IN THE great throne room of the palace the Portuguese king, Manuel I, glanced down with some disdain at the man kneeling before him: he was certainly a noble, but he did not look it. His beard was shot with grey, his clothes were worn and he walked with a pronounced limp, from a spear that had been thrust into his knee during a battle with Moors several years earlier. He was a veteran of decades of campaigns in India and Africa, in the service of the Portuguese crown. Short but muscular, he exuded an iron toughness; this was someone who would not back down.
Manuel I had disliked this man for decades; he was, after all, a protege of Manuel’s predecessor and cousin, João II, who had died twenty-one years earlier, in 1495. Yet he was also from a respected family and had had a distinguished military career. This noble, Ferdinand Magellan, had appeared before Manuel on several occasions, and all his previous requests had been rebuffed. Now the aging adventurer had the audacity to petition the king once more: he wished to be placed in charge of a major fleet that would sail to the Indies.
The fifty-one-year-old king was involved in arranging his own marriage to Leonor, the twenty-year-old sister of the new king of Spain, the eighteen-year-old Charles I. Leonor had been until recently the fiancé of Manuel I’s own adult son João, and she had scandalously continued her relationship with the young prince even while his powerful father planned to take her as his bride.
Manuel, a suspicious and unhappy man, was seldom one to offer rewards, particularly to men he disliked. He coolly informed Magellan that he would neither increase his court pension nor give him command of a caravel, much less an entire fleet, to restore his fortunes in the Indies. Magellan did not rise; instead, he remained kneeling and humbly beseeched his monarch for one final boon: to be able to offer his services to another king. Irritated by Magellan’s continued presence, Manuel I waved him off, claiming that he cared not what he did or where he went. Accepting his king’s decree, Magellan bent to kiss the king’s fingers. Manuel pulled his hands away and, in a final insult, clasped them behind his back.
The humiliation was astounding—to be so treated by his monarch, in front of the court—but Magellan, still ambitious and tough at age thirty-six, was not crushed. He was, instead, spurred into action by pride and a desire for revenge. Within months he had wrapped up his affairs in Lisbon and set off for Castile. By October 1517, about the time that Martin Luther was starting a social revolution by nailing to the church door in Wittenberg his famous Ninety-Five Theses challenging corrupt Catholic church practices, Magellan was in Seville, one of the largest cities in Castile. He was soon joined by his business partner, Ruy Faleiro, a mathematician, cosmographer and teacher at the university who had been instrumental in helping Magellan prepare the technical aspects of an audacious maritime proposal. Soon after Magellan arrived in the flourishing port, he officially signed the papers that renounced his Portuguese citizenship and made him a subject of the king of Castile. For a country as secretive as Portugal was about its maritime activities, allowing a mariner of Magellan’s experience to offer his services to a rival state was a gross oversight by a king understandably distracted by his domestic predicament and lamenting the recent death of his beloved wife. Magellan was not only an experienced commander at sea and in battle, but in his youth he had been tutored in mathematics, geography, cartography and navigation at the Portuguese court.
Born in 1480, the year after the Treaty of Alcáçovas ended the civil war in Castile and brought peace with Portugal, Magellan had moved from his home in the northwest to the Portuguese court in 1494, in time to see Columbus return from his epochal voyage. He continued his education, with a great interest in maritime matters, until leaving for India with the fleet of Francisco de Almeida in the vanguard of Portugal’s global expansion, helping to conquer and fortify outposts along both coasts of Africa and in India. He later served under Admiral Afonso de Albuquerque during the conquest of Malacca. In all Magellan spent eight years voyaging and warring in Portugal’s nascent overseas empire in India, was knowledgeable in that country’s plans and operations, and was privy to its geographical discoveries and detailed maritime charts. But he had fallen out of favour with several prominent officers and had been accused of selling for personal profit cattle and sheep captured in battle in Morocco (charges of which he was later acquitted). These actions added to King Manuel I’s dislike of the navigator.
In 1511 a close friend and cousin of Magellan’s, Francisco Serrano, had voyaged even further east and had established himself as a trader on Ternate in the Moluccas (Spice Islands). Serrano had married a local woman and settled down to a life of prosperity and domestic happiness, and repeatedly urged Magellan to join him in the business of shipping cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg. “I have found here a new world richer and greater than that of Vasco da Gama,” Serrano scrawled in a letter. “I beg you to join me here, that you may sample for yourself the delights that surround me.” After his humiliating snub by Manuel I, Magellan had begun dreaming of an alternate route to visit his friend on Ternate. Significantly, Serrano, in giving the location of the island where he dwelt, had placed the Spiceries much farther east than they actually were. Thus, the Spice Islands lay securely in the Spanish half of the world, according to Magellan and his cosmographer friend Ruy Faleiro. “God willing, I will come to you soon,” Magellan replied, “if not by way of Portugal, then by way of Castile.”
In Seville, Magellan and Faleiro introduced themselves to the Portuguese expatriate community and continued to refine their plan. In particular, Magellan befriended a prominent merchant and citizen, Diego Barbosa, who had been living in Seville for fourteen years and was enticed by the plan. Within a year, in the time-honoured tradition of securing alliances, he had married Barbosa’s daughter Beatriz. With the aid of his new and influential extended family, Magellan readied himself to persuade the powerful Casa de Contratación de las Indias, the state bureaucracy that controlled and regulated all Spanish overseas commercial and exploration voyages, to give him permission for a voyage. Unlike Columbus, who had fought against the Casa, Magellan tailored his proposal to be of interest to the state officials: the wealth of the Indies, the exceedingly valuable spices that Portugal had been hauling back to Europe for years now, were in his view being taken from the Spanish half of the world, according to the Treaty of Tordesillas. The chronicler Peter Martyr enthused, “If the affair has a favourable outcome, we will seize from the Orientals and the King of Portugal the trade in spices and precious stones.” With the support of the Casa de Contratación—secured by a secret side deal with one of its officials who would receive one-fifth of Magellan’s profits— Magellan was soon heading to Valladolid to meet with the king and present to the court the arguments for his scheme. The political implications were far too large to be left to anyone else.
