In the great Iberian empires of the 16th and 17th centuries, a career was already avail-able in global administration not very different from the lives of the bankers or lawyers who globe-trot today. In 1509, as one example among hundreds, Duarte Coelho Pereira, a soldier for the Portuguese crown in Morocco and West Africa, went to India, where he spent the next 20 years accompanying missions to China, Vietnam and Siam. Back in Portugal, he became ambassador to the French court and then commander of a patrol on the Malaga coast before taking up the captaincy of Pernambuco in northeast Brazil, a plum royal job, where he made his fortune and founded a dynasty.
Within a couple of decades of the first Europeans venturing out into the Atlantic and Indian oceans, they had become imperial European ponds, often crossed, winds and currents deeply familiar, thick with government and business. The early Pacific, which is at the heart of Harry Kelsey’s short, careful and fascinating book, was different. It was the great gap — of unknown width in an age where longitude was unmeasurable, spattered with very small, very occasional coral atolls and surprising reefs, with unknown patterns of winds and currents that shifted with the seasons. Treasure islands, real or imagined or somehow transferred here from the Hebrew scriptures, lurked there somewhere as the great prize.
The Portuguese and Spanish had agreed at the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494 to split the world in two, the Portuguese having everything to the east of a line that ran down the western Atlantic, the Spaniards everything to the west of it. What no one quite knew was where that division lay on the other, Pacific side of the world. The irony was that it turned out to run straight through the Moluccas, the Spice Islands northeast of Indonesia, between Celebes and New Guinea. Long known to Arab sailors as the world’s greatest source of mace, nutmeg, cloves and pepper, that was ‘the treasure house of the east… a melon waiting to be picked’.
A Portuguese adventurer whose name you won’t recognise, Fernão Magalhães, was the first to circumnavigate the world, and in a way that might at first seem unlikely but fits with this imperially divided globe. He had been to the Spice Islands going east, as part of a Portuguese expedition, but on returning to Lisbon in 1513 found himself unaccountably rebuffed by the Portuguese crown and turned instead to the Spanish. With them he would get to the Spice Islands going westwards, rounding South America and crossing the Pacific to find them.
Magellan — as we have co-opted him — discovered his famous strait, south of Patagonia, and achieved his circumnavigation not by returning home but by meeting his own track in March 1520 at Limasawa, off the southern coast of Leyte in the Philippines. He never returned to Europe but was horribly killed, hit with a poisoned arrow and then sliced apart in the shallows of a beach at Mactan in the Philippines a year after he had first circled the globe.
It was a symptomatic end. Kelsey’s meticulously researched account of these early Pacific voyages may be subtitled ‘Unsung Heroes of the Age of Discovery’, but I can’t believe those are his words. It is a much better book than they imply, as anything resembling heroism is pretty well absent from these first space missions. He calls the people on board the ‘accidental circumnavigators’. They were a curious cross-over: part medieval, with gentlemen bringing their sons along with them as pages; part a buccaneering gang full of mutual suspicion and bitter rivalry. They were expert navigators and the dregs of European quaysides; and inhabited a world in which authority was brutal, insubordination and mutiny a constant threat, where enemies and rivals were decapitated and quartered (the quarters set to hang in the rigging as a discouragement to others), the crews on edge for months, often famished, lips black, where the odds of survival let alone success were often appalling, where torture, marooning, the disappearance of whole ships in storms, hazard, ignorance, blindness, uncertainty and chance — ‘there were not even eight men who could stand up and work the sails’ — were the governing gods. Sometimes Kelsey’s board-hard accounts — this is all archivally founded and he does not speculate or reconstruct — sound as if these men were sailing through a dream-nightmare world whose geography had been devised and delineated by a Coleridge or a Jules Verne.
He manages to name many of the crews: from Juan Sebastian de Elcano, captain, down to Simon de Burgos, man-at-arms, but we cannot know them. They remain characterless and so one has to let the imagination go and see in these names — Miguel Sanchez de Rodas, mariner, Juan de Arratia, seaman — that wonderful figure in Millais’ ‘Boyhood of Raleigh’ (1870), his back to us as the young Elizabethan boys gape open-eyed at his tales from out there where his bronzed arm points across the Devon sea, the source of his toucans and the parrot feather bowls sitting on the old piece of sea timber behind him. That is where the coconuts, the ship-killing whales and the Gauguin girls are all to be found.
Behind it all, in Lisbon and Madrid, there was an archival and controlling intelligence at work, ensuring that each expedition learned from the mistakes and acquired knowledge of the one before, but even so… it is the sheer fragility of the exercise, the tiny bands of men, their thin tracks around the world, which burns into the mind. Odysseus-like, these men were pirates, beggars, thieves and cheats, stealing rice from the impoverished islanders, leaving messages for their followers by sealing a paper in a jug with wax stopper and burying it under a tree whose trunk was marked with a cross, indulging of course in sexual tourism, using the extraordinary machine of the ocean-going galleon but desperate for all of it.
One measure is the size of the ships: Magellan’s was between 16 and 20 feet in the beam, eight to ten feet from deck to keel and between 48 and 60 feet length overall. Set that in the middle of the unknown Pacific and perhaps the heroism becomes palpable. The English, Francis Drake and Thomas Cavendish, came last in this story, blazing their way across the ocean, parasitising on the Iberian discoveries of the preceding century. And they too provide a measure of what this heroism was essentially about: Thomas Cavendish came back with £125,000 of loot in his hold, at a time when you could get a good house in Blackfriars for £150.
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