How Spain Connected the Far East and the Far West: The Beginning of a New Era

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 12 Apr 2021

Cristina Cabrejas-Artola – TRANSCEND Media Service

10 Apr 2021 – Magellan and Elcano’s nautical expedition was an extraordinary leap for humankind. Almost two years of a long-haul sail across the unknown oceans changed the history of navigation and, most importantly, it unlocked a whole new world connecting people from the Moluccas in the Far East, across the New World in the Americas with old continent in Western Europe. The expedition sponsored by the Spanish Holy Roman Emperor Charles I and V of Germany, was fated to mark the beginning of the liberal peace era, peace through trade.

In 2021, the world gracefully honours the expedition leaders Ferdinand Magallan and Juan Sebastian Elcano, as well as the courageous crew who risked their lives at sea, whilst facing a host of perils on board. From August 2019, exactly 500 years after Ferdinand Magellan first set sail on the coast of Cadiz in Southern Spain, to March 2021, a year and seven months after he reached the Kingdom of Manila, Spain has been rendering homage to the 260 young men who sailed around the world in what was to become the first global circumnavigation.  Dispersed amongst 5 ships they left Spain rounding the coast of Western Africa to cross the Atlantic towards South America and finally discover the passage to the Pacific Ocean, known today as Strait of Magellan. They continue the voyage reaching as far as the 7,000 islands in the Kingdom of Manila to return to Spain via the Indian Ocean through Indonesia, Malaysia, India, rounding the entire African continent to finally moored in Cadiz on 8 Sep 1522.

The entire expedition took 1.082 days which was to be recorded as the time the first European explorers took to discover half of the world. Undeniably a great accomplishment in terms of world’s history since it transformed humanity in its entirety. The discovery of both, the American continent and the Pacific Ocean, although by far a moral mission, it set a new era connecting cultures and trade globally. It expanded the Asian Silk Road to a whole new dimension at a time when maritime resources were precarious and highly hazardous. In fact, there were more dangers than people of board.

Arturo Perez-Reverte, our modern Cervantes, describes these first explorers as small, illiterate, rough, brutish, poor and famished, which in retrospect, it was the perfect concoction to abate the fear of the unknown. The idea of traveling to the end of a flat earth was indeed considered a diabolic act of suicide which contradicted the norms of the Christian Inquisition whose task was to ensure the purity of morality in the new Spanish Christian Kingdom, including its subjects in Europe – Netherlands, Belgium, North of Italy, Naples, Sicily, Sardinia, Germany, Austria – and across the Atlantic, the New World.

On one hand, the notion of suicide was strongly condemned by the Roman Catholic Church. On the other hand, questioning the shape of the Earth was punished by callous torture. Therefore, the lives of the young marines were doomed to part with their lifeless bodies in the rough seas, and be castigated to never enter the divine doors of heaven as promised in the Bible. Yet, in compensation for traveling to the edge of the world and falling into the flames of hell, these desperate hungry men were comforted by nourishing their empty bellies with a mere meal a day.

Only those who have experienced a few days of forced fasting are capable of understanding why would anyone easily surrender to daily nourishment. If running away from hunger meant to run into the far seas, believed to be filled with giant monsters rising from the depth of the deep dark waters before capsizing into hell, it was worth dying with a full stomach in dignity than dying of hunger miserably.

Little did they knew that the rudimentary ship designed forced them to sleep on deck even during the freezing winter months, whilst food and water were to run to a bear minimum. After months at sea, hunger, thirst and sickness was all they had. The lack of fresh food made them lose their teeth, their gums inflated burst into blood. Their bodies became frail and desperate. Only a few dried cereals full of maggots covered with rat urine was all there was left to eat. The dire conditions led to outbreaks of typhoid, cholera and tuberculosis.

To make matters worse, throughout their journey they had to fight the Portuguese, who at the time balanced Spain’s world power and, aggressively protected provisions in the coast of Africa. Many of the Spanish sailors lost their lives, others were taken prisoners; the rest continued the journey holding dearly to their lives against the harsh weather conditions. The Southern Atlantic winds run 60 knots and rough seas lifted waves as high 15 to 20-meter high. To this day, with all the avant-garde sailing technology, the passage of the Strait of Magellan is considered the most dangerous navigation route in the world.

