Tag Archives: Circumnavigation

Strait: Beyond the Myth of Magellan – A Book Review

Having written a historical fiction novel about Magellan’s voyage, I’m always excited to see a new book about Magellan, and I eagerly opened the newest, Strait: Beyond the Myth of Magellan by Felipe Fernández-Armesto. My excitement didn’t last, although the book does have its strengths. Unfortunately, it comes across as an arrogant and self-important professor’s lecture that rambles from topic to topic lurching towards its final confused conclusion.

The first paragraph of the book gives its thesis: ‘Failure is fatal to happiness but can be fruitful for fame…. Magellan is exceptional because his failure was total. Yet his renown seems impregnable.’ I agree that Magellan was in many senses a failure, yet his discovery of the immense size of the Pacific Ocean and the true circumference greatly aided mankind’s understanding of the world. One might think the first circumnavigation of the globe was significant, but in Fernández-Armesto’s opinion, he felt that, like the first landing on the moon, ‘I feel the same about the first circumnavigation of the world. It did not matter.’ The cynical and nihilistic author lost my respect at this point.

I also do not understand his statement of Magellan’s impregnable renown. Perhaps that is true in Spain and Portugal, but I think most familiar with him realize his strengths and flaws. So, I think the author erected an easy goal to meet.

There is also the question of the author’s writing style and approach. Some may like it. I did not. The forty pages of the first chapter were, I suppose, meant to set the stage for the context of Magellan’s expedition. However, they talked about the plague, ocean currents, weather patterns, Portugal in the Indies, but very little about Magellan. This hapahzard style went on through the book. Once, suddenly, there were some five pages about cannibals, which had a minimal degree of relevance. I felt like the author was trying to demonstrate his expansive knowledge of the era. The effect for me was to simply obfuscate the real story. His chronology of events in the Philippines was particularly confusing.

The greatest value of this book is the author’s extensive use of Spanish and Portuguese sources, many of which are primary sources derived from the survivors of the expedition. Now all serious authors have done this before, but it appears the author’s facility with Portuguese and Spanish aided him in teasing out more information. However, a simple reading of the sources without further analysis presents problems with reconstructing what happened. Those people tied to the mutiny against Magellan in Patagonia, like Elcano, had their self-serving version of events. Some other accounts were written years later through the fog of memory. Hence what happens is that the author often gives you a three-handed account of an event based upon different sources: on the one hand Felipe says this, on the other hand Juan says this, and on the third hand Alfonso says this. But what really happened? It takes logic and analysis to figure it out.

Fernández-Armesto acknowledges Magellan’s single-minded determination, which was similar to that of Columbus, da Gama, Cortes, Pizarro, and the others of that era. I do think he assumes Magellan was treacherous, but doesn’t prove why he thinks so.

A salient event of the expedition was the mutiny in Patagonia. King Charles had appointed several Spaniards as captains and officers of the expedition, none of whom had any experience at sea or the Indies, unlike Magellan and some of his Portuguese cohorts. There was a tension between these two cliques. Some believe that the king or his subordinate Bishop Fonseca had ordered the Spanish officers to depose Magellan once they learned what route he intended to take. The Magellan scholar Medina even says that Magellan received a warning precisely to this effect while provisioning in the Canary Islands. Fernández-Armesto doesn’t mention this. This all sets the stage for the mutiny.

On Palm Sunday in Patagonia Magellan invited the Spanish officers to dinner. Here is Fernández-Armesto’s description of this event: ‘…when Magellan invited the leading men of the fleet to dine after mass. Dinner with the Borgias? Or with Titus Andronicus? Or the Godfather? The summons to a deadly meal has been a topos of art from Absalom and Amnon to Agatha Christie and the Mob. A seat at dinner is a convenient place for an assassination: the victim is pinioned behind the table, disarmed save for unmurderous cutlery, easily approachable to a cutthroat from the rear, and vulnerable to poison in what may be set before him or her.’ This passage encapsulates my problem with the book.

First, the author gives no evidence for Magellan’s treachery other than his own imagination. I doubt Magellan would have killed officers appointed by the king unless he had ironclad evidence, which he didn’t have. And if he did, it would have been revealed by the events that followed. Second, the author’s writing is overwrought. Reading the book is much like listening to a professor droning on and on.

