August 21, 2020

FTV: Fernao de Magalhaes


     The date:  September 6, 1522.  Location:  Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain.  “As the ship came closer, those who gathered onshore noticed that her tattered sails flailed in the breeze, her rigging had rotted away, the sun had bleached her colors, and storms had gouged her sides.  A small pilot boat was dispatched to lead the strange ship over the reefs to the harbor.  Those aboard the pilot boat found themselves looking into the face of every sailor’s nightmare.  The vessel they were guiding into the harbor was manned by a ‘skeleton crew’ of just eighteen sailors and three captives, all of them severely malnourished.  Most lacked the strength to walk or even to speak,  Their tongues were swollen, and their bodies were covered with painful boils.  Their captain was dead, as were the officers, the boatswains, and the pilots.  In fact, nearly the entire crew had perished.”

     If the name in the title doesn’t ring any bells, perhaps the title of the book from which the above passage was taken will help:  Over the Edge of the World – Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe (Laurence Bergreen, Harper Perennial Books, 2004).  I have always been fascinated by history.  The textbook versions of the voyages undertaken during the Age of Discovery mapped the expeditions with dashed lines, names, and dates criss-crossing the oceans. All too often the descriptions left me with images of the ‘glorious’ view of these seafaring adventures.  I distinctly recall the texts describing Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage (yes, the Fernao de Magalhaes in the title):  the harrowing trip through the strait that now bears his name, the mutiny aboard one of his ships, and his death during the voyage.  I do not remember ever hearing how this first European voyage around the world ended.  When my wife found this book at St. Vinnie’s a while back, I read the above paragraph in the prologue and was hooked on learning more details than the dashed lines on a map had provided in the past.  How the five vessels sporting a crew of 260 could be reduced to the ghostly remains that sailed into Spain at the conclusion of the three year trek turned out to be a page turner of a story unlike anything I had encountered in a World History text.

     Fernao de Magalhaes was born in 1480 in the mountain parish of Sabrosa, Portugal.  As the sheriff of the port of Aveiro, his father Rodrigo was considered a minor Portuguese noble, but his son aspired to a higher calling.  He and his brother Diogo moved to Lisbon and became pages at the royal court when Fernao was twelve.  His placement there allowed him to take advantage of educational opportunities that would not have been available had he remained at his childhood home.  As young Ferdinand absorbed lessons in algebra, geometry, astronomy, and navigation,  the stories of Portuguese and Spanish discoveries in the Indies fired his imagination.  Lessons about provisioning, rigging, and arming ships came when he assisted the fleets preparing to leave for India.  His courtside apprenticeship surely was preparing him to captain his own ship, but when his patron, King Joao, died, his route to nautical fame and fortune hit a snag. 

      King Joao’s successor, King Manuel I, distrusted Magellan even though Ferdinand acted as a true company man in his service of Portugal.  After twenty years of having his requests to make authorized voyages for the crown denied, he asked if the King would allow him to offer his services elsewhere.  In September of 1517, Magellan was told he was free to to what he pleased, but he was humiliated:  “When Magellan knelt to kiss the king’s hands, as custom dictated, King Manuel concealed them behind his cloak and turned his back on his petitioner.  After he received the final rebuff from the Portuguese king, [Ferdinand] suddenly found direction in his live, and he moved quickly, carried along by his own ambitions and by the tides of history.”

     It would be for Spain, not Portugal, that Magellan would make his most famous voyage.  Back in 1494, Pope Alexander VI signed a decree that divided the world in half.  Spain was granted all holdings west of an arbitrary line drawn in the middle of the Ocean Sea (as the Atlantic was then known) while Portugal was granted all discoveries east of the line.  Both countries would do their best to push this boundary to their own advantage in their quest to dominate the New World.  When King Manuel learned that Magellan and his compatriot Ruy Faleiro were provisioning ships for an expedition to the Spice Islands, he protested.  King Charles I, Manuel’s relation by marriage (he was about to wed a member of Charles’ family, his sister Leonor, at the time Magellan was organizing his voyage), wrote the Portuguese royal a letter explaining his instructions to Magellan.  King Charles said, “Our first charge and order to the said commanders is to respect the line of demarcation and not to touch in any way, under heavy penalties, any regions of either lands or seas which were assigned to and belong to you by the line of demarcation.”  In that an accurate means of calculating longitude was decades away, King Charles only had his advisor’s word that the Spice Islands were in Spain’s sphere of influence.  The two countries would continue to keep and eye on each other.  King Manuel would make a couple of attempts to pry Magellan out of Spain and back to his homeland even though he had previously pushed him away.

     That two Portuguese navigators would sail under the Spanish flag caused a good deal of outrage in Lisbon.  There were some that thought Manuel would try to have Magellan and Faleiro assassinated.  King Charles, who feared this outcome,  urged them to depart as soon as possible.  He also assigned officer Juan de Cartagena to be his special agent on the entire expedition at a salary considerably higher than the two Portuguese commanders were earning.  Cartagena’s instructions from the king were so thorough that, (according to author Bergreen), “A Spandiard predisposed to mistrust Magellan and Faleiro could conclude that he, and not they, had the final say on the conduct of the entire voyage.  And that was exactly the conclusion to which Cartegena came.”  There were many dark clouds hanging over the expedition and they hadn’t even set sail!  King Manuel could not understand why Magellan would do this (forgetting, of course, that he wouldn’t commission such a voyage no matter how many times Magellan had asked him to).  King Charles had promised the two Portuguese Captains a ten year franchise guarantee to establish trade with the Spice Islands, yet he waited only six years before authorizing another voyage patterned after Magellan’s.  Magellan was slow to learn the Spanish language and his constant use of an interpreter only underscored his stigma as an ‘outsider’.  

