There were no beds. Storms would toss the ships about. After a few months food consisted of only moldy bread and spoiled meat. Pests infested the ship. Water constantly breached the ship. Oh, and there were no bathrooms.
This is why men like Ferdinand Magellan deserve our respect. They endured unthinkable hardships to seek out glory.
Going to sea was the most adventurous thing one could do, the Renaissance equivalent of becoming an astronaut, but the likelihood of death and disaster was far greater. These days, there are no undiscovered places on earth; in the age of the Global Positioning System, no one need get lost. But in the Age of Discovery, more than half the world was unexplored, unmapped, and misunderstood by Europeans. Mariners feared they could literally sail over the edge of world. They believed that sea monsters lurked in the briny depths, waiting to devour them. And when they crossed the equator, the ocean would boil and scald them to death.”
In this day and age when explorers are vilified for their cruel behavior, it’s important to understand without their sacrifices we would not be here. Here are a few lessons to take away from Magellan’s voyage:
Turn Humiliation into Empowerment
In September of 1517, Magellan asked if he could offer his services elsewhere, and, to his astonishment, the king replied that Magellan was free to do as he pleased. And when Magellan knelt to kiss the king’s hands, as custom dictated, King Manuel concealed them behind his cloak and turned his back on his petitioner. The humiliating rejection proved to be the making of Ferdinand Magellan.”
Magellan was initially spurned in his desire to find the Spice Islands. His honor was greatly insulted, but he didn’t let that stop him. If you find yourself publicly humiliated, turn that around and have the last laugh!
Stick to the Mission
One of the biggest lessons learned from Magellan’s voyage was the importance with sticking the mission. This voyage was unprecedented. Naturally, this lead to anxiety among much of the crew.
As Magellan’s crew sailed along the coast of what is now Argentina, men began to brood. They planned a mutiny to purge Magellan of power and sail home for the conditions were too tough and Magellan was acting despotic. Magellan got word of the mutiny and harshly struck back and crushed the rebellion.
Magellan would be forgiven if he gave in and turned around. As I previously mentioned life aboard these ships in 1520 was not pleasant. Yet, the desire for glory, God, king and county allowed these men to endure the suffering. His boldness paid off and they continued down to the edge of the South American continent and navigated the strait that now bares Magellan’s name:
Magellan’s skill in negotiating the entire length of the strait is acknowledged as the single greatest feat in the history of maritime exploration.”
Failing to stick to the mission also had deadly repercussions for Magellan and his crew. The king of Spain, King Charles V, had told Magellan to avoid using violence against the natives:
They were also to treat humanely any indigenous peoples they happen to find, if only to make it possible for the fleet to assure its supply of food and water.”
Moreover, proselytizing was not a priority–finding the Spice Islands was. Yet, Magellan’s ego got to him.
Don’t Let Your Ego go to Your Head
He had successfully converted many tribes in what is now the Philippines. He got cocky and wanted all of the local tribes to become Christians and give their allegiance to King Charles. One stubborn tribe refused. Magellan was incensed and refused to have the Spanish crown disrespected. So, it was war.
His thirst for glory, under cover of religious zeal, led him fatally astray.”
Magellan’s crew was vastly outnumbered and unprepared. An onslaught ensued. Many sailors died and Magellan was killed in the battle, leaving his crew to navigate the remainder of the journey without their leader. And while some were happy the tyrannical Magellan was gone, his strict nature was not without reason.
Several decisions were made soon after Magellan’s death which had disastrous results for the crew. This included the intentional burning of a ship, leaving port with ships in poor repair, and navigating in the completely wrong direction.
The absence of Magellan’s guiding hand, his fierce discipline, even his quixotic delusions of grandeur, left the two remaining ships and their crew members without a sense of overriding purpose. Only survival mattered now.”
Honoring the Legacy of Magellan
In Magellan’s death, Pigafetta [The ship’s chronicler], who had fought at his side, saw a shining example of nobility, heroism, and glorious acceptance of fate. In the most emotional, eloquent entry of his entire diary, he memorialized his slain leader, whom he had revered. ‘I hope that…the fame of so noble a captain will not become effaced in our times. Among the other virtues that he possessed, he was more constant than anyone else in the greatest adversity. He endured hunger better than all the others, and more accurately than any man in the world did he understand sea charts and navigation. And that his was the truth was seen openly, for no other had had so much natural talent nor the boldness to learn how to circumnavigate the world, as he had almost done….”
Overall, this book was excellent. It blends concise history with masterful story telling. If there was any doubt about the accuracy of the text, a simple look at the bibliography ill assuage any doubt.
And if this review hasn’t enticed you then I will tell you that the book contains stories of meeting Patagonian giants, moonlit orgies with nubile women from Brazil to the Philippines, penis piercings, medieval torture and more. You probably weren’t expecting that, were you?