December 13 – 26, 1519

Under the terms of an international treaty that had received the blessing of the pope in Rome, the vast majority of the Americas was considered to be Spanish territory in 1519. In light of this, it was no small irony that Ferdinand Magellan had chosen to make his first American landfall in the one place amidst that huge expanse of land that didn’t belong to Spain, that instead belonged to Portugal, the very kingdom whose ships he had spent the last two months trying desperately to avoid. That Portugal should be the acknowledged owner of the most easterly outcropping of all the Americas was down as much to an historical accident as anything else.

Portugal had always been most invested in its Asian empire, but, in the aftermath of Christopher Columbus’s voyage, King Manuel hadn’t been able to resist sending some ships westward as well. In 1500, Pedro Álvares Cabral had led across the Atlantic a Portuguese expedition that made landfall near the modern town of Porto Seguro, a good distance south of the bay where Magellan’s fleet now lay sheltering. Not anticipating that the continent of South America could stretch this far east, Cabral had assumed he had discovered a large island, and had claimed it for his country on that basis.

Even after the truth that Cabral had struck the continent rather than a mere island had dawned upon geographers and cartographers, Portugal held fast to its claim. With the rest of the New World beckoning, Spain felt it could afford to be magnanimous in the interest of avoiding a pointless war. In a deal brokered and sanctified by the pope, it agreed to cede to Portugal that relatively small sliver of South America that lay east of 46 degrees west longitude. (The fact that said small sliver was actually as big as France, Italy, Spain, and Portugal put together was just one more reflection of the almost unimaginable extent of this New World that lay at the two Iberian kingdoms’ feet.)

The region’s forests were filled with brazilwood trees, the rosy dark tint of whose timber made it a favorite of the makers of furniture and musical instruments back in Europe. The masterminds of European empire always saw the places they colonized in terms of what they could get from them. Given this, what better name for the region than that of its most prized commodity? By 1511, Portuguese South America had come to be called “Brazil.”

Portugal’s early attempts to exploit its one American possession were less focused than its efforts in Asia. The reasons for this were no mystery: prized though it was by European artisans, brazilwood was worth far less on a pound-for-pound basis than Asian spices. Not until 1512 did the first Portuguese fleet sail into the bay of Rio de Janeiro with the intention of bringing a reasonably large quantity of the stuff back to Europe. (This was the same fleet of which the Concepción’s pilot João Lopes Carvalho was a part.) And not until 1531, long after Magellan had come and gone, would the Portuguese found their first actual colony in Brazil.

Perhaps even more so than for its wood, Brazil was well-known to the Europeans of Magellan’s time thanks to prurient tales in the popular press, revolving around the people who had already been living there for thousands of years when the first Portuguese explorers arrived. A scribe who sailed with Cabral’s expedition had been the very first to report on the South American natives we now know as the Tupi peoples. “There were eighteen or twenty men,” he wrote of the Tupi welcoming delegation. “They were brown-skinned, all of them naked, without anything at all to cover their private parts. In their hands they carried bows and arrows.” He described the Tupi women as suitable Eves for these Adams, living in the same state of free and blissful grace.

Amerigo Vespucci cemented the Tupi in the cultural imagination of Europe after he visited Brazil in 1502. “For 27 days, I ate and slept with them,” he claimed.

They have no laws or faith, and live according to nature. They do not recognize the immortality of the soul, they have among them no private property, because everything is in common. They have no boundaries of kingdoms and provinces and no king. They obey nobody. Each is lord unto himself. No justice, no gratitude, which to them is unnecessary because it is not part of their code.

Two and a half centuries later, long after the Tupi and the other native peoples of South America had been decimated by disease and enslavement and in some cases deliberate genocide, Jean-Jacques Rousseau would base much of his philosophy of the “noble savage” on Vespucci’s accounts. “Nothing is as gentle as man in his primitive state,” he would write, “placed by nature at an equal distance from the stupidity of brutes and the fatal enlightenment of civil man.”

For all that Rousseau may have been laying it on a bit thick, there really is good reason to question whether the typical European peasant had it any better at the dawn of the sixteenth century than the average Tupi. The former lived a life of backbreaking toil in abject servitude to his lord and master, while the latter co-existed with bountiful nature in a way that “civilized” humanity had long since ceased to do in the Old World. The Tupi were hunters, gatherers, and small-scale itinerant farmers, giving back to nature each small plot of cotton, corn, beans, and/or squash after they had planted and harvested it once or twice. In contrast to the constrained economies of civilized Europe, the bounty of Brazil seemed endless, free for the taking. The Tupi had no notion that anyone could permanently “own” the land that gave life to all of them.

