The Loaisa expedition, reality and fiction

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The Battle of the Species by Luis Molla. PHOTO BY MA.ISABEL ONGPIN

THERE is a new book on Magellan’s voyage which is supposed to analyze the leadership of the navigator who discovered the Philippines on his way to the Spice Islands, i.e. the Moluccas. It is called Beyond the Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernandez Armesto. The Philippine Map Collectors Society (Phimcos) recently held a Zoom webinar on this which I attended and learned about the book.

It is in English because the author is based in a university in England. She was not yet at the Casa del Libro in Madrid, the biggest bookshop in the city, when I went to look for her. It is probably being translated into Spanish, although Casa de Libro has books in all languages.

But during my visit I found another book by Luis Molla, a Spanish naval officer who seems to write a lot about Spanish naval history in his historical novels. The book is called La Batalla de las Especias, or The Battle of the Spices.

What prompted me to buy it and read it was its subject, the Loaisa expedition, which, according to our history books, was the second expedition (after Magellan’s) to be sent to the Philippines. Let’s start by knowing that the purpose of Magellan’s expedition was to find the Spice Islands and the Philippines was an accidental discovery on his way to them. And Loaisa’s expedition was not to follow up on Magellan’s Philippine visit but to go to the Spice Islands and claim them for Spain.

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Luis Molla, the author, has imaginative scenes and dialogues (it’s a historical novel), but he has the historical facts on which these fantasies occur and they are interesting for us to know and understand better. Loaisa expedition.

Francisco Jose Garcia Jofre de Loaisa was a 35-year-old nobleman, not at all an experienced sailor, when he was assigned to lead the expedition with Juan Sebastian Elcano, one survivor – among 18 others – of Magellan’s voyage, which brought back in Spain the only ship of the Magellan expedition of the five that had originally composed it. This return trip was hailed as the first circumnavigation of the globe, and the sacks of cloves he brought from the Spice Islands (probably worth more than gold at the time) brought a handsome profit to the Casa de Contratacion who organized it.

Magellan’s voyage was plagued by tension between Spanish and Portuguese sailors led by Magellan who, as a Portuguese, was suspected of being more loyal to his king than to the Spanish king who had sent him. That’s probably why Loaisa, who not only wasn’t a sailor but wasn’t too keen on leading the expedition, was given command. He was Spanish and worked for a Spanish king, Carlos 1. Additionally, the expedition took in as many survivors of Magellan’s expedition as possible and Juan Sebastian Elcano was the most valued crew member, on which one could count more than anyone. He was second in command.

Unfortunately, the route to the Pacific following Magellan through the Strait of Magellan, was a dangerous undertaking causing sinking, loss of direction, separation of the fleet which in turn led to rising doubts, fears, and ultimately rebellion. , both at Magellan and at Les Expéditions de Loaisa.

The result for both was that a rebel ship returned to Spain, bringing stories of mismanagement by the rulers. In the case of Loaisa, a ship also decided not to use the Strait of Magellan and passed through the Cape of Good Hope. He was never seen again.

Meanwhile, the early stages of scurvy broke out in ships departed with Loaisa upon reaching the Pacific Ocean. Worse, shortly before or after crossing the equator Loaisa died suddenly and Juan Sebastian Elcano had to take over and after five days he also died, leaving the fleet in disarray with changes of command and confidence and acceptance thereof by the crew.

What’s interesting along the way, as Molla recounts, is that it wasn’t scurvy that made both Loaisa and Elcano, but eating a barracuda. Molla says it poisoned them. Whether or not this is true is indeed an interesting thought as barracudas are not known to be poisonous.

With three ships remaining, the expedition continued, all lost to each other. One had a very cruel leader who executed sailors for the slightest offense or inflicted heavy penalties for any transgression. This one actually passed through the Philippines, and the author says he met the heirs of Lapulapu and Kulambu (perhaps that’s why the expedition is in our history books). But the captain did not obey the king’s orders to go directly to the Spice Islands but went further south and found himself in Brunei (Borneo) and seeing how magnificently rich and powerful the Sultan of Brunei was, decided to offer its services. While anchored in Brunei, the crew took the opportunity to kill the captain for his constant mistreatment. And the Sultan of Brunei, feeling threatened, finally attacked the ship, leaving most of the crew dead.

Another ship went so far south that it ended up, according to Molla’s imagination, in Australia, then in New Zealand and finally in French Polynesia. He explains that he based his fiction on the circumstance of certain natives having white skin and red hair, and the existence of wooden crosses. It was a custom among Spanish sailors to build crosses when lost, placing a statement of what happened to them at the foot (although nothing in writing was found). He also says that there are Spanish cannons, boats following Spanish designs and Spanish construction methods and artifacts in the area.

A ship reached the Spice Islands to find the Portuguese entrenched there and after several battles the Spanish not only lost but learned that the Spanish and Portuguese kings had signed a treaty giving the Spice Islands to the Portuguese.

After all the tribulations, the Loaisa expedition was a failure. No spices returned to Spain, unlike Magellan’s voyage, and those Spaniards who survived were repatriated years later. Andres de Urdaneta was one of them, says Molla.

This is historical fiction, but it contains his insights and explanation of naval terms and customs that accompany us today. It also offers an interesting premise.

Luis Molla has won numerous awards for his naval stories and historical novels. The Pacific Ocean is a constant topic. It was discovered by Spain and was for many years known in Europe as the Spanish Lake, so dominant were the Spaniards in navigating it and maintaining their presence there. Luis Molla quotes a non-Spanish author saying that if the Pacific Ocean had memories to pass on, its language would be Spanish.


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