Skip to main content

See also:

The Navigator, The Pacific And Into History

As the fleet then sailed westward through the strait that now bears Magellan's name the crew stood in awe gazing from both the starboard and port side at the majestic towering mountains. Pigafetta wrote in his journal that the men kept saying they thought that there was no better nor more beautiful strait in the world than this one. The Strait of All Saints, as the Magellan called it. It turned out to be no ordinary channel either. Varying from 2 to 20 miles in width, it is a watery labyrinth that veers and twists and fans out into countless false bays and narrows. Except for a group of huts filled with mummified corpses and a brief visit by a boatload of natives that disappeared mysteriously in the night, the explorers saw few signs of human life. Yet later in the passage they saw many lights of campfires twinkling and glowing to the south. Magellan accordingly named the place Tierra del Fuego, "Land of Fire," and so the vast island south of the strait is called to this day.

Coming upon a large island in the channel, Magellan ordered the captain of his biggest ship, the San Antonio, to explore its southern side while the rest of the fleet continued along the north shore. Soon they found a good anchorage at the mouth of a river teeming with sardines. Magellan set his crew to work salting down a supply of the fish. Then, instead of risking a ship in the unexplored waters ahead, he sent some sailors in a longboat to search for an outlet to the sea. A few days later the boat returned, with its crew screaming, "We found it! We found it!" The news about the outlet so overwhelmed Magellan that, according to Pigafetta, the iron man actually cried.

But, the San Antonio did not return. Fearing that she had been wrecked, Magellan wasted almost three weeks vainly searching for her, until the bitter truth dawned that the crew had deserted and returned to Spain along with a great share of the fleet's scant provisions. The San Antonio under Captain Estevano Gomes did return to Spain in May 1521 a year after it's cowardly departure. Although this catastrophe left Magellan dangerously low on supplies, he resolved to sail on west through the mists, turns, and seething waters of the strait. Finally, on November 28, the three ships sailed out of the 310-mile-long channel and into a wide and peaceful ocean. After an appropriate ceremony of thanksgiving, Magellan announced to his officers: "Gentlemen, we now are steering into waters where no ship has sailed before. May we always find them as peaceful as they are this morning. In this hope I shall name this sea the Mar Pacffico."

Instead of sailing boldly northwest into the great blank of the Pacific Ocean, Magellan began to sail north for a while, parallel to the coast of present-day Chile. Although this course was only postponing the agony of finally entering the void, it did bring one welcome bonus: warmth. Magellan's weary sailors, who had been shivering ever since their arrival at Port St. Julian over eight months before, rejoiced as sun and milder air began to caress their skins. The ships sailed steadily north for almost three weeks before Magellan, worried about his dwindling supplies, issued the momentous order: "Northwest!" The signal passed from ship to ship; three tillers swung to starboard; and the fleet moved out into the open Pacific. Magellan had no way of knowing that his course would bypass most of the islands that dot the mid-Pacific or that an ocean covering one-third of the earth's surface still separated him from the Moluccas.

As 1520 passed unobtrusively into 1521, day after day, week after week, lookouts hopefully scanned the horizon. But the expected islands did not appear. All sense of progress was lost; the three ships seemed to be wallowing in a vast unchanging disk of blue water with no end in sight. The threat of starvation soon became horrifying reality. Pigafetta vividly recalled: "We ate biscuit, and when there was no more of that they ate the crumbs, which were full of maggots and smelled strongly of mouse urine. We drank yellow water, already several days putrid. And we ate some of the hides that were on the largest shroud to keep it from breaking. We had to soften them in the sea for four or five days, and then put them in a pot over the fire and ate them and also much sawdust." In time the starving, scurvy wracked sailors were reduced to vying with each other for rats caught in the hold. Magellan recorded that his crew went for four months without refreshment from any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit which was no longer biscuit but it's powder, swarming with worms, the rats having eaten all the that was good. The suffering of his men opened an unsuspected reservoir of compassion in Magellan. Every morning he would limp from victim to victim, nursing those who had escaped death in the night. Pigafetta noted with admiration that the captain-general never complained, never sank into despair.

