I’m proud to announce that Amazon has selected Magellan’s Navigator for their Prime Reading program. So my ebook is free for the next few months if you’re an Amazon Prime member. Enjoy! https://amzn.to/3jAhd2X
Category Archives: Magellan’s Navigator
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.
Magellan took thirty-eight days in all to transit the “Strait of Magellan.” His time there was blessed by unusually good weather, but complicated by the search for the San Antonio after its defection.
While the Victoria searched for the wayward San Antonio, Magellan’s Trinidad and the Concepcion anchored in the sheltered ‘Bay of Sardines.’ There they made repairs, netted, not surprisingly, sardines, and some ate the watercress like vegetation that grew in the streams entering the bay.
Magellan knew there was another sea or ocean to the west of the Americas. On September 25, 1513 Balboa was the first European to see it from a mountain on the Isthmus of Panama. He later waded in its waters and claimed it for Spain as the “South Sea.” However, no European knew its true extent. Magellan seems to have thought the Spice Islands were a short two to three-week sail to the west.
While waiting for the Victoria, Magellan sent a shallop to explore the maze of fjord-like waterways to the west. On the shallop were a Flemish gunner, Roldan de Argot, Bocacio Alonso, a seaman, and Hernando de Bustamente, the surgeon barber. (Interestingly, all three of these men would eventually make it back to Spain.)
The shallop returned some days later. Roldan de Argot announced that there was an ocean to the west. He had climbed a mountain peak and only seen open water to the northwest. What he probably saw was the Ocean Reach, an over twenty-mile wide and sixty-mile long fjord that does end at the Pacific Ocean.
Magellan rejoiced. All he’d work towards was finally coming to be. After rendezvousing with the Victoria, on November 21, 1520 he sent a notarized order to the captains, masters, pilots, and mates of the armada, asking their opinions on how they should proceed. Of course, at the time Magellan’s main adversaries had either left on the San Antonio, been marooned, or executed. In this order, Magellan pointedly says that he is “a man who never scorns the opinion and counsel of anyone.” And despite the executions at San Julian “you need not be afraid, for all that happened was done in the service of His Majesty, and for the security of his fleet.” What went through the officers’ minds? I wouldn’t have wanted to be on Magellan’s ‘bad’ list. Not surprisingly all the officers agreed to proceed.
The small fleet then sailed on November 26 and actually entered the Pacific Ocean on November 28, 1520.
My next blog will discuss Magellan’s sail across the Pacific. This didn’t take weeks. The three ships wouldn’t see Guam, their first landfall, until March 6, 1521. By this time the crews would be wracked by scurvy and starvation. Despite the longer than expected transit, fewer lives would have been lost had the stores aboard the San Antonio been available, and had weeks not been wasted in search of the San Antonio.
The Strait of Magellan would never be a common passage for ships. It is simply too tortuous and dangerous in the stormy weather that often prevails there. Most ships sail further south around Cape Horn.
Magellan began methodically exploring the Strait of Magellan upon discovering it on October 21st, 1520. This wasn’t any easy task. The strait is a maze of different channels through a myriad of islands stretching east and west and to the south. To hasten the search, Magellan made a fateful decision. He sent the San Antonio in one direct while he sailed with the armada’s other three ships in a different direction, with the plan being to rejoin in three days.
The San Antonio never appeared at the agreed upon meeting place. Fearing the San Antonio had encountered troubles, Magellan’s ships then spent nearly two weeks searching for the missing ship. The Victoria went all the way back to the Atlantic Ocean in hopes of finding it. Finding no evidence of the ship, Magellan asked pilot and astrologer San Martin to divine its fate. With uncanny perception, and perhaps inside knowledge, San Martin said that the San Antonio’s captain Mesquita was now a prisoner and that the San Antonio was sailing back to Spain.
This was indeed the case. Mesquita, a relative of Magellan, and Pilot Gomez had had a violent argument, with Gomez stabbing Mesquita in the leg and Mesquita returning the favor to Mesquita’s hand. Gomez was one of the most experienced mariners of the armada after Magellan. They weren’t friends. Gomez’s proposal to sail to the Spice Islands had been rejected by King Charles in favor of Magellan’s plan. Furthermore, off Brazil Magellan had essentially demoted Gomez from his position as Pilot Major of the armada. Gomez didn’t harbor warm and fuzzy feelings for Magellan, and given the opportunity he deposed the hapless Mesquita, who earlier, despite warnings, allowed the mutineers to capture his ship in San Julian. And so, Gomez convinced his crew to side with him, and they defected.