Finally, once they had crossed the treacherous Strait they entered into calmer waters. For three months they continued sailing without sighting land in what Captain Magellan called Pacific Ocean. He was soon killed in ambush by the natives of the Manila islands. But, to this day, his legacy bears the name of the largest ocean on Earth, and the most unsafe strait to travel in the world, Strait of Magellan (Estrecho de Magallanes).

Juan Sebastian Elcano was forced to take command of the expedition returning to the home land with only 2 ships and just 18 men – 53 stayed in Indonesia and 13 remained captive at the hands of the Portuguese. Elcano gave account of the dramatic voyage in his letter to the Spanish Emperor asking him to mediate in the release of the men who had been captured by the Portuguese:-

Your Majesty will know better [than anyone] that what we most ought to value and fear is that we have discovered and sailed the entire roundness of the world, departing to the West and returning from the East.’

Elcano had just described the extensiveness of the Spanish Empire, the empire on which the sun never set – el imperio donde nunca se pone el sol – the Spanish adage was to be later adopted by the British Empire.

In the meantime, Spanish vessels continued to sail the seas and finally arrived in the Philippines and Indonesia full of new goodies from the Americas; potatoes, tomatoes, chilli peppers, maize and tobacco. It was the beginning of global trade where food and spices were exchanged whilst intensifying farming and food domestication worldwide.

Therefore, when Spain is criticized for violating human rights during its colonial rule, it is only prudent to remember that judging the past ought to be with an intellectual understanding of history. Otherwise, as Arturo Pérez-Reverte and Juan Eslava Galán concur, judging the past with current values is almost just as barbaric. Or for that matter, it is just as barbaric committing the same Medieval injustices in the 21st century by world powers that disregard the lessons of history.

As per repentance, it takes a great deal of courage to make a historical apology acknowledging human injustices committed in the name of a proud nation. Yet, it is essential to uphold a commitment that such inhuman behavior will rest forever in the memory of history. National repentance must be sincere in order to dignify our own humanity and establish trust with the new established orders. The Spanish monarchs, King Juan Carlos and Queen Sofia have gone beyond making a speech of rhetorical apology.

The monarchs supported the Philippines independence by attending its first centenary celebrations. They also influenced the pardon of two Filipino domestic workers sentenced to death in the Middle East, whilst all along, Spain continues to invest millions of euros in the Philippines to develop tourism and new technologies. Records show that the Philippines receives more development assistance from Spain than any other country in Asia. Also, there are many Filipinos in Spain fully integrated in society, working as teachers, nurses, and holding government positions.

The atrocities committed during the Spanish colonial rule ought to be analyzed within context, otherwise, it would be impossible to analyze objectively the history of the world. On the contrary, it would be a disservice to truth and justice, an exercise lacking intellect based on the premise of constructed emotion and hate. For those who need to refresh their history reading, they will remember that Spain was commanded to spread morality by order of the Catholic Church.

Pope Alexander VI (1493) divided the world in two halves: the East was to be ruled by Portugal, the West was to be governed by Spain (Tratado de Tordesillas). The decree became systematically a divine command ratified by the morality of the Roman Catholic Church. Hence, the colonial cruelty of the first European colonizers, Spanish and Portuguese, bore the name of the benevolence of God, for Christianity was the only antidote to save the sins of mankind. Nowadays, religious detachment and political ideology brands the savior of humanity with the banner of democracy and human rights. Yet, the two world powers, led by deeply spiritual monarchies had set to connect the unknown world imposing civil law and moral order.

Spain’s colonial governance believed in a common culture free from uncivilized laws, human sacrifices and cannibalism. Becoming a Roman Catholic was considered the key to morality, connecting people from all walks of life without racial discrimination. The fact that the Spanish surnames of those living in the Spanish ex-colonies of Latin America, Africa and The Philippines are still passed on through generations is a sign of Spain’s mission to connect the diversity of humanity in harmony.  Just like the Chinese ideal of harmony, the universe bonds us all, and difference means peaceful progress.

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Cristina Cabrejas-Artola is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace Development Environment. She holds a Master’s degree in International Relations by Middlesex University in Dubai. Her career priorities include engaging in community programs and improving the Arab identity through sports and cultural events. She previously served as a business conflict mediator in the Middle East.


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