Has Aunt Matilda sent you a fruitcake for the holidays, a brick-like affair that looks and feels exactly like the one you found five years ago, forgotten in the back of a cupboard, and shipped to your cousin Rolf in secret retaliation for his previous year's gift of the stale gourmet peanut brittle that cost you fourteen hundred dollars in new bridgework? Did Rolf, suspecting skullduggery, press the thing into service as a bookend for a couple of years and then send it off, perhaps to his sister Gert (they never liked each other) who next launched it, freshly wrapped of course but otherwise cost-free (if not priceless) to her miserly Uncle Albert - Matilda's cousin? Has Aunt Matilda, though nobody's fool, now miscalculated the track of this fruitcake and landed it back with you, where it started? Not quite, because it didn't just fall out of the blue into that cupboard of yours in the first place; but you can't really remember where it did come from, can you? Consider this:
It was nearly Christmas 1579 as Francis Drake and his crew sailed the Golden Hind into the waters of what is now called the Indonesian Archipelago. They were two-thirds through their three-year "famous voyage" around the world, flush with victory and plunder. Drake was hoping to cap off the journey by gaining a potential commercial toehold for England in the region - and in the process he hoped to perhaps acquire a few tons of precious spices. Not least of all, he also needed to reprovision the Golden Hind for the long westward sail across the Indian Ocean. The wheeling and dealing to meet the first two goals, in which Drake succeeded as usual, had the side effect of meeting the last. But the consequences were felt far beyond the Golden Hind's larder, as we shall see.
In negotiating for trading contracts and spices, Drake came to meet the king of the island of Ternate, Babu. King Babu, whose impressive court and trappings are vividly described in the 1628 chronicle of the circumnavigation The World Encompassed, was interested in a potential military alliance with the English. In the course of various meetings, provisions were delivered to the Golden Hind:
"Accordingly ... we received what was there to be had ...an imperfect liquid sugar, a fruit ... cocoes ... and a kind of meal ...; whereof they make a kinde of cake which will keepe good at least 10 years; of this last we made the greatest quantity of our provision ..."
The World Encompassed, p.89
However, shortly after leaving Teranate Drake found an uninhabited and bountiful little island where the Golden Hind stayed for 26 days while repairs were made and an abundance of food was gathered. Thus King Babu's fruitcakes were not needed after all and, as was to become the norm, were promptly forgotten - tucked away in the nooks and crannies of the Golden Hind. When she arrived home in England and after all the silver and gold and other treasure had been unloaded, a few were found here and there - some no doubt having been used as wheel-chocks for cannon carriages, others as doorstops and perhaps as caulking-mallets - but most were discovered lying innocently in the bottom of the ship, looking like ballast stones (and nearly as heavy).
On mention of the confections (to stretch the term) to Drake by those charged with placing the Golden Hind on display at Deptford, he shrugged and, it again almost being Christmas, casually ordered that they be distributed among the townsfolk. Drake never realized that with this mild remark he had fired a broadside equal to any he ever touched off against an invading armada, a rippling cascade of indestructible oblong cannon balls that ricochet without end through time and space, carooming worldwide through cuboards and closets - including yours and Aunt Matilda's - and that occasionally become briefly visible beneath a Christmas tree, towards the back of the pile of presents, where once noticed they invariably elicit a comment like "Who's that from? You know, it sure does look just like that fruitcake we sent Uncle Charlie in '86."