But it wasn’t their primitive communism that inculcated in Europeans an almost insatiable appetite for tales of the Tupi and other native peoples; it was rather the allure of the sensual. “Their marriages are not with one woman but with as many as they like, without much ceremony,” wrote Vespucci. “We have known some men who had ten women.” Living in a religious milieu that regarded sex as humanity’s greatest shame and sin, an activity permissible only under layers of bedding in a dark room, and even then only for the purpose of reproduction, what strapping young man of Europe wouldn’t be attracted by these stories of naked, willing flesh? In this context, Vespucci’s claim that he had “slept with” the Tupi took on a whole new dimension. Few doubted that the dashing adventurer had done just that. And many a European couldn’t help but envy him, an earnest belief in the literal reality of a Christian Hell and Heaven, Satan and God, sin and redemption notwithstanding.

All of this was as true of the young men aboard the ships of Magellan’s fleet as it was of any of the comrades they had left behind. Carvalho had been regaling his shipmates throughout the long and stressful Atlantic crossing with juicy stories of the sensual delights that were waiting for them in this new Eden. For once, the reality would live up to the fantasy.

As their anchors were splashing into the water of one of South America’s best natural harbors on that bright December day, the men of Magellan’s fleet glimpsed an extraordinary sight on the shore, just behind the native canoes that were already rowing out to greet them. Dozens — nay, hundreds — of naked women thronged the beach. The younger ones plunged into the water and swam toward the ships at an astonishing pace, arriving hot on the heels of their male brethren in the canoes. The sailors looked down in wonder at the lithe brown bodies that swarmed around their vessels like mermaids out of myth, laughing and babbling in a strange tongue, calling up to them in what certainly sounded like come-hither tones.

The only scraps of clothing that the Tupi men wore incongruously concealed their buttocks rather than their groins; they sprouted bright bouquets of parrot feathers therefrom, decorations in which they took an obvious pride. Ditto the three holes in the lower lip of each man, each hole housing a small polished stone. The women’s bodies were painted in hypnotic patterns, but otherwise completely exposed. Neither the men nor the women even had any hair to speak of below the tops of their heads. (The sailors would later learn that, lacking blades sharp enough for shaving, they plucked their body hair strand by painful strand.)

A cry of joy went up from the deck of the Concepción. Its source was Carvalho, who had spotted the “wife” he had taken during his previous stay in Brazil waving and calling to him amidst the writhing mass of female limbs in the water below. He tossed down a rope ladder, which she climbed to throw herself into his arms.

All semblance of order was now lost. The women swarmed onto the ships’ decks by hook or by crook; where no ropes were available, they climbed up the hulls like spiders, arms and legs splayed akimbo to grasp the tiny seams and cracks in the wood. For people who had no concept of metallurgy, even the most plebeian of shipboard materials were magical artifacts. Antonio Pigafetta watched in shock as one young woman picked a loose nail up from the decking, glanced around furtively, then swiftly tucked it into the space between her legs for safekeeping.

Distracted as they were by sights like these, the sailors didn’t notice the clouds that were rolling in until a gently soaking rain was suddenly falling on them. This was nothing like the rain against which they had struggled over that exhausting fortnight off the coast of Africa; this was the rain of paradise, washing away the muck and sweat, leaving the well-used ships and the haggard sailors aboard them glinting as fresh and new as the morning dew. The natives broke into fresh ecstasies at the rain’s arrival. The sailors would eventually figure out that the land had been in the midst of a drought. Thus they became the gods who had brought the rain with them in addition to so many other objects of wonder. Their good reception was well and truly secured.

The women pulled at the sailors, clearly wishing for them to come ashore. Being for the most part unable to swim, the sailors had to use their clumsy longboats and launches to cover the short distance from their ships to the beach. This the natives found rather hilarious; even gods, it seemed, could safely be teased just a little. On dry land again for the first time in two months, the sailors assuaged the pangs of scurvy with the meat of boars and fishes and a cornucopia of delicious melons, berries, coconuts, and breads. They tasted pineapples. (An awestruck Pigafetta described these as “like huge, rounded cones, but very sweet, and more tasteful than any other fruit.”) They bathed their battered bodies in clean, cool pools of freshwater, emerging from this baptism as unselfconsciously naked as their hosts.