Subsequently, the mutineers did strike that night, mortally wounding one Spanish officer loyal to Magellan and shackling Magellan’s cousin. Later one of Magellan’s loyal officers kills one of the mutineers, which Fernández-Armesto calls an assassination. Assassination??? The mutineers had already stabbed an officer of the fleet and forcibly taken three of the ships! The mutineers initiated the use of force. Magellan was entitled to use whatever means necessary to crush the mutiny. Magellan certainly had his faults, as evidenced in the Philippines, but he seems the more innocent party in the event of the mutiny. It is also telling, I believe, that the sailors and working men of the crew heavily sided with Magellan against the Spanish dandies.

I cannot judge the veracity of the author’s interpretation of the Portuguese and Spanish accounts. I can judge the veracity of more common knowledge, like when Fernández-Armesto calls the historian S.E. Morison a ‘battle-scarred and battle-ready admiral.’ I think Morison’s books are superb. I especially appreciate that he actually sailed through the Strait of Magellan and many of the other locales visited by the explorers that he documents. However, Morison was not ‘battle-scarred and battle-ready.’ He was a college professor who during World War II was given at age fifty-five the commission of Lieutenant Commander in the U.S. Navy so that he might document the history of that war. He never commanded a ship. His eventual promotion to Admiral was more honorary rather than due to any military accomplishment. There are many more instances of wrong or mis-stated facts.

The book could have used a good editor. For example, he establishes early on that Pigafetta didn’t become a Knight of Rhodes (St. John) until after completion of the voyage. Nonetheless, when at Cebu he says things like ‘Pigafetta, the knight of St. John, who might have been expected to know about Christian standards of chivalry, ….’ But by his own admission earlier, Pigafetta was not then a knight of St. John, so why call him one?

The author’s understanding of navigation also appears shaky. Francisco Albo was the navigator of the one ship to make it back to Spain. Albo’s log is our best record of the route taken by the ships. Fernández-Armesto for some reason continually, and annoyingly, questions whether the log was actually Albo’s. Well, Albo was the only pilot to make it back to Spain from the Spice Islands, so one should feel certain the log during that period was truly ‘Albo’s log.’ As to before that, Fernández-Armesto should read Rossfelder’s book on the route and navigation of Magellan’s voyage. While Albo was sailing with other ships, the navigators would periodically get together to agree upon their course and position. Hence his log did at that time represent his measurements, but periodically these would be adjusted so that all navigators would literally be on the same page.

For those interested in Magellan, I recommend Tim Joyner’s book Magellan for a straight forward, lucid explanation of the voyage. I might be prejudiced in this matter because the late Mr. Joyner was my friend. I found it surprising that Fernández-Armesto dismissed Joyner’s book because he ‘lacked the conceptual knowledge, historical sensibility, humanistic discipline, and factual command the task demanded.’ Really? Fernández-Armesto also seems to be unaware of Rossfelder’s book which concentrates on the voyage’s navigation and could have cleared up some of his questions about those issues. Of course, Rossfelder wasn’t a history professor so I suppose his work isn’t relevant in the author’s eyes. He also ignores Bergreen’s 2003 book, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, which despite having been out for nearly twenty years is far out selling Strait.

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Magellan’s Armada: The Human Cost

Two hundred and thirty-nine* men and boys sailed on Magellan’s armada. Only eighteen returned to Spain three years later. What happened to the other two hundred twenty-one men? The short answer is that a hundred and thirty-eight of them died, while eighty-three were alive, some in Spain and some elsewhere in the world. Why the horrendous toll? The bulk of the deaths are attributable to Magellan’s failed empire building attempt in the Philippines.

First a few words on those who survived. Fifty-five men returned to Spain on a ship that defected from the fleet while it was in the Strait of Magellan. Sixteen men captured by the Portuguese returned to Spain later, while a dozen men and boys were alive elsewhere, having been either abandoned in Brunei, or jumped ship rather than hazard to chance of dying of scurvy.

What killed the others? The main causes of death were scurvy, sixty-nine men, in battle or murdered by natives, thirty men, while miscellaneous accidents and disease accounted for thirty-three more. There were also four mutineers killed or marooned, one man killed by the mutineers, one execution, and one suicide.

