One day in September 1522, 18 emaciated men staggered ashore at Seville after a three-year voyage; survivors of a fleet of five ships and 270 men. The local populace were more astounded than those like me listening to Neil Armstrong on radio in 1969
One puzzling aspect of their voyage was that all their diaries and the ship’s logbook were one day in error. According to them it was Saturday but the locals knew it was Friday. The importance of this lay in the fact that they may have committed the sin of eating meat on a Friday. No one could know how many Hail Maries they would have to say to absolve themselves of sin.
They would have sought forgiveness in the church of Santa Maria de la Victoria in Triana, a suburb of Seville. By coincidence, the church had the same name as their ship. Around this time, a Dominican monk named Tomas Torquemada was Inquisitor General of Spain, a zealous pursuer of heretics estimated to have burned about 2000 of them at the stake. There is no evidence that any of the survivors fell victim to him but they would have been anxious.
The puzzle of the missing day was put down to the fact that, travelling always westwards the ship’s crew had overtaken the Sun by one day. Perhaps they could be forgiven the apparent heresy. The realisation eventually, after many years, gave rise to the International Date Line, a permanent line of demarcation between yesterday and tomorrow. So, how do we define the gap between yesterday and tomorrow that we call today? Stand astride the International Date Line with one leg in Saturday and the other in Sunday and ask yourself ‘What time zone is my penis in? Scientists these days are measuring time down to nanoseconds.
Had the Victoria sailed eastwards around the world they would have lost one day instead of gaining one day. Who steals the missing day in each case? Where does that fit in a calendar having nothing to do with the Catholic Church? People born on the 29th of February have a vested interest in this question, especially the majority of people in the world who are not Christians.
Nowadays we know that, depending on your point of view, it wasn’t the Victoria overtaking the Sun but Seville falling behind the stars.
John M. Regan
Sobre fusos horários e o "dia desaparecido" ver também aqui.