The loss of the San Antonio was a serious blow to Magellan’s plans. At 120 tons, it was the largest ship in the armada. The Trinidad was 110 tons while the Victoria and Concepcion were 85 and 90 tons respectively. Thus, the San Antonio carried a disproportionate amount of the armada’s supplies. This loss, and the time lost and food consumed while needlessly searching for the San Antonio, would haunt the armada in the last days of crossing the Pacific Ocean, leading to unnecessary deaths due to starvation and scurvy.
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.
Nearly five months after taking winter refuge in Porto San Julian harbor on the stark Patagonian coast, Magellan and his men were sick of the place. Their stay started off poorly with the mutiny, which had led to the death of three men, one a trusted officer plus two of the mutineers. Ironically, here fifty-eight years later Francis Drake would also execute one of his captains for mutiny. This was done near the gibbet where the remains of Magellan’s drawn and quartered captains were exhibited. It is said that a cooper of Drake’s ships cut up Magellan’s gibbet and carved drinking cups from it. For me personally, it would have ruined the taste of any wine drunk from them.
The enclosed harbor of San Julian offered them excellent protection from the winter gales that swept through, but little else. The only available water was brackish. Game and fish were limited. Apparently, they had little success hunting the fleet rhea and guanaco that lived in the surrounding hills. I believe that during their stay their food stores continued to dwindle…and they still had miles upon miles to sail once they got around the continent that blocked them.
Fortunately, while in an earlier exploration Serrano had lost his ship, the little Santiago, he had discovered the River Santa Cruz a little south of San Julian. Santa Cruz offered fresh water and abundant game and fish.
And so, Magellan decided to move to Santa Cruz despite the southern hemisphere winter not yet being over. The fleet raised anchor on August 11, 1520 after first marooning Juan de Cartagena and a priest on an island in the bay along with ample food, wine, and swords. Cartagena was the third ringleader of the mutineers. Magellan had initially spared his neck from the fate of his fellow mutineer Quesada. It isn’t clear why he did this, although Cartagena had been appointed conjunta persona of the armada by King Charles, and was apparently the bastard son of Archbishop Fonseca, who oversaw the Spanish bureaucracy that oversaw all New World exploration. So, Cartagena had friends in high places. But then, before departure, Magellan all but killed Cartagena by marooning him. Once again, we don’t know the details, but apparently Cartagena was once again attempting to foment a mutiny. In the end, Cartagena got what he deserved after blundering again.
Despite marooning Cartagena on August 11th, the fleet didn’t actually leave San Julian until the 24th. Presumably the delay was due to problems with a ship or, more likely, bad weather. Two days later the armada arrived at Santa Cruz after two days of fighting stormy seas.
Compared to the austere San Julian, Santa Cruz was a land of milk and honey. The men got to work netting fish, killing seals and other game, and salting or smoking their meat for the voyage ahead. The armada stayed in Santa Cruz until spring came to the southern hemisphere.
COVID has kept me home and writing.
I’ve begun the final editing of The Sultan’s Galley. In this book, Albo is now captain of his own galley, the Napolitana. Albo reunites with his old friend, Antonio Pigafetta from Magellan’s Navigator, who is joining the Knights Hospitaller (better known by its later name, the Knights of Malta.) When they learn of a galley loaded with tribute for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire, they join forces to waylay it. Like The King’s Galley, this book stands on its own, or can be read as part of the Albo series. These is some serious galley action in this book. The Sultan’s Galley should be out in December.
Meanwhile, I’ve started a new historical novel that, like Magellan’s Navigator, will focus on one of the great voyages of exploration. Writing this will be a slower process, due to the research necessary. Like Magellan’s Navigator, I want it as historically accurate as possible. Now, if the USPS will only deliver a book for this…it sat in a mail facility in Las Vegas for over a week. Supposedly it left there a week ago, but still hasn’t arrived!