Scurvy was the greatest killer of men. This disease impacted the expedition on the three longest voyages of the expedition. The first of these was the crossing of the Pacific Ocean by the Trinidad, Concepcion, and Victoria. The voyage from the Strait of Magellan to Guam took one hundred days. Since scurvy usually takes ninety days to manifest itself, it is a little surprising that thirteen percent of the crew died from the transit. What caused this? Interestingly, twenty-seven percent of the men on the Victoria died of scurvy which is over twice the percentage on the Trinidad and over five times the death rate on the third ship the Concepcion.

Why was the Victoria hit so hard? The key can be found in Pigafetta’s book, where we learn the Victoria spent two weeks searching the Straits of Magellan for the San Antonio, the ship that had defected back to Spain. Meanwhile, the other two ships spent some of that time anchored in the “Bay of Sardines.” There Pigafetta says, “…we found…a very sweet herb called appio, of which there is also some of the same sort that is bitter. This herb grows near springs, and (because we had nothing else) we ate of it for several days.” Appio is believed to be a wild celery rich in vitamin C. Unfortunately, the men on the Victoria did not have the advantage of eating appio. So the San Antonio’s defection killed men in two different ways. First, it was the largest ship of the fleet. Some of its supplies were meant for the men in the other ships, who instead starved. Second, the search for it meant the men aboard the Victoria went without fresh vegetables many weeks longer than the men on the other two ships. Hence the Victoria’s much higher death rate from scurvy.

The next scurvy ridden voyage was that of the Victoria returning to Spain from the East Indies. A third of its crew died in the hundred and thirty-nine days sail. The final scurvy ridden sail was that of the Trinidad, which spent over two hundred days attempting to return to the Americas by sailing east across the Pacific Ocean. Fully sixty-one percent of its crew died of scurvy and when it returned to the Spice Islands only seven men could walk.

However, the main cause of the expedition’s high death toll was Magellan’s attempt at kingdom building in the Philippines. Six men died with him in the battle at Mactan, but the cost of his actions went far further. His death led in turn to the massacre of most the ship’s officers in the banquet in Cebu. All officers experienced in sailing Asian waters died, or were captured, at the banquet. That led to the remaining men taking months to find the Spice Islands, and the improper maintenance of the ships, which indirectly led to the Trinidad’s disastrous attempt to cross eastward over the Pacific. Of the fifty-nine men that the Victoria left behind with the Trinidad, only four ever returned to Spain. The fate of most of them was a wretched death of scurvy. The death toll of Magellan’s expedition was high, as was often the case during the Age of Exploration. However, without the San Antonio’s defection in the Strait of Magellan, the cost of scurvy from the crossing of the Pacific would likely have been far lower. Once Magellan’s men had recovered in the Philippines from the crossing of the Pacific Ocean, if he had then headed south for the Spice Islands, all three ships could have sailed the Victoria’s route back to Spain with their holds full of cloves. Scurvy would still have taken its levy, but a majority of the men would have survived to see Spain again.

*All the data comes from Appendix 3A of Tim Joyner’s Magellan, which is based upon pay records. He acknowledges that it is generally believed that 260-270 men sailed with the expedition, including men recruited in the Canary Islands. Nonetheless, it is doubtful that any of the conclusions of the above analysis would change should we know the actual data.

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The World Circumnavigated September 6, 1522 – But Was the Expedition a Success or a Failure?

The Victoria, the sole remaining ship of Magellan’s fleet, limped, battered and leaking, into San Lúcar harbor, Spain, on September 6, 1522. When sold, the cloves in its hold would pay for most the cost of Magellan’s five ships that departed three years earlier with so much pomp. Hence the immediate financial return to Magellan’s investors was at best a wash. Is that enough to declare the expedition a failure? How should we judge Magellan’s success?

Judging strictly on Magellan’s charter from Spain’s King Charles, the expedition was largely a failure. He promised to find a passage around South America and open a trade route to the Spice Islands of the East Indies. While doing this he was encouraged to claim new lands for Spain and to convert pagans to Christianity.

