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Magellan's Troubled Voyage

Ferdinand Magellan was interested in finding a route to the ocean that Balboa had discovered, today known as the Pacific – the peaceful. He was of noble Portuguese birth and a Portuguese naval war veteran at the age of 39 in the year 1519, but he had become a Spanish subject for the sake of serving the Spanish crown. And he won the support and approval of Spain's government to make his voyage. Spain's officials iwere nterested in reaching spices (nutmeg, cinnamon, cloves) before the Portuguese. They were unaware that Portugal's Vasco de Gama had already reached the Indies, Vasco de Gama's voyage in 1498 (around Africa) having remained shrouded in trade secrecy.

Magellan set sail in September 1519, with five ships and 270 men, his crew including Greeks, Frenchmen, North Africans, Sicilians, Basques, Flemish and Britons. He took with him a talented 27-year-old writer, an Italian aristocrat, Antonio Pigafetta, to chronicle the journey. Magellan planned to sail westward, as had Columbus. The voyage was to require an understanding of wind and current patterns, and holding to the need for secrecy because of competition Magellan was to store that knowledge in his head rather than put it down on a map, which could be stolen.

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan

After two months they were sailing along the coast of South America, avoiding Portugal's Brazil. They anchored for more than six months at a place called Puerto San Julian. The crew developed a hatred for Magellan. He tried to keep the crew away from the women on shore. Pigafetta observed, according to Joyce Appleby, that "everywhere women were dominated by men," that women didn't prize virginity the way he thought they did in Europe, and that their near nakedness appeared to the sailors as an invitation. A rebellion broke out and the captain of one of his ships was killed by a party sent by Magellan, and the ship was recovered. Pigafetta reported that a captain of another ship, Gaspar Quesada, and other mutineers were executed, while many were forgiven and needed for the journey.

As the voyage was beginning its departure from Puerto San Julian, Magellan found female stowaway companions of the sailors, and he had them "dispatched." note12

Appleby writes that the master of one of Magellan's ships was found involved sexually with a cabin boy, and "although homosexual relations were common on long voyages" Magellan quickly court-martialed the man and had him executed, and punishment, writes Appleby, "added fuel to the crew's fear and dislike of their commander." note13

One of the five ships sent ahead to find a passage west was wrecked in a sudden storm, while its crew made it safely to shore. Another ship, the San Antonio, sent to explore, instead sailed back to Spain and arrived there on 20 November 1520, eight days before Magellan and his three remaining ships entered the ocean that he named the Pacific.

Heading northwest, the remaining three ships crew reached Guam on March 6. Pigafetta described the "lateen sail" used by the inhabitants of Guam and two other Marianna Islands. He wrote that the islanders "entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on," including "the small boat that was fastened to the poop of the flagship." They named the three islands the "Islands of Thieves."

In mid March they reached the Philippine Islands. Magellan still had 150 crewmen. He had a Malay servant who could communicate with people on the island of Cebu. Friendships were established and the local king and his wife made a show of accepting Magellan's gods, Jehovah and Jesus Christ. On April 14, Magellan erected a large wooden cross on the shores of Cebu, and around 700 islanders were baptized. Then Magellan allowed himself to become involved in the conflict between his new friends and people of nearby Mactan Island. Not shy about asserting himself with warfare, and perhaps confident because God was on his side, he led an expedition against the society on Mactan. Antonio Pigafetta was with them and described the expedition's flight from an aggressive Mactan force leaving Magellan alone and cut down. Magellan's friend, the king on Cebu, offered the king on Mactan a reward for Magellan's body, but he was refused. Magellan's body was held as a war trophy and his remains were lost to history.

It was for others to complete his circumnavigation of the globe. There were not enough sailors to man three ships, so one of the ships was abandoned. Two ships sailed on, sailing southward and reaching Borneo in July and the Moluccas in November. They were at Timor in late January, 1522, after having lost one of the ships in a storm. On their last ship, the Victoria, they headed west to the tip of Africa in late May and northward back to Spain, arriving there in September. Of the 270 men who left with Magellan three years before, only eighteen completed the voyage.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.