Ferdinand Magellan, contemporary portrait

FERDINAND MAGELLAN

In one of the books I’ve brought along on my voyage, Stefan Zweig attempts a painstakingly precise reconstruction of the first known circumnavigation of the globe – by Admiral Ferdinand Magellan. It is enriched with excerpts from the journal of Antonio Pigafetta from Vicenza, Magellan’s chronicler.

What an accomplishment, what a tragedy that voyage was at the time. The Portuguese explorer Magellan was bent on finding a route from the West to the spice islands of the Moluccas at the close of the Middle Ages, when many still believed, and the Church insisted, that the earth was a flat disc. In 1519 Magellan set sail from Seville, flying a Spanish flag, with an armada of five ships and 237 sailors. Based on vague calculations and maps, he believed there was another route to present-day Indonesia besides the one around the Cape of Good Hope. Despite the mistaken assumption at the time that South America was connected to a southern continent, he discovered what came to be named the Strait of Magellan and was the first European to cross the Pacific, which it was merely suspected had to exist.

But at what cost this great voyage! Of the original crew of 237, a mere 18 sailors survived. All the rest either died of scurvy or other diseases, or starved, deserted, drowned, were murdered, hanged, decapitated or marooned. Magellan fared no better in the end: he was fatally wounded in a fight with the natives on the Filipino island of Cebu. How much easier it is now to traverse the archipelago, it occurs to me as we shove off from Fak Fak on the Sabuk Nusantara 33 in late June, bound for Sorong!