“Any written history inevitably reflects the thought
of the author in his time and cultural setting.”
-Charles A. Beard
I was in grade school. My teacher had managed to instill in me and my classmates a desire to learn about the past. We developed small-scale contests where we would test each other on sometimes obscure facts. My father was an avid educator. He seized the moment. He subscribed me to a book of the month club that specialized in history; later he added a separate subscription on biographies. I was hooked. I must say that most of the wisdom about life that I may have comes from learning about the successes and failures of those who walked on Earth before we did.
In the beginning I took what the books said to be the facts. The concept of interpretation of the past was foreign to me, probably because I was awfully young to understand it. It was clear that the Bastille was sacked in 1789; how could there be any argument about dates? I went along memorizing names of kings and dates of beginnings and ends. I was proud of myself.
One day one of my history buddies challenged me with a question.
“Who was the first man to circumnavigate the globe, and what year did he start?”
Ferdinand Magellan; 1520; I shot back. That was easy.
My father happened to be walking by when I answered. He stopped in his tracks.
Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the planet.
“What? What are they teaching you in school?”
I repeated my statement. With some uneasiness I noticed that he was about to have a fit. These were infrequent and never violent, but usually a lot of extra work and learning were the consequences of his conniptions. I braced myself.
“It was Juan Sebastián El Cano who first circumnavigated Earth. But you got the date right.”
I gave him a blank stare. I had never heard of this man El Cano. He noticed my discomfort. His facial expression changed. There was nothing that he liked more than to teach us something. The bigger the crowd of students, the more in his element he felt.
“Magellan was killed in the Philippines; halfway through the journey. He did not finish the trip. El Cano was his lieutenant; he was there from start to finish. He should get the credit.”
But my teacher said…
As soon as my words left my mouth I realized that I had made a serious mistake. In the past, any time that I had been taught anything that he faintly disagreed with, he wrote a note to my teacher kindly explaining to her where she had gone wrong, and why. His handwriting was barely legible on good days. I liked my teachers; it was a supremely embarrassing feat to be the bearer of those notes. I could see that the next day I’d be handing another correction to this woman who was so nice to me.
Let me explain a bit. My grade school, and my high school, were owned by the university. My father was a department chair at the university. Depending on how faculty politics turned, there were times when he wielded considerable influence over jobs and promotions. My mom was also a professor, although she shied away from administrative duties. But everyone loved her; certainly nobody wanted to see her unhappy. His notes were probably received with some trepidation by my teachers.
What my father told me was true. Magellan had been killed during an ill-advised raid on one of the Philippine Islands. The story of this voyage could fill volumes; I won’t go into much detail except to say that El Cano was one of the leaders of a mutiny against Magellan, who by most accounts was a fair leader. Most of the mutineers were executed in a very cruel manner, but Magellan realized with some alarm that if he had every dissident killed he would not have enough men left to steer his ships. So he forgave El Cano and gave him one of the ships to lead. Once Magellan was killed El Cano took over as commander. A host of maladies continued to plague the expedition. Only one ship made it back to Spain; barely. The trip turned a slim profit for the rich investors; the surviving sailors never got paid their due; the government of Spain clearly benefited from the knowledge gained from the voyagers’ harrowing experience. Nothing much has changed in the world.
Why was my father upset? Magellan was Portuguese. The Spanish king had hired him because he was a great sailor and captain, but almost immediately after the hire he had second thoughts, because the whole expedition was designed as a way to compete against Portugal. The king never fully trusted Magellan. His death was convenient, because Spain could now unequivocally claim new lands and the distinction of being the first. Every Spanish child learns that El Cano was the first to go around the planet. For unclear reasons the rest of the world is taught that Magellan did it; he even has investment vehicles named after him. My father was raised in Spain. He was teaching me what he had learned.
I delivered my note the next day; eyes glued to the floor beneath me; half of me hoping that I would be swallowed whole by the solid concrete in a split second. My teacher’s eyes squinted. She could hardly read the note. When she began to get the gist of its content she flashed a very painful smile. She asked me to sit down.
I survived. Flash forward three decades, give or take a few years. One of my daughters brought home some history homework. As we reviewed its contents she told me that Magellan was the first man to circumnavigate the globe.
She gave me the look. Probably the same look that I had when my father uttered his “What?” decades earlier.
It was Juan Sebastián El Cano who first sailed around the world.
“The teacher said…”
The teacher is ignorant.
A third look.
Let me explain to you…
I proceed to set her straight on the history. I could tell that I lost her long before I finished my speech. I became exasperated.
I’m writing a note to your teacher.
She was in dire emotional pain; I could tell. But I could not let this historical revisionism continue. I hurried to my desk and wrote a note to her teacher; urging her to set things straight.
Of course her teacher never got the note. It ended up where all of my notes to her teachers went. Children do not listen to their parents any more. Maybe because they are not scared of them, which is a good thing.
Recently I was in old San Juan. In the same harbor where the massive cruise ships stop there was a docked frigate flying the Spanish flag. It was called the Juan Sebastián El Cano. The Spanish navy uses it to train young recruits on how to sail without motors.
I smiled as I remembered the old days. Maybe historians were right to give Magellan the credit. El Cano was in trouble with the king before the expedition; the only reason he had signed up was to appease the ruler. He got in trouble due to a different incident later on. He died during another ill-fated expedition. Maybe the nicer guy should remain in the history books.
And yet… El Cano was Spanish, and Magellan Portuguese. Shouldn’t we preserve our cultural heritage at all cost?
I made the decision right then and there. When my grandchildren get into history I’ll be peering over their textbooks to make sure that they get it right.