September 20 – October 3, 1519

At nearly the same instant that Magellan’s carracks sailed from Sanlúcar, a dozen or so sleek, swift Portuguese caravels put to sea from Lisbon. Taking advantage of the same favorable wind as Magellan’s fleet but making much better time than that tubby collective, they headed for a point in the Atlantic Ocean about 150 miles (240 kilometers) southwest of the Canary Islands, where they had orders to take patrolling stations, setting up a sort of blockade.

The Portuguese fleet’s instructions had come down directly from King Manuel himself. With reason and threats having failed to sway Magellan from his purpose, he had decided to use force. His fleet would be waiting for Magellan’s after it left the Canaries to undertake the long Atlantic crossing. The Portuguese ships were smaller than the Spanish ones, to be sure, but these were proper warships, fast and maneuverable and bristling with cannons. They ought to have no trouble intimidating their quarry into raising the white flag of submission. They would then arrest the captain general along with any other Portuguese onboard, seize all of the maps and charts, and “escort” the Spanish ships back where they had come from.

It was an audacious if not desperate last-ditch gamble, but Manuel believed it was one well worth taking in the name of protecting his Asian empire from Spanish incursion, even if just for a little while longer. He was counting on young King Charles not being ready go to war over the incident — not when he already had so many other problems on his plate, from the unrest being stirred up by Martin Luther in Germany to his still-precarious standing in Spain.

Meanwhile, blissfully unaware of what its captain general’s sovereign had cooked up for it, the Spanish fleet made its way toward the Canary Islands proper. As any commander worth his salt would have done, Magellan used this first, routine leg of his fleet’s epic voyage to inculcate the habits that would hopefully see it through the later, far more perilous stages of the journey.

A sailing ship was an intricate system, one of the most complex yet invented by humans. Even when the weather was fair and the winds were favorable, as they were now, it required constant attention to stay on course and in good working order.

The chain of command aboard each ship descended from the captain to the pilot and then on to the ship’s master, the man who knew the vessel better than anyone else and was responsible for ensuring that it was always in tiptop shape. Each of this trio of officers was in charge of his own company of the crew, who worked the sails, ropes, and rudder for him when he was on the quarterdeck. Each watch lasted four hours, measured by the officer of the deck using a half-hour glass; when the glass had run out for the eighth time, that watch was over. To keep the three companies from always working the same hours of the day and night, the usual progression of watches was scrambled at midnight, with one of the companies coming on duty again after a rest of just four rather than eight hours. This helped to prevent complacency, which could be as insidiously deadly for a ship at sea as any storm.

During the daylight hours, the ship’s master mobilized that part of the crew that wasn’t on watch for the additional swabbing, pumping, caulking, tying, and adjusting that were required to keep a vessel shipshape. In reality, it was the master who really ran a ship in a day-to-day sense, in close partnership with the boatswain, the officer who was fourth in the chain of command. (In their duties and status, these positions roughly correspond to the executive officer and warrant officer of a modern ship.) The masters and boatswains of Magellan’s fleet were especially vital, given that three of the five captains knew almost nothing of ships; even Magellan himself was, as we have seen, more of a soldier who went to sea than a sailor born and bred.

While it wasn’t an easy life for the ordinary seamen of the crew, it wasn’t a terrible one either; many a European peasant laborer would happily have traded places with them. If the humanity of their officers wasn’t enough to ensure that they were treated reasonably well whenever circumstances allowed for it, practicality did the trick. A content and well-fed crew was much better to have in a pinch than an angry, hungry one.

The early stages of a longer voyage were generally the most pleasant for everyone onboard, and this crazily long voyage was no exception. The cows and pigs that had been loaded in Spain were slaughtered one by one to provide fresh meat. No one was permanently assigned to the role of cook. Instead the sailors shared the duty of roasting the great slabs of meat in olive oil and spices in a firebox on the forecastle. (Fire of any sort being a dangerous thing to have aboard a ship made of wood, barrels of seawater were kept ready near the firebox to douse the flames if they got out of hand.) There was plenty of wine to wash the meat down with, and there were fresh fruit and vegetables to heap beside it. Even the rats — every sailor’s bane — hadn’t gotten too out of control yet this early in the voyage.

So, it was a life of hard work, but one not without its pleasures and its camaraderie. The ship’s boy rang the changes of each day in a high, clear soprano:

On deck, on deck, Mr. Mariners of the right side,
Hurry up on deck, Mr. Pilot’s watch,
For it’s already time. Shake a leg!

Each new rosy-fingered dawn was greeted with a chanted prayer:

Blessed be the light of the day and the Holy Cross, we say,
And the Lord of Vérité and the Holy Trinity.
Blessed be the immortal soul,
And the Lord who keeps it whole.
Blessed be the light of day,
And He who sends the night away.

In a glorious early autumn like this one, there were worse places to be than skimming along the ocean’s broad back, worse fates than that of curling up to sleep with hearty food in one’s belly, the fresh air in one’s lungs, the comforting creaking and flapping of a well-ordered sailing ship in one’s ears, and the pleasant tingle in one’s limbs of a body worked well but not to exhaustion. There was a peculiar, paradoxical freedom amidst the rules and regulations of life at sea: a freedom from the social structures and strictures of Old Europe, which had kept peasants bound to their land for time immemorial. Sailors were by definition unbound to the earth. The guiding ethic of a well-run ship was efficiency; it was a place where smarts and skill could take even a low-bred man surprisingly far. Small wonder that people talked of running away to sea. The hermetically sealed society of a ship at sea offered an escape from the suffocating norms of home, where a man could be only that which he was born to be — no more, no less.

