Tag Archives: Magellan

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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Magellan’s Fleet Enters the Pacific Ocean – November 28, 1520

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.

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The Strait of Magellan Is Found – October 1520

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.

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August 24, 1520 – Magellan Sails South

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.

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Works in Progress

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!

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A Rescue in Patagonia – Magellan’s Armada of the Moluccas

The first ship overhauled in San Julian harbor was the small caravel Santiago. Despite it being late fall and stormy, on May 1, 1520 Magellan sent it south under its able captain Serrano to explore. Serrano was the sole remaining captain of the original five, other than Magellan. Unlike the troublesome Spanish captains, he was a professional sailor, probably of Portuguese descent, and possibly a distant relative of Magellan. Serrano was to find a better harbor in which to spend the worst of winter as the armada’s hardtack and salt cod stores became more depleted each day, the game around San Julian was elusive, and even the water was brackish.

Each day Magellan expected the Santiago and its thirty-eight men to return. As each day passed, hopes fell and fear grew about what might had befallen them. In mid-June a hunting party spied two strange man-like creatures. It wasn’t until these apparitions were with speaking distance that the hunters realized these were two of their shipmates from the Santiago. They had a woeful tale.

The Santiago had found a good harbor, with cold, sweet water, and bountiful fish after five days of tacking against headwinds. They named it Santa Cruz. (It is about seventy miles south of San Julian.) Serrano stayed there for three weeks, catching fish and seals, smoking the meat. Upon departing to explore further, a storm immediately caught them, and drove them upon the shore. Thirty-seven of the crewmembers escaped, but one was swept away to his death. This was Juan, Serrano’s black slave. Juan, so far as I can tell, was one of two slaves on the armada, the other being Enrico, who Magellan had purchased in Malaysia, and who would play a major role in the armada’s fate.

Serrano and his men salvaged what they could and returned overland to Santa Cruz. Arriving there, they had water, wood for fire and shelter, and fish for food, but little else. Two of the strongest young men were then sent overland to return to San Julian. The shore was too rocky to follow, so they were forced to go inland over a frozen, bitterly cold pampas. Nearly two weeks later the hunters sighted them.

His ships not being ready, Magellan immediately sent an overland rescue party laden with hardtack, which reached the survivors some ten days later. All the Santiago’s crew were back at San Julian in late July. So, Magellan had now lost the smallest of his five ships. At this time, his losses in men were minimal for an expedition of this era. There was the execution Master Salomon for sodomy in Rio, William the Irishman drowned in the Plate, and in San Julian the suicide of Antonio Baresa, the young man sodomized by Salomon. Also, killed or executed in San Julian were the two Spanish captains. And, as related above, Juan drowned in the Santiago’s wreck.

Magellan now knew food and water was a short sail south, but he needed his ships repaired and good weather before attempting that move. The elusive passage around this continent was yet to be found, that would have to wait until spring.

Unfortunately, more deaths would come before finding the passage, and there were tragic encounters with the indigenous Patagonians, which is the topic of my next post.

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Mutiny in Patagonia!

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April 1, 1520 – Mutiny

The Spanish captains finally made their move on the night of Easter, April 1, 1520 and by the following morning controlled three of the armada’s five ships. However, by the following morning, the mutiny was crushed and Magellan once again in control. Several factors contributed to Magellan’s victory. He was bold while the Spanish captains’ were indecisive. Also, many of the sailors and officers were hesitant to support the mutineers. Sailors have an aversion to mutiny…and for a good reason. Death, and often a painful death, is the common fate of mutineers.

What follows is a brief description of the known facts of the mutiny. Interestingly, the tides played a major role in the mutiny as they dictated when ships could move or attempt to exit to the ocean. I suspect the important factor of the tides was lost on the landlubber Spanish Captains.

The ships on Easter Sunday:

Trinidad – captained by Magellan

San Antonio – captained by Mesquita, Magellan’s cousin

Concepcion – captain by Quesada of the Spanish clique

Victoria – captained by Mendoza of the Spanish clique

Santiago – captained by Serrano, a professional mariner.

The ships’ positions:

These are open to dispute, but accounts indicate that the San Antonio and Concepcion were furthest into the small harbor and the Trinidad and Santiago barred, to an extent, their access to the ocean. The Victoria was anchored closest to the bay’s narrow mouth to the ocean.