     Former British Naval officer Gavin Menzies wrote several volumes about Admiral Xheng He’s own voyages of discovery (see FTV:  Gavin and Fred – Parts 1, 2, & 3, July 11, 18, & 25, 2018).  Menzies’ extensive research points to the Chinese sending vast Treasure Fleets sailing around the world’s oceans in the early 1400s.   By comparison, the Chinese expeditions sent out hundreds of ships crewed by thousands.  They were masters of the sea long before the European Age of Discovery even began.  Their superior navigation charts were shared with European heads of state to insure they understood the Chinese superiority on the high seas.  When China closed itself off from the rest of the world, they burned their Books of Knowledge along with their navigation charts.  Of course, the charts they had shared with some European countries survived.  The Portuguese royals were in possession of some of these maps and guarded them so jealously that sharing the information was considered a capital offense.  When Magellan showed King Charles a hand drawn globe to describe his proposed voyage to the Spice Islands, Bergreen likens it to, “Sharing nuclear secrets during the Cold War.”  Magellan knew returning to Portugal was not going to end well, so he curried favor with King Charles and kept organizing his ‘Armada de Molluccas’ (‘Molluccas’ being the name used for the Spice Islands in Indonesia).  The sudden mental decline of Faleiro (perhaps from depression or a bipolar disorder) added another wrinkle to the plan:  The Magellan expedition would not have co-commanders and Faleiro would never take to the sea.  Magellan would be the Captain General of a five ship fleet with Spanish captains serving under him.  This did not at all sit well with the Spaniards.  When they made their first provisioning stop in the Canary Islands, Magellan received word that King Manuel had dispatched a fleet of Caravels to arrest him and return him to Portugal.  He ordered a hasty departure and charted a course he did not think the Portuguese would be able to follow.

     His Spanish captains were alarmed when Magellan sailed a southerly route instead of steering westward, toward South America.  The grumbling and distrust began to ferment almost immediately.  As the Captain General, Magellan didn’t have to explain his actions to anyone, but had he perhaps mentioned the pursuing Portuguese ships, maybe some of the tension could have been diffused.  The goal, once they reached South America, was to probe the coast until they found the strait that would lead them to another ocean and the Spice Islands.  The size of the Earth had been grossly underestimated and the general consensus was, “Find the strait, proceed directly to the Spice Islands.”  As the armada sailed to the south, they explored bays and river mouths while being battered by the severe storms that were endemic to the South American coast.  It became apparent that they would need to overwinter at a sheltered bay they called Port Saint Julian and it was there that Magellan’s voyage nearly came to an end.

     The Spanish captains on three of the ships conspired to kill Magellan and return to Spain.  Rather than meeting the threat head on with force, the Captain General used his wits to outsmart the mutineers.  He relied on the loyal crew members to help him out maneuver those leading the plot.  Gaining control of one of the rebellious ships, Magellan blockaded the harbor mouth with three ships preventing the other two from escaping.  A fierce, albeit short, battle occurred and the rebellion collapsed.  To make sure there was no doubt that he was still in charge, Magellan resorted to the torture and excecution of some of the conspirators (which, as Captain General, he had been given the authority to do by King Charles I).  In the age of the Spanish Inquisition, no one really thought it unusual for Magellan to resort to such cruelty to keep his crew in line.  The biggest complaint aired later was that Magellan had tortured and executed Spaniards.  With the leaders of the rebellion out of the way, the Captain General commuted the death sentences of the forty crew members who were swept up in the mutiny.  He had put the fear of God (or fear of Magellan) in them and fully recognized that his armada would be left shorthanded without them.  Whether it was the right decision or not, no one would question the Captain General after he restored his rule of law, but it wouldn’t be the last mutiny on this voyage.  In fact, one of the conspirators who Magellan felt he couldn’t execute (he had friends in high places) survived, only to begin plotting again.  Even in the face of this devious Spaniard’s third attempt at stirring up a mutiny, Magellan resolved that if he could not execute him, he would abandon him when the armada left Port Saint Julian.  After the southern winter season released them to resume the voyage, he left the mutineer and a priest who had sided with him on an island to fend for themselves.  

     The Armada de Moluccas had departed from Seville, Spain on August 10, 1519.  With the April mutiny quelled, the fleet spent a miserable winter simply trying to survive.  Their first contact with the indigenous people was of a positive nature, but it deteriorated into distrust and bloodshed.  Anxious to resume the search for the strait, one of the ships, Santiago, was sent to explore the shoreline and was wrecked in a storm some seventy miles to the south.  The armada, reduced to four ships, finally departed in search of the strait on August 24, 1520. They would not discover and enter the strait until October 21, 1520, a full fourteen months after they had set sail on what was originally thought would be a two year voyage.  Over the next 38 days, they would lose another ship before they gained the Western Sea.  In Part Two of Fernao de Magalhaes, we will delve into the rest of Magellan’s historic voyage. 

Top Piece Video:  Obviously, the Beach Boys had better sailing experiences than Magellan’s crew!