The First Circumnavigation: Lost in the East Indies

Magellan sailed with Armada of the Moluccas five hundred years ago in 1519, and my blog has been a real time (five hundred years apart) account of this voyage. My last entries were on April 24th when Magellan died in a senseless battle at Mactan in the Philippines in 1521. Then on May 1st most the ship’s officers and many of the more senior sailors died or were enslaved at a banquet hosted by the sultan of Cebu. The surviving crew then fled south towards their objective of the spice islands of the Moluccas.

You say, okay Ken, I remember that. So why haven’t you written about them arriving at the Moluccas? You’re letting us down. Francis Drake took only twelve days to sail from the Philippines to the Moluccas…and it’s been over three months since Magellan’s three ships left Cebu.

Amazingly enough after over three months the Spanish ships were no closer to the Moluccas than when they started. Why? Sheer incompetence.

Upon hurriedly leaving Cebu, the three ships, the Trinidad, Victoria, and Concepcion sailed south in a panic, commanded by Carvalho. Once safely away, they anchored in a bay of the island of Bohol, south of Cebu. There were decisions to be made. First, they only had enough men to man two ships, so the Concepcion was stripped and then burnt.

Next, they needed a new leader, since their most recent co-commanders were lost at Cebu. There weren’t too many of the former officers to choose from, scurvy and the banquet having taken most. Of the original captains, there were none. Of the masters, there was the master of the Trinidad, Polcevera, and Cano, the master of the Victoria. The only original pilot was Carvalho, while Francisco Albo was appointed pilot in the Atlantic as they approached Brazil.

An election was held with all crew members voting. Carvalho became the new captain general and captain of the Trinidad. Polcevera remained that ship’s master. Espinosa, the former master-at-arms, became captain of the Victoria while Cano remained its master. Albo moved to the Victoria and became its new pilot.

A few things can be gleaned from these moves. Carvalho was an obvious choice. He was the most senior officer left. However, prior events off Brazil should have led his shipmates to doubt Carvalho’s abilities. As it turned out, he was wholly incapable of finding the Spice Islands despite having access to all of Magellan’s charts and knowing that these islands were on the equator. I can only surmise that Carvalho was more impressive in person than he demonstrated in practice.

Espinosa was a more junior officer, and hence his leapfrog over Cano to become captain of the Victoria says that he impressed his shipmates. In his case, unlike Carvalho, the men were justified in their trust. Interesting, Pigafetta, the author of the book describing the circumnavigation, moved to the Victoria from the Trinidad at that time. His motives? I can only assume he was trying to get away from Carvalho and to stay near to Espinosa and Albo. He ignores Cano in his book about the circumnavigation, so I don’t believe that was a reason for Pigafetta’s move.

The small fleet went in search of food after leaving Bohol around May 4th. This resulted in a haphazard path through the island. Most islanders were friendly and willing to trade, but non-perishable food, like rice, was difficult to obtain. Given that plants in the tropics are productive the year around, most the natives did not need large amounts of storable food.

Finally on July 9th, the pulled into Brunei’s harbor. Brunei rivaled most cities in Europe. Initially the sultan feared they were Portuguese, who had a justifiably bad reputation. Once convinced they were Spanish, trading began and lasted three weeks. Two Greek seamen deserted, preferring to stay and become Moslems than to risk the voyage back to Europe.

Near the end of July, three large junks entered the harbor and anchored near the European ships. At the same time three of crew visiting the city didn’t return on time. The next day a small fleet issued from Brunei. Fearing the worst, Carvalho ordered his men to attack the junks, which apparently were peaceful. The Spanish easily defeated the junks, and then departed after taking a rajah and several beautiful noblewomen from the junks.

Later Carvalho returned. The Brunei sultan was not pleased. He claimed that his fleet had sailed to attack a rebellious rajah. Exactly what happened next isn’t clear, but was is clear is that when the ships sailed several days later, the captured rajah was gone. Later substantial gold was found in Carvalho’s cabin, with the obvious conclusion he’d gotten the gold from the Brunei sultan in exchange for the rajah. The three seamen, one of them Carvalho’s son, still in Brunei were abandoned. The three noblewomen were still aboard the Trinidad, serving as Carvalho’s personal harem.

Not long after their departure from Brunei, Carvalho ran the Trinidad aground. She was refloated only with difficulty. The ships were now in desperate need of careening to clean their hulls of growth, repair rotten planks, recaulk the planks, and finally tar their hulls. They finally found a suitable beach to do this, which took until late September.

While there, the crew deposed Carvalho seeing as how he “hadn’t carried out the King’s instructions.” It was at this time the gold hidden in Carvalho’s cabin was discovered. Espinosa became the new captain general, although some claim Polcevera had that distinction.

The two ships sailed in late September 1521, their hulls now sound and, even more important, with a competent commander. Unfortunately, they still didn’t have a pilot to get to the Spice Islands, and food was, once again, running low. This led to them becoming pirates. The local junks were helpless against the stout hulls and cannon of the Spanish. Their piracy finally yielded ample food and, more important, a pilot to guide them, finally, to the Spice Islands on November 8, 1521. Their arrival ended a sorry period for the circumnavigation. About the only good thing that can be said good of this period is that few of the locals died in their depredations, and the Spanish ships finally had competent leaders.

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Filed under Francisco Albo, Magellan, Magellan's Navigator

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