Setting out in the wake of Ferdinand Magellan in some way recaptures the spirit of the great explorations and the great discoveries of past centuries, which continue to fire the imagination. But we will guard against forming a fanciful and idealized picture of them. Besides, no attempt is being made to reproduce a chapter of human history that belongs to a bygone era.
Instead, Magellan's expedition (1519-1522) is a pretext for setting out to observe the oceans as they are today, to take stock of their current state and of the changes they are undergoing. It is an opportunity to raise questions about today's world, to ponder the environmental issues at stake as well as humanity's place and activities on earth, in the light of some of the timeless themes running through the ages. These include the pursuit of knowledge and discovery, the capacity for ignorance or for wilful ignorance; access to wealth and the distribution of it; the spirit of territorial, commercial, cultural and ideological conquest; the uncontrollable urge to seek power and domination, as well as the search for ways of better living together, the pursuit of the utopian dream of a world at peace and rid of weapons, like Fleur de Passion, which was disarmed at the end of its military life.
Our "Spice Islands"
Magellan sailed west in search of a faster route to the Spice Islands, but what are our Spice Islands today? What riches we will be seeking? Material enrichment? Spiritual enrichment?
There are schools of thought today whereby the ocean (and beyond that the planet) contains an abundance of unknown animal and plant resources, the discovery, study and exploitation of which will contribute to greater well-being across the planet in the fields of health, nutrition, materials and technology. But these considerations raise certain questions. Will the aim of these discoveries be to serve the common good, as did chemistry and pesticides in agriculture in the 20th century? Will exploration lead inexorably to appropriation and privatization of living matter with each discovery deemed patentable owing to its potential to generate wealth?
And if in terms of "Spice Islands" the greatest wealth to be (re)discovered were humanity's ability to master our own demons – the quest for profit, the accumulation/appropriation of wealth, the spirit of domination, etc. – to avoid and mend certain types of behaviour that negatively impact the environment, and the consequences of which we are reluctant to acknowledge, let alone take responsibility for?
Which world view?
Magellan's expedition took place in the context where the perception of the world was changing radically, at the same time contributing much to that change of perception. Gradually, the vision of the world dictated by religious and ideological considerations gave way to a representation structured by man based on his own observations, his own curiosity and critical sense, and also fuelled by his rediscovery of ancient science invented by the Greeks, then transmitted to Europe by the Arabs.
Today, what are the dominant belief systems shaping our world view? What are the terms of the debate? What is the ideological context of an undertaking to set off for four years to observe the world and humanity's impact on the oceans?
The Ocean Mapping Expedition is also an invitation to reflect upon what could/should constitute a change in the way today's world is perceived: an infinite world, also with infinite resources? Or on the contrary, a finite world, where resources are no longer unlimited and can no longer be overexploited, and one that, moreover, has been profoundly affected by human activity in some places?
Explore, discover: but what and for whom?
The missionaries, military and traders were never far behind the great discoverers, when they were not themselves fully embedded in these voyages of exploration. But the element of romanticism that today surrounds the image of the great discoveries could obscure the fact that they were quickly overtaken by partisan interests, becoming the prelude to overtly colonial ventures.
It should therefore be recalled, through some great writers and travellers such as Victor Segalen and Nicolas Bouvier, that travel is also an opportunity for self-discovery through encounters with others, that as much as we believe we are making a journey, the journey is making us, even undoing us. The Ocean Mapping Expedition is as much about discovering this unknown continent comprising the oceans, as discovering ourselves and our relationship with the planet by reflecting on and questioning our place on earth, our role and the consequences of our actions.
It is an invitation as much to embark on a spiritual journey as it is to discover the world, to contemplate the marvellous things and to ponder upon the things that cause problems. A call to self-exploration when it is perhaps timely to reconsider our irrepressible need to explore everything and everywhere without thinking too much about the impact of such exploration on the regions and ecosystems concerned. As borne out by the matter of protected marine areas, there are perhaps parts of the planet that we would do well quite simply to leave alone.