The fleet stayed together and stayed in touch using visual signals. The flagship Trinidad kept a bright fire burning on its poop deck throughout the night, so that the others could see it and follow. (Needless to say, plenty of casks of seawater surrounded this fire as well…) Changes in course, in sail configuration, and much else were signaled using four lanterns on the poop deck, which were lit in different combinations that corresponded to different instructions; the other ships then lit lanterns of their own to signal that they had received and would follow the new orders.

The fleet reached Tenerife, the largest of the seven Canary Islands, on September 26, just six days after leaving Spain. This archipelago of eternal spring, where the sun shined always warmly but never hotly, lay at the extreme edge of the world that the ancient Romans had known. It had been a place of myth and magic to them, sometimes associated with Plato’s legendary Atlantis. The Romans had marveled at its strange beaches of black and white sand. It was said that one of the islands had nary a pool nor fountain upon it, but got all of its freshwater from a single cloud that descended at precisely noon each day to pour down mana from heaven on a single giant tree at its center. The rain that pattered down from the leaves of the tree sustained everything else that grew and lived upon the island, including the people, who required no other nourishment.

Another, more recent legend said that that the people the Portuguese and Spaniards had encountered when they returned to the Canary Islands at the dawn of the Age of Exploration had belonged to a tribe on the African mainland during ancient times. This tribe had resisted Roman efforts to subjugate it so implacably that it had finally won a measure of respect from the centurions, who had offered the tribespeople a watery exile in lieu of annihilation — albeit not before cutting out all of their tongues so as to ensure that they couldn’t boast to any chance visitors about how they had fought the imperial legions to a standstill.

Other contemporary Europeans looked at the blond hair and blue eyes that were common among the native Canarians and concluded that they must be the descendants of some shipwrecked Viking or Celtic wanderers of old. Regardless of what story you believed, no one could deny that the natives of the island had fought the superior weapons of their European colonizers with admirable tenacity. Tenerife hadn’t been fully, definitively subdued by the Spanish until 1495, sixteen years after Portugal and Spain signed the Treaty of Alcáçovas, in which Portugal agreed to cede the Canary Islands to Spain in return for Spanish recognition of its right to the Azores, the Cape Verde Islands, and Madeira.

Christopher Columbus had stopped at the Canaries before crossing the Atlantic on three of his four trips to the New World, a practice that was still maintained by most Spanish ships bound for the Americas. Santa Cruz, the principal port near the northeastern tip of Tenerife, was wild enough to make Seville look tame, its streets, wharves, bars, and brothels teeming with sailors who were either about to attempt a perilous ocean crossing or were just returning from one, secure in the knowledge that their financial reward was waiting for them back in Spain. In either case, they were ready to let off steam. Their drunken singing was the constant background note of life in the town, punctuated by the occasional percussive accent of fisticuffs or worse. The spent and bedraggled revelers traditionally ended their stay on Tenerife by gathering in the Iglesia de la Concepción — the Church of the Immaculate Conception — to confess their recent sins and beg the Virgin Mary for safe passage to their next destination.

The sailors of Magellan’s fleet presumably behaved no better nor worse than any of the others who came to Santa Cruz. Magellan himself, however, took to the crowded streets with soberer objectives in mind. He needed to top up his supplies for the long Atlantic crossing, even though it meant paying the exorbitant prices of a last port of call. Additionally, this was the first and last place the expedition would visit with reasonably good links to the European mainland, giving him a final chance to send and receive correspondence. And indeed, Magellan found a letter from his father-in-law Diogo Barbosa already waiting for him in the Santa Cruz post office. It said that Juan de Cartagena, Gasper de Quesada, and Luis de Mendoza, those three loyalists to Bishop Fonseca who also happened to be the captains of three of the five ships of the expedition, had been heard openly boasting about their plans to pitch their Portuguese captain general overboard and take over themselves as soon as they were well away from Europe. “Keep a good watch,” wrote Barbosa. Magellan dashed off a reply stating the usual: that he would do so, but that he would above all do the duty he had pledged to King Charles to do.

In addition to dead-enders and cutthroat businessmen, a town like Santa Cruz collected scuttlebutt like ships’ holds collected rats. Magellan’s crew came back from the bars with disquieting reports of a fleet of Portuguese caravels that had just come tearing past the Canaries, their purpose unknown. Magellan digested the reports with equanimity, showing no outward sign of concern, revealing his thoughts to no one.

But he was concerned. Very much so. On October 1, he removed his fleet down the coast of Tenerife to a much smaller port called Monterose. There it took on a fresh load of pitch, an essential caulking material aboard ships such as these, without which they would sink within hours. (Even with it, they leaked constantly; a sailor or two was always kept busy pumping seawater out of the bilges.) On the afternoon of October 2, with the pitch duly loaded, Magellan issued an unexpected order: the ships were to sail that very night at midnight, sneaking out of the Canaries like the fugitives they were.

The men wondered at this; the cover of darkness was all well and good, but it was not going to get them past a determined Portuguese blockade, if that was really what they were facing. Were they giving up and going home?

Ah, they of little faith! They hadn’t yet learned that their captain general was, every bit as much as Homer’s Odysseus, a man of twists and turns. He had a plan. He always had a plan.

Did you enjoy this chapter? If so, please think about pitching in to help me make many more like it. You can pledge any amount you like.

(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

3 Comments for "Chapter 5: Underway"

  • Krsto

    Thank you Jimmy for another great chapter. like cliffhanger ending. Probably unintentional, but last sentence reminded me of Baldrick’s character from Blackadder series.

    • Martin

      Was it a plan so cunning that if you put a tail on it, you would call it a weasel?

      • Krsto

        More like a fox who’s just been appointed Professor of Cunning at Oxford University.


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