Saturday, October 24, 2009

The Flemings Around Magellan and the First Circumnavigation of the World - Part I: Charles V - First World Ruler

Columbus had made his pitch to Ferdinand and Isabella based on the earth being round. Although Martin Behaim’s 1492 globe
[i] suggested that many intelligent men before 1500 believed the earth could be sailed from east to west, it had not been done by Columbus or anyone else recorded to history before Columbus set sail in 1492 to discover a westward passage to “The Indies”. Thirty years after Columbus’ “discovery” of America (almost to the day) the remnants of an expedition sent out under the command of a Portuguese knight sailing for the Flemish Emperor of Spain, Charles V, accomplished that goal. An achievement that even thirty years later, the English secretary to Queen Elizabeth’s right-hand man, Lord Cecil, would call: “A thing surely most wonderful, and in maner incredible”.[ii]

As regular readers of this blog may suspect, there is more to this story – from a Flemish viewpoint – than the superficial treatment by historians of Magellan’s circumnavigation may suggest. In fact, the first recorded circumnavigation of the globe once again underscores yet another set of examples of Flemings who have contributed to the Discovery and Settlement of the Americas. Just as importantly it underscores the inverse dichotomy of the history of the Flemish Diaspora: Flemings were central to the efforts to expand beyond the European peninsula into the wider world but have been credited – at best – on the periphery.

Schoolchildren in the U.S. are taught, in the superficial gloss of ideology that today represents history, that Ferdinand Magellan first circumnavigated the world. Leaving aside the factual inaccuracies (he died thousands of miles short of his goal in the Philipines, and it was actually his Filipino slave Enrique who is the first man recorded to have circumnavigated the globe), the story as rotely related to millions leaves out the critical role that Flemings played. Flemings sanctioned, approved, financed, fought, guided, advised, and ultimately publicized the first recorded European circumnavigation of the globe. Without Flemish participation not only would Magellan’s trip not have occurred, it would not have been possible to undertake.

To understand the contributions Flemings made to this endeavor we not only need to peel back the veneer subsequent generations ignorant of and perhaps even hostile to Flemish sensitivities, but also understand the part that each Fleming played in the unfolding drama. Magellan's opportunity began with the accession of a Flemish world-emperor, the first the world has known. It is right and fitting that this story start with him.

Gent (Ghent) as it appeared to a contemporary Flemish artist at about the time of Charles V's birth

Flemish-born Charles Quint – The First Global Ruler
Long before the British Empire claimed global dominion in the 19th century, Charles V, Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, made that statement true. The Gentenaar, Charles V, became the first ruler, as an Englishman later wrote, over “a command so wide, that out of his Dominions the Sunne can neither rise nor set.”

At his abdication in 1555 he ruled more than 50 million people on six continents, more than 20% of the world’s population[iv]. His armies and navies were the best in the world. His mines produced more gold and silver than any kingdom on earth and the world’s financial center, at Antwerp, was under his control. Although Charles used French with diplomats, Italian with his mistresses, and struggled through Spanish when in Spain, his first language (and the language he spoke to his closest companion, his horse) was Flemish.[v]

The Flemish-born and Mechelen-raised world ruler as he may have appeared to Magellan

Charles V, while the grandson of Ferdinand and Isabella, had been born at Eeklo, enroute to the Prinszenhof in the city of Gent. Erasmus, who thrived and prospered at this time, “asserted that there was no town in all of Christendom to be compared to it [Gent] for size, power, political constitution, or the culture of its inhabitants.”[vi] Charles grew up in a Flemish household, tutored by the only native Dutch-speaking pope: Adriaan Florisz Boeyens (known as Pope Adrian/Hadrian VI or as Adriaan Dedel).[vii]

The Leuven-educated but linguistically-challenged Adrian in effect raised Charles from the time he was a small child. Charle’s parents, Philip the Handsome and Joanna the Mad, had left for Spain to assert their rights to the throne of Castille when Charles was only five years old.[viii] It was Adrian who was sent to Spain on the death of Charles’ maternal grandfather, Ferdinand, in 1516, as his ambassador and representative. Later Adrian became defacto regent of Spain, Cardinal of Toledo, and finally (1521) elected Pope. For most of his tenure, though, the upright Adrian was simply known by the place he was most closely associated with: the “Dean of Leuven”.[ix]
While French was the language of diplomacy, Dutch was the language of Charles’ environment.

