A Fatal Banquet – May 1, 1521

Magellan’s death at Mactan on April 27, 1521 along with five of their shipmates left the fleet’s survivors in shock and disarray. Little did they know even worse awaited them in four days.

Magellan had no second-in-command so there was no clear leader after his death. All the fleet’s original captains, with the exception of Serrano who had commanded the smallest ship of the armada, were now dead. Of the original pilots, Gomez had defected in the Straits of Magellan, while two others had died in the Pacific crossing, leaving only San Martin, Carvalho, and Albo. Of these three San Martin seems to have been of a more cerebral sort. He was also the armada’s astrologer. The men had some reason to doubt Carvalho’s competence, while Albo had only been appointed pilot when the fleet approached Brazil.

Some hundred and forty men were left on the three ships. Decisions had to be made. Their authoritarian leader gone, leadership of the fleet was put to a vote. Serrano and Duarte Barbosa were elected co-leaders. These two men were obvious choices. Serrano was a dependable, experienced mariner. Duarte Barbosa, Magellan’s brother-in-law, was a man of action with years of experience in India with the Portuguese.

The decision was swiftly made to resume the armada’s original mandate, and to sail to the Spice Islands. They dismantled the trading post ashore, and made the ships ready to sail.

The Cebu rajah must have been dismayed at these events. He’d used Magellan’s military might to settle differences with his rival local rajahs. The departure of the Spanish fleet would leave him vulnerable to reprisals.

Another player now comes to center stage: Enrique, Magellan’s faithful servant and slave. Enrique fought beside Magellan at Mactan, and was lightly wounded there, while Barbosa wenched back at Cebu. Enrique knew that Magellan’s will gave him his freedom. Barbosa refused to honor this, and demanded Enrique to go ashore to negotiate with the rajah the details of their departure, and threatened to take him back to be a slave to Magellan’s wife. One can imagine Enrique’s thoughts were of revenge when going to meet the rajah.

Enrique returned to announce that the rajah was hosting a banquet for the Spanish before their departure, where he would deliver precious gifts for their king. The news delighted Barbosa, who was always up for a party. Men eagerly sought to be one of the lucky ones to attend this last bacchanal.

Most of the fleet’s remaining officers left to attend the festivities, including Barbosa, Serrano, the pilot San Martin, Carvalho, and Espinosa, the fleet’s master-at-arms. In all twenty-six men went ashore. Albo stayed behind to ready the ships while Pigafetta, tending a wound from Mactan, also didn’t go.

Carvalho and Espinosa quickly returned. They’d become suspicious after seeing the fleet’s priest pulled aside by a native man that he’d befriended.

Not long later, music at the rajah’s palace stopped, and the distinct clank of steel-on-steel reverberated over the harbor. Carvalho, Espinosa, and Albo rushed to ready the flagship Trinidad to sail and prepare its cannon. However, after the losses from the transit of the Pacific, Mactan, and those attending the banquet, all three ships were undermanned and unprepared for battle. Finally, the Trinidad was brought close enough to fire a few cannon shot at the palace.

In response, a small party departed the palace and came to the water’s edge. It included the rajah, his son, Enrique, and, hands bound, Serrano. Of what happened then, there are several versions, but all have the same ending. The rajah bargained for cannon in return for his captives, but, after the first cannon were delivered, demanded even more. Serrano then spoke, telling them to flee, as the rajah’s allies would soon arrive by sea.

My belief is that if Barbosa or Magellan were in command, they would have launched a heavily armed rescue party. It might have succeeded. But Carvalho was in command. In a panic, he ordered the fleet south.

Twenty-three men were left behind to their fate. Doubtlessly some, or even most, were already dead. The priest probably survived…possibly as a free man. The other survivors likely lived out their lives as slaves.

