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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