Pope Hadrian VI, aka, Adriaan Dedel, former Dean of Leuven and Charles V's confidant

The courtiers in Charles V’s entourage were overwhelmingly Flemish. When Charles landed in Spain in October, 1517 to claim his inheritance to the Spanish empire, this alienated him from many proud Spanish dons. The frustration of the Spanish aristocracy at Charles’ inaccessibility – rather through the written word or through direct access – manifested itself physically. Senior courtiers literally came to blows over disagreements in appointments.[xi] It did not help that one of the first Flemish-Spanish interactions the teenage Charles devised, in November, 1517, just weeks after his arrival, was a jousting tournament. Charles participated actively – on the Flemish side, breaking three lances in the process.[xii] Nor did it help that the Flemish, rather than leisurely socializing over meals, preferred to conduct business while eating, to the Spaniards’ distaste.[xiii]

Charles V, gout-ridden, in his 50s near the peak of his global empire's successful expansion over the Americas

On Charles’ side, the fisticuffs and the fighting further served to reinforce Charles’ belief in the efficiency and ‘can-do’ attitude of his Flemish companions. While this would moderate over time, Charles came to believe that if he wanted to see something done, it might take non-Spaniards to make things happen. Thus, before the year (1517) was out, Charles granted Cozumel – today a resort for vacationing North Americans – to Adolf of Burgundy, Lord of Wakken.[xiv] In February, 1518, Charles granted Gaurent de Lorevond the additional right to colonize the Yucatan.[xv] Unfortunately, that distrust would later erupt, after Ferdinand Magellan’s departure, in the Great Revolt of Castile; aka, the “Comunero Movement’ of 1520-1521.[xvi]

Charles V's map of Magellan's circumnavigation (faint line), created about 1545.

In short, Charles V, first ruler of a world-empire on 5 continents, was Flemish-born and raised. Educated under a Flemish regime and surrounded by the Flemish elite. Flemings can take a point of pride in this fact. Flemish-Americans can rightly point to Charles and claim affinity. More importantly, as we shall see in a subsequent post, this Flemish emperor was only the first of many Flemings to contribute to Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe.

Subsequent posts on this thread will discuss the Flemish financing of Magellan, the Flemish sailors in the fleet, the Flemish tools Magellan used to circumnavigate, the Flemish involvement in publicizing Magellan's circumnavigation, and the legacies of Flemish involvement in this circumnavigation.

