Strait: Beyond the Myth of Magellan – A Book Review

Having written a historical fiction novel about Magellan’s voyage, I’m always excited to see a new book about Magellan, and I eagerly opened the newest, Strait: Beyond the Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. My excitement didn’t last, although the book does have its strengths. Unfortunately, it comes across as an arrogant and self-important professor’s lecture that rambles from topic to topic lurching towards its final confused conclusion.

The first paragraph of the book gives its thesis: ‘Failure is fatal to happiness but can be fruitful for fame…. Magellan is exceptional because his failure was total. Yet his renown seems impregnable.’ I agree that Magellan was in many senses a failure, yet his discovery of the immense size of the Pacific Ocean and the true circumference greatly aided mankind’s understanding of the world. One might think the first circumnavigation of the globe was significant, but in Fernández-Armesto’s opinion, he felt that, like the first landing on the moon, ‘I feel the same about the first circumnavigation of the world. It did not matter.’ The cynical and nihilistic author lost my respect at this point.

I also do not understand his statement of Magellan’s impregnable renown. Perhaps that is true in Spain and Portugal, but I think most familiar with him realize his strengths and flaws. So, I think the author erected an easy goal to meet.

There is also the question of the author’s writing style and approach. Some may like it. I did not. The forty pages of the first chapter were, I suppose, meant to set the stage for the context of Magellan’s expedition. However, they talked about the plague, ocean currents, weather patterns, Portugal in the Indies, but very little about Magellan. This hapahzard style went on through the book. Once, suddenly, there were some five pages about cannibals, which had a minimal degree of relevance. I felt like the author was trying to demonstrate his expansive knowledge of the era. The effect for me was to simply obfuscate the real story. His chronology of events in the Philippines was particularly confusing.

The greatest value of this book is the author’s extensive use of Spanish and Portuguese sources, many of which are primary sources derived from the survivors of the expedition. Now all serious authors have done this before, but it appears the author’s facility with Portuguese and Spanish aided him in teasing out more information. However, a simple reading of the sources without further analysis presents problems with reconstructing what happened. Those people tied to the mutiny against Magellan in Patagonia, like Elcano, had their self-serving version of events. Some other accounts were written years later through the fog of memory. Hence what happens is that the author often gives you a three-handed account of an event based upon different sources: on the one hand Felipe says this, on the other hand Juan says this, and on the third hand Alfonso says this. But what really happened? It takes logic and analysis to figure it out.

Fernández-Armesto acknowledges Magellan’s single-minded determination, which was similar to that of Columbus, da Gama, Cortes, Pizarro, and the others of that era. I do think he assumes Magellan was treacherous, but doesn’t prove why he thinks so.

A salient event of the expedition was the mutiny in Patagonia. King Charles had appointed several Spaniards as captains and officers of the expedition, none of whom had any experience at sea or the Indies, unlike Magellan and some of his Portuguese cohorts. There was a tension between these two cliques. Some believe that the king or his subordinate Bishop Fonseca had ordered the Spanish officers to depose Magellan once they learned what route he intended to take. The Magellan scholar Medina even says that Magellan received a warning precisely to this effect while provisioning in the Canary Islands. Fernández-Armesto doesn’t mention this. This all sets the stage for the mutiny.

On Palm Sunday in Patagonia Magellan invited the Spanish officers to dinner. Here is Fernández-Armesto’s description of this event: ‘…when Magellan invited the leading men of the fleet to dine after mass. Dinner with the Borgias? Or with Titus Andronicus? Or the Godfather? The summons to a deadly meal has been a topos of art from Absalom and Amnon to Agatha Christie and the Mob. A seat at dinner is a convenient place for an assassination: the victim is pinioned behind the table, disarmed save for unmurderous cutlery, easily approachable to a cutthroat from the rear, and vulnerable to poison in what may be set before him or her.’ This passage encapsulates my problem with the book.

First, the author gives no evidence for Magellan’s treachery other than his own imagination. I doubt Magellan would have killed officers appointed by the king unless he had ironclad evidence, which he didn’t have. And if he did, it would have been revealed by the events that followed. Second, the author’s writing is overwrought. Reading the book is much like listening to a professor droning on and on.