The tides:

The tides at San Julian vary around twenty feet from high to low and the ebbing and flooding tides are swift. The only way a ship could leave the harbor was on an ebbing tide, which apparently happened in the early morning and twelve hours later in the late afternoon.

The Spanish captains already were in control of the Concepcion and Victoria. Late Easter night Quesada and Cartagena, the demoted captain of the San Antonio and once co-commander of the armada, boarded the San Antonio. They threw Mesquita into chains. When the Basque master of the San Antonio protested, Quesada knifed him, mortally wounding him. The Portuguese pilot of the San Antonio also refused to join the mutiny. The capture of the San Antonio was critical for the mutineers as it was the largest ship in the fleet and it carried a disproportionate amount of the armada’s supplies.

The mutineers could have left San Julian on the next morning’s tide with their three ships and sailed back to Spain, as Magellan wasn’t even aware of the mutiny until later in the morning. Instead, they chose to negotiate with Magellan for joint control of the fleet.

When Magellan became aware of the mutiny, he sent a skiff around to the ships, to determine who was loyal, and who not. Learning that Serrano was the only loyal captain, he ordered Serrano to move the Santiago closer to the Trinidad to better bottle the mutineers in the harbor. The Santiago, however, was by far the smallest of the five ships and really didn’t count for much in a fight.

Negotiations went on the remainder of April 2nd. Magellan wanted the captains to come to the Trinidad to discuss their grievances. The Spanish captains, while stupid, were not that stupid. The day ended with nothing resolved, except Magellan did detain the crew of a longboat of the mutineers, leaving the San Antonio and Concepcion shorthanded.

That night Magellan sent his loyal Spanish alguacil major, his sergeant at arms, to the Victoria with a message for Mendoza. Mendoza laughed in his face after reading it. It was his last laugh, as the alguacil major fatally stabbed him. The ship’s crew immediately swore allegiance to Magellan. The majority of them weren’t Spanish, but Italians, Portuguese, or French along with a few other nationalities, so it’s doubtful many supported the mutiny. Its pilot was Portuguese and its mate was Albo’s friend, Miguel of Rhodes.

Magellan’s brother-in-law Duarte Barbosa took command of the Victoria and moved it alongside Magellan’s other two ships. Now, it was three of Magellan’s ships against the two of the mutineers, and Magellan still blocked the exit from the harbor. Magellan now had the advantage.

The final events happened just before dawn. The tide was ebbing and only one anchor held the San Antonio in place. Somehow, this came loose. Did Albo cut it as he claims? However it came loose, it wasn’t by accident as Magellan expected it and was ready. Quesada wasn’t ready. The San Antonio began floating towards the Trinidad on the tide. Magellan fired at least one cannon into the San Antonio and prepared to board the mutineer’s ship. Quesada postured in armor while flourishing a sword, but his men weren’t interested in fighting against Magellan, and surrendered. Soon afterward, Cartagena surrendered the Concepcion.

The mutiny was over.

Mesquita presided over the trial of the mutineers. Forty were found guilty and sentenced to death. Magellan commuted this sentence for all but Quesada. Quesada’s squire beheaded him on April 7th, and the bodies of Mendoza and Quesada were drawn and quartered on the shore. Drake saw the gibbet from which their remains had hung when he visited San Julian fifty-eight years later. Interestingly, Drake also executed an officer that he accused of mutiny while in San Julian, an odd coincidence for a bleak bay in Patagonia.

The mutineers with commuted sentences then labored in chains throughout the winter before finally being freed when the armada sailed in August. The loyal Basque master of the San Antonio stabbed by Quesada seemed to recover…until an infection set in and he died three months later. While a prisoner Cartagena attempted to foment another mutiny, once again confirming his general lack of intelligence. This finally exhausted Magellan’s patience, and Cartagena and an accomplice priest were left behind when the fleet sailed.

Magellan was finally rid of the ‘Spanish captain’ problem, but other resentments still simmered amongst his officers.

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Magellan Prepares to Winter in Patagonia – A Mutiny Brews

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March 31, 1520 – Magellan’s Fleet Finds Refuge in Patagonia

Winter is approaching and the air is already colder. The last of the fresh food from Rio was gone weeks ago. Forays ashore to kill seals and penguins for food yielded some meat, but stores of hard tack, beans, wine, and other staples are shrinking…and these must last the winter.

