Ferdinand Magellan and me (68)



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Santiago Lost

Magellan was impatient to be gone from Port St Julian and continue the search for El Paso, never doubting its existence. When bushes began to bud and little yellow flowers blossomed over the land he called upon Juan Serrano, his cousin and captain of Santiago, the smallest ship of the fleet. She was a caravel with a handy fore and aft rig and shallow draft, ideal for explorations. Many years before, Serrano had been captain of Magellan’s first ship on a voyage to Kilwa, in Africa, under Viceroy Sequiera. In the wake of the recent mutiny, Serrano was the only captain he could trust. He gave Serrano the task of scouting ahead and even allowed him a glance at the Martellos map that showed the Dragon’s Tail, upon which Magellan placed his faith in El Paso. He gave Serrano two weeks to come back and report.

Two weeks went by, and three, and four and Magellan could be seen pacing up and down on the poop muttering to himself. One day there came a feeble cry from the shore. Serrano and three or four of his men were on their knees on the pebbly beach, hands clasped before them as if beseeching absolution in church. Serrano broke down and openly wept; his clothes in rags, his body emaciated and his feet bloody.

Back on board Trinidad after a rest, Serrano told his story. They had a nice breeze to start with and they explored a couple of bays, which turned out to be dead ends. They came to a river with a good anchorage. He took a boat upstream and found plenty of fish and fresh water but it was not El Paso. No sooner did they get back to sea than all hell broke loose. They lost the fore mast overboard and the mainsail blew to pieces. It was a full onshore gale and there was nothing they could do. The ship was swept ashore and began breaking up. They had walked all the way back to Port St Julian and three men died.

Here the old seaman choked up and was unable to continue.
“Never mind, John,” the captain general said.” If anyone could have saved the ship it’s you.”


Magellan appointed Serrano captain of Concepción, a position left vacant by Quesada, whose head, stuck on a spike beside that of Mendoza, gazed sightlessly upon the congregation celebrating mass for the armada’s departure from this unhappy place.

One task remained. Despite his conviction for treason and mutiny, Juan de Cartagena, natural son of Bishop Fonsecca, who was the most senior official of the Casa de Contratación, remained rebellious. His punishment was to be left behind in Port St Julian. No doubt Magellan would have preferred evidence of cannibal activity in the region but Pigafetta, who’d had most contact with the natives, was unable to oblige. As the fleet sailed away, Cartagena waded into the water begging to be taken aboard.

With this act, Magellan sealed his own fate. He would never be able to return to Spain. Just before they sailed from Seville, Magellan had received news that Balboa, the explorer who sighted the western sea from a peak in Darien, had got his head chopped off by the governor. Columbus completed one of his voyages in chains in his own ship. The Spanish Empire was not generous towards its explorers and, being Portuguese, Magellan could expect little mercy from the Casa de Contratatión. Adios, Juan de Cartagena. Adios, la vida.





    Santiago lost.




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Ferdinand Magellan and me (67)


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Patagonian giants


As winter came on and the days grew shorter, the snow line crept down the hills. The captain general allowed the chains removed from the mutineers, not for their comfort but so they could work harder. Concepción needed major repairs and all the ships required maintenance. Riggers, carpenters, coopers and sailmakers plied their crafts. Others tanned animal hides for cloaks and shoes and salted down fish and meat. Despite the danger from cannibals, Pigafetta took long, solitary walks and became something of a naturalist describing and drawing plants, animals and trees not known in Europe. The sea abounded with fish, sea wolves, crabs, mussels and oysters. Animals like pygmy camels grazed on stunted bushes. They were easy to catch and good to eat.

Weeks passed with no sign of humans and he had almost decided there were no cannibals here when a man appeared on the shore one day, dancing, leaping and singing while throwing handfuls of dust on his head. He was very big, a veritable giant. His face was painted red with yellow around the eyes and hearts painted on his cheeks. He wore animal hides and shoes made of the same leather. The sailors on Trinidad stopped work to watch and Pigafetta went to call the captain general.


Magellan sent a boat to capture the man and bring him aboard. He ordered he be given a hawk’s bell to tinkle, a comb, a pair of sailor’s breeches and set a red cap on his head, which the cannibal whipped off and threw away. When he was shown a mirror and saw his own face in it he let out a loud cry and jumped back, knocking over three or four sailors. Magellan next gave him a set of rosary beads but had to prevent him eating them.

In following days more natives appeared, including women and children, dancing and singing and pointing a finger in the air. Pigafetta was amazed to see such people. ‘The natives stand straighter than a horse,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘and are very jealous of their wives. They wear a cord around their head to carry their arrows and when they go hunting they bind their private member to their leg because of the cold. When one of them dies, ten or twelve devils painted all over leap and dance around the corpse. The principal devil is called Setebos and the others are called Cheleule, which is like the pope and his priests.’ At a time when Europe was undergoing a religious upheaval led by Martin Luther, Pigafetta had discovered a different religion and was intrigued by the idea of Setebos as an alternative god or devil. Setebos entered the English language in Shakespeare’s play, The Tempest.

Pigafetta can be regarded as the world’s first anthropologist, taking great interest in the native people and their customs. He reports no evidence of cannibalism among the Patagonians, however. We are fortunate to have such a chronicler.





    Patagonian giants.