Subsequently, the mutineers did strike that night, mortally wounding one Spanish officer loyal to Magellan and shackling Magellan’s cousin. Later one of Magellan’s loyal officers kills one of the mutineers, which Fernández-Armesto calls an assassination. Assassination??? The mutineers had already stabbed an officer of the fleet and forcibly taken three of the ships! The mutineers initiated the use of force. Magellan was entitled to use whatever means necessary to crush the mutiny. Magellan certainly had his faults, as evidenced in the Philippines, but he seems the more innocent party in the event of the mutiny. It is also telling, I believe, that the sailors and working men of the crew heavily sided with Magellan against the Spanish dandies.

I cannot judge the veracity of the author’s interpretation of the Portuguese and Spanish accounts. I can judge the veracity of more common knowledge, like when Fernández-Armesto calls the historian S.E. Morison a ‘battle-scarred and battle-ready admiral.’ I think Morison’s books are superb. I especially appreciate that he actually sailed through the Strait of Magellan and many of the other locales visited by the explorers that he documents. However, Morison was not ‘battle-scarred and battle-ready.’ He was a college professor who during World War II was given at age fifty-five the commission of Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy so that he might document the history of that war. He never commanded a ship. His eventual promotion to Admiral was more honorary rather than due to any military accomplishment. There are many more instances of wrong or mis-stated facts.

The book could have used a good editor. For example, he establishes early on that Pigafetta didn’t become a Knight of Rhodes (St. John) until after completion of the voyage. Nonetheless, when at Cebu he says things like ‘Pigafetta, the knight of St. John, who might have been expected to know about Christian standards of chivalry, ….’ But by his own admission earlier, Pigafetta was not then a knight of St. John, so why call him one?

The author’s understanding of navigation also appears shaky. Francisco Albo was the navigator of the one ship to make it back to Spain. Albo’s log is our best record of the route taken by the ships. Fernández-Armesto for some reason continually, and annoyingly, questions whether the log was actually Albo’s. Well, Albo was the only pilot to make it back to Spain from the Spice Islands, so one should feel certain the log during that period was truly ‘Albo’s log.’ As to before that, Fernández-Armesto should read Rossfelder’s book on the route and navigation of Magellan’s voyage. While Albo was sailing with other ships, the navigators would periodically get together to agree upon their course and position. Hence his log did at that time represent his measurements, but periodically these would be adjusted so that all navigators would literally be on the same page.

For those interested in Magellan, I recommend Tim Joyner’s book Magellan for a straight forward, lucid explanation of the voyage. I might be prejudiced in this matter because the late Mr. Joyner was my friend. I found it surprising that Fernández-Armesto dismissed Joyner’s book because he ‘lacked the conceptual knowledge, historical sensibility, humanistic discipline, and factual command the task demanded.’ Really? Fernández-Armesto also seems to be unaware of Rossfelder’s book which concentrates on the voyage’s navigation and could have cleared up some of his questions about those issues. Of course, Rossfelder wasn’t a history professor so I suppose his work isn’t relevant in the author’s eyes. He also ignores Bergreen’s 2003 book, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, which despite having been out for nearly twenty years is far out selling Strait.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magellan

Magellan’s Armada: The Human Cost

Two hundred and thirty-nine* men and boys sailed on Magellan’s armada. Only eighteen returned to Spain three years later. What happened to the other two hundred twenty-one men? The short answer is that a hundred and thirty-eight of them died, while eighty-three were alive, some in Spain and some elsewhere in the world. Why the horrendous toll? The bulk of the deaths are attributable to Magellan’s failed empire building attempt in the Philippines.

First a few words on those who survived. Fifty-five men returned to Spain on a ship that defected from the fleet while it was in the Strait of Magellan. Sixteen men captured by the Portuguese returned to Spain later, while a dozen men and boys were alive elsewhere, having been either abandoned in Brunei, or jumped ship rather than hazard to chance of dying of scurvy.

What killed the others? The main causes of death were scurvy, sixty-nine men, in battle or murdered by natives, thirty men, while miscellaneous accidents and disease accounted for thirty-three more. There were also four mutineers killed or marooned, one man killed by the mutineers, one execution, and one suicide.

Scurvy was the greatest killer of men. This disease impacted the expedition on the three longest voyages of the expedition. The first of these was the crossing of the Pacific Ocean by the Trinidad, Concepcion, and Victoria. The voyage from the Strait of Magellan to Guam took one hundred days. Since scurvy usually takes ninety days to manifest itself, it is a little surprising that thirteen percent of the crew died from the transit. What caused this? Interestingly, twenty-seven percent of the men on the Victoria died of scurvy which is over twice the percentage on the Trinidad and over five times the death rate on the third ship the Concepcion.

