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Tales of Empire


As a young schoolboy I was lied to first by Miss Bushell and later by Mrs. Beard. They told me Francis Drake had commanded the first ship to sail around the World. Sometime later, when the tentacles of the glory days of British Empire had loosened, I learned that it was actually a Portuguese chappie called Magellan.

Here in Spain the Navy has a tall ship called the Juan Sebastián de Elcano. I think, though I'm not certain, that all Spanish naval officers spend time aboard her as part of their training. I heard that the ship was named for Juan Sebastián de Elcano, the first Spaniard to circumnavigate the globe.

When we were in Barcelona a few weeks ago there was a boat moored there, the Victoria, which is apparently a faithful replica (apart from the diesel engines) of the first ship to sail around the World between 1519 and 1522. We didn't go aboard then but today the same boat was in Cartagena and we did. What's more at last I learned the truth.

Magellan planned a voyage to find a safe route to the Spice Islands for Spanish ships. The majority of the funding for the voyage came from the Spanish King though there was other investment too. Magellan's fleet consisted of five ships with 234 men on board. The sailors came from what are now Portugal, Spain, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Greece, France and the United Kingdom. Along the way four of the ships abandoned the voyage, sank or were burned. Magellan was killed in a battle with the Filipinos. The one remaining seaworthy ship, the Victoria, under the command of Juan Sebastián de Elcano, pushed on West and finally arrived back in Seville with just 18 men on board and a hold full of spices.

So Magellan never made it around the World. It was a Spaniard who brought the boat home. Drake made his circumnavigation of the globe nearly 60 years later, between 1577 and 1580.

Just one more thing. School teachers through the years told me about Drake - the dashing sea captain, the vice admiral, a favourite of good Queen Bess. A chappie with sang froid enough to finish a game of bowls on Plymouth Hoe before thrashing the mighty Spanish Armada with a few small but agile ships crewed by Jolly Jack Tars. I was mightily disappointed when there was a rash of TV documentaries which insisted that there were more English than Spanish boats and that it was effectively the weather which did for the Spanish. I mean, come on Miss Bushell, before I know what's happening I'll have to join in with my Spanish pals who never mention Drake (and mention him they do) without adding the words pirate and slaver.

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