At the meeting with the new king of Spain and his trusted advisers, Magellan presented the letters of his friend Serrano, giving the impression that the Spice Islands were much farther east than had been supposed and that the region was quite civilized and ruled by leaders eager for trade. Then he asserted that if the line of demarcation in the Atlantic Ocean was logically extended around the globe, it surely placed the bulk of the Spiceries in the Spanish half of the world. And now Magellan presented his case for how he would get there: he would sail west across the Atlantic, to the coast of South America (as the land was called after Martin Waldseemüller named it on his popular map of 1507) and continue to hug the coast as he pushed southward, until he reached a west-leading strait or break in the landmass that would lead him into the South Seas, which he would cross to arrive in the Moluccas. Vasco Nuñez de Balboa had recently proved that water lay on the far side of the American continents, having thrashed his way across the Isthmus of Panama in 1513 to encounter a mighty ocean stretching as far as he could see. According to the missionary priest and chronicler Bartolomé de Las Casas, Magellan displayed “a well-painted globe in which the entire world was depicted. And on it he depicted the route he proposed to take.” Magellan also later recalled that he had seen the strait depicted on charts in the library of the king of Portugal. Whether these straits were based on wishful thinking or on the discoveries of some forgotten voyage, Magellan was now in the business of trading on the state secrets of his homeland. When challenged by one of King Charles’s advisers, he pronounced that he was confident the strait existed, but if he couldn’t find it quickly, he “would go the way the Portuguese took”—a route, he reminded them in his halting Spanish, with which he was quite familiar.
Magellan benefited from auspicious timing. Unlike Columbus more than two decades earlier, he had hardly to wait at all. The young King Charles I had only recently arrived in Spain from the Netherlands, following the death of Ferdinand in 1516. His mother, Juana, was the second daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and his father was Philip I, “the Handsome,” son of the Hapsburg emperor Maximilian I. Charles I’s august lineage and royal ambitions, however, brought him responsibilities and expenses. Charles had recently been “elected” king of the Romans, which would lead to him eventually becoming Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. His election had cost a fortune, however—debts that still had to be paid to his supporters. He bent a receptive ear to the promises of glory and wealth that a scheme like Magellan’s implied, providing it could be done without damaging international relations or violating the Treaty of Tordesillas.
After all, Charles I was still in the process of marrying off his young sister to the aging Manuel I of Portugal, continuing the tradition of intermarriages between the royal families of Castile and Portugal, such that politics was always intertwined with domestic arrangements (which could be either stabilizing or the opposite, depending on the circumstances). Manuel had also been the husband of two of Charles’s aunts: Isabella, the eldest daughter of Ferdinand and Isabella, and then their third daughter, Maria, who had died in 1517, prompting Manuel to claim for himself his son Prince João’s betrothed, Charles I’s sister Leonor. Despite the possible family complications, Charles I would benefit personally from the success of Magellan’s scheme. Such a bold manoeuvre, which both checked rival Portugal and claimed great wealth from the spice trade for Charles and for Spain, would consolidate and strengthen his rule if he could be the one responsible for it. The success of such a mission would solve a great many of his problems.
Spain had profited only slightly from the Treaty of Tordesillas, a treaty it had so assiduously pressured the pope to support decades earlier. Portugal, on the other hand, had risen to prominence as Europe’s supplier of spices. It was growing rich and powerful with the consolidation of its commercial empire in India and Indonesia, which was protected by a monopoly based on Popes Alexander VI’s and Julius II’s decrees. In contrast, by the early 1500s the Spanish population of Hispaniola was barely a thousand. The conquest of the Caribbean islands was initially quick and effortless, but it soon became slow and dangerous. In Spain’s Road to Empire, Henry Kamen notes that “Hispaniola became center to a wide variety of activities, nearly all predatory, such as raiding other islands for Indian labour.” Many new arrivals from Spain were dissatisfied with their new lives as rural landowners, a life that was harsh even for those who employed slave labour to carve out their estates. There was just not enough gold in the streams, and the diminishing prospects for easy wealth caused out-migration to other islands.
The ruthless conquistador Hernán Cortés left Hispaniola at around the same time as Magellan departed Spain. His exploits changed Spain’s fortunes forever when he conquered the wealthy and powerful empire of the Aztecs in central Mexico. Until then the greatest source of wealth flowing to Spain from the lands across the Atlantic was brazilwood or logwood, which was valuable in producing red, blue and black textile dyes. Formerly imported to Europe from India at great expense, the trees from which these dyes were produced grew along the coast throughout the Caribbean region but flourished particularly along the coast of Brazil. Unfortunately for Spain, the great bulge of Brazil lay mostly in the Portuguese half of the world, according to the Tordesillas line of demarcation. In an augury of the region’s future, by the early sixteenth century— although the logging industry was barely established—French mariners were already violating the treaty by collecting brazilwood.
Novel and well-conceived as Magellan’s proposal was, it would not be the first Spanish voyage to search for the Spice Islands via a strait adjoining the American continent. As early as 1506, Ferdinand had considered sending an expedition to ascertain exactly where the line of demarcation passed through South America and to search for a strait leading west to the Orient. Two years later he commissioned the mariner Juan Diáz de Solís, a Portuguese defector who had fled to Spain after murdering his wife, to pursue these objectives. Ferdinand again entertained the idea of sending out Solís in 1512, but settled for instructing Spanish officials in Santo Domingo, Hispaniola, that they should arrest trespassing Portuguese ships in the Caribbean and search for the strait when they had time to do so.