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Ferdinand Magellan and me (66)

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Sailing in Magellan’s wake


Wathara’s cruise to Patagonia was rather more convivial than Magellan’s 500 years before. We sailed from Buenos Aires as part of a fleet of around 20 yachts shepherded by a Coast Guard cutter named Esperanza, which turned out to be a liability. They called it a regatta but it was lacking in competitive spirit. These guys were just out for a good time. To us, accustomed to sailing alone, it was a damn nuisance to have the VHF radio squawking continually and having to send a position report every 4 hours. Every once in a while a Coast Guard aircraft flew overhead and waggled its wings.


Getting out of Rio de la Plata was like rejoining the real world. The water turned from brown to blue and dolphins once again played in the bow wave. We put out a trolling line and caught a nice dorado. Wathara was enjoying herself too, keeping up among the leaders. Our first social engagement was at Viedma, a small town about 20 miles up the Rio Negro. Therein lay the problem. Esperanza, the biggest boat with the deepest draft, ran aground on the bar. Our saviour needed rescue. Three of us put lines on her and towed her into deeper water, suppressing blasphemies, but then a launch arrived from Viedma and led the fleet through the narrow unmarked channel.

We were the first yachts to enter the river in 40 years and the local sailing club had organised TV interviews, a dinner and presentation of prizes followed by a visit to a dance where the queen of some festival was chosen. Next day it was a bus trip to a seal colony and a visit to the local small museum. The three foreign yachts, Wathara, a German ketch called Regina Maris and a French boat called Ski received special attention.


Next leg in the so-called regatta took us to Caleta Horno, a narrow, steep- walled and serpentine inlet sheltered from all directions – too small for Magellan’s fleet. The town of Camarrones lay about 40 kilometres away and next day we were collected by pick-up trucks and driven into town. It had only about 700 inhabitants, poor people in shanty houses, but they put on a dinner for us that must have strained their resources. Camarrones means prawns and that’s what they served to the 200 or so people in the assembly hall of the local school.

The regatta terminated at Puerto Deseado but the three foreign boats continued southwards. The entrance to Port St Julian is marked by low bluffs on each headland. I had sailed half-way round the world to see this place and my expectations were coloured by its dark history. Magellan was not the only admiral to execute a crew member here. Nearly 60 years later, having found the remains of Magellan’s mutineers, Francis Drake ordered the execution of Thomas Doughty for mutiny.

Magellan anchored his fleet near the mouth of the harbour but we followed the winding channel to the town well inside. We spent six days in San Julian and on four of them were unable to get ashore because of strong winds and a rocky bottom in which the anchor dragged. We had almost no contact with the people ashore, which seemed strange after all the attention we had received in the regatta. One man I did talk to was an Englishman who had lived 30 years in Patagonia and lamented the fact that, through lack of practice, he was losing his Cockney accent.





    Sailing in Magellan’s wake




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Ferdinand Magellan and me (65)

Torture was a fine art in Magellan's time.

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Spanish justice in a heathen land.


Easter Sunday dawned with a dusting of snow on the bare hills. Bowled along by the wind, tumbleweeds blew out of the desert and skipped out to sea. Half the morning was spent bringing the mutineers in chains to the little island where Valderrama had built his makeshift church. Magellan named it Isla Justicia. So determined was he to exercise justice that he brought spare spars on which to hang the culprits. Port St Julian was lacking in suitable timber to construct a gallows. Judas Iscariot had the grace to hang himself but Magellan was leaving nothing to chance.


Judges had been appointed and the proceedings were to be recorded by scribes in accordance with the regulations. Forty two men were charged with crimes ranging from murder, through treason to mutiny; all capital offences. The pilot and fleet astrologer, Andres de San Martin, had already been subjected to the strappado, a favourite tool of the Inquisition. He was suspended by his hands tied behind his back while heavy weights were hung from his feet. His crime had been to supply the mutineers with a chart showing the route back to Spain.

Espinosa, the master at arms, recovered Mendoza’s body and propped it up against a rock so it could observe the legal proceedings. The other prisoners were permitted to sit on the ground. Only Cartagena, Castilian hidalgo and son of a bishop, declined the invitation and continued to strut despite the shackles on his wrists.


Witnesses from San Antonio were called to describe the midnight attack in which Cartagena, Quesada and El Cano had sneaked aboard, killed the master, Juan Elloriago, and imprisoned Captain Mesquita in his own cabin. Several witnesses testified they had seen Quesada stab Elorriaga in the back. Concepción had been mysteriously cast adrift but despite intense questioning Magellan was unable to establish who was responsible.


He called a halt to enable the judges to consider their verdict. It was important to him that the trial should follow strict protocol, although appointing his own kinsmen as judges had raised a protest from the padre, which was ignored. No surprise when Quesada was convicted of murder, Cartagena, el Cano and three others of treason and all the rest of mutiny. Only Quesada received the death penalty. As the master at arms and his officers laid hands on him and dragged him into position he started blubbering like a woman, much to Magellan’s disgust.

“Come, Quesada, you are making us all embarrassed.”

While four men held him down, Espinosa raised a big two-handed sword and brought it whistling down on Quesada’s neck. Fountains of blood spurted everywhere.

Next to face punishment was Mendoza. This was not a death sentence since he was already dead but Magellan had a reason for separating his head from his body. It would be preserved with a lotion of sage and laurel and stuck on a spike alongside Quesada’s. The two sightless mutineers would serve as a warning throughout the winter to anyone else contemplating mutiny.

Cartagena also received his sentence, although not immediately enforced. When the armada continued its voyage in search of El Paso, Cartagena would remain here as an ambassador to Patagonia, newly claimed by Magellan in the name of the king. Should the natives prove unfriendly, however, Cartagena might finish up in a cooking pot; a fitting end for such a dandy in Magellan’s view.





    Magellan delivers rough justice.




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