They did not eat grapes or drink champagne. The New Year’s Eve of 1520 was a painful and lonely night in the middle of a sea much bigger than they thought. No piece of land in sight, no map, only the firm purpose of continuing to sail west to get to the Moluccan Islands.

On December 31th 1520, it was a month since they had crossed the strait. Elcano, Magellan and the rest of the remaining crew of the expedition, were that night in the northwest latitude 25º ½, as noted by Francisco Albo, the bosun of the Nao Trinidad. Food was scarce, there was no fresh food, and diseases claimed the life of a sailor almost every day. Pigaffetta, chronicler of the expedition, described the situation like this:

We were often reduced to eat the sawdust of wood and rats which cost half-a-crown each, moreover enough of them were not to be got. Besides the above-named evils, this misfortune which I will mention was the worst, it was that the upper and lower gums of most of our men grew so much that they could not eat, and in this way so many suffered, that nineteen died, and the other giant, and an Indian from the county of Verzin. Besides those who died, twenty-five or thirty fell ill of diverse sicknesses, both in the arms and legs, and other places, in such manner that very few remained healthy.”

The disease referred to by Pigaffeta was scurvy, and its cause, the lack of vitamin C, present in fruits and vegetables. The disease was not described until two centuries later, so in 1520, on board those ships, no one knew how to help the sick. If the quince jelly they had on board had been distributed among all the crew, they might have been able to stop the disease, but that food was reserved exclusively for the commanders of the expedition. Neither Elcano, nor Magellan, nor any of the pilots got sick. Without them knowing it, probably the quince was saving them.

Surely, that New Year’s Eve the sailors did not have much to celebrate. The following day, on January 1st, 1521, Francisco Albo wrote in his diary:

“To the west 4th of the northwest, in 25º. Diego de Peralta died, sailor of the Nao Victoria, which died of disease “

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