In 1514, after hearing of Balboa’s trek across Panama and sighting of the Pacific Ocean, Ferdinand again sent Solís to discover a strait by which to sail to this ocean. Solís, however, as related by the chronicler Peter Martyr, after sailing along the South American coast and entering the estuary of the Rio de la Plata, landed with some men to converse with natives on the shore. The natives were not as friendly as he had supposed: “Sodenly a great multitude of the inhabitants burist forth upon them, and slue them every man with clubbes, even in the sight of their fellowes, not one escaping. Their furie not thus satisfied, they cut the slayne men in peeces, even upon the shore, where their fellowes might behold this horrible spectacle from the sea. But they being stricken with feare through this example, durst not come foorth of their shippes, or devise how to revenge the death of their Captayne and companions. They departed therefore from these unfortunate coasts.” It was probably hearing of these mariners’ experiences while searching for a strait leading into the unknown sea that inspired Magellan’s own ambitious scheme.
BY THE spring of 1519 Magellan had signed an agreement with the Spanish monarch outlining the terms of his employment: a ten-year monopoly on future expeditions, a right to dispense summary justice as leader of the expedition and taxes to be paid to the crown, among other general matters. “You are to go with good fortune to discover that part of the ocean within our limits and demarcation,” it began. But the document also stipulated what Magellan could not do. “You may discover in those parts what has not yet been discovered, but you may not discover or do anything in the demarcation and limits of the most serene King of Portugal, my very dear and well-beloved uncle and brother.” Charles I, lacking the funds to finance the expedition, turned to the House of Fugger, the German banking and financing family, beginning Spain’s long relationship in the red with the famous Continental moneylenders. While Charles I was evidently concerned with the political implications of any tampering with the Treaty of Tordesillas, Manuel I had nevertheless received notice of Magellan’s scheme from his spies in the Spanish capital.
King Manuel apparently realized that when he had cast off Magellan and had publicly given him permission to offer his services elsewhere, he had made an error—like his long-dead cousin, the former king of Portugal, João II, who had let Columbus slip off to Spain—continuing the tradition of world-changing mariners being rebuffed in Portugal only to be welcomed in Castile. No sooner had news of Magellan’s commission travelled to Lisbon than Manuel, as Hugh Thomas noted with understatement in his Rivers of Gold, “continued to do what he could to create obstacles for Magellan.” Members of the Portuguese court, and Manuel himself, expressed bewilderment that their countryman should have offered his services to the king of Spain. The Portuguese court chronicler, João de Barros, wrote that “since the devil always manoeuvres so that the souls of men entertain evil deeds in whose undertaking he shall perish, he prepared this occasion for this Ferdinand Magellan to become estranged from his king and his kingdom, and to go astray.”
Apparently Manuel and others in the Portuguese court had forgotten that the king had recently dismissed Magellan from his service and, in fact, had publicly humiliated him. Nevertheless, then as now, that which we wish to be true we readily believe. Manuel quickly sent a note to his agent in Castile to urge the two exiles, Magellan and Faleiro, to return home; indeed, the king had been rethinking his hasty decision to dismiss them. The agent dutifully tracked Magellan down at a warehouse in Seville, where he was already outfitting the voyage, and urged him return to Portugal. First he offered a bribe, and when this did not produce the desired reaction, the agent suggested that there might be reprisals against Magellan’s family and threats to his reputation as a traitor.
Magellan remained adamant in his service to his new patron, Charles I. “For honour’s sake,” he told the agent, “he could now do nothing else except what he had agreed upon.” He had already renounced his allegiance to Manuel and sworn on his honour to Charles, Magellan claimed, and since he had been cast off by Portugal he had to seek his fortune in Spain. Magellan was not a foolish or dim-witted man, and he suspected that if he returned to Portugal, either he would be made to disappear or he would be publicly arrested, tried and hanged for treason. In either case, there was no returning; he had staked everything on his plausible but dangerous and untested theory—that he could pioneer a Spanish route to the Spice Islands. His theory was perfectly defensible, apart from the fact that he had absolutely no idea of the true extent of the Pacific Ocean.
King Manuel, however, did not give up so easily. He instructed his ambassador in Valladolid to apply judicious pressure at higher levels in the Spanish court. The ambassador’s tactic was to appeal to King Charles’s sense of royal affiliation and responsibility. He informed Charles “how ill-seeming and unusual it was for one king to receive the vassals of another one, his friend, against his will— which was a thing that was not usual even among knights.” But Charles’s advisers urged him to hold firm: he was fully within his rights to launch the voyage, and it would not violate the Treaty of Tordesillas. Indeed, at that moment, the Portuguese might be the violators.
After the Treaty of Tordesillas, Spain and Portugal always seemed to be both allies and adversaries—linked by marriage and family and their joint interest to protect the sanctity of, and adjust the terms of, the treaty that was now starting to pay dividends. The papal-sanctioned treaty in fact would soon propel them both to international stature as the greatest overseas commercial empires the world had ever seen—this, before any other European nation even had an overseas colony. The two competitor nations might work around the terms of the treaty, might even secretly attempt to violate its vague and ill-defined terms, but Portugal and Spain feared any action that might endanger its validity or force, for while the treaty drove them to loggerheads in Iberia, it united them against the rest of Europe and provided the legal foundation for the unchecked expansion of their overseas empires. Like a modern patent for intellectual property, the treaty was only as strong as its beneficiaries’ ability and willingness to defend it and enforce it.