[i] Material for a future posting is captured in this phrase. Behaim was educated and worked in Antwerp and then married the daughter of a Flemish manorial lord who controlled a fief in the “Flemish Islands” – as the Azores were then known. Behaim’s Flemish father-in-law received permission from the Portuguese king and may have indeed embarked upon voyages of discovery to America in 1486 – 6 years before Columbus. Behaim’s globe references those voyages and credits his father-in-law for the knowledge captured in his 1492 globe. Some historians (Ravensteen and Morrison, among others) believe that Columbus and Behaim knew each other. It is certainly possible. Columbus’ two biographers – his son Ferdinand and the noted Spanish prelate Las Casas, who knew Columbus and Magellan too – both repeat the story that Columbus first learned of the New World from a sailor in the Azores. E.G. Ravenstein, Martin Behaim: His Life and His Globe (London, 1908), pp. 47-50, discusses the intermarriage of Flemish and Portuguese in the Azores. The details about the Flemish expeditions from the Azores to North America can be found in Charles Verlinden, “Aspecten van de Diaspora van Vlaamse Zee- en Handelslui in de 15de eeuw (Azoren, Madeira)” in Vlamingen Overzee, C. Koninckx, ed., (Brussels: Wetenschappelijk Comite voor Maritieme Geschiednis, 1995), pp.7-25. Incidentally, in later years, Columbus came to believe that the world was pear-shaped. See Bjorn Landstrom, Columbus: The Story of Don Cristobal Colon, Admiral of the Ocean and His Four Voyages Westward to the Indies According to Contemporary Sources, (New York: MacMillan, 1967), p.146.
[ii] Richard Eden, A treatyse of the Newe India, (London, 1553), p.4 quoted in “Early Modern Empiricism and the Discourse of the Senses” found online here: . Note that my unelectronic version, found in Edward Arber, The First Three English Books on America, (Birmingham, 1885; BiblioLife reprint, no date), has a slightly different reference point and judging from the Google book version the quote should be cited as either page 3 of the 1553 original or page 9 of Arber’s reprint. See .
[iii] Owen Fletham, A Brief Character of the Low-Countries, (London, 1652), pp. 84-85, quoted in Geoffrey Parker, Philip II, 1st edition, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1978), p.159.
[iv] Geoffrey Parker, Philip II, 1st edition, (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1978), p.4
[v] I have paraphrased a famous maxim. The actual quote attributed to Charles V was, “I speak Spanish to God, Italian to women, French to men, and German to my horse.” However, for German he used the term ‘nederduits’ or ‘Low German’ which was a common expression for ‘nederlands’ or what moderns might call Dutch. For a secondary source on Charles' Flemish language preference, please see Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, (New York: Harper Collins, 2003), p.25
[vi] John Lothrop Motley, The Rise of the Dutch Republic, A History, (Philadelphia: Henry Altemus, 1898), vol. 1, p.52.
[vii] See the Wikipedia bio ( ) which is the most comprehensive I have been able to find even though it is based on the somewhat flawed but essentially accurate bio in the 1911 Catholic Encyclopedia here: . Incidentally, some obscure references suggest that Adrian was the grandson of a Flemish migrant.
[viii] William Maltby, The Reign of Charles V, (New York: Palgrave, 2002), p.7. Charles’ parents never returned. His father died in Spain and his mother slipped into insanity. Charles’ upbringing, primarily in Mechelen, assured that his world-view was colored by his Brabantine surroundings. Even in official correspondence as Pope Hadrian VI, the affection he felt for his adoptive son Charles came through in letters addressed "To our most beloved son Charles, King of the Romans and of Spain, Emperor elect." See From: 'Spain: March 1523', Calendar of State Papers, Spain, Volume 2: 1509-1525 (1866), pp. 531-537. URL: Date accessed: 31 October 2009.
[ix] Henry Latimer Seaver, The Great Revolt in Castile: A Study of the Comunero Movement of 1520-1521, (New York: Octagon, 1966), p.36, n1.
[x] Linguists would rightly correct me. Since the collection of Brabantine and Flemish dialects spoken south of the Rijn was better called “Netherlandic”. For a broader review, please see Peter Burke, Towards A Social History of Early Modern Dutch, (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005).
[xi] Henry Latimer Seaver, The Great Revolt in Castile: A Study of the Comunero Movement of 1520-1521, (New York: Octagon, 1966), p.29
[xii] Henry Latimer Seaver, The Great Revolt in Castile: A Study of the Comunero Movement of 1520-1521, (New York: Octagon, 1966), pp.37-38. Charles apparently engaged in no-holds-barred physical contests with his Flemish friends.
[xiii] Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, (London: Phoenix, 2004), p.454.
[xiv] “In 1517 Dutch [sic] admiral Adolf of Burgundy escorted Charles V from the Netherlands to Spain, where he was to be crowned king of Aragon and Castilia [sic]. For his services Adolf was awarded the island of Cozumel off Yucatan. It took him a couple of years to organize an expedition to his newly acquired property, but when his ships finally set sail from the Netherlands in 1527 they never got further than the ports of Spain.” Jaap Jacobs, New Netherland: A Dutch Colony in Seventeenth-Century America, (Leiden: Brill, 2005), p.1. A bio in Dutch can be found online here: .The only article I am aware of is L.M. Kooperberg, "Adolf van Bourgondie", in Nieuw Nederlandsch Biografisch Woordenboek, deel VIII, Leiden, 1930 in 8, pp. 189-194.
[xv] Hugh Thomas, Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, (London: Phoenix, 2004), p.451. Heavy opposition from Spanish grandees to that grant – which was envisioned to be comprised of sturdy Flemish colonists – compelled Charles to rescind this grant and instead temper that financial loss with a monopoly for supplying slaves to the Spanish possessions in the New World. See Hugh Thomas, The Slave Trade: The Story of the Atlantic Slave Trade: 1440-1870, (New York: Touchstone, 1997), pp.98-99.
[xvi] The standard work on this subject is, of course, Henry Latimer Seaver, The Great Revolt in Castile: A Study of the Comunero Movement of 1520-1521, (New York: Octagon, 1966). That said, Seaver and other writers have painted the courtiers around Charles as exclusively Flemish (some were in fact Walloons) and caricatured them as rapacious. Seaver claims (p.48, n1) that “1,400,000 ducats in cash went out of the realm as Flemish plunder.”

Post Endnote addendum: My gracious thanks to the ever-diligent and encyclopedic Professor Matthias Storme for pointing out that recent research demonstrates that Charles V was actually born at Eeklo enroute to Gent. See Romano Tndat, Keizer Karel Geboren te Eeklo, (Eeklo: Stadsbestuur, 2000).

Copyright 2009 by David Baeckelandt. No reproduction of this posting in any format is permitted without my express written permission.


  1. Hey David !
    Just discovered your new posting.
    It's going to be an exitement again to read this. Unfortunately, I do not have enough spare time right now but will read it as soon as I can ! And of course, I will leave some comment, as usual. :-)
    Take care brother !
    Hugo B.

  2. Excellent, David! The footnotes are almost as much fun to read as the main story!

  3. Thank you Hugo and Thank you Bart!
    I sincerely appreciate both of your very kind comments and your consistent and vocal support!

  4. Thank YOU David !
    The more I read, the more I get smarter,
    the more it becomes interesting, the more it gives fun (ja, Bart) and excitement.
    The more I want to read !
    Next posting, please?
    Hugo B.

  5. I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.