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Saturday, January 28, 2006

Stop Press: The World is Round!

Ferdinand Magellan
The Canary Islands have played their part in many important voyages of discovery, perhaps most famously when Columbus, stopped off in Gran Canaria and La Gomera in 1492. He also visited El Hierro on later voyages.

Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese maritime explorer who led the first successful attempt to circumnavigate the earth, is said to have visited Tenerife, arriving on September 26, 1519, near the start of that particular important three year voyage of discovery. Or did he?

In those days, legend had it that it never rained here and there were no rivers nor springs. There was also talk of a tree whose leaves distilled drops of water, which served to supply both humans and animals.

That tree, the Garoé, thought to have been an "Ocotea Foetens", a type of laurel endemic to Madeira and the Canary Islands, existed on the island of El Hierro. One example, commemorated with a plaza and six wells that collected the water, existed at about 1,000 meters above sea level near Tiñor. It's existence appeared to be mythical, because it was uprooted in a hurricane in 1610 and it's disappearance coincides with the extinction of the indigenous culture from the island, who had dedicated a cult to the tree.

However, Antonio Pigafetta apparently added a note to his account for that day of the voyage to the effect that, after not encountering a single drop of water to replenish their supplies, "at midday a cloud came down over the sky, surrounding an enormous tree that there was on that island, distilling water from it's leaves and branches." This would seem to suggest that they were, in fact, in El Hierro, not Tenerife.

The ships left the Canary Islands on October 3rd, 1519.

Ferdinand Magellan and the first circumnavigation of the globe

Magellan himself did not complete the circumnavigation; he was killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines.

Juan Sebastian Elcano, took over command of the expedition after Magellan's death - one of only 18 to return, of the 250 or so men who started the voyage - and became the first man to complete the circumnavigation of the - clearly circular - world.

Among the curiosities of their discoveries, was the need for an International date line. Of course, they were the first to notice that going round the earth westward resulted in winning one day: upon their return they observed a mismatch of one day between their calendars and those who did not travel. That made El Hierro, also known as The Meridian island, once the western-most point of the known world and used as the reference on maps, the ideal jumping off point for this voyage.

The Juan Sebastián Elcano is the name of the training ship of the Spanish Navy, launched on March 5, 1927. The ship has certainly visited Tenerife, in 2003 during her eighth circumnavigation of the world and again in March 2006, after a major refit.

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