Why was the Victoria hit so hard? The key can be found in Pigafetta’s book, where we learn the Victoria spent two weeks searching the Straits of Magellan for the San Antonio, the ship that had defected back to Spain. Meanwhile, the other two ships spent some of that time anchored in the “Bay of Sardines.” There Pigafetta says, “…we found…a very sweet herb called appio, of which there is also some of the same sort that is bitter. This herb grows near springs, and (because we had nothing else) we ate of it for several days.” Appio is believed to be a wild celery rich in vitamin C. Unfortunately, the men on the Victoria did not have the advantage of eating appio. So the San Antonio’s defection killed men in two different ways. First, it was the largest ship of the fleet. Some of its supplies were meant for the men in the other ships, who instead starved. Second, the search for it meant the men aboard the Victoria went without fresh vegetables many weeks longer than the men on the other two ships. Hence the Victoria’s much higher death rate from scurvy.

The next scurvy ridden voyage was that of the Victoria returning to Spain from the East Indies. A third of its crew died in the hundred and thirty-nine days sail. The final scurvy ridden sail was that of the Trinidad, which spent over two hundred days attempting to return to the Americas by sailing east across the Pacific Ocean. Fully sixty-one percent of its crew died of scurvy and when it returned to the Spice Islands only seven men could walk.

However, the main cause of the expedition’s high death toll was Magellan’s attempt at kingdom building in the Philippines. Six men died with him in the battle at Mactan, but the cost of his actions went far further. His death led in turn to the massacre of most the ship’s officers in the banquet in Cebu. All officers experienced in sailing Asian waters died, or were captured, at the banquet. That led to the remaining men taking months to find the Spice Islands, and the improper maintenance of the ships, which indirectly led to the Trinidad’s disastrous attempt to cross eastward over the Pacific. Of the fifty-nine men that the Victoria left behind with the Trinidad, only four ever returned to Spain. The fate of most of them was a wretched death of scurvy. The death toll of Magellan’s expedition was high, as was often the case during the Age of Exploration. However, without the San Antonio’s defection in the Strait of Magellan, the cost of scurvy from the crossing of the Pacific would likely have been far lower. Once Magellan’s men had recovered in the Philippines from the crossing of the Pacific Ocean, if he had then headed south for the Spice Islands, all three ships could have sailed the Victoria’s route back to Spain with their holds full of cloves. Scurvy would still have taken its levy, but a majority of the men would have survived to see Spain again.

*All the data comes from Appendix 3A of Tim Joyner’s Magellan, which is based upon pay records. He acknowledges that it is generally believed that 260-270 men sailed with the expedition, including men recruited in the Canary Islands. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that any of the conclusions of the above analysis would change should we know the actual data.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magellan, Magellan's Navigator

The World Circumnavigated September 6, 1522 – But Was the Expedition a Success or a Failure?

The Victoria, the sole remaining ship of Magellan’s fleet, limped, battered and leaking, into San Lúcar harbor, Spain, on September 6, 1522. When sold, the cloves in its hold would pay for most the cost of Magellan’s five ships that departed three years earlier with so much pomp. Hence the immediate financial return to Magellan’s investors was at best a wash. Is that enough to declare the expedition a failure? How should we judge Magellan’s success?

Judging strictly on Magellan’s charter from Spain’s King Charles, the expedition was largely a failure. He promised to find a passage around South America and open a trade route to the Spice Islands of the East Indies. While doing this he was encouraged to claim new lands for Spain and to convert pagans to Christianity.

Magellan did discover a strait around South America, but it proved too far south and difficult for commercial passage until the fast clipper ships three hundred years later came into being. Magellan also did ‘discover’ (at least for Europeans) the many islands of the Philippines, although he managed to get himself killed in the process. His crew later did later find the Spice Islands and load a rich cargo there, although of the two ships remaining, only the Victoria made it back to Spain. Hence, based upon Magellan’s charter, the expedition was a failure.

I believe the problem with evaluating the success of voyages in the Age of Exploration is that their benefits most often occurred years after their date. Spain benefited enormously from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, but the dollar impact didn’t occur until thirty or forty years later when the silver from Mexico and Peru made Spain an empire, and not merely a kingdom. Similarly, the real benefit of Magellan’s discoveries didn’t accrue to Spain until it conquered the Philippines forty years later. Some immediate financial benefit did occur when Portugal agreed in 1529 to pay Spain 350,000 ducats for the Spice Islands as part of the Treaty of Zaragoza.