Pacific, the ocean? As much as humanity…
Emerging into an unknown maritime expanse from the maze that would thenceforth bear his name at the southernmost tip of a continent that was just beginning to be called America, Magellan thought for a moment that this new ocean was calm and pacific. Perhaps he thought that he himself would be able to remain peaceful, and yet…
Despite being motivated more by trade and discovery than by the prospect of territorial conquest and domination, Magellan could not help becoming embroiled in local disputes in the Philippines to the point of losing his life there. Did the notion of pacifism exist at the time? This is as good an occasion as any to confront Magellan with his demons and to reflect, throughout this journey around the world, on the concept of pacifism and on the existence, admittedly tenuous and in many respects derisory, of this utopian idea.
A Swiss expedition? As much as Magellan's was Spanish…
Magellan's expedition, a Spanish venture? True, but owing to the vicissitudes of history and politics whereby a Portuguese sovereign turned his back on a compatriot too determined not to set off to seek his fortunes in far-flung places. And Spanish, even this needs to be put into perspective… How many nationalities were there on board the five vessels that sailed from Seville under the command of a Portuguese? Spaniards, of course, but also Basques, Germans who were not yet Germans, Englishmen, Frenchmen, as well as an Italian who has gone down in history, as we are indebted to him, a lucky survivor, for having chronicled this first circumnavigation of the world and for changing the rules of travel writing: from then on, people recounted what they saw, what took place, and the practice of superimposing a prevailing representation of the world on reality was ended.
The Ocean Mapping Expedition will use the same ingredients to create a mixture of cultures, origins and sensitivities. It will constitute a blend of nationalities, in a world that is already globalized and cosmopolitan. It will nonetheless need to preserve the Swiss dimension that in part characterizes it, insofar as we are able to say what it is. The lack of a colonial past?
Peaceful relations between a small nation and others in a community of nations that includes much bigger ones? A nation that has elevated the sense of compromise to the plane of an art, bordering on caricature?
A touch of the Geneva spirit in the sails
The Magellan expedition is meant as a way of building bridges between continents, between peoples, between individuals, a way of bringing people together through sharing and exchange and by encouraging reflection in a spirit of openness and promoting the quest for pragmatic and peaceful solutions in the face of present and future environmental challenges.
All the programmes being implemented over these four years are meant to be highlighted before the public at large, in particular during the stopovers planned for Fleur de Passion along the way. During each one, a "village" will be organized around the sailing boat in a spirit of exchange, of sharing the experience and disseminating ideas and knowledge through exhibitions, screenings, etc.
A touch of the Geneva spirit will therefore accompany the boat throughout its voyage. Geneva Spirit not in the sense of some kind of "mystique" but in the sense of a striving for and a culture of openness to the outside world.
A history of men or of women?
How many women were there on board the five vessels in Magellan's expedition? How many women navigators were there among the protagonists of the great discoveries? How many women explorers, conquerors? None… None obviously, one might be tempted to add, considering how much some chapters of human history appear to have been written by men alone.
What would this same history have been had there been women at the helm and in charge? Would the discovery of the New World have turned irreparably into conquest and strife?
Now, 500 years after Magellan, Fleur de Passion's circumnavigation is no longer a venture led exclusively by men. There are women among the initial crew and others will come aboard at the various stopovers. The men, for their part, are aware that the history created by the masculine gender does raise certain questions, aware that it has been and continues to be especially problematic, if we judge by the way men use their position of dominance in politics and in the economy.
At the risk of resorting to a cliché or of taking controversial shortcuts, is it not time to "feminize" our relationship with the world, with our fellow human beings, with our environment – the land and the sea? Will the environment be capable for much longer of withstanding very male-inspired, blind and mindless exploitation, which inexorably spells disaster not so much for itself as for humanity?