Before Magellan’s ships left port, while Charles and his closest advisers gloated over their challenge to Manuel’s monopoly on the European spice trade, the two monarchs completed the terms of the diplomatic marriage of Charles’s sister Leonor to Manuel in July 1518. A few days after the wedding Charles instructed the Casa de Contratación to release funds to Magellan for the voyage and to begin preparations in Seville. He also took precautions to safeguard the lives of his new vassals: a rumour was circulating that one of Manuel’s advisers, Bishop Vasconcellos, had urged the brooding Portuguese king to consider the possibility of Magellan’s being assassinated. Alarmed that his scheme could be so easily derailed, Charles ordered Magellan and Faleiro to be protected by bodyguards and inducted them into the Knights of the Order of Santiago while publicly asserting his royal support for them. Now, if Magellan were to suddenly die under mysterious circumstances, it would be viewed as an attack on one of the king’s personal vassals, an act of great treachery.
All this Portuguese interest in thwarting Magellan’s expedition, and Manuel’s diplomatic exhortation to persuade Charles to renounce the mariner, swayed him not one bit; in fact, it confirmed that the plan was sound. Why else would Manuel be so rattled by a handful of ships sailing into unknown waters? Nevertheless, the Treaty of Tordesillas was always at the forefront of Charles’s thoughts. He wrote a letter to Manuel to assuage his fellow monarch and new brother-in-law’s fears. “I have been informed by letters which I have received by persons near you that you entertain some fear that the fleet which we are dispatching to the Indies, under the command of Ferdinand Magellan and Ruy Faleiro, might be prejudicial to what pertains to you in those parts of the Indies,” Charles wrote. “In order that your mind may be freed from anxiety, I thought to write to you to inform you that our wish has always been and is, duly to respect everything concerning the line of demarcation which was settled and agreed upon with the Catholic king and queen my sovereigns and grandparents.” He then made his promise more explicit: “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 belonging to you by the line of demarcation.” But as Portuguese and Spanish scientific advisers had undoubtedly informed their respective kings, there did not yet exist a method of calculating longitude with any accuracy, and as a result determining the location of the line of demarcation on the far side of the world would be impossible. Any ambiguity in this area would work in Spain’s favour, Charles knew: if it could not be proven that the Spice Islands were in the Spanish half of the world, neither could it be disproven.
ON SEPTEMBER 20, 1519, after nearly eighteen months of frustrating delays in outfitting and equipping his small fleet, Magellan gave the order. His aging and battered ships weighed anchor and slid from the mouth of the Guadalquivir River at Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on Spain’s Atlantic south coast, and headed southwest with a fair wind. Five small ships were under his command: the one-hundredton flagship Trinidad, the slightly larger San Antonio, followed in decreasing size by the Concepción, Victoria and Santiago. It had proved difficult to hire mariners for the voyage—this was a frightening and terrifying plunge into a vast expanse of water, and many feared that the ships would founder in unknown seas, that the mariners would starve, wither away from scurvy or die miserably at the hands of cannibals, or suffer any of the other violent and unpleasant deaths possible for sailors voyaging far from home in uncharted waters. In the end, when he set off, Magellan’s ragtag crew included Portuguese, French and Flemish nationals, Moors and black Africans, as well as a few Spanish. The well-known objective was a feat of seafaring that had never been done before, indeed that could never have been conceived before Columbus’s voyages had toppled the Ptolemaic view of the universe. On board Magellan’s ship was a young Venetian aristocrat named Antonio Pigafetta, a traveller who wanted to see “the very great and awful things of the Ocean . . . where furious winds and great storms are always reigning.”
A few days later the fleet put in at the Canary Islands to take on supplies of salt fish, wood, water and fresh produce before the Atlantic crossing. Just as the small fleet was about to clear the port at Tenerife, Magellan’s flagship was overtaken by a swift caravel with disturbing news for the captain: his father-in-law, Diego Barbosa, had penned a hasty note informing him that three of his Spanish captains had plans to kill him. Magellan had other news from Tenerife: the king of Portugal had dispatched two armed fleets to scour the waters for him and to capture his ships. Unperturbed, and calm as usual, Magellan merely altered his course from the usual route to Brazil and instead coasted south along the African coast. He brooded over the warning of his captains’ treachery.
Two weeks later the five little ships battled storms off the coast of Sierra Leone, endured windless calms around the equator and then confronted the first of several attempted mutinies by Magellan’s captains. The ships sailed together within hailing distance of one another, and Magellan requested a protocol for them addressing both each other and him. After enduring several days of insulting addresses, he brought all the captains together for a conference on the Trinidad, suspecting a plot. In his cabin, one of the captains, Juan de Cartagena, began an insulting tirade against Magellan. The indomitable commander reacted quickly, ordering his men to arrest the captain before the others could draw their daggers, and clapped him in irons. The fleet, now out of danger, eventually drifted out of the doldrums and crossed the Atlantic to the coast of Brazil. As the small squadron cruised south, it passed the mouths of enormous rivers and coasted past a land draped with profuse, chaotic and unfamiliar vegetation, heavy with new smells and populated by numerous brightly plumed birds. The coast was dubbed the “land of parrots” by early mariners.
The second mutiny occurred at Rio de Janeiro. The mariners had enjoyed two weeks of carousing ashore with local women and trading for fresh fruit, chicken and water, when one of the other captains released Captain Cartagena from irons and tried to seize theSan Antonio. Again, Magellan quickly suppressed the uprising with loyal men-at-arms. Apart from the brief and ill-conceived mutiny, the time here was a pleasant respite from life at sea. In early January the ships continued south for nearly two weeks and Magellan began searching for the entrance to the strait he was sure lay in the vicinity of the Rio de la Plata. After sailing up the river, however, Magellan knew that it would not lead to a southern sea. Disappointed but still optimistic, he ordered the fleet to continue south in early February, before the southern winter and storms ended the search for many months.
