A World Lit Only by Fire | Chapter 13 of 16

Author: William Manchester | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 10885 Views | Add a Review

Please hit next button if you encounter an empty page



IN THE TEEMING Spanish seaport of Sanlúcar de Barrameda it is Monday, September 19, 1519.

Capitán-General Ferdinand Magellan, newly created a Knight Commander of the Order of Santiago, is supervising the final victualing of the five little vessels he means to lead around the globe: San Antonio, Trinidad, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago. Here and in Seville, whence they sailed down the river Guadalquivir, Andalusians refer to them as el flota, or el escuadra: the fleet. However, their commander is a military man; to him they are an armada—officially, the Armada de Molucca. They are a battered, shabby lot, far less imposing than the flota Christopher Columbus led from this port twenty-one years ago, leaving Spain for his third crossing of the Atlantic.

Nevertheless the capitán-general’s armada is more seaworthy than it appears—he has seen to that. Now approaching his forties, the man who will become the greatest of the sixteenth-century explorers is a precise, even fastidious mariner. Every plank and rope has been personally tested by him; he has directed the replacement of all rotten timbers and overseen the installation of new shrouds and new sails of strong new linen, each stamped with the cross of St. James, patron saint of Spain. Each of the five requires a lot of looking after. The small ships—San Antonio, the largest, displaces only 120 tons—are actually naos, three-masted, square-rigged hybrid merchantmen derivative of fourteenth-century cogs and Arabian dhows. Unless carefully attended, all are potential shipwrecks. Therefore they have been repeatedly scoured and caulked from stem to stern. Now their grizzled commander is patiently checking the stores for a two-year expedition—never dreaming that the great voyage will take three years, and that he will not survive it.

Physically Magellan is unimpressive. He was born to one of the lower orders of Portuguese nobility, but his physique is that of a peasant—short, swart, with a low center of gravity. His skin is leathery, his black beard bushy, and his eyes large, sad, and brooding. Long ago his nose was broken in some forgotten brawl. He bears scars of battle and walks with a pronounced limp, the souvenir of a lance wound in Morocco. He had acted recklessly then (and will again, in the last hours of his life), but he is rarely impulsive. On the contrary; his reserve approaches the stoical. He is a man who lives within, saving the best of himself for himself, enjoying solitude. As a commander he can be ruthless—“tough, tough, tough,” in the words of a fellow captain. Subordinate officers dislike this dureza, though they concede his supreme competence and the quickness with which he rewards those who perform well—rare traits among commanders of the time. Because of this, he is popular among his crews.

Proud of his lineage, meticulous, fiercely ambitious, stubborn, driven, secretive, and iron-willed, the capitán-general, or admiral, is possessed by an inner vision which he shares with no one. There is a hidden side to this seasoned skipper which would astonish his men. He is imaginative, a dreamer; in a time of blackguards and brutes he believes in heroism. Romance of that stripe is unfashionable in the sixteenth century, though it is not altogether dead. Young Magellan certainly knew of El Cid, the eleventh-century hero Don Rodrigo, whose story was told in many medieval ballads, and he may have been captivated by tales of King Arthur. Even if he had missed versions of Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, he would have been aware of Camelot; the myths of medieval chivalry had persisted for centuries, passed along from generation to generation. Arthur himself was a genuine, if shadowy historical figure, a mighty English Dux Bellorum who won twelve terrible battles against Saxon invaders from Germany and was slain at Camlann in A.D. 539. Less real, but enchanting to children like the youthful Magellan, was the paladin Lancelot du Lac, introduced in 1170 by the French poet-troubadour Chrétien de Troyes. De Troyes was also celebrated for his Perceval, ou Le Conte du Graal, the first known version of the Holy Grail legend, which was retold in 1203 by the German poet Wolfram von Eschenbach as the story of Parzival. Both De Troyes and Von Eschenbach were translated into other European languages, including Portuguese. And there were others. At his death in 1210 Gottfried von Strassburg left his epic Tristan und Isolde. In 1225 France’s Guillaume de Lorris wrote the first part of the allegorical metrical romance Roman de la Rose, distantly based on Ovid’s Ars Amatoria. Chaucer translated it in the next century. And in 1370 or there-abouts Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, a poetic parable of Arthur’s elegant nephew, appeared in England.

