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Unpopular Ideas

Ramblings and Digressions from out of left field, and beyond....

Location: Piedmont of Virginia, United States

All human history, and just about everything else as well, consists of a never-ending struggle against ignorance.

Saturday, June 11, 2011

Finding the Strait and Narrow

For my bedtime reading in the past several years, I've been concentrating on long accounts of life experienced at its utmost extremes. voluntarily or involuntarily, by a fortunate or an unfortunate few.   Right now it's "Over the Edge of the World," a 2004 book by Laurence Bergereen.  This tells of a venture, not long after C. Columbus brought the Europeans over this way -- the first sea voyage completely around the world at one of its widest circumferences, headed, at first, by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese, in a tiny but expensive fleet paid for by the Spanish, and how that arrangement came to be is a pretty wild story in itself.

  Magellan had so many early failures that it's unbelievable that he would have even been considered for leading an expedition into the Great Unknown, which almost any trip of more than 100 miles out into the Atlantic was thought to be.   He got the chance by shrewdly taking advantage of some high-stakes boxing in the dark that was being conducted between the Spanish king, a guy named Charles, and the Portuguese king, a guy named Manuel.   Magellan's earlier setbacks must've helped, too.   It meant that he was expendable, as were most of the sailors, an unruly bunch, and the only real costs were for the ships themselves and the provisions.

And what was money anyway?   The main Spanish industry of that day consisted of  beating other Europeans to finding as many hitherto untouched territories as they could, so that they could relieve the natives of all their gold and other treasures that, it turned out, in the eyes of the Spanish rightfully belonged to the Spanish. and only to them.   And they had God's okay on that.

   Though Magellan was the guiding light of the whole thing, another of the many ironies of the voyage is that it was barely half over before death dropped him out of the telling altogether, through some sort of misunderstanding in the Philippines, as it gradually did in the case of nearly everybody else, after they had left Spain with such high expectations of finding a short cut across South America that would allow them and others, preferably and hopefully only the Spanish, to reach Indonesia, then called the Spice Islands, without too much trouble.   The idea was that the Spanish King could get a chokehold on the worldwide spice trade, while Magellan could finally secure his place in the world's esteem that he thought he so richly deserved.   But the immediate outcome of the expedition was that, of the five ships with 239 men aboard that had comprised the fleet when they set out in 1519, only one ship was still in enough of a floating condition to reappear off the Spanish coast four long years later, with only 18 men aboard, starved, in tatters, and barely able to tell what had happened.

       But they at least proved, beyond all shadow of the doubt, and before astronauts could bear witness and convincing photos could be taken, that the Earth was a huge globe, covered mostly by water, and that sailing ships, though they could fall over a number of things, one of those hazards was not the edge of the world -- which means, doesn't it, that this book was slightly misnamed.

         I haven't finished reading it.  I'm not even halfway through.   I'm rationing it to myself, so as not to run out of reading material.   My own books, I mean, freshly bought from Amazon.   I don't like reading library books, as my wife does.  You have to be too careful with them.

       But it seems to me that while Magellan didn't live to see the completion of the voyage, besides surmounting all the aggravations of even getting to leave Spain while still in charge of things, he did see the successful outcome of what must have been the main thrust of the voyage, which was not sailing completely around the world all at one shot.  I have an idea that they were chased into doing that, for lack of any better alternatives.   Nor was it in even reaching the Spice Islands.  Instead it was in solving a problem that had been as knotty for the Spanish and Portuguese explorers of the 16th Century as finding the complete Northwest Passage was for the English three centuries later, and that was in finding the waterway, the straits,  across the southern part of South America that they knew were there and hopefully weren't going to turn out to be so far south that they would have had to cross part of Antarctica -- a development that would have been a really first-class downer, in almost anybody's book.

      The trouble was, aside from being unable to wait long enough for Cessnas or Piper Cubs to be invented, which would have cleared the whole thing up in a hurry, they couldn't tell which of the many indentations into the southern South American coast were dead end inlets, the estuaries of rivers emptying into the Atlantic, or the big Prize.  As a result Magellan spent a great deal of time trying to guess which one of those numerous openings into the coast hid the lucky number, and meanwhile the mutinous Spanish captains under him kept complaining and carping for all they were worth. 

       So far, in this book, Magellan still hasn't found the straits that are now so justifiably named after him, but that's right around the corner, and I have a feeling that even while he's picking his way through them, long before he gets across the ocean and starts messing around in the Philippines, which to my geographical memory isn't exactly on the straight track to Indonesia, he's going to go through a lot more aggravation.  I've always heard that that southern tip of South America is some of, if not the, toughest sailing in the world.

And now for one of my favorite verses from American blues music:

            Which-a way, which-a way, does that blood red river run
            From my back window, down to that setting sun.



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