Five-hundred years ago, Ferdinand Magellan sailed out of Seville, Spain, on one of the most memorable discovery voyages ever made, that ultimately proved the earth is round.
Magellan’s fleet consisted of five ships manned by some 237 sailors. It was a motley crowd composed of ten nationalities, among them – the Brits will be happy to note – was one Englishman. As glorious as the enterprise may have been, from a more level-headed viewpoint, it was a terrible tragedy. Of the five ships that departed, only one, the Victoria, returned to Spain and, with it, just 18 men of the many who had set sail in 1519. The commander-inchief was not among them. He had lost his life in a petty skirmish on Mactan Island, Philippines, in 1521.
What had begun with so many hopeful aspirations soon turned sour, and came to a head when the fleet reached the Bay of San Julián in the deep south of what is today Argentina. In that well-protected natural harbour, Magellan had stopped over on 30 March 1520 to careen the ships and give the crews a break. There, the seafarers met the first Patagonians, giant individuals (“we were only as tall as their belts”) with enormous feet (pata = paw, gonio = square).
And, there, three of the five captains initiated a mutiny that had already been simmering for some time. They argued that continuing the voyage was senseless, and life-threatening with provisions running short and the exhausted crews grumbling. The dismal landscape appeared to add an unnerving element, prompting them to act without a moment’s delay, starting with the plan to murder the captain general. But they had not taken into account the slyness of the commander, who had gotten wind of their designs.
A battle of sorts evolved in the course of which Magellan, who had hitherto captained the Trinidad, was able to take over the Victoria, on which the mutineers had entrenched themselves, and that was the end of it. One of the ringleaders was knifed to death and, to make sure he was no longer alive, quartered. Another fell under the executioner’s axe and was also cut to pieces. The mastermind, Juan de Cartagena, and the priest Sanchez de la Reina who had been in cahoots with him, were marooned on the barren coast after the fleet had sailed on, “so that they may suffer a slow death or live a life of repentance without the prospect of ever seeing their homeland and friends again.”
Another forty mutineers were condemned to death, but pardoned because there would have been an intolerable shortage of crewmen. One of them, Sebastian Elcano, took the Victoria back to Spain in 1522 and was thus the first skipper to circumnavigate the globe. Magellan had been very close to this feat when he reached Malacca, which is but a stone’s throw from the Philippines. Twenty-six tonnes of spices picked up in the Moluccas covered the expenses of the expedition, including the value of four missing vessels.
The Santiago floundered on the Patagonian coast, the San Antonio witnessed another mutiny and returned to Spain. The Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese at Tidore Island, and the Concepción was scuttled in the Philippines because there was no one left to run her.
There have been many ships by the name of Victoria, but none is more famous than the humble scow of 95 tonnes, sole survivor of Magellan’s epochmaking exploit. Various replicas of the celebrated vessel have been built in several countries, including one at San Julián. For centuries, the dramatic events there had received little attention by historians. Then, in the 1990s, reminescence set in and it was decided to put a replica of the Victoria on the coast as a tourist attraction.
An initial plan to convert a derelict hulk rotting away on the beach into the last ship of Magellan’s fleet was fortunately jettisoned. After amassing more than 300,000 dollars from various sources, knowledgeable shipwrights and historians went to work, and what came into being under their skilful hands was a true scale reproduction