Ferdinand Magellan and me (6): Death in a tropical climate


Ferdinand Magellan and me(3)


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Death rites in Tana Toraja, Sulawesi

Although Indonesia is the most populous Muslim country in the world its politics is non-sectarian, at least officially. In Tana Toraja, Sulawesi, mosques and churches co-habit with extraordinary funeral houses with saddle-shaped roofs devoted to pagan death rites. They are so intriguing they have become tourist attractions. The funeral is a send-off party for the deceased, whose embalmed body may have been waiting years while relatives raise money for the elaborate ceremony. It is an opportunity for the entire extended family to come together not in grief but in celebration of a soul passing on to another life. Looking down from the eaves of some houses we noticed tapestries of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ.

The body is laid to rest with the necessities for an ongoing existence. For 100 rupiah a little girl of about 7 with a lighted candle offered to show us through the burial catacomb so we would not be scared. One wall of the cave resembled rows and rows of post office boxes chiselled out of the rock; the occupant of each box represented by a manikin. Others, which may have been more than a thousand years old according to our guide, were reduced to skeletons but still received attention from their descendants. Not flowers but useful items like packets of rice and strips of buffalo flesh adorned the graves. One mummified old lady clutched an umbrella, apparently expecting rain in heaven.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (5):Sulawesi

Ferdinand Magellan and me(3)

Across the Ceram Sea and through the narrow Butan Strait we sailed to Makassar, aka Ujung Pandang, famous as the haunt of Dyak pirates. Makassar is terminus for pinnis praus, the world’s largest fleet of sailing vessels still in commercial use. They ply the route between Makassar, Borneo and Java, a three-cornered course ideally suited to the reversing monsoons of the Java Sea.

Makassar is a cosmopolitan city where Christians and Muslims seem to live in harmony with the lingering memory of the Dutch occupation ever-present in the form of Fort Rotterdam, now a museum. In fact, the province has a turbulent history involving its indigenous Bugis people who inhabit Tana Toraja. It’s a lush land of winding roads, damp forests and terraced padi fields on the slopes of misty mountains.

Ferdinand Magellan was one of the first Christian evangelists on this side of the planet, followed by Catholic missionaries, Dutch pastors and Salvation Army corps keen to stamp out the heathen practices and animist beliefs of the Torajans. One Salvation Army officer is reported to have described the Torajan culture as a kind of disease, devoid of God. Magellan captured a couple of natives of South America and clapped them in chains planning to convert them to Christianity and take them back to Spain like zoo specimens. Unfortunately, the religious prisoners died before that could happen and so did Magellan but Pigafetta made a study of their language and culture.

Nowadays, the Torajan culture is a tourist event, a gathering of the clans for the funeral of a former chief, not the sombre occasion of the western world but a festival lasting a week or more. The late chief’s relatives had come from all over Sulawesi to celebrate the great man’s life. Kids rode bareback on buffaloes that were later butchered and barbecued. Old friends and relatives squatted in groups to catch up on family gossip in ornately decorated open houses with saddle-shaped thatched roofs. Ladies balancing trays on their heads delivered the vittles.

Going to market with the goods balanced on their heads.

They can walk for miles with these things on their head.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (4): Foreign shores

Ferdinand Magellan and me(3)
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Darwin sailors are a casual lot and the racing division had been cancelled due to lack of competitive spirit, leaving 11 cruising yachts to make their way to Ambon. Darwin Yacht Club’s hospitality for interstate contestants included free crocodile insurance. The start was delayed while we waited for the 18 gallon keg of beer, donated by the local brewery sponsoring the race, to be delivered aboard one of the yachts.

It was a dream run across the Arafura Sea, with fair winds and blue skies except towards the end, when the breeze petered out. Some competitors were so relaxed they stopped for a spot of fishing and others ran their engines but Wathara complied with the rules and, approaching the end of the 600 mile cruise, we were in contention to win because nearly everyone else had been disqualified. Ambon harbour is a deep, narrow gorge like a fjord and, once inside, the fluky breeze disappeared and we started going backwards on the tide. A few hours later we drifted back in. A few hours later we drifted back out. A few hours later we drifted back in. It was too deep to anchor.