Magellan did discover a strait around South America, but it proved too far south and difficult for commercial passage until the fast clipper ships three hundred years later came into being. Magellan also did ‘discover’ (at least for Europeans) the many islands of the Philippines, although he managed to get himself killed in the process. His crew later did later find the Spice Islands and load a rich cargo there, although of the two ships remaining, only the Victoria made it back to Spain. Hence, based upon Magellan’s charter, the expedition was a failure.

I believe the problem with evaluating the success of voyages in the Age of Exploration is that their benefits most often occurred years after their date. Spain benefited enormously from Columbus’ discovery of the New World, but the dollar impact didn’t occur until thirty or forty years later when the silver from Mexico and Peru made Spain an empire, and not merely a kingdom. Similarly, the real benefit of Magellan’s discoveries didn’t accrue to Spain until it conquered the Philippines forty years later. Some immediate financial benefit did occur when Portugal agreed in 1529 to pay Spain 350,000 ducats for the Spice Islands as part of the Treaty of Zaragoza.

Perhaps Magellan’s greatest, and unintended, contribution to the understanding of the world was his proof that the Pacific Ocean was far, far more immense and the world’s circumference hence larger than previously believed. In the long run Spain was richly rewarded by Magellan’s discoveries. But what about the human cost? Two hundred and thirty-nine men and boys originally sailed on the fleet. Only eighteen Europeans remained alive on the Victoria when it arrived back in Spain. But those numbers don’t tell the entire tale of human misery. Read more about this in tomorrow’s blog.

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A TV Series about Magellan’s Circumnavigation?

There is a TV series about Magellan’s circumnavigation!!! What great news! That’s what I thought when I first heard about Boundless, a six-part TV miniseries on Amazon Prime. I couldn’t wait to see it.

The first episode is about Magellan’s rejection by the King of Portugal and transfer of his allegiance to King Charles of Spain. The episode outlined the main conflicts well. These are first the antagonism between the Spanish captains of the armada and Magellan, and second the determination of the Portuguese to protect their spice trade. So far so good. Minor historical inaccuracies riddle the forty-minute video. Some are inevitable in the translation to the screen when presenting a complex story like Magellan’s that has a huge cast of characters. Some inaccuracies simply seemed so wrong to me, like when in the video Magellan bursts uninvited into a room with King Charles and rolls out his chart and explains how he intends to get to the Spice Islands…all while some thirty men stand there watching and listening. No. Just no. Magellan was extremely secretive about the route he intended to sail.

The episode sets up El Cano to be the hero of the series as Magellan desperately needs a tillerman, whatever the heck that is. (A seaman did tend the tiller which controls the rudder, but that is a task, not a position. We actually have the pay rosters at the beginning of the voyage and the paid positions for the sailors are master, mate, pilot, seaman and apprentice seaman. There is no tillerman) El Cano, who is in trouble for selling a royal ship without authorization (an actual fact) agrees to sail with Magellan on his flagship. El Cano was actually the mate on one of the other ships and hence in the scheme of things perhaps the fifteenth or twentieth most senior officer of the fleet.

The fleet sails at the end of the first episode. We see someone dropping into the ocean floating notes about the route of the fleet! Excuse me? Didn’t happen and wholly unrealistic.

Early in the second episode we find Magellan’s fleet being pursued by a Portuguese fleet. Didn’t happen. There is a brief fight. Some of El Cano’s men fire a cannon shot at a distant Portuguese ship…and partially dismasts the ship. Didn’t happen and unrealistic. Then in a brilliant suggestion El Cano suggests they sail south and out distance the Portuguese ships. Haha.

I stopped watching at this point.

My conclusion is that if you want a sea story with lots of action you might find this interesting. If you want something somewhat historically accurate, pass this by. As one reviewer on imdb said, ‘there is no script that can be better than reality’ when dealing with such momentous historical events. I might have enjoyed the series were it not so laughably inaccurate.

This series was produced by the national TV of Spain as well as Amazon Prime in honor of the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation. As such, I believe they’ve attempted to put Spain’s past in the best light. For example King Charles is portrayed as an extremely handsome, almost beautiful, young man. He was certainly a remarkable man both devout and intelligent. Handsome? No. He had the massive lower Hapsburg jaw with an extreme underbite due to the inbreeding of the Hapsburgs.

