We believe that obsessions are a great driver for creativity. Throughout February, we're hearing from writers on their obsessions. Today's post comes from Zora Sanders, who's obsessed with maritime history.
Time travel, we are told, may be possible, but only in the forward direction. If we can approach the speed of light without our bodies squashing, splattering or otherwise dissolving into their constituent atoms, time will begin to move more slowly for us than for the rest of the humdrum universe. When we eventually slow, decades, centuries, millennia may have passed in the lagging universe and we will have arrived in the future. The past, however, is foreign country. One with closed borders and armed guards on the barricades. We cannot go there, the universe will not allow it, not ever. This is undeniably an abominable idea. What do we care about the future, beyond the glib pleasure of wild speculation? It is a place most of us are heading anyway—we’ll get there eventually, limited only by our individual capacity for remaining alive. But the past is what fascinates; it was where we were made, where we dwell in our minds. The past is where our questions are, it is the home of mysteries and frustrations and knowledge that sits just beyond the reach of our fingertips. We cannot travel into the past, we can only write ourselves into it.
There’s a song I like very much, composed by David Longstreth, of the band The Dirty Projectors, called ‘Swing Lo Magellan’. I like this song so much because it does for me what physics will apparently never do: it transports me backwards through time. I won’t quote the lyrics here because I am a nice person and would never put my editors in the position of attempting to obtain permission to quote song lyrics, a process that is both very difficult and very expensive, and anyway the lyrics are confusing, highly specific but inscrutable. The title references Magellan, and our most famous Magellan is of course Ferdinand Magellan, though if you use that name when talking with a Portuguese person they will be very confused until they figure out you mean Fernão de Magalhães, the Portuguese explorer who led the first expedition to circumnavigate the Earth in 1519 in service of the Spanish king. The expedition succeeded—if you can call the return of only 18 of the original 237 crewmen a success. Fernão was not among the 18, he was stabbed to death by the inhabitants of the island of Mactan, part of what are now known as the Philippines, though Fernão himself bestowed the islands the slightly ironic name of ‘The Archipelago of St Lazarus’.
Image source: Wikimedia Commons
This song that I like so much might have been be about Fernão the man, or about the Magellanic Clouds—two galaxies that are among the closest to the Earth, visible from Southern and tropical latitudes—but I recently, disappointingly, discovered that it was inspired by David Longstreth’s experience of being driven around Europe by a driver who placed undue faith in his Magellan brand GPS unit. However I have decided cleave to my original interpretation of the lyrics and will continue to hear it as a song about the man himself, caught in a moment of crisis and sorrow, a moment that will be one of his last.
When I listen to the song, this is what I see: Fernão stands on deck, the sun is going down, and up in the sky the great celestial lights of unfamiliar stars and galaxies are beginning to reveal themselves. He is as far away from home as any person will ever be. He is farther than Neil and Buzz and the always-forgotten Michael will be almost five centuries later, because Magellan doesn’t know how far he is, nor how long it will take him to get home. He doesn’t really know how large the Earth is. When Magellan’s three ships wove their way through the straights at the tip of South America that now bear his name, and sailed out into gentle open waters, he thought he had almost arrived at the Spice Islands in the East Indies. Not one among his crew knew there was an enormous ocean still to be crossed. Rather, they were giddy with relief at having left the wild seas and treacherous straights of South America behind for this kindly, and presumably brief, stretch of blue water, which Magellan named The Pacific—the peaceful ocean.
The Magellan I see in my mind’s eye is perhaps starting to understand the extent of his ignorance. On the deck of the Trinidad, he stares westward across the islands and bright shallow seas, in the direction of a home he will never see again. Fernão has become embroiled in a dispute between local island chiefs and doesn’t help his own cause by insisting that all the people he meets convert to Christianity and acknowledge the Spanish King, Charles I. as their ruler. In truth Magellan seems not to have been a man given to deep reflection, but this is the evening before his death, and although it is only through the twin lenses of fiction and hindsight that we can see him now, we can afford to dwell a little on Fernão’s expression as the last light of a brief tropical twilight illuminates him and wonder what he is thinking. It is April 26, 1591 and tomorrow he will fight an ill-conceived battle against Lapu-Lapu, the ruler of the Island of Mactan, the Spanish will have to wade ashore in heavy armor, and will quickly realise that they are beyond the range of their ship’s guns, which they are relying on for cover. They will attempt to retreat, but Fernão will be too slow. He will be pierced with spears and hacked apart in the shallow, peaceful water; his body will never be recovered.
We are taking a liberty by looking at him in this moment before his death, when he is lonelier than we have ever been, lonelier than people like us, who know that the world is not infinite, who are comforted by the understanding that if you travel long enough in one direction you will eventually return home, can ever be. He is lonely as only a person who is about to die, not by their own hand, but certainly by their own pride and pig-headedness, can be. This is the moment I see in my mind when I listen to a song that is actually about a faulty GPS unit. But for me it performs a feat of impossible time-travel, shifting me back, through time and a little space, to stand beside Fernão on his last evening. He could be quarrelsome, and stubborn. But he was beloved by at least one among his crew. The diarist, Antonio Pigafetta, who faithfully recorded every day and significant event of the three year voyage, wrote of his captain’s death: ‘they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.’ When I want to travel through time, it is Pigafetta’s words that count, the words of the song that count (at least to me), the words that have been written and will be written, that take me to the deck of the Trinidad and let me linger for a little while. Pigfetta, unlike his comfort and true guide, was among the 18 who made it back to Spain in 1522. Stories want to be told, and there is power in being the one doing the telling.
Zora Sanders is a writer and editor who currently edits Meanjin. She is about to begin a Masters of Material Cultural Conservation and hopes to specialise in maritime archeological conservation.
Sam van Zweden was Writers Bloc’s Online Editor from 2013 - 2015. A Melbourne-based writer and blogger, her work has appeared in The Big Issue, Voiceworks, Tincture Journal, Page seventeen, and others. She’s passionate about creative nonfiction and cross stitch. She tweets @samvanzweden.