The Tupi lived in long wooden houses that could be set up and taken down again fairly quickly as the tribes moved from place to place around the bay. There dwelt a hundred or more of them in a single one of these structures. A huge net of cotton was stretched from wall to wall inside each house, a single enormous hammock on which everyone slept; on chilly nights, fires could be kindled on the dirt floor directly under it. The women now led their guests into these bowers to enjoy carnal pleasures in every imaginable position and combination. The moral framework of the Old World seemed to have fallen away along with the layers of dirt on the sailors’ bodies. To the extent that they paused to think about religion at all, they felt they had reverted to that better, purer time before the Fall: “And they were both naked, the man and his wife, and were not ashamed.”

Still, some of them did rouse themselves to ask questions about how these strange people lived when they weren’t frolicking with the gods. Fortunately for us, Antonio Pigafetta was among those who did so, going so far as to start on an Italian-to-Tupi dictionary. He learned that the Tupi did have a ceremony akin to marriage, after which a woman was considered bound to her husband, expected to have sex only with him.  And he learned that the Tupi could do amazing feats of handiwork with their simple stone tools, which often seemed to be little more than collections of pebbles. They made their canoes from the trunks of the largest trees, digging them out and planing them to create boats that could fairly fly through the water, propelled by 30 or 40 pairs of strong arms wielding wooden oars shaped like broad shovels. The Tupi wove fine baskets, fired beautiful pottery, and carved bows and arrows which they could shoot with deadly accuracy at animal or human quarry.

Indeed, Pigafetta found that war was hardly unknown in this particular paradise, that the various tribes around the bay indulged in plenty of it, not so much to gain territory — again, the concept of land ownership really didn’t exist among these people — as to gain face and exercise the spirit. They often ate their vanquished foes. “They do not eat up the whole body of the man,” Pigafetta wrote. “They eat him bit by bit, and, for fear that he should be spoiled, they cut him up into pieces, which they set to dry in the chimney, and every day they cut a small piece and eat it with their victuals in memory of their enemies.” Perhaps it was for the best that most of the sailors were too distracted by other temptations to inquire too deeply into such matters…

The officers of the expedition, who had seen Magellan in no other light than that of a glowering taskmaster prior to the fleet’s arrival in Brazil, were stunned that he allowed all of the revelries to go on. Their surprise revealed principally that they had underestimated him, as so many of those around him tended to do, often at their cost in the end. Like any good leader, Magellan understood that his men could only be wound so tight, that the pressure that was built up in them by drills and labor and harsh discipline had to be relieved from time to time. This was the perfect opportunity to do so. So, while the pious Magellan may have observed the antics going on around him with a certain amount of distaste, he did little to impede them, knowing as he did that the time might come when the men’s memories of this improbable sojourn would see them through crises the likes of which they could barely conceive at the moment. The restrictions he put on them were few. Wanting to minimize the extent of his trespassing, he ordered the men to stay well away from the Portuguese trading depot that had been constructed on one of the islands in the harbor. Meanwhile the only positive requirement he stipulated was that they rouse themselves from their bowers long enough to observe Mass and take Communion on each of the two Sundays the fleet spent in the bay. These ceremonies the Tupi observed with wide-eyed fascination, going so far as to imitate the motions and gesticulations involved; this in turn convinced the ever-optimistic Pigafetta that the Tupi would be “easily converted to the Christian faith” if someone ever came along to instruct them properly in the Bible.

Magellan was less forgiving of those officers who wished to indulge in the same debaucheries as the ordinary seamen; this sort of social leveling was anathema to his rigidly hierarchical worldview. Worse, he saw the fault lines that ran through the leadership of the fleet, which he had hoped had been permanently repaired on that memorable day when Juan de Cartagena had been pilloried, taking shape around him once again. The aforementioned day had ended with Cartagena being entrusted to Luis de Mendoza, captain of the Victoria, as more or less his prisoner. But Magellan now saw both of these men, along with Antonio de Coca, the newly appointed captain of the San Antonio, having a grand old time together, bosom buddies among the natives. Rumors began to reach Magellan’s ears that the three men were speaking scornfully of their captain general once more, quite likely hatching fresh plots for getting rid of him and taking over the fleet. It seemed they had a higher opinion of their own ability to lead the expedition when they found themselves in circumstances like these, nestled in cocoons of pleasure and plenty, than they did when they were braving the elements out on the open ocean. Of Bishop Fonseca’s coterie of would-be mutineers, it appeared that only Gasper de Quesada of the Concepción had transferred his loyalties to Magellan permanently after Cartagena had been pilloried. And even Quesada’s good faith was by no means beyond question.

For the second time already on this voyage, Magellan decided that he had to give some of his own officers a very public comeuppance. The most important wings to clip were again those of Cartagena, who was by all indications reasserting himself as the ringleader of the conspiracy. Magellan called one day for his stalwart master-at-arms Gómez de Espinosa, who was, along with a few hand-picked lieutenants, the closest thing the fleet had to an internal police force.

