Stay the Course

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. Jeffrey L. Neuberger
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Chaplain
In his book A World Lit Only by Fire, William Manchester relates the story of Ferdinand Magellan's circumnavigation of the globe, which includes a surprise ending.

On Sept. 20, 1519, five ships carrying 270 men left Spain in hopes of finding a westward route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Their leader, Ferdinand Magellan, would be the first person to lead an expedition from Europe to Asia on a westward route, and the first person to cross all meridians of the globe. The Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America are named for him, and it was Magellan who named the great Pacific Ocean, so called because of its apparent stillness (he obviously experienced it on a calm day). Magellan was also the first European to discover the Philippines, which had been known to Arab traders but not to the West.

In April, 1521, Magellan was invited by a local king to participate in a battle against a rival king on the Philippine island of Mactan. During the battle, Magellan was mortally wounded in the surf as his men escaped by boat. By December, one ship and a small crew remained, led by the Spaniard Juan Sebastian Elcano. Of the original 270 men, 18 survived, arriving in Spain on Sept. 6, 1522, nearly three years to the day they embarked.

The surprise ending? When a detailed summary and history of the voyage was written, Elcano could not account for one day out of the nearly three years. It was only then he realized they had sailed around the world, i.e., circumnavigated the globe. Just as today, when you travel east to west you lose a day at the International Date Line. This was such an oddity at the time that a special delegation was sent to the Pope to explain the strange phenomenon.

What do I take from this story? Sometimes the full result of our efforts is not immediately known, and progress for progress' sake can lead to surprising results. I can't help but wonder what kind of person Juan Elcano must have been that he would keep going as he did. By the time they rounded the southern tip of Africa they had nothing but rice to keep them alive, all other stores were lost; but he kept on and the result was the first 43,400 mile trip around the world.

On this day in history, where are you headed and are you staying the course? You may feel like you're going around in circles, but a closer look may reveal surprising conclusions!