Magellan’s Journey and Sherry

When Ferdinand Magellan left Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519 it was with five ships and 236 men. He had some weapons, but also 243,000 liters of wine and sherry portioned throughout 417 wineskins and 253 kegs of sherry. This no doubt made the weapons dangerous.

Magellan had a criminal record for going AWOL and he had a squabble with King Manuel meant, so that he was not only refused the financing for his proposed journey, but he was also chased and the target of a possible assassination. Like his predecessor voyager Columbus, he brought his plan to King Charles of Spain, who approved and financed the plan. This got him labelled a traitor.

The plan – go west, trade with the East Indies – the Spice Islands – make contacts and friends, and convert them to Christianity. They planned to go through the Pacific to open a maritime trade route.

It was not an easy journey. In the Straits below the tip of Chile, which now bears his name, he faced a mutiny from three of his captains. They were all Spaniards and perhaps did not think too highly of being under the command of a traitor Portuguese. One was killed in the ensuing battle for command. Another was beheaded and the third was marooned. The men who joined the mutiny were put into hard labor, but later relieved.

In Samar, the East Philippines, they befriended Humabon, king of Ceru. They traded with him and converted him and his people, who decided it didn’t matter what god they prayed to as long as they had the sea, fish, and women who didn’t wear tops. As proof of tribute, he asked them to go defeat the local king Mactan. They arrived a few days later, hit land, and then ran into a hail of bamboo spears. One tribesmen hit Magellan in the face with a spear. He ran the man through with a lance, but was unable to pull the lance back out. The other tribesmen realized that he was the chief and they fell on him and made him very unwaterproof. Perhaps if he’d spent more money on weapons than sherry, he would have had another weapon to use that wasn’t buried in a torso. But this wasn’t the case. So he died, but he probably died with a buzz on. When they went back to Humabon, he threw a feast for them in which he poisoned the crew. Several of the men died.          

Before rum became the alcoholic beverage of oceanic explorers, wine was brought along on long sea journeys. This was due to a number of reasons. In the first place, wine kept. Other beverages like beer or water would spoil. Wine could be drunk, traded, and sold. Some believed that the wine not only kept at sea, but improved. The ocean creates a perfect storm of conditions that provides an atmosphere for the aging of wine. Pressure, temperature, and constant movement all improve wine. Also, it was yummy and what vetter to help you forget that you were just poisoned in the Philippines.

The history of sherry begins with the Phoenicians, a culture which took up modern day Lebanon and who inhabited a land too mountainous and rocky to be farmers. Instead they were thalassocratic – a maritime culture. They traded with the Mediterranean cultures and introduced wine to Spain, when they set up Cadiz as a trading post in the south.  

The Greeks made arrope – a dark colored sweet syrup made from unfermented grape juice. This was used to sweeten the wine. Carthage took over the area for a few centuries, so by the time the Romans came along winemaking was super prevalent in the area. The Romans added their influence by boiling wine must to concentrate sugar. The named the town Ceret and wine from that town became known as Ceretanum. When the Moors took over the region, they brought with them the alembic distillation process which made a sort of grape liqueur and which was the precursor to creating a fortified wine (adding brandy to sherry). Under Moorish rule the Roman ‘Ceret’ was reworked to ‘Sherish’ and later ‘Jerez’.

In the world’s story of Magellan’s grand circumnavigation of the earth, it’s probably not readily remembered that he never made it. It’s probably not remembered that only one of his ships did – the Victoria. One ship was lost early in a storm, a second deserted in the Strait of Magellan. Of the three left WHAT HAPPENED TO THEM. Of the 236 men who had stated the journey, 18 made it back. But they had been around the globe. And for that we drink.

Comments are closed.