Each night since the Plate River, Magellan’s hoped he’ll discover the strait to the Indies the next day, but each morning has brought only the same barren, rocky coastline. This has gone on for over seven weeks and the men, and especially the Spanish captains doubt Magellan.

The fleet’s been battered by a series of storm since leaving the River Plate. Miraculously, they’ve lost no ships or men, despite storms sweeping away the ships’ fore and aft castles, and, at one time, leaving a foraging party abandoned on a beach for nearly a week. Now the ships are badly in need of repair and the men of rest. Magellan has been seeking a suitable place in which to spend the winter. Finally, on this date, he enters a sheltered harbor. It appears to have game, fish, and shellfish that they might gather and catch as well as fresh water. While there aren’t any native villages, it otherwise appears to be a good place to spend the winter. Magellan names it Port Julian.

Magellan holds a meeting of the officers, announcing that they will winter here. He also announces reduced rations, despite the cold weather increasing the men’s appetites. The officers and men urge Magellan to return to Spain, and if not Spain, Rio. Magellan refuses, knowing that if either happens his armada will never sail again for the Spice Islands.

The next day is Easter Sunday and Magellan announces there will be religious observances ashore, followed by a dinner for the fleet’s officers aboard his flagship, the Trinidad. Magellan apparently is oblivious that the Spanish captains’ mutinous sentiment

Easter Sunday – At least two of the Spanish captains do not attend the onshore Easter observances. These are men who take religion very seriously, and their absence must create a sense of unease among Magellan and his clique. That night none of the officers shows at Magellan’s dinner aboard his flagship other than his cousin, who is captain of the San Antonio. Many of the fleet’s officers are professional mariners and have stayed aloof of the conflict between Magellan and the Spanish captains. Even these officers don’t show for dinner. Clearly it is general knowledge that something is about to happen, but what?

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January 11, 1520 – Magellan Arrives at the Rio de la Plata

Magellan’s little armada had a pleasant two week cruise southward along the coast to recover from Rio’s bacchanals. It arrived January 11, 1520 at the Rio de la Plata, the immense estuary of the Parana and Uruguay Rivers now bounded by Argentina on the south and Uruguay on the north. This coast was well known to the Portuguese and Spanish, so he sailed by day and night. After Rio de la Plata, he would anchor each night for fear of missing the passage to the Indies in the darkness.

The Portuguese and Spanish had already explored Rio de la Plata, with the Portuguese first arriving some ten years earlier. Magellan likely had access to their finding. The Spanish came briefly in 1516 when Pilot Major of Spain Juan Diaz de Solis explored it with a small three-ship expedition. Their stay was cut short when de Solis and some of his men were killed, and eaten, by the locals. This event dampened the remaining sailors’ interest in further exploration and they returned to Spain.

So Magellan had some knowledge of the Rio de la Plata, but evidently felt that he couldn’t rule out its being the elusive pass to the Indies. He spent five precious weeks of southern hemisphere summer exploring the huge estuary, including sending his smallest ship to explore the Parana and Uruguay Rivers. That took fifteen days. Finally, his ships watered and headed south.
The time spent wasn’t without incident. They survived one gale, met the local natives without incident, repaired the leaky San Antonio, and lost two men. One of these died in a brawl. The other, the sole Irishman of the armada, one Guillen, William, drowned. Probably William, like most sailors of his time couldn’t swim.

I find it somewhat surprising that Magellan spent so long exploring the Rio de la Plata, as one would think its brackish and fresh water would rule it out as a salt-water passage to the Indies. Evidently Magellan didn’t feel any urgency to take advantage of the good summer sailing weather. Perhaps he had reason to believe the passage he sought was not much further south. It wasn’t.

The armada sailed south on February 6, 1520. Soon they’d be battered by horrific storms, all the while seeing no sign of a westward passage. Less than two months later Magellan had to admit that it was too late in the season to sail further. Ironically, Magellan wintered less than a week’s sail from the Straits of Magellan. Had he spent a few weeks less in the Rio de la Plata, he could have emerged into the Pacific Ocean months earlier, and avoided mutiny and a bitter winter in Patagonia.

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