Twice in five days the fleet had lost its leaders on the far side of the world from Spain. Fortunately, these were tough, resourceful men, although at times distracted by liquor, women, and gold. The three ships with now less than a hundred and twenty men sailed south. Now, for the second time in four days they needed to elect a new leader and then find the Spice Islands. They knew these were on the equator. One would think they’d be easy to find. Sail to the latitude of the equator and ask around. Or, upon reaching the equator, simply sail either west or east until they were found. It didn’t happen that easily.

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Magellan in the Philippines. A Tale of Religion, Sex, and Gold

Magellan’s approach to all natives that he met was to awe them with European martial invincibility, convert them to the one true God, while accumulating as much gold as possible.

He’d previously seen this done during his years with the Portuguese in India and Malaysia. There a relatively small number of Portuguese with armor and cannon had diverted much of the lucrative spice trade from Venice to Portugal. Magellan intended to do the same in the Philippines.

So, upon meeting the first raja in the Philippines, Magellan put on a demonstration of how one man with armor could defeat many without. He also immediately started his proselytizing.

I think Magellan probably underestimated the sophistication of the local rajas. I am no expert on this time in Philippine history, but it is clear that there were many local fiefdoms dotted through the islands. Through these the Okinawan traders plied their business along with Moslem traders from the south. While the Portuguese hadn’t yet penetrated to the Philippines, tales of their ruthlessness and power had. Magellan’s ships looked like those of the Portuguese despite his calling them Spanish, and the local rajas knew that they best beware of these intruders.

Magellan soon made his way to Cebu, a local trading center. There he triumphantly, he thought, converted the local raja, Humabon, to Christianity. Hundreds, if not thousands, of baptisms followed. Magellan was elated. One wonders what the ‘converted’ thought was happening. Next, at the bequest of Humabon, he conducted a successful punitive raid on a local rival of the Cebu raja. At this time, I believe Magellan thought he was well on his way to establishing a local kingdom for himself.

Meanwhile, many of Magellan’s crewmen, including his trusted brother-in-law Duarte Barbosa, were lost in an orgy of sex and drink. This certainly did nothing to endear the Europeans to the locals, and resentment against them steadily grew.

This all came to a rapid climatic end. Humabon convinced Magellan to bring the raja of Mactan, Lapulapu, into line. Magellan refused an offer of assistance from Humabon. However, by this time most of Magellan’s officers were eager to get along with their chartered mission to the Spice Islands, and refused to help Magellan in his empire-building. So, Magellan went to Mactan with sixty volunteers, and few of his better fighters. There, on April 27th, 1521, he died fighting bravely, albeit futilely, against a throng of Lapulapu’s warriors in a battle completely peripheral to his chartered objective.

The defeat at Mactan was a disaster for the armada. The idea of European martial invincibility was shattered and their leader dead. Pressure grew on Humabon to rid himself of these randy interlopers. And soon, from Magellan’s own camp, would come the plan to decapitate the Europeans.

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Characters and Their Names in Magellan’s Navigator

A recent review of Magellan’s Navigator complained that it was “boring and hard to follow all the names.” ‘Boring’ I can’t address. That is a personal reaction, and the book may be boring to some.

The number of names comes from the nature of the story. It could be worse. Some forty crewmen of the armada had their moment of glory, or infamy, during the voyage. My initial draft of the book in 2006 had all forty. Even I, at that time a rookie novelist, realized that was too many. So, I worked hard at cutting down the number of characters while at the same time retaining the strict faithfulness to the truth.

The book was still too complicated after doing that, and so I set it aside for some years while working on my science fiction books. Returning to the book in 2015, I had the epiphany of telling the story from Albo’s perspective. This eliminated many characters, and made the story work. Finally, I took care to not introduce too many people at once, and to wait until a few characters had met their fate before introducing more characters.