By the end of the southern summer, in late March, the days were becoming shorter and the storms more frequent. Against the bleak, wind-swept beach of the southern coast of Argentina, in a place called Port St. Julian, Magellan ordered his ships readied for the long winter. He didn’t want to sail further into unexplored waters, in unpredictable weather, without the ships being in perfect condition. The port had a narrow entrance, and as a precaution against further mutiny Magellan moored the Trinidad so that it blocked other ships from leaving the sheltered inlet. If a ship decided to flee, the Trinidad would at least have a few good cannon shots at it before it escaped.
For months the men lived a dreary existence, huddled against the wind and cold. They worked on tedious projects such as scouring fouled water casks, repairing damaged timbers and sewing tattered sails. “One day,” recorded the voyage’s chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, “suddenly we saw a naked man of giant stature on the shore of the harbour, dancing, singing and throwing dust on his head. When the giant was in the Captain General’s and our presence, he marvelled greatly, and made signs with one finger raised upward, believing that we had come from the sky. He was so tall that we reached only to his waist, and he was well proportioned.” The man was one of the region’s nomadic followers of the herds of wild guanaco. His feet appeared to be very large, encased in slippers stuffed with grass. Magellan called the people “patagon” (the Spanish word pata means “foot”), and the region became known as Patagonia. Magellan and his crew entertained many of the Patagonians on their ships, and later captured two of them through trickery.
Port St. Julian was also the scene of the greatest mutiny threat yet faced by Magellan. The men were unhappy: Magellan had placed all of them on half rations, and they wanted to return to Spain. They feared starvation and then death on the bleak plains of Patagonia. They muttered that, after a voyage of nearly six months, they had discovered nothing; surely it was better to return while they could. Magellan made a speech praising the men’s fortitude and honour, and promising them that the strait would lead them north again, into regions of warmth and plenty. Although most of the men were placated, several officers continued to grumble and plot.
Two of the captains, including the ever-scheming Cartagena, connived to capture one of the ships, San Antonio, then gathered some supporters and moved on to take control of two others, attacking some crew members and informing them that Magellan was now deposed. But Magellan was, as ever, cool under pressure: he ordered the delinquent captains to surrender. When they refused, he sent one of his officers with six tough men to talk with Captain Luis de Mendoza on board the Victoria. They presented him with a letter demanding that he lay down his arms; when he laughed at them the six bravos leaped upon him and stabbed him in the throat, killing him. With the help of a boatload of armed mariners that Magellan had secretly placed alongside the ship that night, the loyalists re-took command of the ship and manoeuvred it close to the other ships, blocking the entrance.
The men were not as eager for mutiny as the rebellious officers had assumed. While the rebellious Captain Quesada readied the Concepción to make a dash to open sea, a loyal sailor secretly cut the mooring ropes and the ship drifted close to Trinidad, where Magellan unleashed a broadside and ordered his men to fire into the rigging and deck while he was rowed over. He boarded the ship while Quesada vainly exhorted the crew to fight, and demanded that the captain surrender. Seeing that all was lost and that escape would now be impossible—with ships loyal to Magellan blocking the waterway that led out of the bay—Cartagena, the ringleader of the mutiny, surrendered the San Antonio, and Magellan had regained control over all five ships.
The next morning hundreds of mariners gathered on the jagged, grey rocks of the small harbour to witness a grim and frightening spectacle. Magellan had just thwarted his most serious mutiny. In the past he had been lenient to the mutineers, but seeing how that policy had failed he was now determined that it should not happen again. The body of one of the mutinying captains, Mendoza, was unceremoniously brought ashore and laid in front of the sullen crowd. It was then cut into four pieces, and Mendoza’s traitorous actions were proclaimed and denounced. Exercising his official “power of rope and knife,” Magellan ordered at least one of the disloyal captains, Gaspar Quesada, to be brought ashore in manacles, hanged in front of the crowd until dead and then cut into four pieces. The other officers were ordered to do hard labour, chopping wood and hauling water all winter. When the fleet departed in the spring, Cartagena and a priest who were again caught trying to stir up resentment against Magellan faced an even more terrifying fate: they were left behind, marooned on the desolate shore, where they perished from privation. None now doubted Magellan’s inflexible determination or dared challenge his authority to carry out his ambitious—some would say foolhardy—scheme for the remainder of the extraordinary voyage.
In late August, Magellan decided to bring the remaining four ships to a new harbour, further south, where they remained huddled against the frigid Patagonian winds until October 18, when spring began in the southern hemisphere. During a reconnaissance theSantiago was wrecked in a sudden storm, but the crew survived. After the remaining four ships sailed south for about another one hundred miles they entered a broad inlet leading west. It was a prophetic day on November 1, 1521, when the two lead ships returned to the flagship to announce their discovery of a deep inlet that had no fresh water: they had found the long-sought strait. Estrecho de Todos los Santos (All Saints Channel) was a treacherous labyrinth between two and twenty miles wide, prone to erratic tides and gusting and unpredictable winds. The serpentine channel winds through brooding mists and snow-covered mountains for 375 miles. It is studded with islands and jagged coasts containing numerous false channels. Great glaciers flow into the sea, and in spring, the tundra-like grass is dotted with wildflowers.
Magellan named the land through which the channel passed Tierra del Fuego, the land of fire, because of the sparkle of the distant campfires of the native peoples far to the south. Samuel Eliot Morison, who made a voyage through the now-deserted strait in the 1970s, observed the spooky scenery and commented that “even the birds are different—the sinister gray Carnero which picks out the eyes of shipwrecked sailors, the Steamboat Duck whose whirling wings, resembling the churning paddle wheels of early steamers, enable him to pace an eight-knot vessel on the surface.” While scouting the strait, one of Magellan’s ships, the San Antonio, disappeared. They later learned that the pilot, Esteban Gómez, a man who, according to Pigafetta, “hated the Captain General exceedingly,” had overthrown the captain, seized command of the ship and secretly returned to Spain, taking most of the fleet’s provisions. After nearly three weeks of fruitless searching for the lost vessel, Magellan realized what had happened. The three remaining ships pressed on through the strait, passing awe-inspiring promontories that towered above them. Despite their misfortunes, according to Pigafetta, “they thought that there was no better nor beautiful strait in the world than this one.”
