Updated: Mar 6, 2021
In the month of August of 1519 Ferdinand Magellan began a journey from Seville to the unknown, looking for an alternative route to the Moluccas.
He set sail with five carracks and a promise - by king Charles I of Spain - of a fifth of the profits he would acquire along the way. It was going to be the first voyage around the world in human history proving, incidentally, that earth is round.
The trip lasted 3 years and was chronicled by Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian volunteered scholar and explorer from Vicenza. Magellan’s ships were manned by 237 sailors of different European nationalities: Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, Germans, Flemish, Greeks, English and French.
The monthly salary of a mariner on Magellan voyage was 1,200 maravedis per month. The maravedis were Iberian coins of gold and silver circulating in Europe from the 11th to the 19th Century. It has been estimated that one maravedi’s purchasing power was roughly equivalent to today’s 20 US dollars.
Sailing history is said to be soaked in booze; true enough, Magellan’s five ships carried a considerable cargo of wine stored in pipes, casks and wooden barrels. In fact, historical documents show that 508 butts of wine (from the Italian botte, barrel) were bought from Jerez wineries, in Southwestern Spain’s Andalusia, faring a total expenditure of 590,000 maravedis. Since a butt typically contained at least 480 liters, that made 243,840 liters of wine loaded on board of Magellan’s carracks!
It is possible to compare these figures with others existing in a document denominated The cost of Magellan’s Fleet, Documents No. XVII, attached to Pigafetta’s book The First Voyage Round the World, where the total cost of the expedition was summarized in 8,751,125 maravedis. In the relative break down, the cost of wine and other provisions amounted at 1,585,551 maravedis, an astonishing 20% of the total which included the building cost of all five ships!
During the Age of Exploration drinking alcohol on board was a necessity for the sailors: after months of navigation, wine was certainly more palatable than algae filled water or sour beer. It was also a welcome distraction from heavily salted preserved food and it helped fight scurvy. Furthermore, wine kept longer and was habitually added to water in order to sterilize it.
In 1500's Europe, sailors typically received on daily basis a ration of a gallon of beer (3,7 liters) while officers were provided with wine instead. In Magellan’s fleet the hundreds of thousands of liters of wine loaded on board of his ships were obviously destined to the whole crew.
True the figures given, Magellan’s wine costed the Spanish crown 2,4 maravedis a liter, that is, 48 US dollars per liter!
Why Jerez was so expensive? At the time, around the city Jerez de la Frontera in Andalusia, local winemakers produced a popular white wine from two main local varieties of grapes known as Palomino and Pedro Ximenez. This Jerez blend had been long highly appreciated and sought after throughout West Europe thus affecting its price.
In the early 1100’s, Henry 1st of England used to trade wool for Sherish wine (from the Arabic name of the Jerez region). By the late 15th Century, demand for sherry by English, Flemish, and French merchants was so great that the Jerez City Council was obliged to enact laws on the Guild of Grape and Wine Harvesters, in order to regulate its system of production, aging and trade.
Jerez, anglicized Sherry, was not routinely fortified so its alcohol content did not exceed 12-13%. However, after fermentation, a sugar based distilled grape spirit was added to the wine with the purpose of increasing its alcoholic content to 16-18% thus preserving it during transportation and navigation. In the 1500's Sherry must have tasted like a full bodied, dry and coarse wine, the color more like today’s Fino and Manzanilla rather than Oloroso.
Pigafetta wrote in his Journal that the first catholic Mass in the Philippines was held in the month of March 1521, Easter Sunday, on an Island called Mazaua, few weeks before Magellan’s death. During that Mass, the Spanish priest celebrated the Eucharist with the blessed, and expensive, Magellan's wine.
When the Victoria, the only remaining carrack under the command of Juan Sebastian Elcano, Pigafetta and a crew of only 18 men arrived in Seville in the month of September 1522 - the same year Hernan Cortes started to plant grape vines in the Americas – it didn’t bring back Magellan. However, its load of cloves (381 sacks) was worth more than the entire cost of the five-ships expedition, the equivalent of today's 175 million of US dollars.