There remained the issue of names. Indeed, my editor in 2016 pointed this out. The problem is that Spaniards and Portuguese typically have two or three names, with the spelling different in Spanish and Portuguese. For example, Ferdinand Magellan is Fernando de Magallanes in Spanish and Fernão de Magalhães in Portuguese. My solution was to give the full English name upon a character entering the story, while subsequently using just a single name an Anglo reader could comprehend.  Hence Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa becomes Espinosa. Another problem was similar names. There was a Pilot Major Esteban Gomez while also the master-at-arms Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa. In the book these men are referred to as Gomez and Espinosa.

As a final assist to the reader, a convenient list of important characters is in the appendix.

So, that’s how I attempted to deal with the character names.

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March 16, 1521 – Magellan Is Across the Pacific Ocean. Now What!

Magellan was finally across the Pacific, only he landed at the Philippines, instead of the Spice Islands. And he doesn’t seem to be in a hurry to get to the destination. Why? Also, five hundred years ago the first person ever circumnavigated the globe. Who was this?

Before I answer these questions, what did happen five hundred years ago on this day?

Magellan’s small fleet completed its transit of the Pacific Ocean with the sighting of the island of Samar on March 16, 1521. The most direct course from the Strait of Magellan to Samar is 9400 miles meaning the fleet averaged 87 miles per day for 108 days, making over 3.6 miles per hour. However, the fleet didn’t sail the most direct route and spent several days at Guam, and hence its speed was even better. Magellan could be proud of his fleet’s comparative swiftness, and the crew thankful. Had they been slower, most would have died of scurvy and starvation.

The men rejoiced at seeing the huge island before them. Magellan named it San Lazaro. (The name Philippines came from a later Spanish expedition.) Unfortunately, landfall was too late for young Gutierrez de Bustillo of Castile, a cabin boy on the Trinidad. He succumbed to scurvy on this day.

Magellan turned south along the island in his search for food. A dozen men were still deathly ill despite the provisions obtained at Guam. Canoes were sighted, but these fled upon seeing Magellan’s fleet. Later that day, they anchored off a small island. Tents were set up ashore for those most ill, and two creeks of sweet water used to refill the ships’ water casks. Crewmen at these streams sighted flecks of gold, igniting the imagination that riches were somewhere near.

Friendly islanders appeared willing to trade food. After several days Magellan moved on to the larger island of Limasawa, where Magellan befriended the Raja Colambu. Four more men died from the rigors of the voyage. Another five would die over the next few weeks.

Another momentous event occurred at Limasawa. Magellan’s slave Enrique de Malacca recognized the language of the locals! This meant he had circumnavigated the globe, and was surely the first man to do so.

Enrique was a most interesting man. Magellan purchased him in Malacca in present day Malaysia while sailing for the Portuguese. By all accounts he was a trusted servant and ally of Magellan. His birth name is unknown, Magellan having given him the Christian name of Enrique. On the Armada’s roster he was listed as an interpreter, and received a salary of 1500 maravedis a month. This was a significant sum, equal to that of the experienced gunners and carpenters as well as the more senior supernumeraries. It was more than Antonio Pigafetta got, and only 500 maravedis less than Francisco Albo initially got as mate.

One can surmise that since Enrique recognized the language in the Philippines, he had originally been captured and enslaved there before being taken to Malacca. Enrique was home! I wonder how he felt. Enrique would play a critical role in Magellan’s dealings with the local Raja’s, and, after Magellan’s death, the fate of the expedition.

Magellan knew that the Spice Islands lay on the equator, yet Samar lies some twelve degrees north latitude. It is logical that his landfall this far north was intentional to give his men some time to recover from their Pacific voyage before potentially encountering the Portuguese, who’d certainly violently defend their current dominance in this part of the world. However, Magellan would linger far longer in these islands than necessary. Several of his captains and officers even urged him to proceed south to the Spice Islands, but Magellan stayed, and ultimately died, in the Philippines.

The reason for this likely lies in his contract with King Charles. Article Four of this contract says that if Magellan should find more than six islands (unoccupied by Christians) he would grant Magellan two of these. Magellan got to choose the two, which his heirs and successors would then be entitled to. Magellan had visions of a small empire in the Philippines. I think this incentive clearly drove Magellan’s actions over the next several weeks, leading to his death.