That night Espinosa and his men burst into a house where Cartagena and Coca were lying with some of the native women. Dragging the two naked men bodily out of their love nets, Espinosa arrested them for conduct unbefitting an officer. He then brought them in their bedraggled state of undress aboard the Trinidad to face the wrath of Magellan.

Pacing to and fro in his peculiar limping gait, eyes glowing with a deeper, far more malevolent blackness than the gentle night that surrounded them, he gave the pathetic prisoners a dressing-down for the ages, asking if they had they no consciousness of the duties as well as the privileges of their rank. He said nothing about the possibility of mutiny at this time, but awareness of it lurked behind every angry word that fell from his lips. All but the most besotted of the sailors ashore emerged from their various embraces to take in the tirade drifting in to land from the deck of the Trinidad. In its way, it was an even more humiliating experience for Cartagena, who took the brunt of Magellan’s tongue-lashing, than his time in the stock had been. When the captain general’s fury was finally spent, the two officers were left tied up there on deck, huddled together miserably to await a final judgment on the morrow.

Magellan’s first impulse was to simply leave the pair behind when the fleet sailed; let the Portuguese who would surely eventually return to the bay deal with them as they wished, assuming the natives didn’t grow tired of them and kill them in the meantime. Under the light of day, however, he thought better of it. Being a man who was always ready to do the needful, he wasn’t swayed from his course by the prisoners’ cringing and begging; he rather paused to consider yet again that Cartagena was the son of the dauntingly powerful Bishop Fonseca. What would be Magellan’s own fate upon returning to Spain if the bishop found out that he had deliberately marooned his son in the wilds of Brazil? With Luis de Mendoza having so manifestly failed him as a warden — it was only thanks to a stroke of luck on Mendoza’s part that he too hadn’t been caught up in Espinosa’s dragnet — Magellan decided to reward and hopefully strengthen Gasper de Quesada’s loyalty by transferring Cartagena and Coca to his keeping. He was well aware that it was a dangerous game he was playing, but he felt hemmed in on all sides by the political realities on the ground, with only limited space for maneuvering.

Coca’s dismissal left the captaincy of the San Antonio vacant for the second time since the fleet had left the Canary Islands. Again, Magellan’s Portuguese pilot major Estevão Gomes lobbied hard for the position, and again he was rejected. Instead Magellan chose for the role another Portuguese, a distant cousin of his in point of fact, a young officer named Álvaro de Mesquita. He knew that this appointment would create resentment in many quarters, but he was through with experiments like the one that had placed Coca in command of the San Antonio; he felt that he needed to have a known loyalist in charge of the biggest ship in the fleet. As if passing Gomes over for promotion twice hadn’t been insult enough, Magellan now ordered him to join Mesquita aboard the San Antonio, in order to help the unproven officer with his duties. No move could have been better calculated to enrage the proud pilot. Gomes was positively radiating anger as he packed his trunk and left the flagship, having received only the coldest of farewells from the captain general.

In addition to its other purposes, Magellan intended the degradation of Cartagena and Coca and to some extent even Gomes to serve as a warning to the rest of his officers about the limits of his tolerance. Everyone with the fleet got an even more indelible lesson on that topic on December 20, when they were all ordered to assemble on the beach to witness the execution of Antonio Salomone for the crime of sodomy. Right up until that sentence was carried out, most of the crew believed that Magellan would relent at some point, that he would spare the Sicilian’s life, might at worst choose to leave him behind when the fleet sailed. Alas, this was not to be.

The sailors stood or crouched in ragged ranks with the water at their backs, surrounded by a much larger number of curious Tupi. The condemned man knelt quaking at the edge of the jungle in front of them, held fast by four pairs of arms. An executioner whose identity was concealed beneath a black hood — it was probably Espinosa or another of his police force — stepped out of the trees behind the prisoner and slipped a short length of rope over his head and around his neck. Grasping one end of the garrote firmly in each hand, bracing his knee against Salomone’s back for leverage, he pulled on the crude instrument of death relentlessly, inexorably, while the blood flowed down the victim’s neck, the eyes bugged in their sockets, and the limbs twitched in their unyielding grips. Most of the sailors looked away; most of the natives stared with open mouths, transfixed by this cruel way of meting out death, so different from their way of fighting wars. (Might some of them have been feeling a first dawning premonition that their visitors would prove in the end to be serpents rather than gods in their Garden of Eden?) At last, the executioner relaxed his arms, allowing the lifeless body to flop forward onto the sand.

