Thursday, March 15, 2018

Ferdinand Magellan was a mean SOB

Punta Arenas, Chile is the taking-off point for the Strait of Magellan's #1 attraction—the great noisy nature show staring Magellanic penguins and gulls on Magdalena Island. A lot of stuff in this part of the world is named after Magellan.
We spent most of a day on the island, but the Nao Victoria Museum, a privately owned surprise off the beaten tourist trail, is #4 out of 88 on TripAdvisor's Things-To-Do-in- Punta Arenas, and demanded to be seen. Star of the show is a replica of Magellan's ship.

Replica of Ferdinand Magellan's ship, one of five under his command, that set out from Spain in 1519 to discover a western sea route to the Spice Islands. The voyage, which lasted three years, began with around 240 men. Only 18 completed the journey. Magellan was not among them. 

Like almost any other person in my generation, I'd slogged through the lifeless textbook world history account of Magellan's explorations in10th grade. I never thought about him again until I saw that we'd be smack dab in the middle of his expedition route during our recent cruise around Cape Horn on the tip of South America. Surprising myself, I thirsted after exploration history. Gimme Magellan!
The back of Magellan's ship shows how small it is, and, compared with modern ships, how insignificant the keel. It also shows the messy industrial area surrounding the private museum, which is in a hard-to-find location. No matter. 

Conveniently, PK had purchased (and shared with me) via Kindle, a book called Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, by Laurence Bergreen. Highly recommended.

Over the Edge is an engrossing historical tale that I read with ever-increasing fascination, but also gut churning and jaw clenching as we moved in real time through territory Magellan explored.

People in the 1500s were stuck on the flat-earth theory, and his crew feared they would drop off the edge of the earth if they ventured into previously unexplored waters. Maybe a giant waterfall into space? It was a real fear. But Magellan was determined and bold enough to test it.

But crew members had more to fear: starvation, hypothermia, scurvy, and the captain himself.

This is scurvy. It also causes skin problems, fatigue
and can be fatal. Several crew members died of it. It
wasn't until the 1800s that Vitamin C deficiency was 
identified as the cause.

Why don't I like Magellan?

When he got wind of a mutiny brewing, he made examples of the ringleaders by having them drawn and quartered, a particularly grisly operation. Then body parts were preserved and displayed on the ships for months. Of course, he was a product of the Inquisitions that were prevalent in Medieval Europe, where ingenious and terrible torture devices and methods were created.

I understand his need to stop mutinies, but couldn't he have just thrown them overboard? That's a bad enough way to die.

When his crew encountered "giant" people who they reported to be twice as tall as regular people, and also friendly, generous and naked, Magellan captured one and locked him into stocks.

Just go right ahead and steal a person from the only place he's ever known, Ferdinand.

The Patagonian was among the few who survived the return voyage to Spain, and was eventually returned to his people. No thanks to Magellan.

Incidentally, the discovery of "giant people" also led to the region being named Patagonia.
Antonio Pigafetta, who sailed with Magellan in the 1520s, had written of an encounter with a race of South American giants. According to Pigafetta, Magellan referred to these giants as 'Patagons' because of their big feet, and so the southern tip of South America came to be known as Patagonia. disputes the size of the giant people, but not that their footprints led to the area being named Patagonia.
Antonio Pigafetta, by the way, was an Italian scholar and Magellan's assistant, who took copious notes about the expedition and is the primary source for Over the Edge. It was Pigafetta, who recorded without judgment, what he saw and heard.

When Magellan approached populated islands, he'd often fire off the big guns and make a lot of noise, scaring the hell out of the indigenous people while establishing his dominance.

This behavior eventually backfired as he made enemies with people who outsmarted and killed him, even as he was dressed in full armor. They hacked him to pieces in shallow water, at first being able to access only exposed flesh.

Because of this book, Magellan is pressed into my brain as a singular bully and brute. True, he was a fearless explorer, a sailor and navigator with an unstoppable drive for sniffing out the elusive passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which bears his name..... the Strait of Magellan.

He was disciplined and single-minded. But he was also vicious, cruel, and sanctimonious. He did it all for God, gold, and personal glory.

Being on the Strait of Magellan was fascinating and fun. Also cold and windy, hence the puffed up look as we wore all our winter clothes at once. 

A full-scale replica of the James Caird, a small boat used by polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his men in a serious pinch, is also at this museum. Endurance: Shackleton's Incredible Voyage, is a nonfiction must-read for fans of survival epics starring men of extraordinary character prevailing against impossible odds. The yellow flowers are typical lupines from this area. They're wild flowers that come in multiple colors and are shoulder high.

Darwin was in his twenties, a young geologist and naturalist when he traveled on the HMS Beagle, a circumnavigation of the world that took five years to complete. The ship also went to the Galapagos Islands, where Darwin's discoveries helped to solidify his theory of evolution. 

Chelsea Behymer explores the HMS Beagle's innards.
The Strait of Magellan wasn't easy to find, as you can see. Especially the way to the Pacific with all the alternate twists and turns. 

Next Up - We leave the cruise ship early and begin a road trip in Chile, the Boomers and the Millennials making their way in Patagonia.

Earlier posts about our South American travels

Penguin drama - #1 attraction near Punta Arenas, Chile


  1. This was an incredible adventure ! Argentina,Chile and Tierra del Fuego are still at the top of our bucket list ! Thanks so much for sharing

    1. You must go, Sandy. We're thinking of returning to Chile and doing a road trip. I'm working on posts now about the road trip we did with our son and his girlfriend. Incredible. Thanks for commenting!

  2. I didn't think drawing and quartering could be accomplished without horses...I don't even want to think about how that was done on a ship. There always seems to be a large percentage of sadistic authoritarianism when it comes to life aboard ships regardless of the century. One of the things that makes O'Brian's main character, Captain Jack Aubrey, so likeable is that he refused to follow the guidelines of punishment laid out by the British Navy. Plus he and friend Stephen Maturin were forever playing violin/cello duets. But they were not gentle creatures, no. The battles scenes are as violent and bloody as can be imagined. I've hated reading about explorer conquerors since that same 10th grade History class you mentioned. Love the history, deplore the cruelty of humans to other humans.

  3. Sadly human cruelty is part of the human condition, no matter where or when. Without it, the history of civilization would be far different, eh? Patrick O'Brian. I will read a book. by him. Which one first? Thanks for your thoughts, dear friend.