Edited 8/3/22 to clarify what a tillerman is and isn’t.

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Just Published: Drake’s Botanist

Six years ago after publishing Magellan’s Navigator I was undecided as to what next. Drake’s circumnavigation was a obvious option, but I hesitated because of the research needed. Well, two years ago I decided to do it, and Drake’s Botanist is the result. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did writing it.

Here’s a brief blurb on my new book:

Queen Elizabeth’s England is at an uneasy peace with King Philip’s Spain, but all wonder how much longer that will last. Spain’s Catholic armies are ravaging England’s Protestant allies in the Netherlands. How can England help them short of sending an army? Spain’s rich silver mines in the New World fund its aggression. When Francis Drake approaches the Queen with a plan cut the flow of this treasure and bankrupt Philip’s empire, she agrees to it.

Drake sails with six ships. A man with flair, he dines each night on silver plates while serenaded by violas. He even has a botanist aboard.

Botanist and author Lawrence Elyot enlists with Drake, thinking the fleet is on a trading expedition to Egypt…not realizing that is a ruse to deceive the Spanish. He is shocked when once at sea Drake announces that there has been a change of plans. First stop will be Africa. Beyond that, Drake won’t say.

Elyot is now on the epic adventure of his life and in more danger than he has dreamt of in his worst nightmares. Certainly, he would not have volunteered had he realized he would play the pirate while encountering mutiny, murderous Spaniards, hostile natives, storms, scurvy, the death of friends, and nearly three years away from London.

But if he survives the foray against the hated papist, his share of the plunder will assure he lives the life of a proper gentleman.

Available on Amazon in ebook, paperback, and KindleUnlimited.

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July 9, 1522 – The Victoria Arrives in the Portuguese Cape Verdes

The Victoria departed Tidore on December 21, 1521 with sixty-two souls aboard, forty-nine Europeans and thirteen Moluccans. El Cano was Captain, having been elected by the crew. Albo was the Pilot, Miguel de Rodas was the Master, while Juan de Acurio was the Mate. Interestingly, all four men were originally mates on four of the five original ships. El Cano was Basque, Acurio Castilian, and Albo and Miguel Greek. Antonio Pigafetta was perhaps the other most senior person aboard. All the men were united in the desire to return to Spain, which isn’t to say that all trusted one another. El Cano had sided with the mutineers. All the other men had actively or passively supported Magellan. It is notable that Pigafetta never names El Cano in his book, leading me to believe he had a low opinion of him.

Their first challenge was to sail through the maze of the East Indies so they might launch themselves across the Indian Ocean. Despite taking on pilots at Tidore, this took nearly two months, and it wasn’t until February 13th that the Victoria lost sight of the Indies. An apprentice seaman and a cabin boy jumped ship at Timor, probably deciding life in the tropical islands was preferable to facing starvation and scurvy.

A month into the transit of the Indian Ocean, they came upon an isolated island, now known as the Ile of Amsterdam. They attempted landfall. Any fresh provisions would have been welcome, but unable to find an anchorage, they sailed on. (The island remains uninhabited other than a research station.)

Finally, on May 8th, 1521 they sighted Africa. Two Europeans had died in the transit of the Indian Ocean. Their food stores already dangerously low and mostly rice remained. The men were weakening, and soon scurvy and starvation would exact a toll unless they got fresh food. It took eleven days to actually round the Cape, as the tired men had to tack against westerly winds, and they once had to make repairs to a mast after a storm. Two more men succumbed while rounding Africa.

Once having passed the Cape they were able to obtain firewood and water, but no food. The ravages of starvation and scurvy now accelerated with men dying each week. By July 9th, less than two months after rounding the Cape and over four thousand miles later, eight more Europeans had died despite once making landfall on the African coast…and finding no provisions. The Moluccans doubtlessly fared worse. We don’t know the timing of their deaths, but of the thirteen that sailed from Tidore, only three survived to reach Spain, which was a much higher death rate than for the Europeans. During this time, Martin de Magellan died. He was a nephew of Magellan who had sailed on the Concepcion.

