Five hundred years ago on this day the Armada of the Moluccas sailed from Spain on what was to be one of the epic voyages of the Age of Exploration. Five ships sailed with over two hundred and seventy men commanded by the Portuguese Ferdinand Magellan. Its objective? To find a westward route to the Spice Islands of the Moluccas, the sole source of cloves in the world.
The Portuguese Vasco da Gama’s pioneering route around Africa to India in 1497-1499 had reshaped the lucrative spice trade from a land and water route ending in Venice to a water route to Portugal. To date this had brought more riches to Portugal than Columbus’s discovery of the New World had to Spain. The ambitious King Charles of Spain, recently elected Holy Roman Emperor, coveted the potential gold a new route to the Spice Islands could bring.
Magellan had years of experience in the Portuguese spice trade and for a long time had dreamt of this expedition. Failing to convince his own king to commission the fleet, he successfully captured the imagination of King Charles and signed a contract with the young sovereign in early 1518. Magellan spent eighteen months purchasing and overhauling the ships, meticulously loading them with food, supplies, and trade goods, and recruiting a crew. This was done while hampered by suspicious Spanish bureaucrats.
It all sounded good. However, even Magellan didn’t knew how to get around the New World to the Spice Islands. Also, Balboa, after crossing the Isthmus of Panama, had sighted a new ocean. How far across this ocean were the Spice Islands? Consensus was that they weren’t far. This last assumption was to almost doom the expedition.
However, a more immediate problem would first arise: the flawed command structure of the fleet. On the one side was Magellan and his crusty veterans of the Portuguese spice trade. Opposing him stood three Spanish captains plotting to displace him. Between them stood the majority of the crew, men simply trying to stay alive.