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

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