21 January 2013

Crafted with all the skill of a shipwright's art

A few weeks ago I read Richard Woodman's novel, The Disastrous Voyage of the Santa Margarita, a fictional account of the real ill-fated galleon of that name that endured bitter crew rivalries, a series of devastating tropical storms and a bloody encounter with the local inhabitants of the Ladrones (now Northern Marianas) islands after being shipwrecked in 1600.

Woodman's novel contains an imaginative description of the Santa Margarita early on as the hero of the tale, Don Iago Fernandez, boards the vessel for the first time:

From the hired native canoe Don Iago stared up at the vast bulk of the Santa Margarita's stern looming above him and marvelled. Close to, the great ship impressed even more than she did at a distance. Although the timbers wore their coat of newly applied oil with a soft gloss, there was no other evidence that the great nao had not been built in the shipyards of Cadiz or Havana, for she was crafted with all the skill of a shipwright's art, even to the carvings on her high poop, where above the windows of the great cabin and the gallery that ran around the stern, amid the roil of leaves and palm fronds, a drooping Santa Margarita, her breasts bared by a town gown, struggled against the licentious intentions of what, Iago supposed, were two Roman soldiers. The fashioned woodwork, however, wrought by native craftsmen, had been modelled on the Spanish soldiery who despoiled their own women and wore the morion and cuirass of Castile and Aragon [...] 
Stepping over the high rail and down upon the deck, Iago was confronted by noise and turmoil. He regarded a confusion of strewn packages, boxes and chests among which scores of seamen and coolies swore and toiled as they sought to secure what seemed at first glance to be an immensity of cargo. Although some of the larger bales were being lowered into the hold through the two small hatchways amidships, it was clear that much was being borne on deck, where a party of swarthy seamen shoved and secured them. These men seemed to be drawn from all quarters of the globe. Dressed only in baggy breeches and headscarves, their naked torsos shone with sweat as they laboured under the hot sun. Forward, Iago's eye was caught by a huddle of female Filipinos, several of whom were washing clothes in wooden tubs; others idled, one plaiting another's hair, while all gossiped cheerfully. They were carelessly and indifferently dressed and clearly the seamen's women. The illusion of disorder, thought somewhat modified by the roaring figure of the boatswain whose rattan was freely applied, was in sharp contrast to the Santa Margarita's outward appearance. 
- Richard Woodman, The Disastrous Voyage of the Santa Margarita, Sutton, 2008, p.16-17. 

The basics of the historic journey were as follows:

1600 - Santa Margarita: The galleon sailed from Cavite to Acapulco, but was shipwrecked in the Marianas. This ship may also be the vessel which has been referred to various Filipino history books as the 'Capitana', but this has not been confirmed. It was a vessel which in some records was listed as having disappeared as it travelled from the Philippines to Mexico. Two years after the disaster, another galleon, the Jesus Maria, which sailed from Acapulco to Guam, and then to Cavite, was able to rescue 260 survivors* of the Santa Margarita shipwreck and transported them to Manila. 
- Shirley Fish, The Manila-Acapulco Galleons, 2011, p.499 [*Figure disputed - see note below]  
In the novel and in real life, the Santa Margarita came to grief near Teteto Beach on Rota Island, about 50km north of Guam. Only a handful of the ship's crew and passengers remained alive by the time they ran aground, and a history of bad blood between the islanders and Spanish visitors meant that more Spaniards soon perished. By the time the survivors were rescued by passing galleons only around 35 were left alive of the original complement of 260. (It appears the quote above confuses the total complement with the number of survivors).

The wreck was rediscovered in 1997 but its treasures had long dispersed into the local Chamorros community. Cunningham & Beaty's 2001 book A History of Guam reports that 'the Chamorros ... rescued the treasure from the sinking ship. There was a great deal of gold and jewelry aboard. Soon every Chamorro who wanted one had a golden necklace to wear. Some hung the jewelry on branches of trees to see it sparkle in the sun'. And other items from the ship's stocks were put to new uses. Jennifer McKinnon & Jason Raupp's 2011 article 'Potential for Spanish Colonial Archaeology in the Northern Mariana Islands' contains photographs of Spanish clavos (decorative nail heads) that were used as coconut oil lamps.

Photo (c) Jennifer F. McKinnon

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