Perhaps Magellan’s greatest, and unintended, contribution to the understanding of the world was his proof that the Pacific Ocean was far, far more immense and the world’s circumference hence larger than previously believed. In the long run Spain was richly rewarded by Magellan’s discoveries. But what about the human cost? Two hundred and thirty-nine men and boys originally sailed on the fleet. Only eighteen Europeans remained alive on the Victoria when it arrived back in Spain. But those numbers don’t tell the entire tale of human misery. Read more about this in tomorrow’s blog.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magellan, Magellan's Navigator, Strait of Magellan

Magellan vs Drake

There are many remarkable similarities between the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan’s ship Victoria and then, some fifty years later, Drake’s Golden Hind. They sailed roughly identical routes around the world, both defeated mutinies and endured storms, starvation, and scurvy. Religion played a key role in each expedition, but different religions and in very different ways. Both expeditions interacted with natives, both hostile and friendly, around the world.

Let’s look at the backgrounds of Magellan and Drake, which were quite different.

Magellan was a noble; Drake was a self-made man.

Magellan was born into minor nobility and as a youth was a page in the Portuguese royal court. Being around royalty was commonplace for him. Drake was born a common man and at a young age apprenticed to the master of a trading bark that carried cargo between the English Channel ports. Few men of his origin ever became, as he did later in life, a familiar of the Queen.

Magellan was a Catholic; Drake was a Protestant.

Both men were extremely devout. Apart from claiming the Spice Islands for Spain, a prime objective of Magellan’s armada was to convert pagan natives to the true faith. This faith was Catholicism. Protestantism was being birthed at the time of Magellan’s voyages. It was in 1517, two years before Magellan’s departure, that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door launching the Reformation. Drake’s life and religion was forged in the bitter conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant England, and he ceaselessly waged war upon the church when possible. At each day’s services aboard the Golden Hind he, or his chaplain, read from the Book of Martyrs, expounding upon the injustice executed by the Catholics upon the Protestants.

Magellan was a soldier; Drake was a mariner.

When setting sail on their voyages, each man was in their late thirties or early forties, but they had led quite different lives.

Magellan fought with the conquering Portuguese in India and Malacca as well as later in Morocco. He learned in India that a small number of armored and organized Europeans could defeat a much larger number of Asians. However, before commanding the Armada of the Moluccas, Magellan had never before commanded a ship, much less a fleet.

By comparison, Drake’s apprenticeship on the trading bark was so successful that the elderly bark’s owner willed it to him. Later Drake captained a ship for the Hawkins family at the tender age of twenty-two, the Hawkins being the most illustrious mariners of the Elizabethan age. He later organized expeditions to raid the Spanish Caribbean. By his thirties Drake’s predations as a corsair had made him a wealthy self-made man. By all accounts he was an expert sailor and navigator. Unlike Magellan, Drake avoided battles unless he had a clear advantage and profit to be made.

The objectives of Magellan and Drake:

The main objective of both men was to enrich themselves. Magellan hoped to bring back his five ships laden with cloves and nutmeg from the Spice Islands. This was a reasonable objective. The cloves carried by the one ship that did return to Spain paid for the entire expedition. He also believed he could claim these islands for Spain. But Magellan had greater personal aspirations…much greater. Magellan’s contract with King Charles stated that if ‘more than six islands were discovered, the King granted Magellan permission to choose two for himself.’ It is clear that Magellan intended to found a kingdom for himself somewhere in the East Indies.

Drake’s intention was more modest than Magellan’s. It was simply to plunder Spain’s treasure ships. Heretofore the Pacific coast of Spain’s conquered territories were blissfully immune to the depredations of the English and French corsairs then rampant in the Caribbean. Drake meant to change that. The sea lanes from Peru to Panama carried silver from Andean mines that fueled the Spanish Empire. Drake intended to take some of this silver for England…and himself.

And how did it turn out?

Both men made it through the Strait of Magellan successfully with relatively minor loss, especially compared to other expeditions. Drake benefited significantly by his knowledge of Magellan’s route. Drake passed through the strait faster, but this was due in part to Magellan having to find the way through the strait and also days spent searching for the San Antonio, one of his ships that defected while in the strait.

