Magellan vs Drake

There are many remarkable similarities between the circumnavigation of the globe by Magellan’s ship Victoria and then, some fifty years later, Drake’s Golden Hind. They sailed roughly identical routes around the world, both defeated mutinies and endured storms, starvation, and scurvy. Religion played a key role in each expedition, but different religions and in very different ways. Both expeditions interacted with natives, both hostile and friendly, around the world.

Let’s look at the backgrounds of Magellan and Drake, which were quite different.

Magellan was a noble; Drake was a self-made man.

Magellan was born into minor nobility and as a youth was a page in the Portuguese royal court. Being around royalty was commonplace for him. Drake was born a common man and at a young age apprenticed to the master of a trading bark that carried cargo between the English Channel ports. Few men of his origin ever became, as he did later in life, a familiar of the Queen.

Magellan was a Catholic; Drake was a Protestant.

Both men were extremely devout. Apart from claiming the Spice Islands for Spain, a prime objective of Magellan’s armada was to convert pagan natives to the true faith. This faith was Catholicism. Protestantism was being birthed at the time of Magellan’s voyages. It was in 1517, two years before Magellan’s departure, that Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the Wittenberg church door launching the Reformation. Drake’s life and religion was forged in the bitter conflict between Catholic Spain and Protestant England, and he ceaselessly waged war upon the church when possible. At each day’s services aboard the Golden Hind he, or his chaplain, read from the Book of Martyrs, expounding upon the injustice executed by the Catholics upon the Protestants.

Magellan was a soldier; Drake was a mariner.

When setting sail on their voyages, each man was in their late thirties or early forties, but they had led quite different lives.

Magellan fought with the conquering Portuguese in India and Malacca as well as later in Morocco. He learned in India that a small number of armored and organized Europeans could defeat a much larger number of Asians. However, before commanding the Armada of the Moluccas, Magellan had never before commanded a ship, much less a fleet.

By comparison, Drake’s apprenticeship on the trading bark was so successful that the elderly bark’s owner willed it to him. Later Drake captained a ship for the Hawkins family at the tender age of twenty-two, the Hawkins being the most illustrious mariners of the Elizabethan age. He later organized expeditions to raid the Spanish Caribbean. By his thirties Drake’s predations as a corsair had made him a wealthy self-made man. By all accounts he was an expert sailor and navigator. Unlike Magellan, Drake avoided battles unless he had a clear advantage and profit to be made.

The objectives of Magellan and Drake:

The main objective of both men was to enrich themselves. Magellan hoped to bring back his five ships laden with cloves and nutmeg from the Spice Islands. This was a reasonable objective. The cloves carried by the one ship that did return to Spain paid for the entire expedition. He also believed he could claim these islands for Spain. But Magellan had greater personal aspirations…much greater. Magellan’s contract with King Charles stated that if ‘more than six islands were discovered, the King granted Magellan permission to choose two for himself.’ It is clear that Magellan intended to found a kingdom for himself somewhere in the East Indies.

Drake’s intention was more modest than Magellan’s. It was simply to plunder Spain’s treasure ships. Heretofore the Pacific coast of Spain’s conquered territories were blissfully immune to the depredations of the English and French corsairs then rampant in the Caribbean. Drake meant to change that. The sea lanes from Peru to Panama carried silver from Andean mines that fueled the Spanish Empire. Drake intended to take some of this silver for England…and himself.

And how did it turn out?

Both men made it through the Strait of Magellan successfully with relatively minor loss, especially compared to other expeditions. Drake benefited significantly by his knowledge of Magellan’s route. Drake passed through the strait faster, but this was due in part to Magellan having to find the way through the strait and also days spent searching for the San Antonio, one of his ships that defected while in the strait.

Once out of the strait, Magellan sailed up the coast of South America without attempting to make landfall to reprovision or water. He believed, like Columbus, the Indies were but a few weeks sail away, and hence additional food was unnecessary. Once at around thirty degrees south latitude he turned west, and sailed, and sailed. The Pacific was far more vast than he thought, which almost killed him and his crew from starvation and scurvy.

Finally, upon making landfall in what are now the Philippines, most of his men quickly recovered. His subordinates then urged him to sail for the Spice Islands. But Magellan had ‘converted’ thousands of the natives in the Philippines to Catholicism, or at least he thought so. His dream of establishing a kingdom for himself came to the fore and based upon his previous experience in Asia, he thought that he could do so. This led to his sad end when he led fifty men against over a thousand native warriors at Mactan…and he died there with his dreams while seriously compromising the expeditions success.

Drake’s objectives were always limited even before he lost one ship to a storm and had another defect, leaving him with one ship and eighty men. The loss of any significant number of his men could threaten his success and even his ability to return to England. He always declined to attack a town if he didn’t have an overwhelming advantage. All of Drake’s encounters with the Spanish and natives were either friendly, or relatively bloodless. When at San Julian and La Mucha the natives attacked and killed his men, Drake exercised restraint and avoided further conflict. In comparison, at San Julian and Guam Magellan launched punitive raids when he considered himself injured by the natives.

Drake was an amazing sailor, his navigation precise. He lost only a few men to scurvy and other ailments, partially due to his penchant for adding fruit juice to the men’s water. He survived brutal storms. He meticulously maintained his ships. Periodically throughout the circumnavigation he graved and scoured the hull of his ship of marine growth. He certainly benefited by more information than what Magellan had about the routes he intended to sail. Magellan had the disadvantage of knowing nothing about the far side of our world. Nonetheless, Drake was clearly the better and more successful sailor.

Ultimately, Drake accomplished all he had hoped for. The silver and gold returned in his hold to England equaled the royal expenses of England for a year. Other Englishmen would follow Drake’s route to continue the war against the Spanish in the Pacific. One ship was lost in a storm, but otherwise Drake’s loss of men to disease or combat were relatively modest. Magellan did not accomplish what he personally wanted or what he promised the Spanish king. One of his ships did return, but that only repaid the cost of the expedition. Magellan’s strength was his determination and focus. Ultimately, these strengths fostered a blindness to reality, which resulted in his death and doomed the possible success of his fleet.

Leave a comment

Filed under Magellan

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s