Pigafetta then recorded that on “Wednesday, November 28, 1520 we debouched from the Strait, engulfing ourselves in the Pacific Sea.” The men apparently “wept for joy” as they cruised into the calm waters of the world’s largest body of water, not yet knowing that they were still to face their greatest challenge. Only one of the three ships and only a handful of men were destined to return to Europe. The Pacific Ocean was not narrow, as all maps of the time showed; it was vast and tempestuous, and its handful of islands were sparsely placed and concentrated far to the west. Unable to calculate longitude, navigators had no idea of just how wide the Pacific Ocean really was. Balboa had seen its eastern shores in Panama, and Portuguese ships had skirted its western fringe in their exploration of the Moluccas, but what lay between these extremes was a complete mystery. The best estimates of the day predicted the area of the Pacific as a quarter of its true size. Nevertheless, on that spring day in 1520, the conquest of the strait felt like a great accomplishment. Magellan called the ships together in the calm of evening and spoke 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 Pacifico.”
Delaying the inevitable launch westward into the unknown, Magellan ordered the flotilla north, along the coast of today’s Chile, as the temperatures became increasingly warmer. The winds were fair and the ocean was calm, confirming for Magellan that he was right in calling it the Pacific. In early December, the fleet turned northwest and made the fateful decision to head west into the unknown. By now, after months at sea and overwintering in the primitive Port St. Julian, the length of the voyage was beginning to take its toll: Magellan’s ships were in need of repair, their stores of food and other supplies were depleting quickly, and the men were weary and afraid. But Magellan believed it would be only a short journey to the Spiceries.
FOR CENTURIES Polynesian voyagers in their tiny outrigger canoes had explored this vast expanse of water. It was studded with tiny atolls and islands, but that was much farther west, where the concentration of islands was much greater. The part of the Pacific Ocean that Magellan and his ships traversed in December 1520 and January 1521 was a wilderness of water, with only a handful of atolls and small islands—some mere specks of rock—that all but vanished in the uninhabited expanse of the eastern Pacific. Terrifying the men further, in the southern hemisphere the constellations are different, which made calculating latitude difficult. More pressing, as the weeks wore on, was the lack of food stores. However, as the three ships steered north under fair winds the constellations became more familiar, the days became warmer under the lengthening rays of the sun, and the men were able to catch fish.
But an ocean that covers fully one third of the earth’s surface lay before them, and the mariners had no way of knowing that the course Magellan had chosen to head west would avoid nearly all of the few islands they might have encountered. After almost two months of the ships heading steadily west, on January 24 the lookout spied an uninhabited atoll and cried out in relief. For weeks they had subsisted on shortened rations of ship’s biscuit and little else. The other provisions—the cheese, beans and salted meat— had been eaten or gone rotten or been devoured by weevils. “We ate biscuit,” Pigafetta noted, “which was no longer biscuit, but had been reduced to fistfuls of powder swarming with maggots, and when there was no more of that we 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 . . . They softened them in the sea for four or five days, and then they put them in a pot over the fire and ate them and also much sawdust.” By then, even the numerous rats that infested the holds of the ships had been captured and roasted by the starving sailors.
Soon another frightening affliction had spread throughout the crew. Pigafetta noted with horror that “the gums of both the lower and upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so that they could not eat under any circumstances and therefore died.” Dozens lay in the dim, stale air of the lower decks, weak, morose and listless, covered in hideous purple bruises. They moaned in agony, barely able to get up, their hideous visages dominated by black pouches under their unfocused eyes. It was scurvy, the dreaded plague of mariners for centuries. Caused by a lack of vitamin C in the diet, it quickly killed nineteen men throughout the ships and incapacitated dozens of others. The usually taciturn Magellan, driven perhaps by unexpected loyalty to the men who had stayed with him so far, visited the sick each day to comfort those who were dying and to urge others to have faith in their deliverance. Perhaps he anticipated the loss of the entire fleet; the lives of each are dependent upon all, when they are confined together on the same ship, and this knowledge brings on a sense of comradeship and shared fate. Pigafetta noted that Magellan “never complained, never sank into despair.” The men’s suffering was relieved only when they dropped anchor near the atoll and feasted on turtle eggs, roasted sea birds and coconuts.
The three ships continued across the watery expanse until March 4. After ninety-seven days of crossing the Pacific, the lookout again spied land and the ships steered towards the island known now as Guam, north of New Guinea and east of the Philippines. The famished mariners gazed longingly at the coconut groves and emerald hills rising to jagged peaks. In the harbour floated many small dugout fishing boats, which swarmed around Magellan’s flagship as it entered the harbour. Polynesians clambered aboard the ship and rushed about the deck, grabbing any tools and utensils that were not secured. When they went for the longboat that was tethered to the stern, Magellan ordered his men-at-arms to fire their crossbows, without success. Later that night he ordered some men ashore to buy fruit and rice, and to attack the village in order to regain the stolen longboat. Not surprisingly Magellan named Guam and the nearby islands Islas de los Ladrones, the Isles of Thieves.