Once out of the strait, Magellan sailed up the coast of South America without attempting to make landfall to reprovision or water. He believed, like Columbus, the Indies were but a few weeks sail away, and hence additional food was unnecessary. Once at around thirty degrees south latitude he turned west, and sailed, and sailed. The Pacific was far more vast than he thought, which almost killed him and his crew from starvation and scurvy.

Finally, upon making landfall in what are now the Philippines, most of his men quickly recovered. His subordinates then urged him to sail for the Spice Islands. But Magellan had ‘converted’ thousands of the natives in the Philippines to Catholicism, or at least he thought so. His dream of establishing a kingdom for himself came to the fore and based upon his previous experience in Asia, he thought that he could do so. This led to his sad end when he led fifty men against over a thousand native warriors at Mactan…and he died there with his dreams while seriously compromising the expeditions success.

Drake’s objectives were always limited even before he lost one ship to a storm and had another defect, leaving him with one ship and eighty men. The loss of any significant number of his men could threaten his success and even his ability to return to England. He always declined to attack a town if he didn’t have an overwhelming advantage. All of Drake’s encounters with the Spanish and natives were either friendly, or relatively bloodless. When at San Julian and La Mucha the natives attacked and killed his men, Drake exercised restraint and avoided further conflict. In comparison, at San Julian and Guam Magellan launched punitive raids when he considered himself injured by the natives.

Drake was an amazing sailor, his navigation precise. He lost only a few men to scurvy and other ailments, partially due to his penchant for adding fruit juice to the men’s water. He survived brutal storms. He meticulously maintained his ships. Periodically throughout the circumnavigation he graved and scoured the hull of his ship of marine growth. He certainly benefited by more information than what Magellan had about the routes he intended to sail. Magellan had the disadvantage of knowing nothing about the far side of our world. Nonetheless, Drake was clearly the better and more successful sailor.

Ultimately, Drake accomplished all he had hoped for. The silver and gold returned in his hold to England equaled the royal expenses of England for a year. Other Englishmen would follow Drake’s route to continue the war against the Spanish in the Pacific. One ship was lost in a storm, but otherwise Drake’s loss of men to disease or combat were relatively modest. Magellan did not accomplish what he personally wanted or what he promised the Spanish king. One of his ships did return, but that only repaid the cost of the expedition. Magellan’s strength was his determination and focus. Ultimately, these strengths fostered a blindness to reality, which resulted in his death and doomed the possible success of his fleet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magellan

A TV Series about Magellan’s Circumnavigation?

There is a TV series about Magellan’s circumnavigation!!! What great news! That’s what I thought when I first heard about Boundless, a six-part TV miniseries on Amazon Prime. I couldn’t wait to see it.

The first episode is about Magellan’s rejection by the King of Portugal and transfer of his allegiance to King Charles of Spain. The episode outlined the main conflicts well. These are first the antagonism between the Spanish captains of the armada and Magellan, and second the determination of the Portuguese to protect their spice trade. So far so good. Minor historical inaccuracies riddle the forty-minute video. Some are inevitable in the translation to the screen when presenting a complex story like Magellan’s that has a huge cast of characters. Some inaccuracies simply seemed so wrong to me, like when in the video Magellan bursts uninvited into a room with King Charles and rolls out his chart and explains how he intends to get to the Spice Islands…all while some thirty men stand there watching and listening. No. Just no. Magellan was extremely secretive about the route he intended to sail.

The episode sets up El Cano to be the hero of the series as Magellan desperately needs a tillerman, whatever the heck that is. (A seaman did tend the tiller which controls the rudder, but that is a task, not a position. We actually have the pay rosters at the beginning of the voyage and the paid positions for the sailors are master, mate, pilot, seaman and apprentice seaman. There is no tillerman) El Cano, who is in trouble for selling a royal ship without authorization (an actual fact) agrees to sail with Magellan on his flagship. El Cano was actually the mate on one of the other ships and hence in the scheme of things perhaps the fifteenth or twentieth most senior officer of the fleet.

The fleet sails at the end of the first episode. We see someone dropping into the ocean floating notes about the route of the fleet! Excuse me? Didn’t happen and wholly unrealistic.

Early in the second episode we find Magellan’s fleet being pursued by a Portuguese fleet. Didn’t happen. There is a brief fight. Some of El Cano’s men fire a cannon shot at a distant Portuguese ship…and partially dismasts the ship. Didn’t happen and unrealistic. Then in a brilliant suggestion El Cano suggests they sail south and out distance the Portuguese ships. Haha.

I stopped watching at this point.