Antonio Salomone’s is the first documented death on Magellan’s expedition, although it is very possible, even probable, that it was not the very first one to occur; it seems more likely than not that at least a few sailors were swept overboard in the storm off the coast of Africa. For Magellan, this death served a purpose, by showing everyone just how merciless their captain general could be. They had best think twice before crossing him, ran the implicit subtext of the performance.

The fleet celebrated Christmas there in Brazil — another solemn ceremony like the Sunday Masses, made equally incongruous by the wild pagan licentiousness that was going on otherwise. By this time, though, Magellan was just about ready to move on. He had been able to trade trinkets — fishhooks, combs, mirrors, scissors, bells, playing cards, knives, hatchets — for a small fortune in meats, fruits, vegetables, breads, freshwater, and fermented drinks, all of which the Tupi men had happily carried over in their canoes and stowed in the ships’ holds while the gods from across the sea were enjoying their daughters. Magellan knew that, just as too much tautness could cause his men to break or rebel, too much slackness could likewise cause them to lose all of the habits of discipline and responsibility. And he knew as well that he was tempting fate with every day he remained in this bay, that a day would come sooner or later when a Portuguese fleet would sail inside and stumble upon the Spanish ships, lying there at anchor as if they didn’t have a care in the world, virtually abandoned and eminently vulnerable while their crews were busy elsewhere. In short, Magellan’s commander’s instinct screamed to him that it was time to leave.

So, the unhappy word went out as soon as the Christmas Mass was over: the fleet was to sail the following day. The early start that Magellan would have preferred on the 26th proved impossible. Espinosa and his men were kept busy for most of that day, rousting out from the love nets a considerable number of recalcitrant sailors who had halfway or entirely decided that they would prefer to continue with their new lives among the Tupi, taking their chances with the Portuguese if and when they arrived. Then, too, all of the ships had to be thoroughly searched for the native paramours whom some of the sailors tried to sneak aboard. Carvalho begged for permission to bring his Tupi wife along, but Magellan refused, knowing that a woman aboard a ship full of men was a recipe for dissent and disaster. He had more than enough potential sources of both to deal with already.

It was almost dusk when the ships finally filed out of the harbor, surrounded by an honor guard of Tupi canoes and swimmers, chanting and crying and sobbing, bidding farewell to their gods. The men aboard the ships were already rousing themselves from the previous fortnight’s idyll, returning to the mindset of the fallen world, the only one which they had known before coming to Brazil. They became professional seamen once again, with tools in their hands and clothing on their backs: “And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked. And they sewed fig leaves together, and made themselves aprons.”

And so Magellan’s expedition departed the bay known as Rio de Janeiro, leaving behind only the trinkets and baubles it had traded for food and other pleasures of the flesh. Plus one thing more: a number of Tupi babies were born in the next year with unusually light skin, hair, and eyes. Throughout their lives, these would be honored among their people as the children of the strange gods from across the waters.

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 7: A Sojourn in Eden"

  • Sirona Aldri

    As a woman, the thought of hiding a nail up there is absolutely mortifying. I have to respect the sheer audacity of that anecdote.

    “That Portugal should be the acknowledged owner of the most easterly outcropping of all the Americas was down as much to an historical accident as anything else.”
    should be ‘a’ historical accident

    “(This was the same fleet of which the Concepción‘s pilot João Lopes Carvalho was a part.)”
    backwards apostrophe

    “He asked them where they had they no consciousness of the duties as well as the privileges of their rank.”
    honestly not sure how to fix this but grammatically confusing. too many theys?

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks! The nail does sound… unpleasant, but that’s what Pigafetta wrote.

      The use of “a” or “an” before a word with a relatively soft “H” like “historical” can go both ways. When in doubt, I say it aloud. “An” is the article I would use in this case.

  • Ross

    In grade school, I was taught a fanciful story about the Portugese claim to Brazil which is certainly apocryphal, but which I can’t find the origin for. My geography teacher claimed that a storm had come upon Cabral’s fleet while he was indisposed, and at the behest of his first officer, Cabral plotted a new course toward the Gulf of Guinea, but, in his impairment, he didn’t bother to look at the orientation of the map. By the time he sobered up, they were in the middle of the Atlantic with conditions unfavorable to turn around.
    It’s obvious nonsense, and like I said, I can’t find any source other than a long-retired grade school teacher, but it had the sound to me of plausible period propaganda – either by the Spanish, or possibly even something the Portugese might have pushed to avoid the appearance of having deliberately staked a claim to the Spanish-dominated Americas.


Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

RSS Articles Feed
RSS Comments Feed
Twitter: DigiAntiquarian

All writings on this site except reader comments are copyright Jimmy Maher. All rights reserved.