Dying For King, Country and Cloves

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By Ken Zurski

In 1517, King Charles I of Spain, who had just assumed the throne at the tender age of eighteen, was approached by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer who came to the young King after being rejected by his own country.  Magellan made Charles an offer. Let him sail around the world and in the process find a direct route to Indonesia and the Spice Islands, once successfully navigated by Christopher Columbus.

Charles found Magellan’s plan intriguing.

Columbus’s four voyages for Spain, among other revelations, claimed new lands and precious spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves which grew in abundance on the elusive islands. If Magellan could find a way to get the spices back to Charles, Spain would reap the rewards and rule the spice trade.

Charles wholeheartedly approved the voyage and ordered five ships and a crew of nearly 300 men.

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In 1519, Magellan set sail from Seville.

Four years later, limping back to port, only one ship named Victoria returned. Every other ship was lost including most of the men. Even Magellan was gone, hacked to death on April 27, 1521 after a fierce battle with a native tribe.

Despite this, the King was pleased.

The tragic news of the lost ships and crew was irrelevant. The Victoria came back with a cargo of 381 sacks of cloves, the most coveted of all spices. “No cloves are grown in the world except the five mountains of those five islands,” explained the ship’s diarist.

Charles questioned the returning men on claims of a mutiny and other charges of debauchery, but it didn’t matter.

He paid the royal stipends to survivors, basked in his clove treasure, and set in motion plans to put another crew back en route to the islands.

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