My conclusion is that if you want a sea story with lots of action you might find this interesting. If you want something somewhat historically accurate, pass this by. As one reviewer on imdb said, ‘there is no script that can be better than reality’ when dealing with such momentous historical events. I might have enjoyed the series were it not so laughably inaccurate.

This series was produced by the national TV of Spain as well as Amazon Prime in honor of the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation. As such, I believe they’ve attempted to put Spain’s past in the best light. For example King Charles is portrayed as an extremely handsome, almost beautiful, young man. He was certainly a remarkable man both devout and intelligent. Handsome? No. He had the massive lower Hapsburg jaw with an extreme underbite due to the inbreeding of the Hapsburgs.

Edited 8/3/22 to clarify what a tillerman is and isn’t.

Leave a comment

Filed under Amazon

Wilson Hurley, the talented artist behind the cover of Drake’s Botanist

Finding great cover art for my books has always been a challenge. I wanted to use a picture of a sailing ship for cover of Drake’s Botanist. Not only did I find a superb picture of an Elizabethan era ship, but it actually was a picture of the Golden Hind!

I was able to use only a portion of the late Wilson Hurley’s painting, so the complete work follows.

Please see his website at to see many more examples of his tremendous work.

Thank you again to Rosalyn Hurley for her permission to use Mr. Hurley’s artwork.

Leave a comment

Filed under Drake's Botanist

Just Published: Drake’s Botanist

Six years ago after publishing Magellan’s Navigator I was undecided as to what next. Drake’s circumnavigation was a obvious option, but I hesitated because of the research needed. Well, two years ago I decided to do it, and Drake’s Botanist is the result. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Here’s a brief blurb on my new book:

Queen Elizabeth’s England is at an uneasy peace with King Philip’s Spain, but all wonder how much longer that will last. Spain’s Catholic armies are ravaging England’s Protestant allies in the Netherlands. How can England help them short of sending an army? Spain’s rich silver mines in the New World fund its aggression. When Francis Drake approaches the Queen with a plan cut the flow of this treasure and bankrupt Philip’s empire, she agrees to it.

Drake sails with six ships. A man with flair, he dines each night on silver plates while serenaded by violas. He even has a botanist aboard.

Botanist and author Lawrence Elyot enlists with Drake, thinking the fleet is on a trading expedition to Egypt…not realizing that is a ruse to deceive the Spanish. He is shocked when once at sea Drake announces that there has been a change of plans. First stop will be Africa. Beyond that, Drake won’t say.

Elyot is now on the epic adventure of his life and in more danger than he has dreamt of in his worst nightmares. Certainly, he would not have volunteered had he realized he would play the pirate while encountering mutiny, murderous Spaniards, hostile natives, storms, scurvy, the death of friends, and nearly three years away from London.

But if he survives the foray against the hated papist, his share of the plunder will assure he lives the life of a proper gentleman.

Available on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and KindleUnlimited.

Leave a comment

Filed under Drake's Botanist, Magellan's Navigator

July 9, 1522 – The Victoria Arrives in the Portuguese Cape Verdes

The Victoria departed Tidore on December 21, 1521 with sixty-two souls aboard, forty-nine Europeans and thirteen Moluccans. El Cano was Captain, having been elected by the crew. Albo was the Pilot, Miguel de Rodas was the Master, while Juan de Acurio was the Mate. Interestingly, all four men were originally mates on four of the five original ships. El Cano was Basque, Acurio Castilian, and Albo and Miguel Greek. Antonio Pigafetta was perhaps the other most senior person aboard. All the men were united in the desire to return to Spain, which isn’t to say that all trusted one another. El Cano had sided with the mutineers. All the other men had actively or passively supported Magellan. It is notable that Pigafetta never names El Cano in his book, leading me to believe he had a low opinion of him.

Their first challenge was to sail through the maze of the East Indies so they might launch themselves across the Indian Ocean. Despite taking on pilots at Tidore, this took nearly two months, and it wasn’t until February 13th that the Victoria lost sight of the Indies. An apprentice seaman and a cabin boy jumped ship at Timor, probably deciding life in the tropical islands was preferable to facing starvation and scurvy.

A month into the transit of the Indian Ocean, they came upon an isolated island, now known as the Ile of Amsterdam. They attempted landfall. Any fresh provisions would have been welcome, but unable to find an anchorage, they sailed on. (The island remains uninhabited other than a research station.)

