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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Filed under Francisco Albo, Magellan, Magellan's Navigator

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