazed me in our voyage around the world was the hospitality we received from all kinds of people in different countries. It is usually the poorest who are ready to share whatever they have with a guest. This man was different. He was a toff; a Brahman but he took us home to share a meal with his family. I am embarrassed to admit that travellers will rarely receive that kind of hospitality in Australia.

 

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (14) Malacca Strait

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Portuguese ship replica in Malacca

Malacca had a nautical museum featuring a replica of Albuquerque’s flagship Flor de la Mar, which sank with a fabulous treasure. Father Pintado, the Portuguese priest, was a keen supporter of the museum. He and his sister had been in Malacca since 1948 and had accumulated many antique books; original sources in old Portuguese that were unfortunately inaccessible to me. He translated some of the choice bits for me. He seemed a peaceful man rather than happy, with a gap in his top row of teeth and an impish squint when he laughed. Although he belonged to the Society of St Peter he was fascinated with St Francis Xavier, who was buried in Malacca for 9 months before being shipped to Goa, in India. It still lies in state and is placed on view every 10 years. He and his sister waved goodbye from the jetty when we set off on the next leg through the Malacca Strait.

Strong tides, foul winds and frequent squalls made the going fairly tough but snug anchorages compensated somewhat. Pangkor was a pretty place marred only by over-friendly fishermen and holidaying Chinese singing Karaoke on the beach at night, pounding out old chestnuts like ‘I’ve got a loverly bunch of coconuts’ in nasal, high-pitched accents. The fishermen redeemed themselves by trading a bucket of crabs for two glasses.

As in other parts of the region, Portuguese colonisers were succeeded by the Dutch and then the English, with the British East India Company setting up a trading post on Penang Island in the 18th century.  Independence came after a turbulent period of insurrection and war but the British colonial influence was still evident in a number of yacht clubs along the Malacca Strait. Club- houses resembled English pubs, with silver sporting trophies in glass cabinets and international yacht club pennants pinned up on the walls. Robin and I felt quite at home in these places. We left behind a pennant of our own.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (11) :Pirates

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Pirates in the Malacca Strait
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Cruising yachts are like a travelling village and you often find familiar faces in ports all over the world. It’s nice to sail into a foreign port and encounter old friends who can fill you in on where to do the shopping, how to find a good mechanic, which bureaucrats need bribing and other vital matters. At Ong’s marina in Singapore expat sailors swapped yarns over barbecues. Here we met James, who had sailed with us in the Ambon race. He also had a female crew, although of a different moral persuasion than Robin. James had celebrated his birthday in Ambon and his gift from his crew was a short time with one of the whores at the Halong brothel. Apparently, she was trying to divert attention away from herself.

It’s true that piracy is a problem in the Malacca Strait. They even attack big ships and the previous year a cruising yacht had been boarded, the wife raped and the husband badly wounded. Whether cruising yachts should arm themselves was a frequent debate. Some; especially the Americans among us, claimed they could scare off pirates with a sufficient show of force. Others, including myself, believed the complication of a firearm on board outweighed the fairly low probability of meeting pirates on the high seas.

James was obsessed with pirates and he scoured Singapore in search of the equipment needed for his ultimate weapon. The marina had a dedicated barbecue space on the waterfront and on the occasion of someone’s birthday we gathered to celebrate. James proudly displayed his creation. Through piping and tubing and a specially manufactured venturi tube, he had rigged up his scuba-diving tanks to the fuel tank of his outboard motor. He created a flame thrower; a weapon that sidestepped the problems associated with carrying firearms aboard a yacht.

“Those bastards come anywhere near me and they’ll end up grilled chops,” he said.

To demonstrate his point, he opened the valve on the scuba tank, struck a match to fire up the flame thrower and turned it on the chops quietly grilling away on the barbecue plate. They were blasted off into the dirt.

“Oh shit, sorry,” James said.

The chops tasted not only of dirt but also of petrol and James’s demonstration strengthened the anti-firearm lobby.

As for me, I had my own anti-pirate measure in mind.

Next: the Ultimate defence against piracy.

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Ferdinand Magellan and Me

Wathara-john regan's yacht

The good ship Wathara

Ferdinand Magellan and Me

Let’s get one thing clear right from the start. Ferdinand Magellan was not the first person to sail around the world. One of his ships was the first ship but Magellan never made it. He did well to get as far as he did, battling evil kings and wicked bishops, putting down the odd mutiny and chopping off a few heads, but in the end he was his own worst enemy.