Finally, on May 8th, 1521 they sighted Africa. Two Europeans had died in the transit of the Indian Ocean. Their food stores already dangerously low and mostly rice remained. The men were weakening, and soon scurvy and starvation would exact a toll unless they got fresh food. It took eleven days to actually round the Cape, as the tired men had to tack against westerly winds, and they once had to make repairs to a mast after a storm. Two more men succumbed while rounding Africa.

Once having passed the Cape they were able to obtain firewood and water, but no food. The ravages of starvation and scurvy now accelerated with men dying each week. By July 9th, less than two months after rounding the Cape and over four thousand miles later, eight more Europeans had died despite once making landfall on the African coast…and finding no provisions. The Moluccans doubtlessly fared worse. We don’t know the timing of their deaths, but of the thirteen that sailed from Tidore, only three survived to reach Spain, which was a much higher death rate than for the Europeans. During this time, Martin de Magellan died. He was a nephew of Magellan who had sailed on the Concepcion.

By early July they were still two thousand miles from Spain and without enough food to sustain them until there. They voted to risk getting provisions at the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. They entered the Portuguese port of Sao Tiago on July 9th. They told the Portuguese a woeful tale of sailing from the Caribbean and being blown off course by a hurricane. Initially this was believed despite El Cano purchasing food by payment of cloves! At this point there were probably thirty-four Europeans still aboard the Victoria (another seaman having recently died) and three Moluccans. On July 14th, the longboat with thirteen men went ashore for one last load of rice. It didn’t return.

One of the men ashore had blabbed. The Portuguese demanded El Cano surrender. El Cano attempted to negotiate to no avail. They could surrender, to the uncertain mercy of the Portuguese. Or they could sail, despite all the men still suffering the ravages of the voyage, some worse than others. Also, if they sailed, they would be leaving thirteen of their shipmates behind. The remaining crew decided to sail with a badly depleted and sick crew of twenty-five, twenty-two Europeans and three Moluccas.

Leave a comment

Filed under Francisco Albo, Magellan, Magellan's Navigator

The Victoria Sets Sail for Spain from the Spice Islands – December 21, 1521

Their holds filled with tons of cloves worth a fortune in Europe, the Trinidad and Victoria were ready to sail by mid December 1521. The month in the Moluccas had been a happy time. The Rajah Almanzor had proven a trustworthy ally, trading fairly and helping the Spaniards however he could. Nonetheless, Captain General Espinosa dealt with the rajah carefully, as he suspected the rajah of having poisoned Magellan’s friend when he served the opposing rajah of Ternate. The politics of the Moluccas were difficult, with rajahs competing with one another, while all the rajahs disliked the Portuguese. Certainly, the Rajah Almanzor saw the Spanish as a counterbalance to the Portuguese.

Francisco Albo and his shipmates must have looked upon the upcoming voyage with mixed feelings. If all went well, and they survived the storms, starvation, and scurvy of the upcoming voyage, they’d be wealthy men once back in Spain, as each were allowed a personal stash of cloves. On the other hand, they intended to sail across the Indian Ocean from the Indies to the tip of Africa, something that had never been done before.

Finally all was ready. The men were rested and their ships well provisioned with even new sails. The monsoon winds were right and they had pilots to guide them as far as Timor. What could go wrong?

The day of departure was a festive occasion with banners flying and all the local rajahs watching from their own ships. Captain Cano of the Victoria ordered the anchor raised and Albo piloted it out of the harbor and waited for the Trinidad…which never came. The Victoria finally returned to its consort.

They found the Trinidad still anchored, but with a slight list. The Trinidad’s anchor had fouled on the bottom. The response had been to pull harder on it to dislodge it. The anchor didn’t move, but the Trinidad’s hull torqued, pulling apart some of its planking. The pumps barely kept up with the water flooding into the Trinidad’s hold that the pumps barely kept at bay. The Rajah Almanzor sent divers below to find the leaks—to no avail. The conclusion was obvious. The Trinidad had to be unloaded and the leaks fixed. That would take time, but time spent in Tidore was like a time spent in paradise. The problem was that the winds would soon turn, delaying departure for Spain across the Indian Ocean for nearly a year! Also, a hostile Portuguese fleet might arrive at any time. It was decided the Victoria would sail on alone and the Trinidad follow later, possibly by an eastward transit of the Pacific Ocean.

And so, the Victoria finally left Tidore on December 21, 1521 with forty-seven Europeans, thirteen Moluccas aboard to fill out the crew, and the letters of their shipmates on the Trinidad—only four of whom would ever see Spain again.

