Magellan’s Closer

On this day in 1522 Captain Sebastian del Cano returned to Spain, completing Magellan’s first circumnavigation of the earth. Magellan died halfway through the three-year voyage, during a fight with Philippine natives. Of the five ships and approximately 270 men who set out, only one ship and seventeen men returned. But the Victoria was full of spices and land claims, and for this del Cano received a pension, an addition to his coat of arms, and a globe with the inscription, “You were the first to encircle me” (Primus circumdedisti me).

Among the expedition’s survivors was Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian tourist destined to make a major contribution to the genre of travel literature. Little is known about Pigafetta, but he was on business at the Spanish court at the time Magellan sailed, adventurous enough to want to tag along, and well-connected enough to arrange it. Although snubbed by Captain del Cano upon their return, Pigafetta also presented himself to Charles V (now Holy Roman Emperor), bringing with him not “gold, silver, or any other precious thing worthy of so great a lord,” but “a book written in his own hand, in which were set down the things that happened from day to day during their voyage.” Now known as Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation, this tells a detailed tale of exploration and exotica.

The worst dangers came from within: mutiny, scurvy, such starvation that they ate not just the rats but the sawdust, and “certain ox hides that covered the tops of the yards to keep them from chafing the shrouds” (these they grilled, after first marinating them in sea water for five days). On land they encountered cannibals, “giants” with huge feet (“Patagonians,” or “men with big feet,” stuffed their shoes with straw for warmth), and “strange geese” (penguins) — though they did not go on every wild goose chase:

The old pilot from the Moluccas told [the explorers], that nearby there was an island called Arucheto, on which there are men and women, who are no more than a cubit tall, having ears so big that they lie on one and cover themselves with the other, they are tonsured, and naked, they run fast, they live in caves under the ground, they eat fish, bark, and something that grows inside it like preserved coriander, which is called ambulon. They did not go there because of the currents, and they considered all this nonsense.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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