Nearly 500 years later, sailing in Magellan’s wake out of some kind of fascination with the man, I probably had to admit to the same fault, but Magellan only had murderous mutineers to deal with and my problem was women. Wisely, Magellan never allowed women aboard his ships.

I mean, it started out all right, as these things do. She said, “Oh, I love sailing. I’ve been sailing 18 footers on Sydney Harbour for a couple of years. We won the cup this year in our boat called Boobs. You might have heard of it.”

“No,” I said, “I haven’t heard of a boat called Boobs,” but I actually had. It had been a scandal in my yacht club a few weeks before. The trophy had been won by an all- female crew sailing a boat with a risqué name. Bar flies in their cups predicted the death of sailing as we know it. Centuries of nautical tradition when females aboard ship were known to bring bad luck were under threat.
“We beat all the men. You shoulda seen the looks on their faces.”
“I bet.”
“But you’re planning to sail around the world, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. I’m going to follow Ferdinand Magellan’s trip.”
“What’s with Ferdinand Magellan?”
“He’s only the greatest sailor in history, that’s all.”
“How long is it going to take?”
“I dunno. Magellan’s ship took about three years.”
“And you’re going to the places he went?”
“That’s right.”
“Gee whiz.”

I kid you not, she said gee whiz. What do you do with a woman who says gee whiz? First step is to get her into bed, of course. That led to various unforeseen circumstances, such as marriage, which I had always regarded as a headwind upon the good ship romance. I forgave her for being the harbinger of the sailing fraternLet’s get one thing clear right from the start. Ferdinand Magellan was not the first person to sail around the world. One of his ships was the first ship but Magellan never made it. He did well to get as far as he did, battling evil kings and wicked bishops, putting down the odd mutiny and chopping off a few heads, but in the end he was his own worst enemy.

Nearly 500 years later, sailing in Magellan’s wake out of some kind of fascination with the man, I probably had to admit to the same fault, but Magellan only had murderous mutineers to deal with and my problem was women. Wisely, Magellan never allowed women aboard his ships.

I mean, it started out all right, as these things do. She said, “Oh, I love sailing. I’ve been sailing 18 footers on Sydney Harbour for a couple of years. We won the cup this year in our boat called Boobs. You might have heard of it.”

“No,” I said, “I haven’t heard of a boat called Boobs,” but I actually had. It had been a scandal in my yacht club a few weeks before. The trophy had been won by an all- female crew sailing a boat with a risqué name. Bar flies in their cups predicted the death of sailing as we know it. Centuries of nautical tradition when females aboard ship were known to bring bad luck were under threat.
“We beat all the men. You shoulda seen the looks on their faces.”
“I bet.”
“But you’re planning to sail around the world, aren’t you?”
“That’s right. I’m going to follow Ferdinand Magellan’s trip.”
“What’s with Ferdinand Magellan?”
“He’s only the greatest sailor in history, that’s all.”
“How long is it going to take?”
“I dunno. Magellan’s ship took about three years.”
“And you’re going to the places he went?”
“That’s right.”
“Gee whiz.”

ity’s doom and later learned she was also prone to come out with expressions like golly gosh and oaky doaky. Besides, she was a looker.

The wedding took place on the balcony of my yacht club overlooking Sydney Harbour with a good fleet of one-tonners racing around the buoys. Many of the club’s shellbacks turned out for it, unperturbed by the fact that she wore the colours of a rival club. Only one misogynist bothered to mention that Ferdinand Magellan never allowed women aboard his ship. That’s true but Robin was now my first mate.

Wathara was the perfect boat for this trip. She was designed by Joe Adams, who also designed Helsal, the ferro-cement yacht called the flying footpath that won the Sydney-Hobart race one year. Wathara was a 37 foot cutter made of almost indestructible 3-millimetre steel, a feature that was to come in handy on this voyage. She was divided into two separate sleeping areas, forward and aft cabins, which also come in handy when you are on not-so-friendly terms with your crew.

I spare the reader tedious details of provisioning the ship and dealing with bureaucracy. We left Sydney on a glorious day, with a brisk sou-easter flicking mare’s tales off the deep blue sea. I gave the wheel to Robin and watched her with a grin on her face, surfing down the waves, riding the crests, laughing with the sheer joy of this freedom. Gone was the city, gone was the train time-table, gone the imperatives of a different life. All we had to do now was sail around the world.

“You okay?” I asked.

“Golly gosh,” she said. “Yes.”

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