It wasn't until January 24th after over two months without any sight of land that a tiny uninhabited atoll appeared on the horizon. There the famished sailors gorged on sea birds and turtle eggs and replenished their supply of drinking water. A couple of weeks later another small island was sighted but, unfortunately the winds swept the fleet helplessly past it. The weeks continued to drag by. On March 4 the 97th day of the voyage across the Pacific the men on the Trinidad ate their last scrap of food. Two days later one of the few men still strong enough to climb the rigging screamed hoarsely from the crow's nest: "Praise God! Land! Land! Land!"

The ships had hardly dropped anchors off the island now called Guam when Magellan was greeted by a flotilla of outrigger canoes full of excited, light fingered natives who rushed on board and carried off everything they could lay their hands on. The pilferage continued until some maddened sailors fired their crossbows. Magellan contemptuously named his discovery the Isle of Thieves. To keeping the islanders at bay Magellan sent a land party to go ashore and set their huts on fire. The Europeans helped themselves to the natives' water and the fresh food that the scurvy victims craved, then enjoyed an orgy of feasting on roast pork, chicken, rice, yams, bananas, and coconuts. A few days later they paused at another island for more provisions this time obtained by barter and before long the ravaged sailors health began to return. Ulcers healed; loose teeth became firm; swollen gums slowly began to recede.

With bodies strengthened and morale restored, the explorers sailed on to the west. On March 16 yet another large island came into view, and in the days that followed more and more islands appeared on the horizon. Magellan gradually realized he had stumbled upon a huge unknown archipelago. It was the Philippine Islands as we know them today. Although no spices grew there, the islanders had plenty of gold and pearls. In time, a valuable transpacific trade would develop between the islands and Spanish ports on the western coasts of Central and South America. Give Magellan credit for that too.

While anchored off one of the islands, Magellan received dramatic proof that he had practically circumnavigated the globe. When a canoe full of islanders put out from shore, Black Enrique, a slave that Magellan freed when he captained one of Alfonso d'Albuguergue's ships back in 1511 hailed the natives in Malay, the language used throughout the Indies. The islanders understood and responded in Malay. Magellan had left the East Indies eight years before, in 1513. Now, after continuously moving away from them, he was again drawing near. This supreme moment in Magellan's life seems to have had an extraordinary effect on him. Always deeply religious, he became obsessed with missionary zeal. Postponing the final stage of his voyage to the Moluccas, he anchored at the large island of' Cebu, improvised an altar on shore, and began to preach to crowds of fascinated natives. "The Captain told them they should not become Christians out of' fear," reported Pigafetta, "nor to please them, but voluntarily." His sermons, interpreted by Black Enrique, must have been extremely effective. On a single Sunday, April 14, Magellan baptized dozens of local chieftains, including the rajah of Cebu himself, as well as hundreds of ordinary citizens. A "holy alliance" was then negotiated with the rajah, effectively establishing the authority of Spain over the Philippines. This instance of spiritual awakening was the omen that spelled disaster for not only Magellan but for his entire crew.

Only one chief, a ruler on the tiny island of Mactan, balked against Magellan's peaceful conquest. Intoxicated by his evangelistic and political success, Magellan threw caution to the wind. Hastily crowding 50 or so volunteers into three small boats, he set off on a foolhardy attempt to force compliance upon the island. On April 27, 1521, Magellan led a small band of sailors that waded ashore on Mactan Island. Hundreds of' warriors awaited them, massed behind a series of deep, defensive trenches. Even with their arquebuses, crossbows, and steel armor, the Europeans were no match for the horde of shrieking Filipinos that let loose volleys of "arrows, javelins, lances with points hardened in the fire, stones, and even filth, so that we were scarcely able to defend ourselves." Before long the Christians were fleeing headlong for their boats. Bringing up the rear were the limping captain-general, by now wounded by an arrow in his leg, and a handful of soldiers. For an Dour the little band fought desperately at the water's cdge, reported Pigafetta, "until at length an islander Succeeded in wounding the Captain in the face with a bamboo spear. He, being desperate, plunged his lance into the Indian's breast, leaving it there. But, wishing to use his sword, he could draw it only hallway from the sheath, on account of a spear wound he had received in the right arm. Then the Indians threw themselves upon him, with spears and scimitars and every weapon they had, and ran him through-our mirror, our light our comforter, our true guide-until they killed him." This is the actual eye witness account of what happened written by the ships scribe Pigafetta.