The next day, Magellan ordered his small fleet to hoist sails and steer southwest on a course to the Philippines and the Spice Islands. By mid-March 1521, they encountered more fishing boats and were able to trade for bananas, coconut, rice and palm wine. The fresh food had by now mostly eased the scurvy-ridden mariners back to health—their open sores healed, their wobbly teeth tightened and their black, spongy gums receded and regained their natural colour. Pigafetta marvelled at the bounty of the region, the plenitude of plants and animals on display for the starved mariners: “Cinnamon, ginger, mirabolans, oranges, lemons, jackfruit, watermelons, cucumbers, gourds, turnips, cabbages, scallions, cows, buffaloes, swine, goats, chickens, geese, deer, elephants, horses, and other things are found there.” The Spiceries, and indeed all of Indonesia, were densely populated by sophisticated and prosperous peoples who were accustomed to dealing with foreign traders, whether they were from India, China or newly arrived from Portugal—the Europeans who had been frequenting the region for six years now.
Although the archipelago was notable not for spices but for pearls and gold jewellery, it was here that Magellan knew he must not be far from his goal of rounding the globe. His Malaysian slave, Enrique, who had been with Magellan since 1511, during his days of sailing with the Portuguese, called out in his native Malay to men on a nearby fishing boat. Enrique was shocked to realize that he had been understood when the men paddled over. It was a moment heavy with the weight of implication: Magellan’s ships had succeeded in crossing to the Spice Islands by sailing west—or nearly succeeded, since the islands lay only a handful of sailing days to the south.
But all was not well. It was here that Magellan was overcome with religious fervour and decided to postpone his final jaunt south to the Moluccas. Instead he allowed his ships to be guided west to the large island of Cebu, where he ordered the construction of an altar on the shore of a sheltered bay and began preaching to the crowds of curious onlookers, urging them to convert to Christianity. “The captain told them,” Pigafetta noted, “they should not become Christians out of fear, nor to please them, but voluntarily.” While Magellan and his chaplain, Father Valderrama, preached to their hosts about the benefits of their religion and urged the islanders to convert, Enrique faithfully interpreted his orations to the crowd. Their combined persuasion was apparently so successful that dozens of the senior chieftains and approximately eight hundred others converted and were baptized. Inspired to overconfidence by this apparent success, Magellan succumbed to the persuasions of Humabon, the rajah of Cebu, to attack his enemy, Datu Lapu-Lapu, on the nearby island of Mactan. Lapu-Lapu had, after all, dismissed Magellan’s religious overtures.
In a brazen and foolhardy operation, in which Magellan abandoned his usual hard-headed common sense and sound judgment, he loaded three ships’ boats with fifty armed volunteers—about one third of his surviving men—and landed on the beach of Mactan on April 27. The men leaped from their boats and into water up to their thighs, and waded ashore to be met by hundreds of ferocious warriors who had been concealed behind barricades and defensive ditches. Magellan was probably counting on his men’s steel armour, powerful crossbows and frightening arquebuses to overawe his opponents. But the battle did not proceed as expected. Faced with the ululating battle cries of the natives and endless volleys of “arrows, bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) [and] pointed stakes hardened with fire, stones and mud,” Pigafetta recounted, “we could scarcely defend ourselves.” Even the small cannons on the ships’ boats that were anchored offshore were useless because they could not be brought close enough to the battle—an oversight that negated the advantage of their superior weaponry.
His band greatly outnumbered, Magellan was shot in the leg with a poisoned arrow and had his helmet knocked off, “but he always stood firm like a good knight.” His men were surrounded and fighting for their lives, several having already fallen, when Magellan was struck in the arm with a spear. He tried to draw his sword, but he could not lift it from its scabbard because of the jagged spear-wound in his arm. “When the natives saw, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large [scimitar] that caused the captain to fall face forward. Immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.” Magellan’s compatriots, seeing their commander stricken, fled to the boats and pushed off into the surf. Magellan’s pride, swollen by his extraordinary maritime exploits and ill-timed proselytizing, had finally led to his death.
It was a devastating blow to the remaining mariners. Although the surviving officers selected Duarte Barbosa to be the new captain general, without Magellan the fleet lacked a clear leader to chart a course of action. When Magellan died, his slave Enrique demanded his freedom, as Magellan had indicated in his will. The officers, however, refused to honour Magellan’s will and demanded that Enrique continue working, threatening him with flogging. Bent on revenge for this betrayal of his master’s wishes, Enrique escaped the ship and rushed to meet Humabon, to whom he lied that the Spaniards planned to secretly attack and kidnap him. Infuriated by this alleged treachery, Humabon planned his own actions to counter the perceived duplicity of the Spanish mariners. He held a sumptuous feast for the officers and then secretly gave the order to have them killed as they gorged themselves.
Barbosa and twenty-six others were slain immediately. Not only was the crew now reduced to a mere 114 of the nearly 250 who had departed Seville, but most of the leaders were slain. Lacking the manpower to sail three ships, they scavenged and burned theConcepción and divided the crew between the Victoria and the Trinidad before departing Cebu, leaving the deaths of their comrades unavenged. Lacking strong leadership, the two ships wandered aimlessly about the islands of the Sulu Sea and the Celebes Sea as far west as Brunei on Borneo. For nearly six months they attacked and plundered local shipping while working their way south and east. They slowly navigated their way towards the Spice Islands with the aid of local pilots they had kidnapped. The two ships arrived at Tidore in the Moluccas after nearly twenty-seven months after departing Spain. There was much celebration as the survivors loaded a cargo of cloves and some other valuable spices such as cinnamon, mace and nutmeg. Greed, however, was to be their downfall.
As the two ships headed west, aware that they were crossing the line of demarcation into the Portuguese half of the world, the Trinidad, worn and in need of repair after the incredible voyage, began to split apart at the seams on account of the spices stuffed into her hold. With the Trinidadunable to sail under such a load, the Victoria decided to leave her behind. The crew of the Trinidad remained in Tidore to carry out repairs on their ship. They planned to cross the Pacific Ocean to return to Spain the way they had come, or to offload the spices in Panama and cart them overland to the Caribbean. After three more months at Tidore, the Trinidad, commanded by Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa and still heavily weighted with a precious cargo of fragrant plant material, headed north and east to the Philippines before launching into the vast Pacific.
