Who Writes History?

Among many other features, our Florida hometown is renowned for shrimp, sharks, and pirates! It’s not lost on me that pirates have morphed from a menacing distraction to an endearing attraction. Life-size models of pirates punctuate the main street and, on festival days, that same street swarms with pirates doling out swag. The annual Shrimp Fest parade ends with the pirate ship deafening us with cracks of cannon fire. So it’s not entirely surprising that when I saw the tall ship moored in the marina, I smiled dismissively, expecting it to be a pirate galleon staged for the tourists.


An impressive replica of the nao Trinidad is visiting these parts; its tall masts and high prow dominate the horizon. Chris read me the first few lines of the announcement alongside her berth. Of course, you know this: the Trinidad was the flagship of the expeditionary force Magellan led on his historic circumnavigation of the world (1519-1521). The fog in my brain began to lift a little. Hadn’t I learned about this eons ago? Magellan was, I believe, Portuguese, and only one of his ships survived, obviously the Trinidad; he discovered the Magellan Straits, and didn’t he sail to prove the world is round?

So wrong!

Have you ever felt there’s so much you didn’t know you didn’t know?

Photos by Emma, age 7 and Chris Porth, aged a lot more!

An embarrassingly little research taught me I was right in one particular only. Magellan’s expedition did indeed find and chart the Magellan Straits, providing a “shortcut” through the tip of South America. And, in fact, Magellan was born Portuguese but renounced his nationality to claim Spanish citizenship when the Portuguese king refused to back him, and the Spanish offered to fund the entire expedition. Apparently, the learned and influential people had all accepted the world is round since about the 4th century, knowledge that must have seemed dubious to the poor sailors enduring the horrors of a seemingly never-ending voyage. Our replica of the Trinidad seems a sturdy enough vessel, equipped as she is with engines and modern navigation, but the original, pounded by storms and weighed with precious cargo, ripped a hole in her hull, limped back to port, made another doomed attempt to return to Spain, but battered by more violent storms, she had to return again to port, where she was impounded by Portuguese rivals and later scuttled. Only the little Victoria made it back to Seville – without Magellan!

It was all much more complicated than schoolgirl history proclaimed. Italy, Spain, and Portugal were all vying for control of the world’s trading routes, with Portugal claiming dominance over the Atlantic Ocean and its harbors. This was partly because the Silk Road was no longer a viable trading route for silks and spices from the East. Spices were valued as highly as treasure, not only as aromatics and seasonings but because they were believed to cure the Black Death! Magellan’s armada was crewed by a motley assortment of sailors from Spain, Portugal, France, Belgium, Ireland, Asia and Africa. Several groups formed power cliques, all suspicious of Magellan, who, after all, wasn’t really Spanish, who ignored his captains’ advice and had crazy ideas about sailing further south than it was possible to fathom. Consequently, there were mutinies, and one ship headed back to Spain. Conditions were unbearably hard, with many sailors dying in skirmishes, including Magellan (who died of a poison spear wound, having ill-advisedly challenged a defiant tribe of islanders) or of scurvy and starvation. The sailors were so desperate for food they boiled shoe-leather, ate sawdust and considered rats a delicacy. Nonetheless, the Trinidad and the Victoria found their way to the spice islands of the Philippines and loaded a cargo of cloves, so valuable that when, a year later than expected, the Victoria, captained by Elcano, a man hailing from the rebellious Basque region of Spain, limped back to Seville, the cargo more than repaid the financial cost of the expedition.  (The human cost was terrible; only 35 of the original crew of 270, returned. Since that was unremarkable for such voyages of discovery, they were not greatly regretted by the nobility.)

The fact that I’ve spent most of my life thinking mistakenly, as it turns out, that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe raises the question: who writes history? 

In this instance, the people in power do. Elcano, though a skilled and disciplined officer, was not of noble birth. He was rewarded for his intrepid voyage but not, until centuries later, given credit for his part in the expedition. 

And history may yet need revision.  Magellan was accompanied by a  Malaccan slave acquired on a previous voyage. The slave, who acted as translator, survived the skirmish that killed Magellan and made it back to an island neighboring his own. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to speculate that he did indeed return to his homeland and, hence was the first to travel around the world. 

I suspect I am not alone in harboring the hope that so it was…

End Notes



Jamaica Farewell
Harry Belafonte

L’isle Joyeuse
Claude Debussy pianist Mar Andre Hamelin


The Boys in the Boat


La Ponte di Rialto
Jason Allen Paisant


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