After the death of Magellan, relations between the explorers and their hosts on Cebu deteriorated rapidly. Suddenly, men with white skins seemed less godlike, more vulnerable. The rajah, goaded by a disgruntled member of the expedition, suspected the Spanish expedition of treachery. On May 1 he invited 27 officers of the fleet to a banquet, encouraged them to eat their fill, and then had most of them slaughtered. This catastrophe reduced to 114 the manpower of an expedition that, at the outset, had numbered some 250 men. There were now too few sailors to man three ships; so hastily stripping and burning the Concepcion, the survivors consolidated themselves in the Trinidad and Victoria and fled from Cebu.

Now deprived of Magellan's leadership, the two ships wandered aimlessly about the South China and Sulu Seas for six months, committing random piracies on local traders, before happening on the island of Tidore in the Moluccas. There they loaded up with such a heavy cargo of spices, especially cloves, that the Trinidad began to split along the seams. Leaving her behind for repairs (she was later captured by the Portuguese and only a handful of 'tier crew ever returned to Spain), the Victoria, under the command of Juan Sebastian del Cano, sailed southwestward into the Indian Ocean in December 1521.

The long voyage home was as bad as the voyage across the Pacific. Many disgruntled sailors either mutinied or deserted en route. Captain Del Cano, who had been involved in the mutiny at Port St. Julian, proved to be an unpopular captain. Storms impeded progress around the Cape of Good Hope. While sailing up the west coast of Africa, sailors continued to die of scurvy and starvation. It was not until September 8, 1522, almost exactly three years since her departure from Spain, that the Victoria creaked wearily into Seville's harbor. A silent crowd watched in amazement as only 18 survivors staggered ashore. Gaunt and barefooted, the next day they carried lighted candles to give thanks at Magellan's favorite shrine in the church of Santa Maria de la Victoria.

Having thus honored his dead leader, Del Cano accepted from King Charles the ultimate reward of the expedition: a coat of arms depicting the globe and bearing the motto Primus circumdedisti me, "You first circumnavigated me." Yet historians have never been able to decide which man rightfully deserves that honor. Was it Magellan who, some say, had already visited the East Indies while in service for Portugal, or was it Del Cano? The true story of this most historic exploration is kept alive today thanks to the loyal Antonio Pigafetta, who survived to write the story of the first global voyage, had no doubts. Of Magellan, Antonio stated flatly shortly after arriving back in Seville: "The best proof of his genius is that he circumnavigated the world, none having preceded him."

From the frigid waters of southern latitudes, through the strait that bears his name today, Magellan's steely resolve and unyielding perseverance enabled him to face and conquer treacherous seas, dangerous passages, and mutinous crews. Sickness and starvation claimed so many lives. For over four months sailing the vast open waters of the Pacific claimed the lives of another 19 men. Now finally after so much death and desperation Magellan had reached what is known today as the Philippines. He now knew that the Spice Islands and victory were within easy reach. But it was fate that dealt its now familiar decree: Magellan would bear the burdens but would never enjoy the fruits of success. It was a single act of lapse of judgement that caused the downfall of Ferdinand Magellan. An ironic ending for one who had survived an expedition that had unceasingly taxed his intellect and intuition, a man whose own character was so strikingly identified by caution and foresight. When the Victoria sailed into Seville with only 18 survivors was a haunting reminder that mans first circumnavigational voyage had been completed. Today historians state that Magellan's voyage is rightfully called the greatest single human achievement on the seas. It was after all Ferdinand Magellan's legacy that changed man's understanding of the world.