Buffeted by storms and contrary winds, the ship struggled to make headway. Her crew eventually aborted the mission and tried to return to Tidore. By the time they reached an outlying island, more than half of them had perished from exposure and scurvy, and they could no longer sail their ship. Meanwhile a Portuguese fleet commanded by Antonio de Brito had been patrolling the Spiceries, searching for Magellan. When de Brito heard of the demoralized Spanish mariners, he dispatched a ship to the island—not to offer aid, but to confiscate their cargo, interrogate them for trespassing in the “Portuguese half ” of the world and, importantly, to commandeer the ships’ log books and marine charts. The Portuguese captain ordered the Trinidad destroyed and her crew to be incarcerated on shore. Most of them succumbed to disease, and only a handful ever made it back to Spain.
Meanwhile the Victoria, now captained by Juan Sebastián de Elcano, one of the men Magellan had pardoned for his role in the mutiny at Port St. Julian, prepared to head home alone through the Indian Ocean. In the papal division of the world, this territory belonged unequivocally to Portugal. By employing a local pilot, Elcano successfully steered the Victoria, with a crew of sixty, including thirteen recently hired Indonesians, southeast through a maze of Indonesian islands in the early months of 1522. Elcano decided to sail directly across the Indian Ocean in order avoid encountering any Portuguese vessels. Unfortunately the food the crew had purchased in Timor was insufficiently salted, and the barrels of meat and fish had become putrid and inedible. Once again starvation and scurvy ravaged the crew.
They did not reach the coast of southern Africa until May 8, after many weeks battling headwinds and storms. Unable to locate any people from whom to purchase food, the starving mariners struggled around the cape and “sailed north for two months continually without taking on any refreshment.” They passed the equator in early June, a miserable, ragged band of dying men. Every few days, more bodies were pitched overboard into the sea. By the time they reached the Cape Verde Islands, twenty-five of the crew had perished. As if this weren’t sufficient grief, the Portuguese authorities captured another thirteen sailors when they went ashore and imprisoned them for being beyond the line of demarcation. The remaining sailors aboard the Victoria, seeing their fellows captured, weighed anchor as fast as they could and hastily sailed north. By the time they reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 6, 1522, only eighteen men, “the majority of them sick,” remained alive to tell their tale of a voyage lasting three years and one month.
Summing up the voyage, Pigafetta wrote, with perfect simplicity, that “from the time we left that bay until the present day, we had sailed 14,460 leagues, and furthermore had completed the circumnavigation of the world from east to west.” The men, weeping with relief, “all went in shirts and barefoot, each holding a candle, to visit the shrine of Santa Maria de la Victoria, and that of Santa Maria de Antigua.” When the accounting was complete, it was determined that, miraculously, the single ships’ hold filled with cloves was enough to defray the costs of the entire five-ship voyage and still turn a profit, despite the loss of three ships, the incredible duration of the voyage and the ragged condition of the Victoria.
Most important, however, was the voyage’s impact on European, particularly Iberian, psychology and the conceptualization of world geography. Now Europeans knew from practical experience the world’s true dimensions—that the earth was much larger than had been supposed, and that it was possible to sail completely around the world. Perhaps, with better planning or a refinement of the route, it could be accomplished more safely and predictably. Magellan’s voyage proved beyond a doubt that the Americas were continents surrounded by water, and shattered forever the Ptolemaic world view. This feat, and the detailed records of how it was accomplished and how it could be accomplished again, enabled a profoundly different conceptualization of the globe and all its possibilities for conquest and commerce. Magellan and his crew had laid the intellectual foundation for a new world view that would require a full generation before it was adopted by any other nation or people.
Unfortunately, Charles I, now not only the king of Spain but also the new emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, was not generous in his rewards to the survivors of the incredible voyage. Most of the sailors never collected their back salary, let alone their promised pensions. Even Magellan, whose vision, iron determination and leadership had pushed the expedition through the most unknown and mysterious portion of the world, did not fare well. Not only did he die far from home, but his wife and children died while he was at sea, and his heirs were unable to claim his salary or any other benefits for his service from the Spanish government. Far from being celebrated as a hero, Magellan was viewed in Portugal as a traitor, and in Spain he was denigrated by the mutinous traitors who had abandoned the expedition and sailed home before even navigating the Strait of Magellan.
His expedition did, however, expose some harsh realities. As the testimony of the survivors confirmed, Magellan’s voyage had been so difficult and dangerous that the route was of little immediate practical value. Even Pigafetta was skeptical that the voyage could be duplicated: “In truth,” he wrote, “I believe no such voyage will ever be repeated again.” Nevertheless, many adventurers were eager to make the attempt—such was the potential for profit— and King Charles I, despite his ill-treatment of the survivors and Magellan’s heirs, was interested in sending out more ships.
But the question of the sovereignty of the Moluccas had not been decided. King Manuel I had died of the plague in 1521, to be succeeded by his son João III. The new, nineteen-year-old Portuguese king declared that the spices brought back by the Victoriabelonged to him, and that he wanted the surviving mariners punished for crossing the line of demarcation—he claimed that they had been trespassing in defiance of the papal decrees.
Clearly the two quarrelling monarchs needed to negotiate. Charles I agreed not to send more Spanish ships through the Strait of Magellan until after they had discussed the situation at a meeting planned for the spring of 1524. Here, the arcane, technical and infuriating complexities of their legal arguments would be hashed out by a delegation of maritime luminaries and cosmological and legal experts. Where in the world did the Moluccas lie? And who owned the monopoly rights to the richest trade route ever discovered?