Leave a comment

Filed under Francisco Albo, Magellan, Magellan's Navigator

November 8, 1521 – Magellan’s Fleet Reaches the Spice Islands…Finally

Cloves Png - Dried Clove Clipart (987x987), Png Download

The Trinidad and Victoria, the sole surviving ships of Magellan’s Armada of the Moluccas, dropped anchor off the Spice Island of Tidore the afternoon of Friday, November 8, 1521. This finally accomplished what Magellan had first dreamed of doing years before. They announced their arrival with their cannon, and the next day they were greeted by Rajah Almanzor. The Spice Islands of Ternate and Tidore, along with a few other nearby islands, were the sole source in the world of cloves. A shipload of this now common spice would be worth a fortune in Europe—enough to pay for the entire expedition.

The voyage from Cebu inexplicably took over six months, whereas Drake took only twelve days. Drake was an excellent navigator. Carvalho, chief pilot and commander until September 21st, was a thoroughly incompetent navigator. Francisco Albo later demonstrated his skill by piloting the Victoria from the Spice Islands back to Spain. Why didn’t he step forward and get the fleet back on track? I don’t know. Once Carvalho was deposed, it still took the ships forty-eight days to reach their objective.

The Spanish ships sailed into a thorny political situation. The rajahs of the neighboring islands of Ternate and Tidore were bitter rivals. The only thing that united them was their common hatred of the Portuguese.

Some years earlier Magellan’s friend Francisco Serrão was shipwrecked…but managed to become vizier for the rajah of Ternate. With a few fellow Portuguese and a cannon, Serrão helped Ternate vanquish Tidore, and thereby earn the hatred of Rajah Almanzor of Tidore. This established Ternate as the preeminent of the two Spice Islands. The Portuguese were uneasy with Serrão in Ternate and attempted to recall him. Serrão refused, although he did permit a Portuguese trading post in Ternate. Subsequently, at about the time of Magellan’s death at Mactan, Serrão was poisoned, probably by Almanzor, the person with the most to gain by his death.

Why did the Spanish choose to first land at Tidore, rather than at Ternate where they knew Magellan’s friend was vizier? One can only suppose that the local pilot that they had engaged knew that Serrão was dead, and that Ternate was loosely allied with the Portuguese while Tidore was opposed to the Portuguese and hence a potential ally for the Spanish. It proved to be a good choice. Almanzor signed an alliance with Spain, and helped the Spanish in whatever ways he could. Only later, when the Spanish learned of Almanzor’s poisoning of Serrão, did they become more cautious of the friendly rajah. Nonetheless, the Spanish stood by Almanzor, shunning the efforts of the Rajah of Ternate to get them to come to his island for the cloves.

The arrival in the Spice Islands brought up another issue. Did these islands lie in the Portuguese sphere of influence or the Spanish sphere? (The pope had previously divided the non-Catholic world between the Portuguese and Spanish, disregarding any rights of the existing inhabitants and the interests of any other kingdoms or republics.) The pope’s division basically gave Brazil and India to the Portuguese, with the remainder of the New World to the Spanish. He didn’t really address the far side of the world, but what happened if you extended the demarcation line from the Atlantic to the Pacific and called anything west of that line Portuguese and anything east Spanish? Serrão had written Magellan that based upon this the Spice Islands were in the Spanish sphere. Unfortunately, both he and Magellan underestimated the true circumference of the world, which put the islands in the Portuguese sphere. Albo’s estimation of the islands’ longitude confirmed this, although his logbook was stashed in the Seville archives and he never was invited, or attended, subsequent negotiations between Portugal and Spain about the Spice Islands. Of course, determining longitude at this time was not an easy task, and however Albo did it, he did well, as he was only three degrees off. Interestingly, Pigafetta in his book puts the longitude of the Spice Islands decisively, and inaccurately, in the Spanish sphere of influence. Where he got his longitude can only be conjectured. One can suspect it was politically calculated to meet the Spanish needs.

The Spanish interlude in the Spice Islands went well, although Espinosa, Cano, and Albo were eager to get their ships loaded and be off. They knew they had to sail before the monsoons hit, which would make sailing westward back to Spain impossible for months. Finally, on December 18th, 1520 with holds full of cloves the Trinidad and Victoria went to raise their anchors.

Then disaster struck.

Leave a comment

Filed under Cloves, Francisco Albo, Magellan, Magellan's Navigator