“Oh God, this is ridiculous,” Robin said. “Why don’t you start the engine?”

“Magellan didn’t have an engine.”

“If there’s one thing I hate it’s a pig-headed man.”

“You wouldn’t have liked Magellan, then.”

Eventually I decided the prize, which was only an engraved brass plaque, wasn’t worth it. The party was well under way when we finally crossed the finish line under motor but the organisers seemed to have forgotten us and looked surprised to see another boat arriving.

The festivities went on for about a week, with the locals laying on traditional dances and tours of the district. It became known the Halong Inn, the centre for these activities, was actually a brothel owned by the admiral in command of the local naval squadron. Our extended stay was affecting business and he wanted us gone but the kids in dugout canoes who hung around the anchored
yachts remained hospitable and full of mischief

dugout canoes in the Spice Isles.

The Portuguese were only the first European invaders. At one time the Portuguese empire was bigger than that of Alexander the Great but empires fade away and present-day obscure principalities wallow in past glories. In the Moluccas we saw fortresses built by the Portuguese and overrun by the Dutch; massive stone structures still with cannons aimed out into the harbour where the next threat was most likely to come from, namely other Europeans. The Dutch were not expelled until after World War II and left behind a legacy of bitterness from their centuries of exploitation and cruelty. One of the worst Dutch massacres was committed in Ambon. The British were not expelled from Malaya and Singapore until the 1960s after about 150 years of colonial rule, but the death knell of the British Empire was the sinking of HMS Prince of Wales by the Japanese.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (3)



Ferdinand Magellan and me(3)
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Magellan's ships were naos with square sails except one caravel with triangular sails.

 
Of course, Magellan started his trip from Spain and we were starting on the other side of the world. I never said it was going to be chronological. Magellan’s objective was the Spice Isles, the Moluccas, in our back yard. Magellan never actually made it to the Spice Isles but three of his ships did. Only one, Victoria, returned to Spain with enough spices to turn a profit on the expedition even though the other four ships were lost through various misadventures. Cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon and pepper were prized commodities in medieval Europe before refrigerators because they could delay meat going rotten.

Spices were transported by camel along the Silk Road or by Arab ships through the Bay of Bengal and by the time they got to Europe were so expensive that only aristocrats could afford them. Magellan saw an opportunity here. Problem was, the pope at that time, Alexander VI, father of Lucretia Borgia and possibly the most evil man in Europe, had drawn a line on the dodgy map of the world dividing it up between Portugal and Spain. No one knew whether the Spice Isles lay on the Spanish or Portuguese side. The crux of Magellan’s story is that he was born Portuguese but came to believe the Spice Isles lay on the Spanish side of the Line of Demarcation. Was he a traitor or hero whistle blower, a champion of truth?

The Spice Isles today lie within the Republic of Indonesia, which consists of hundreds of islands spread over a couple of thousand miles. Magellan never had to bother with formalities like Customs and Immigration, although, in the days before Customs services, the Shah Bandar or head man of most islands demanded tribute.

The easiest way to get a visa, sailing permit and Indonesian Navy clearance was to enter the annual Darwin to Ambon yacht race and leave the paper work to the Darwin Yacht Club. Robin had never been out of Australia before and she amassed a huge amount of data about the places along our route. She was a keen photographer and, apart from the sailing, was excited by the chance to get exotic photos. She taught me a lot about photography.

She was also a sexy lady and taught me a few tricks in that department too. One night we were rowing back to Wathara in the dinghy after a night ashore in Airlie Beach and she started getting amorous.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Can’t you wait till we get back to the boat?”

“Wouldn’t it be fun to do it here?”

“Here? In the dinghy? You’re crazy. The bloody thing will capsize.”

“Not if you put your legs over the back and hold on to the sides and I can sort of straddle you.”

Fortunately, it was a calm night, the sea was smooth and no motor boat came past to kick up a wash, but it was looking perilous for a while. I do not advocate fornicating in a three-metre dinghy, at least not a fibreglass one like ours. It might be okay in an inflatable but you don’t want to have to a wear a life jacket on the job, do you? This is one position you won’t find in the Kama Sutra. My outrageous first mate was beginning to show her colours, not that I was complaining, mind you.

Next: Foreign shores.

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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 fraternity’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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