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Pandemic meets 500th anniversary of Magellan’s first global voyage

The Juan Sebastian de Elcano training ship
The Juan Sebastián de Elcano training ship for the Royal Spanish Navy arrives in Havana Bay in Cuba on May 11, 2016. The ship was named for a Basque captain who completed the 1519-22 circumnavigation led by Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan.
(Ramon Espinosa / Associated Press)

Disease, mutinies and uncharted waters nearly sabotaged the global circumnavigation expedition led by Portuguese mariner Ferdinand Magellan. Five centuries later, a pandemic looms as a Spanish navy tall ship sails to commemorate the feat.

The Juan Sebastián de Elcano, named for a Basque captain who completed the 1519-22 circumnavigation with 17 of the roughly 240 crew members who began it, docked around Latin America after leaving Europe in August. Visitors were not allowed on board, and the crew disembarked in just a few places, including the Chilean island of Dawson in the Strait of Magellan and San Lorenzo island in Peru.

“This was possible after confirming that the environments were completely free” of COVID-19, Lt. Luis Martínez García, the ship’s public information officer, emailed from the vessel. Currently docked in Mexico’s Manzanillo port, the four-mast ship is scheduled to return to Spain in July, ending an 11-month circumnavigation. The ship departs Friday to cross the Pacific.

Magellan’s expedition for Spanish trade and imperialism opened a westward route from Europe to the Spice Islands, the Maluku archipelago in today’s Indonesia. Today, it invites appreciation for conflicting, overlapping perspectives on history, as well as the rewards and perils of a connected world.

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The expedition was “the first action humans took on a literally planetary scale,” said Joyce Chaplin, a professor of early American history at Harvard University and author of “Round About the Earth: Circumnavigation from Magellan to Orbit.”

“Only by the 19th century was it a safer kind of journey, and this was when it became a popular pastime, as in Jules Verne’s ‘Around the World in Eighty Days,’” Chaplin said. “Now, we worry, like those early circumnavigators, that maybe taking on the entire planet is a deadly business, given how our collective impact on the globe is destroying species and ecosystems.”

Magellan crossed the strait that bears his name, between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, in modern Chile, where President Sebastián Piñera recently said the voyage was about “knocking down walls and building bridges where today ideas, people, knowledge and culture flow freely.”

Magellan, a daring navigator with Portuguese military experience in Africa and Asia, was later spurned by Portugal, Spain’s rival, and distrusted by Spanish sailors in his fleet. While Magellan’s expedition exploited Indigenous people, Christopher Columbus is a far more divisive figure today for his role in the violent colonization of the Americas.

Magellan’s interpreter, an enslaved ethnic Malay called Enrique by the Spanish, has been commemorated in parts of Southeast Asia. Malay writer Harun Aminurrashid wrote “Panglima Awang,” a 1958 novel about him that contributed to regional identity as Malaysia broke with British rule.

The interpreter should “move out of the shadows of Magellan,” said Ahmad Murad Merican, a professor at the International Institute of Islamic Thought and Civilization of the International Islamic University Malaysia.

Portrayed in European accounts as subordinate, the interpreter has since been discussed as a “diplomat and a linguist” who sparked interest in “Malay navigation skills, boat building and the expanse of Malay travels across the oceans,” Merican said.

Some speculate that the interpreter may have been the first person to travel around the world, in separate stages. That might have been possible if he continued west to his Malay homeland after Magellan died in a fight with warriors on April 27, 1521, in what is today the Philippines. Some accounts from the time say the interpreter betrayed Magellan’s expedition after his death, though that narrative has been questioned.

In 2018, President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines designated April 27 as a national holiday to honor Lapu-Lapu, the chief whose men killed Magellan. Lapu-Lapu is admired for resisting foreign intervention and is the namesake of a widely eaten fish.

Magellan is credited with introducing Christianity to the Philippines, now the largest Roman Catholic nation in Asia. Yet he is lampooned in the late comedian Yoyoy Villame’s song “Magellan,” whose lyrics imagine his last words: “Mother, mother, I am sick/Call the doctor very quick/Doctor, doctor, shall I die?”

“We don’t aim to rewrite our history — far from it,” Celia Anna M. Feria, the Filipina ambassador in Portugal, said a year ago at a Lisbon conference on Magellan and the Philippines. But, she said, “we are taking the elements of our history apart” and studying them.

Feria described “magnanimity and humanity” during Magellan’s time in what is now the Philippines, saying he was received on woven bamboo and palm mats by dignitaries (not including Lapu-Lapu).

History is about perspective, said Ambeth Ocampo, a Filipino professor who attended the Lisbon meeting. In a column in the Philippine Daily Inquirer, he said few details were recorded about Lapu-Lapu, so “history recedes into wishful or aspirational images of the hero” on monuments and in films, comics and even an advertisement for disposable diapers.

Jesús Baigorri Jalón, an academic at Spain’s University of Salamanca who was a United Nations interpreter, said Muslim, Jewish and Christian coexistence in what became Spain showed that cultural mixing was common long before Magellan’s expedition.

“The idea of classifying ‘multicultural’ societies as a novelty of our times reflects ignorance or obliviousness of our history, that of the colonial powers and that of those that were colonized,″ Baigorri Jalón said.

By showing that anywhere in the world was reachable over water, Magellan and his crew inadvertently demonstrated the connections shaping humanity today, said Laurence Bergreen, author of “Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe.”

“There was this singular event of 9/11 which the whole world reacted to, and you have the sense that the whole world was in some ways connected and vulnerable in some ways as well,” said Bergreen, who worked on the book around the time of Al Qaeda’s Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the United States.

“Well, now it’s 20 years later, almost, and there’s a pandemic, but it’s sort of the same thing that there are events that occur globally that affect everyone,” he said. “And so there’s a sense of a kind of a shared destiny among people who would otherwise not be aware of other people, or really wouldn’t care much about them.”

The Spanish navy vessel on the commemorative trip is a “small city,” with engine power, a satellite system, garbage and wastewater treatment, a medical team, fresh bread every morning and movies and other leisure activities, its deputy commander, Fernando García, said in a Dec. 13 blog post.

Referring to pandemic disruptions, García said that “while other nations have canceled or postponed similar trips, Spain keeps it going, emulating the great feat completed 500 years ago.”


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