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February 13, 1520 – Seventy-eight Days Across the Pacific and Magellan’s Men Are Desperate

Magellan’s three ship fleet crossed the equator five hundred years ago on this date after having left the Strait of Magellan on November 28th, 1519. Seven men had already died, leaving one hundred and sixty men still crammed aboard the three small ships. Each day was the same as the day before: an endless sea and a pitiless sun. The food was all but gone. Starvation and scurvy stalked all the ships. All seven deaths were aboard Victoria. Another twenty or more men were deathly ill, including the pilot of the Victoria, Vasco Gomes Galego, the pilot of the Concepcion, Juan Rodriguez de Mafra, the Fleet Accountant, Antonio de Coca, and the Trinidad’s master gunner, Andrew of Bristol.

Hunger was understood by all. Scurvy, the scourge of long voyages out of the sight of land, was less well understood. But Magellan knew his men desperately needed fresh food.

Unless land was found soon, all aboard realized death was their fate.

Magellan continued on a northwest course until he reached ten degrees north latitude, at which time he turned due west to take advantage of the trade winds. Apparently, given the weakened state of his crew, he sought landfall to the north of the Spice Islands, and hence away from the Portuguese bases further south in the Indies. The Portuguese would certainly fiercely defend their dominance of the spice trade, and in his crew’s current state any battle would mean Magellan’s certain defeat. Magellan needed a safe place for his men to recover their health.

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February 4, 1521 – Magellan’s Sailed for Ten Weeks on the Pacific – Where Are the Indies?

Magellan’s fleet sails onward in the trackless Pacific, propelled by strong trade winds. It’s been nearly seven weeks since Magellan ordered for a course northwest, away from the coast of South America, and ten weeks since Magellan’s three ships raised their anchors in the Strait of Magellan.

When will they reach land? Fresh food is a memory. In Antonio Pigafetta’s words, “We ate biscuit that was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuit swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It strongly stank of rat’s urine. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days.”

They sighted one tiny, uninhabited islet on January 24th. Finally, on February 4th the lookout yells out that land is ahead. Everyone hurries to the gunwale. Disappointed, all they see is an atoll rimmed by a coral reef. A few trees dot its land and sharks circle the reef. It is clearly uninhabited and offers little potential for food or water. (The island was probably the Caroline Atoll at ten degrees south latitude.)

They sail on.

One can only surmise what was going through Magellan’s head. When setting off from the South American coast he’d probably thought he was only a few weeks from the Indies and the Spice Islands. I believe this was the case, because, eager to reach the Spice Islands, he made no effort to water or obtain food before leaving South America behind. Had he known the ocean was this vast, he certainly would have first obtained fresh provisions. Like Columbus, he had seriously underestimated the circumference of the Earth and size of the Pacific Ocean.

Now, it was too late to return. The strong, favorable winds that had sped him on his way also barred his return to South America.

How his crew is weakening. Those unwilling to stomach the moldy biscuit, or roasted rats, are weakening. Most men are showing signs of the scurvy, loose teeth and swollen gums, except for those with access to Magellan’s quince preserves. Those on the Victoria fare the worse, probably because while the men on the Trinidad and Concepcion ate the wild vegetables at the Bay of Sardines, the Victoria was futilely searching for the San Antonio.

There is no choice but to pray to God for deliverance and sail on.

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The Sultan’s Galley is now available!

It’s 1524 and the Ottoman Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s galleys and armies threaten Vienna and even Italy. The Pope sounds the warning. Instead of rising to fight the Moslem foe, King Francis of France and King Charles of Spain are locked in a bitter war. This leaves only a few Spanish galleys and those of the Knights Hospitaller to keep the Ottomans in check.

