August 29, 2020

FTV: Fernao de Magalhaes – Part 2


     In Part 1, we looked at how Ferdinand Magellan (born Fernao de Magalhaes in Portugal) was able to convince King Charles I of Spain to appoint him the Captain General of an expedition to the Spice Islands.  Magellan was convinced one could sail west, find a strait that would deposit his ships at the Spice Islands, and thus open a lucrative trade route for Spain.  Maps had hinted that a strait to the Western Sea existed, although some placed it as far north as Panama.  Is it possible that Magellan had access to the secret navigation charts given to European kings by the fabled Chinese Treasure Fleet that is said to have visited in the early 1400s?  Judging by (Portuguese) King Manuel’s attempt to track Magellan down in the Canary Islands (after he set off on his Spanish supported voyage), some now feel that Magellan’s unfettered faith in finding a strait was based on knowledge he had obtained from Chinese navigation charts held by the Portuguese.  It also indicates King Charles knew nothing of these coveted Chinese charts.  Most importantly, Magellan convinced young King Charles that such a voyage was possible.  A full fourteen months after departing Seville, Spain, the Armada de Moluccas entered the strait at the southern tip of South America that now bears Magellan’s name.

     The word ‘strait’ should not be confused with the word ‘straight’ because the body of water Magellan’s armada began exploring was indeed the former, definitely not the latter.  It took 38 days for them to find the right channel that would deposit them in the Western Sea (as the Pacific Ocean was called at the time).  The southern tip of South America and Tierra del Fuego comprise a confusing network of channels, fiords, strong currents, and blasting wind storms called ‘williwaws’.  Had it been a straight shot, they could have navigated the whole distance in about the same amount of time it takes a Great Lakes freighter to travel from Sault Ste. Marie to Duluth and back. The strait’s twisted channels earned it the nickname ‘The Dragon’s Tail’.   Magellan approached the exploration in the correct manner:  he sent long boats into some of the fiords and one or two of the larger boats on reconnaissance runs.  The long southern days gave them additional time to seek the main passage and to make up some of the time lost during their winter stay at Port Saint Julian.  When he gathered his officers to discuss the next stage, the captain of the San Antonio argued that it was time to return to Spain.  Captain Estavao Gomes reasoned that, “We have found the strait, now let us return to Spain and mount a voyage with better provisions.”

     Captain Gomes, was also an expatriate Portuguese like his Captain General, but he had no love for Magellan.  He was on the verge of being appointed the Captain General of his own armada to the Spice Islands.  When Magellan convinced King Charles to fund his voyage instead, he took away Gomes’ opportunity to command his own armada.  Gomes signed on as a pilot, but still seethed with resentment.  Magellan refused to turn back so Gomes engineered a much less bloody mutiny than the one that had taken place at Port Saint Julian the previous Easter.  Gomes simply convinced the crew of the San Antonio to not return from one of their recon missions in the strait.  They took the San Antonio’s captain prisoner and turned the largest ship in the fleet homeward without so much as a ‘Dear Ferdinand’ note.  In that they also carried a fair amount of the armada’s provisions, Magellan found his expedition in jeopardy once again.  When polled, the two remaining captains agreed that they should continue exploring the strait until mid-January.  If they were not successful in finding the Western Sea by then, they would turn for home before the weather changed for the worse.

     Thirty eight days into the strait, they finally found the opening they were seeking.  Magellan reasoned they still had provisions for three months so there were no more discussions about going back from whence they came.  Their maps and charts were useless now because all the land masses were terra incognito – lands unknown.  Magellan was optimistic that they had put the worst behind them, and maybe they had.  What he hadn’t counted on was the sheer size of the Pacific Ocean:  it was twice as wide as the Atlantic and they were sailing by instinct alone at this point.

     After cruising north along the western coast of South America, the armada took a more westerly track.  Unlike the storm tossed south Atlantic, they found the Pacific quite calm in comparison.  Catching the Southeast Trades (the wind belt caused by the sun’s unequal heating of the equatorial region.  The Trades is bent in a SE to NW direction due to the Coriolis Effect imparted by the  Earth spinning on its axis), they made an astounding amount of distance each day.  They observed many new fish species.  Finding flying fish landing on their deck (their wing-like fins allow them to take flight if they generate enough speed while trying to elude their pursuers) helped supplement their depleted rations.

