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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.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

World History ="Mine is Bigger Than Yourn"

I have now read 350 of the 450 pages of Laurence Bergreen's book on the Magellan "Moluccan Armada" expedition, and I don't know what to say.   Man!   --Except that it has led me to wonder if a lot of history, both in the commission and in the telling of it, isn't in large part a matter of  mostly male hormones that went seriously out of whack, so that history might be really best seen as being largely  a series of  medical case studies instead of evocations of the great achievements that statues, memorials, holidays, "the writing of many books" (as the writer of Ecclesiastes so scornfully said several thousand years ago) and other salutes to the "great men" are all built around.   How else to look at the Magellan saga rationally?   Because when all else is said and done, and all the characters are considered, from the biggest to the smallest, it is a very irrational story.
         At this point in my reading, Magellan is long since dead and gone, sliced into a bunch of never recovered pieces at the edge of the sea on an island in the Philippines, nearly as far from Spain as he can be in all directions.   He has successfully found and negotiated the straits named after him, and after that he has sailed many thousands of miles across the Pacific, and the main things he has discovered, to his stunning surprise and also horror, is that, one, the Spice Islands (Indonesia) that were supposed to be his ultimate destination are not just a crossbow shot past the other end of the straits, right next to Chile, and two, the Pacific Ocean is really, really BIG!
        But he has also made two more discoveries that are equally serious, and this is where the story of him and his men goes seriously off the track.   Those trade winds that so conveniently pushed them across the broad Pacific with such great speed, ease, and abandon for 98 relatively blissful days, except for the eating and scurvy bit, have brought him not to the Spice Islands, as he might have thought God's will had obliged those winds to do.   Instead he has reached a bunch of other islands to which he has quickly given the name that their inhabitants have all been waiting for: "the Philippines,"   And the best thing about these islands is his fourth discovery: all he has to do to throw the fear of God into the inhabitants is to stand offshore and fire off some of  the vast amounts of military hardware that he has hauled all this distance -- the cannons, the mortars, the muskets -- and everything else is a piece of cake.   Follow up with planting a cross on the highest mountain on each island and that will bring everybody to Christ, especially after he demonstrates to all the local kings that one of his men dressed in a suit of armor would be more than equal to 100 of their nearly naked warriors.
         It's too bad that Magellan never made yet another discovery that would've stood him in good stead, and that would've been the self-awareness that by this time, all those months of being an all-mighty admiral of an "armada" had caused his cojones to swell far too large for his britches, and that he could've used some serious therapy.   Instead he gets into a mode of operation where he tells these kings that if they would just lead all their subjects into converting to Christianity, he, Magellan, will dispose of all their enemies.   And it is in the course of having picked a highly unnecessary fight with the enemies of one of those converted kings, just to show off how well the Spanish fight (in the 200 suits of armor that they had also brought along), that those enemies notice that those suits don't quite reach down far enough.   Magellan gets hit by a poisoned arrow in his leg that causes his chin to have an unplanned meeting with the sand, and that is followed by dozens of other arrows and chops in his arms and other places, and quickly he is history..  
         So now, in my reading, his now badly bedraggled survivors have had to get rid of yet another of their ships, by fire, because seagoing termites have tunneled into it so badly, and now the "armada" is down to only two ships, after two others had already been lost even before they had cleared the straits,, one to a storm and another to crewmen who, taking expeditious advantage of the fact that Magellan was momentarily elsewhere in the straits, backed out of there without telling him and headed home again to Spain, because they had had enough of him and his high-handed ways..
        Therefore, it can be said that, thanks to his highly excessive religious zeal, Magellan's name can only loosely be attached to that first circumnavigation of the globe, and that the achievement was more that of the 18 uncelebrated guys, whoever they were, who were left to complete the second half of the trip before finally staggering into port nearly insensibly, home again in Spain, another long while later.   And the Magellan tale suggests that the great Age of Discovery was actually a story of mainly some avaricious adventurers just feeling their way along and bumping up against their ignorance of many things, including the many human shortcomings, the geography of the planet, the makeup and the validity of other cultures, the tenets of simple morality, and even of being able to tell the time at sea, so that they could always compute their latitude fairly easily but they could never be really sure of their longitude, which meant that much of the time they didn't know where they were even after they had gotten there, and so weren't able to write it down accurately, any more than they were able to record with the most reliable truth what they had seen and done.
        But still, there are certain things that you have to hand to those explorers, especially that thing of going up against the totally unknown, and I'm not saying that I don't envy them in many ways. I wonder how I would've done, going as I would've without a cross, a crescent, or any other religious symbol in my hand?.   But that is another innocent ramble for another day.


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