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A voyage that changed history

/ 04:35 AM November 01, 2019

An archive, for most people, is a graveyard of documents. A library a graveyard of books. But these institutions are the lifeblood of historians, a place of wonder, a playground of the mind.

My Spanish friends are scandalized that I have never set foot in the Archivo General de Indias (AGI) in Sevilla, the great repository of documents on the overseas Spanish empire in the Americas and the Philippines from the 15th to the 19th centuries, so I often have to explain that since my research is in the late 19th century, my go-to places would be the Biblioteca Nacional and the Archivo Historico Nacional in Madrid.

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The other day, I made a day trip from Madrid to Sevilla, 534 kilometers in two and a half hours by fast train, to visit AGI—not for research but to see an exhibit on Magellan and the first voyage around the world. A pity that I did not make time to dip into the AGI, which boasts 9 km of shelving (that’s about the distance from Makati to Greenhills), 43,000 volumes and 80 million pages waiting to be used by historians. A pity, too, that I came of age as a historian under the shadow of Teodoro A. Agoncillo, who declared in the 1960s that “there is no Philippine history before 1872.”

Agoncillo’s narrative begins with Gomburza, peaks with Bonifacio and the Philippine Revolution and ends with the Philippine-American War. Eight editions of his popular college textbook, “History of the Filipino People,” contained many long and detailed chapters on the late 19th century, particularly the period from 1896, the outbreak of the Philippine Revolution against Spain, to 1898, which saw the Declaration of Philippine Independence, then to 1899, the Philippine-American War—while four centuries of the Spanish period are condensed in one short chapter. Agoncillo justified the gap in our knowledge of the Philippines in the 17th to 18th centuries on grounds of relevance; this period is not Philippine history but a history of Spain in the Philippines, he said.

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It may not be too late for me to spend a month here sometime, to prepare for the 2021 commemoration of the Magellan expedition that sailed from Sevilla in 1519 with five ships: the Victoria, Trinidad, Concepcion, Santiago and San Antonio, with only one ship managing to return in 1522 under Juan Sebastian Elcano, and carrying a shipload of spices whose resale value paid for all the expenses of this historic and terrifying voyage, a 4.5-percent return on investment after three years. A thoughtfully curated exhibition currently on at AGI till February next year highlights the important historical documents related to the expedition, and makes things come alive through interactive videos and artifacts.

Just walking through the exhibit made me realize that the story is way bigger than the Battle of Mactan in 1521, which is a mere footnote in the story of the first circumnavigation of the world. Thirty-three men traveled 32,000 miles around an unknown world, making this 16th-century voyage very much like the explorations in space today. Only 33 returned from the original 245 [online sources place it at 270] men of various nationalities that made up the crew. From the original 245: 51 turned back to Sevilla on the San Antonio in 1521, 70 deserted, 13 disappeared, two were captured by the Portuguese, two were captured in Brunei, one was captured in Cebu, two were left on an uninhabited island for leading an unsuccessful mutiny against Magellan, and nine have fates that remain unknown. One hundred twenty-seven of the 245 crewmen died: 81 of disease, 31 in conflicts, two in weapon accidents, three from drowning, two died in fights aboard the ships and four were executed for mutiny. Numbers do not tally, probably because these figures were drawn from available archival documentation, leaving the remainder lost to history.

Models of the ships and documents outlining the expenses needed to outfit them make the story real; a vitrine shows how the crew had to eat worm-infested biscuits, rats and boiled leather from their shoes and belts to survive. Then there was scurvy from Vitamin C deficiency, which led to a slow and painful death.

On the way out of the exhibit, one of my companions asked: Why did the crew have to endure starvation when there was a lot of fish in the sea? So many questions, so many insights about a voyage that changed the course of history by expanding human knowledge about the image and size of the world—something we take for granted in a time when outer space has become the last frontier, and Google gives us all the answers.

Comments are welcome at [email protected]

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TAGS: Archivo General de Indias, Concepcion, graveyard of documents, San Antonio, Santiago, Trinidad, Victoria
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