     Scurvy began to take hold of the crew and at least twenty nine had died before they were half way across the Pacific.  European voyagers in the Indian Ocean had been offered oranges by Arab traders who already knew they helped combat the symptoms of scurvy.  The common notion was that scurvy was caused by ‘bad air’.  Magellan and his officers had their own store of quince preserves and this periodic ration gave them enough vitamin C to keep them healthy.  Had they understood the connection, they may well have been able to help more of their afflicted crew.  The British Navy began requiring daily doses of lemon or lime juice in 1795 (thus the term ‘limeys’ being applied to British sailors – both lemons and limes were called ‘limes’).  It would not be until 1932 that science was able to isolate and synthesize ascorbic acid and confirm the true connection between vitamin C deficiency and scurvy.

     Viewing their trek across the Pacific on a map, it almost appears like they were trying to avoid any islands.  Had they deviated a few degrees north or south, they would have run into the Marquesas, the Marshall Islands, Easter Island, the Society Islands, or Tahiti.  When the fleet finally sighted a single atoll on January 24, 1521,  the named it San Pablo.  Ironically, it would be the same first land sighting that Thor Heryerdahl’s Kon Tiki raft encountered centuries later.  Lack of resources and a safe harbor to drop anchor made it useless to both expeditions.  On February 4, they approached Caroline Island and again could not find a place to land.  As they resumed course, Magellan was so distraught from not having already reached the Spice Islands, he tossed his charts overboard, exclaiming, “With the pardon of the cartographers, the Moluccas are not to be found in their appointed place!”  When they crossed the equator on February 13, Megellan realized that they would not be able to claim the Spice Islands for Spain as they were certainly going to reside well into the ‘Portuguese sphere’ outlined by Pope Alexander’s 1494 ‘Line of Demarcation’.  They were also running out of provisions and fresh water;  without a safe harbor to resupply, the Armada de Moluccas was doomed to failure.

     On the ninety eighth day after leaving the strait, the armada finally made landfall on Guam.  They had traveled more than seven thousand miles without interruption (the longest ocean voyage recorded until then).  The island of Guam offered them shelter and helped ease the misery Magellan’s crew had endured in the long Pacific crossing.  There was no indication they were anywhere near their intended destination.  Guam and the Marianas lie some three thousand miles west of the Hawaiian Islands.  The befuddled Magellan finally began to realize exactly how big the Western Sea was.

     On entering a peaceful lagoon at Guam, the Europeans found themselves surrounded by swift dugout canoes manned by a taller, stronger race of people called the Chamorro.  Not familiar with the European concept of ownership, they took whatever wasn’t nailed down.  Magellan’s crew over reacted, drew first blood, and a short battle ensued.  Strangely enough, more island natives arrived bearing food which they gave to their new acquaintances.  When the battle was rejoined, Magellan wisely decided they were outnumbered.  He ordered his men to stop firing arrows and both sides engaged in friendly trade.  When the Chamorros made off with Magellan’s personal skiff (the one object on board that resembled their own canoes), he sent forty men ashore where they killed seven, wounded more, and burned forty or fifty dwellings.  The Chomorros were stunned at the rampage and offered no resistance.  After recovering Magellan’s boat, the Europeans hastily returned to their ships.  

     Antonio Pigafetta, whose chronicles of the voyage provide historians with much information about the Armada de Moluccas, wrote descriptions of the Chomorros dwellings and their matriarchal societal structure.  His accounts provide evidence that the Europeans spent time ashore after the initial ‘battle’.  It became apparent that what had been perceived as ‘threatening gestures’ made by the islanders were more ritualistic than warlike.  Their only weapons were poles with fish bones attached which were used primarily for catching flying fish.  Three days after they arrived, the fleet set sail again on their previous course.  Pigafetta noted their departure upset the islanders. Thus, another first contact between European voyagers and a race previously unknown to them ended in needless bloodshed and misunderstood intentions.