The wily Greek Francisco Albo captains one of the Spanish galleys. Newly appointed, he enjoys his newfound fame after defeating a squadron of galleys of the infamous Barbary corsair Barbarossa. However, fame tends to be fleeting, and now he must deliver once more.

Albo’s first sailing season is a frustrating one until word comes of a rich tribute galley taking a fortune back to Sultan Suleiman in Constantinople. Albo joins forces with his old friend Antonio Pigafetta and the Knights Hospitaller to waylay it. If successful he’ll enjoy a lifetime of riches.

Capturing the galley means sailing deep into Ottoman territory and eluding a squadron of Ottoman galleys. Albo and the Knights Hospitaller have a plan, but like most plans it goes awry. Albo must rely upon all his cunning to survive.

Think Master and Commander on a galley in 1524. The Sultan’s Galley is the third in the Albo series. It may also be enjoyed as a standalone book.

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Magellan’s Fleet Enters the Pacific Ocean – November 28, 1520

Magellan took thirty-eight days in all to transit the “Strait of Magellan.” His time there was blessed by unusually good weather, but complicated by the search for the San Antonio after its defection.

While the Victoria searched for the wayward San Antonio, Magellan’s Trinidad and the Concepcion anchored in the sheltered ‘Bay of Sardines.’ There they made repairs, netted, not surprisingly, sardines, and some ate the watercress like vegetation that grew in the streams entering the bay.

Magellan knew there was another sea or ocean to the west of the Americas. On September 25, 1513 Balboa was the first European to see it from a mountain on the Isthmus of Panama. He later waded in its waters and claimed it for Spain as the “South Sea.” However, no European knew its true extent. Magellan seems to have thought the Spice Islands were a short two to three-week sail to the west.

While waiting for the Victoria, Magellan sent a shallop to explore the maze of fjord-like waterways to the west. On the shallop were a Flemish gunner, Roldan de Argot, Bocacio Alonso, a seaman, and Hernando de Bustamente, the surgeon barber. (Interestingly, all three of these men would eventually make it back to Spain.)

The shallop returned some days later. Roldan de Argot announced that there was an ocean to the west. He had climbed a mountain peak and only seen open water to the northwest. What he probably saw was the Ocean Reach, an over twenty-mile wide and sixty-mile long fjord that does end at the Pacific Ocean.

Magellan rejoiced. All he’d work towards was finally coming to be. After rendezvousing with the Victoria, on November 21, 1520 he sent a notarized order to the captains, masters, pilots, and mates of the armada, asking their opinions on how they should proceed. Of course, at the time Magellan’s main adversaries had either left on the San Antonio, been marooned, or executed. In this order, Magellan pointedly says that he is “a man who never scorns the opinion and counsel of anyone.” And despite the executions at San Julian “you need not be afraid, for all that happened was done in the service of His Majesty, and for the security of his fleet.” What went through the officers’ minds? I wouldn’t have wanted to be on Magellan’s ‘bad’ list. Not surprisingly all the officers agreed to proceed.

The small fleet then sailed on November 26 and actually entered the Pacific Ocean on November 28, 1520.

My next blog will discuss Magellan’s sail across the Pacific. This didn’t take weeks. The three ships wouldn’t see Guam, their first landfall, until March 6, 1521. By this time the crews would be wracked by scurvy and starvation. Despite the longer than expected transit, fewer lives would have been lost had the stores aboard the San Antonio been available, and had weeks not been wasted in search of the San Antonio.

The Strait of Magellan would never be a common passage for ships. It is simply too tortuous and dangerous in the stormy weather that often prevails there. Most ships sail further south around Cape Horn.

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November 8, 1520 – Magellan’s Largest Ship Defects

Magellan began methodically exploring the Strait of Magellan upon discovering it on October 21st, 1520. This wasn’t any easy task. The strait is a maze of different channels through a myriad of islands stretching east and west and to the south. To hasten the search, Magellan made a fateful decision. He sent the San Antonio in one direct while he sailed with the armada’s other three ships in a different direction, with the plan being to rejoin in three days.

