500 Years Ago
TIDORE, the sea, the old European fort: there are still remains on this tiny, clean and calm island. Here, 500 years ago, history and the world map shaped each other, tricked each other.
In Tidore, we can begin the story on November 8, 1521. Three hours after sunset, two Portuguese ships entered the harbor. The crew were no longer robust soldiers. They were what remained of the first people who—after an exceedingly long voyage from Spain, and having suffered countless fatalities—were exhausted but indefatigable witnesses to the fact that the world was indeed round and the spice islands really did exist.
In the harbor they dropped anchor and greeted the kingdom of Tidore with fires of their cannon.
But this is just one part of a long story.
The Portuguese explorer, Fernão de Magalhães or Magellan had long wanted to discover the islands of nutmeg, pepper and cloves far in the fantasy land of the East. He had been part of the Portuguese force that attacked Malacca, a few hundred miles from Sumatra, and actually he could have set out for the Moluccas from a harbor in Asia. But international tensions of the time drove him to a different, grander plan that fitted him perfectly: Magellan had nerves of steel and ambition to explore, discover and conquer.
He was convinced that the world was round, after Columbus. And so, just as Columbus who set out for China had done, Magellan set sail to the west, across the Atlantic. With five ships that later came to be known as the Moluccan Armada or ‘Armada de las Molucas’, Magellan, at the age of 39, weighed anchor in Seville, Spain. But unlike Columbus, he did not stop at the American continent. He followed the coast way southwards, to a point as yet unknown.
Eventually he discovered what had until then been merely a traveller’s rumor: a gap to the south of Chile and Argentina that linked the Atlantic with something (thought to be sea) on other half of the world.
The explorer took 36 days to traverse the treacherous 600 kilometer-long strait. At the end of what later came to be called the Straits of Magellan, he found what he named, with relief, the ‘Pacific Ocean’.
He knew that when he crossed that ocean he would reach his destination: the Moluccas. But he did not know that the ocean he had to cross was in actual fact not pacific at all and virtually without shores. With his crew hungry and dying, he forged ahead in the waves, with brutal discipline.
Three months later he finally discovered land. He met other humans…
Five hundred years ago, the world was changed from Europe. With ambition and courage, with faith in God, and greed.
The shape of America had not yet been mapped, China was just a rumour, and spices were valuable objects that came from some unknown distant place in the east. From Lisbon and Madrid, the two most powerful state centers in the 15th century, geography meant routes of subjugation of an unclear world.
On June 18, 1452, Pope Nicholas V issued the papal bull Dum Diversas which gave authority to the King of Portugal, Alfonso V, to enslave ‘saracens, pagans and enemies of Christ’ (Sarracenos et paganos aliosque Christi inimicos) forever. In the beginning it was only Africa. Four years later, though, the papal bull Inter Caetera granted Prince Henrique all the lands and peoples he discovered. In June 1494, Pope Alexander VI, with his Treaty of Tordesillas, divided the globe into two: the west for Spain, the east for Portugal.
This was how the Vatican saw the earth in the 15th century: with arrogance and error. Outside the Holy See, history was full of twists illegible to both papal bulls and geography.
When Magellan finally arrived at the islands that are now called ‘The Philippines’, the people greeted him warmly. In the island of Cebu, the Portuguese admiral who was working on behalf of the King of Spain met almost no resistance in baptising the ‘pagans’. But it was not so easy to know how much they really accepted the new faith.
If we read the translation of Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo by Pigafetta (an Italian who kept a diary of the Moluccan armada’s journey around the world), the mass ‘baptism’ was more like a party to welcome guests who had interesting things to offer. Magellan was probably tricked. He seemed to accept his new fellow Christians enthusiastically: he was prepared to go to their aid in battle defending them in their conflict with another tribe. But he miscalculated his own abilities and those of his crew. In the battle with the enemy he was killed. His army lost.
Magellan died. It was three years since he had begun his long mission. Pigafetta goes on to tell how their stay in Cebu ended in a trap: one day, what remained of the Spanish crew were invited to a feast. They went. They were slaughtered.
The tattered remnants of crew continued their journey to their destination: the Moluccas.
And they arrived in Tidore.
Tidore was very friendly. Sultan Almansur himself greeted the foriegners, boarding their ship. He, a Muslim, who according to the papal bull should be enslaved, was such an enthusiastic host that—as Pigafetta relates—he wanted to call Tidore ‘Castiglia’ as a sign of alliance with the King of Spain.
But Almansur was not without political astuteness. M Adnan Amal’s edited volume on Ternate-Tidore history, Kepulauan Rempah-rempah, (The Spice Islands), shows clearly how the Tidore kingdom wanted to use Spain to counterbalance the political and economic influence of the Portuguese in the Moluccas. Here there were no Christi inimicos, ‘enemies of Christ’, but only people whose faith and designs of power were different.
Rome, Lisbon, Madrid, anyone, ends up thwarted: history might change the map of the world, but history is not a level map. On the island of Tidore, the beautiful sea and the fort now bereft of its haunting power seem to be warning each other.