     When the armada entered the Philippine archipelago in mid-March, they found the people on these islands were more advanced than those encountered on Guam.  Centuries of trade with both Arab and Chinese mariners had produced a sophisticated trade network with the Philippine natives.  Magellan named the islands after Lazarus, but the name that stuck would come from Lopez de Villalobos who reached the Philippines twenty two years later in the name of King Phillip of Spain.  Perhaps Magellan had learned his lesson about meeting new races and indeed his first contacts with the Phillippine locals were friendly.  He made it a point to impress them with his weaponry by having a gunner discharge an arquebus, startling them immensely.  He also had one of his sailors don armour to demonstrate how swords and knives could not hurt them.  Whether he was just showing off or trying to send a message, we can only speculate, but this display of power would come back to haunt Magellan.

     Magellan’s final mistake was getting involved in local politics.  He offered to ‘help’ the king of Cebu by using his armour clad sailors to set things right with a belligerent king (Lapu Lapu) on nearby Mactan Island.  In the shallow Bay of Mactan, the voyage’s ships had to anchor too far offshore to be of any help with the ensuing battle.  While he expected ‘fifty or sixty’ island warriors to flee before them, they instead encountered 1500 well armed Mactans bent on protecting their turf.  Of the eight sailors killed along with him, Magellan’s was a most gruesome death.  The islanders hacked him to bits in the shallow waters as he tried to buy time for his sailor’s to retreat.  The Mactans lost only fifteen in the battle.  Magellan’s bravado cost him his life and his remaining crew were angry with him.  This senseless battle could also have scuttled the fleet’s chance to make it home.

     By the time the Armada de Moluccas regrouped, elected new leaders, and resumed their quest for the Spice Islands, they were down to three ships and half their original crew.  With a depleted crew, they later burned the Concepcion and pressed on with the Victoria and the flagship Trinidad.  The noble cause on which the armada had originally embarked descended into acts of piracy, kidnapping, bloodshed, and shady deals made with island kings they encountered.  After they had landed on the Spice Islands, they found that the Portuguese had already been trading there for more than a decade.  They also learned the Portuguese were still hunting for them.  What was left of the armada finally loaded their ships for the last ten thousand mile leg home via the Cape of Good Hope.  Unfortunately, they discovered the Trinidad leaking badly from lack of proper upkeep.  The flagship remained at the Spice Islands and part of the crew faced the frightening task of attempting the last leg of the journey solo with the Victoria.  They kidnapped local pilots to help them weave through the confusion of islands and reefs.  The rest of the crew remained in the Spice Islands to try and get Trinidad seaworthy again.

     As noted in the introduction to Part 1, only eighteen of the original crew complement of 260 made it back to Spain.  When repaired, the Trinidad attempted to sail across the north Pacific.  They were forced to return only to be taken into custody by the Portuguese who were waiting for them at the Spice Islands.  They asked for mercy but were shown little.  The armada’s own logs showed they had violated the Portuguese territories.  The Trinidad was stripped of its riggings and eventually wrecked at anchor in a storm (including the load of spices it was laden with).  

     The crew of the San Antonio (who had turned for home from the straits earlier) had been acquitted from charges of mutiny after’ adjusting’ the facts of the voyage.  They gave the impression that Magellan was being disloyal to King Charles (who later profited greatly from the cargo returned aboard the Victoria).  The King did reward the survivors by not taxing their share of the cargo and even donated some of his profits in recognition of their complete circumnavigation of the globe. The San Antonio’s captain, who remained loyal to Magellan, was not released from prison until the Victoria crew confirmed his account of the last mutiny in the straits.  Magellan’s voyage was historic, indeed, but the legacy of his voyage with the Armada de Moluccas varies widely.  The accounts published in Portugal, Spain, or Indonesia differ with all giving a decidedly nationalistic spin to version.  The Indonesians portray his fleet as vanquished invaders.

     How difficult was Magellan’s voyage?  Spain made several more attempts to recreate this voyage before King Charles could no longer justify the cost.  It would be 58 years after Victoria returned to Seville until Sir Francis Drake accomplished the second successful circumnavigation of the globe in 1580.  Magellan’s name remains attached to both the Strait and to our Milky Way’s two smaller companion galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, visible in the southern hemisphere.

Top Piece Video – after such a harrowing tale, I thought perhaps a calmer Sailing song by Christopher Cross would be more appropriate – it is also tough to find songs about sailing around the world in the Age of Discovery!