The San Antonio never appeared at the agreed upon meeting place. Fearing the San Antonio had encountered troubles, Magellan’s ships then spent nearly two weeks searching for the missing ship. The Victoria went all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding it. Finding no evidence of the ship, Magellan asked pilot and astrologer San Martin to divine its fate. With uncanny perception, and perhaps inside knowledge, San Martin said that the San Antonio’s captain Mesquita was now a prisoner and that the San Antonio was sailing back to Spain.

This was indeed the case. Mesquita, a relative of Magellan, and Pilot Gomez had had a violent argument, with Gomez stabbing Mesquita in the leg and Mesquita returning the favor to Mesquita’s hand. Gomez was one of the most experienced mariners of the armada after Magellan. They weren’t friends. Gomez’s proposal to sail to the Spice Islands had been rejected by King Charles in favor of Magellan’s plan. Furthermore, off Brazil Magellan had essentially demoted Gomez from his position as Pilot Major of the armada. Gomez didn’t harbor warm and fuzzy feelings for Magellan, and given the opportunity he deposed the hapless Mesquita, who earlier, despite warnings, allowed the mutineers to capture his ship in San Julian. And so, Gomez convinced his crew to side with him, and they defected.

The loss of the San Antonio was a serious blow to Magellan’s plans. At 120 tons, it was the largest ship in the armada. The Trinidad was 110 tons while the Victoria and Concepcion were 85 and 90 tons respectively. Thus, the San Antonio carried a disproportionate amount of the armada’s supplies. This loss, and the time lost and food consumed while needlessly searching for the San Antonio, would haunt the armada in the last days of crossing the Pacific Ocean, leading to unnecessary deaths due to starvation and scurvy.

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The Strait of Magellan Is Found – October 1520

The eastward terminus of the Strait of Magellan is well hidden. Magellan’s armada sailed from Santa Cruz in Patagonia on October 18, 1520, the weather finally having gotten warmer, and his four ships newly provisioned with smoked fish and seal meat.

Three days later, in Francisco Albo’s words from his log book, “I took the sun in exactly at 52 degrees, at five leagues from the land, and there we saw an opening like a bay, and it has at its entrance, on the right hand a very long spit of land, and the cape which we discovered before this spit, is called the Cape of Virgins.” Albo goes on to describe entering the straits and how to navigate them. Negotiation of the straits took many days, with many adventures, so Albo’s account appears to be a summarization of a true log book.

Magellan’s ships entered the bay Albo described, but it appeared to have no western exit. The pilot Carvalho was sent up a nearby hill to reconnoiter. He returned to say that he could still see no exit. Not deterred, Magellan sent two of his ships under the Pilot Gomez with orders to explore and to return in five days.

A severe storm hit soon after these ships were off. Magellan’s remaining two ships rode out the storm at sea before returning to a safer anchorage. The worst was feared for the other two ships, as the storm’s east wind surely broke them against the bay’s far shore. These fears increased when smoke was seen to the west.

Unbeknownst to Magellan, the two ships had survived. On the bay’s western shore was a narrow fjord-like passage, only two nautical miles across. Somewhat miraculously, the storm swept both ships through this passage into a large sound beyond. There one ship made repairs while the second ship proceeded westward through other narrow passage into a Broad Reach. The water there was still tidal and salty, leading Gomez to believe these waters would be connected to another ocean to the west and hence be a passage around the South American continent.

Four days after departing, the two ships returned to Magellan with flags flying and cannon firing. I once saw a painting owned by Tim Joyner, the author of the excellent Magellan, depicting this scene and showing Magellan weeping in joy at the news.

Magellan’s navigation of the straits took many weeks, partially due to Magellan’s meticulous character, but also due to another drama, the defection of Gomez with the San Antonio along with a major portion of the armada’s supplies. This delay and loss of supplies would critically impact the later crossing of the Pacific Ocean.

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