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.



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.