By early July they were still two thousand miles from Spain and without enough food to sustain them until there. They voted to risk getting provisions at the Portuguese Cape Verde Islands. They entered the Portuguese port of Sao Tiago on July 9th. They told the Portuguese a woeful tale of sailing from the Caribbean and being blown off course by a hurricane. Initially this was believed despite El Cano purchasing food by payment of cloves! At this point there were probably thirty-four Europeans still aboard the Victoria (another seaman having recently died) and three Moluccans. On July 14th, the longboat with thirteen men went ashore for one last load of rice. It didn’t return.

One of the men ashore had blabbed. The Portuguese demanded El Cano surrender. El Cano attempted to negotiate to no avail. They could surrender, to the uncertain mercy of the Portuguese. Or they could sail, despite all the men still suffering the ravages of the voyage, some worse than others. Also, if they sailed, they would be leaving thirteen of their shipmates behind. The remaining crew decided to sail with a badly depleted and sick crew of twenty-five, twenty-two Europeans and three Moluccas.

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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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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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February 13, 1520 – Seventy-eight Days Across the Pacific and Magellan’s Men Are Desperate

Magellan’s three ship fleet crossed the equator five hundred years ago on this date after having left the Strait of Magellan on November 28th, 1519. Seven men had already died, leaving one hundred and sixty men still crammed aboard the three small ships. Each day was the same as the day before: an endless sea and a pitiless sun. The food was all but gone. Starvation and scurvy stalked all the ships. All seven deaths were aboard Victoria. Another twenty or more men were deathly ill, including the pilot of the Victoria, Vasco Gomes Galego, the pilot of the Concepcion, Juan Rodriguez de Mafra, the Fleet Accountant, Antonio de Coca, and the Trinidad’s master gunner, Andrew of Bristol.

Hunger was understood by all. Scurvy, the scourge of long voyages out of the sight of land, was less well understood. But Magellan knew his men desperately needed fresh food.

Unless land was found soon, all aboard realized death was their fate.

Magellan continued on a northwest course until he reached ten degrees north latitude, at which time he turned due west to take advantage of the trade winds. Apparently, given the weakened state of his crew, he sought landfall to the north of the Spice Islands, and hence away from the Portuguese bases further south in the Indies. The Portuguese would certainly fiercely defend their dominance of the spice trade, and in his crew’s current state any battle would mean Magellan’s certain defeat. Magellan needed a safe place for his men to recover their health.

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February 4, 1521 – Magellan’s Sailed for Ten Weeks on the Pacific – Where Are the Indies?

Magellan’s fleet sails onward in the trackless Pacific, propelled by strong trade winds. It’s been nearly seven weeks since Magellan ordered for a course northwest, away from the coast of South America, and ten weeks since Magellan’s three ships raised their anchors in the Strait of Magellan.

When will they reach land? Fresh food is a memory. In Antonio Pigafetta’s words, “We ate biscuit that was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuit swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It strongly stank of rat’s urine. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days.”

They sighted one tiny, uninhabited islet on January 24th. Finally, on February 4th the lookout yells out that land is ahead. Everyone hurries to the gunwale. Disappointed, all they see is an atoll rimmed by a coral reef. A few trees dot its land and sharks circle the reef. It is clearly uninhabited and offers little potential for food or water. (The island was probably the Caroline Atoll at ten degrees south latitude.)

They sail on.

One can only surmise what was going through Magellan’s head. When setting off from the South American coast he’d probably thought he was only a few weeks from the Indies and the Spice Islands. I believe this was the case, because, eager to reach the Spice Islands, he made no effort to water or obtain food before leaving South America behind. Had he known the ocean was this vast, he certainly would have first obtained fresh provisions. Like Columbus, he had seriously underestimated the circumference of the Earth and size of the Pacific Ocean.

Now, it was too late to return. The strong, favorable winds that had sped him on his way also barred his return to South America.

How his crew is weakening. Those unwilling to stomach the moldy biscuit, or roasted rats, are weakening. Most men are showing signs of the scurvy, loose teeth and swollen gums, except for those with access to Magellan’s quince preserves. Those on the Victoria fare the worse, probably because while the men on the Trinidad and Concepcion ate the wild vegetables at the Bay of Sardines, the Victoria was futilely searching for the San Antonio.

There is no choice but to pray to God for deliverance and sail on.

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