Tag Archives: Strait of Magellan

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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November 8, 1520 – Magellan’s Largest Ship Defects

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.

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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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