Magellan, a man of boundless curiosity, has found reality equally enthralling, devouring the works of Giovanni da Pian del Carpini, who in 1245 had traveled east to Karakorum in central Asia, and Marco Polo’s account of his adventures in the Orient,


Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480–1521)

dictated to a fellow prisoner in 1296. More important, the commander of the five little ships has been inspired by the feats of Columbus and the discoverers since. Other Europeans have dreamed of following their lead. What sets Magellan apart is his unswerving determination to match them and thus become a hero himself. Erasmus and his colleagues are admirable, but they are writers and talkers; Magellan believes that deeds are supreme. He would agree with George Meredith—“It is a terrific decree in life that they must act who would prevail”—and in his struggle for dominance his most valuable possession will be his extraordinary will. He can endure disappointment and frustration, but can never accept defeat. He simply does not know how.

Yet thus far his career has been one of unfulfilled promise. Although he craves recognition, his very directness—his complete lack of guile, or even tact—has repeatedly cost him the support of those in a position to honor him. In Lisbon, for example, he disdained the silken subtleties at the royal court, and, as a result, encountered disaster. To the urbane courtiers surrounding the fatuous king, he seemed an awkward boor. Having suffered from a false accusation of larceny, and having then cleared his name, he sought an audience with Dom Manuel I, the Portuguese sovereign. He wanted royal support for his great voyage. Both Portugal and Spain coveted the Spice Islands; Magellan urged the king to help him stake Portugal’s claim there. But he had handled the interview badly. Manuel, a fop, expected his subjects to fawn over him. Ignoring court protocol, Magellan went straight to the point. His sovereign responded by dismissing him in the rudest possible manner, turning his royal back while the courtiers tittered. His Majesty had even told the supplicant that the Portuguese crown had no further need for his services —that he could take his proposal elsewhere. Magellan, single-mindedly pursuing his vision, then put himself at the disposal of Spain’s eighteen-year-old King Carlos I, soon to become Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. On March 22, 1518, acting in his own name and that of his insane mother Johanna, Carlos signed a formal Yo el Rey agreement, or capitulación, underwriting the capitán-general’s voyage and appointing him governor-to-be of all new lands to be discovered by the expedition.

Now Magellan moves from vessel to vessel, counting first the stores needed to feed the 265 members of his crews—quantities of rice, beans, flour, garlic, onions, raisins, pipes and butts of wine (nearly 700 of them), anchovies (200 barrels), honey (5,402 pounds), and pickled pork (nearly three tons); then the thousands of nets, harpoons, and fishhooks which will be needed to supplement diets; next, astrolabes, hourglasses, and compasses for navigation; iron and stone shot for his cannon, and thousands of lances, spikes, shields, helmets, and breastplates, should they land on hostile shores, as is likely; forty loads of lumber, pitch, tar, beeswax, and oakum, hawsers, and anchors are insurance against shipwrecks; mirrors, bells, scissors, bracelets, gaily colored kerchiefs, and brightly tinted glassware are intended to befriend natives in the East. … The inventory goes on and on. It seems endless, but the admiral’s interest never flags.


IN ROME MICHELANGELO, having completed Moses and the Sistine Chapel, is dedicating a sonnet to his lifelong idol, Dante. The paint is still drying on Sebastiano del Piombo’s Christopher Columbus. Titian has just finished The Assumption, Raphael a portrait of Leo X with his sacred College of Cardinals, and Dürer a miniature of Jakob Fugger, the German merchant prince, intimate of popes and sovereigns. Earth is fresh on the graves of Leonardo da Vinci, dead at sixty-seven in a French castle near Amboise; the emperor Maximilian I, who died in his sixtieth year at Wiener Neustadt; Johann Tetzel, the indulgence hawker, gone at fifty-four in Leipzig; and the once lovely Lucrezia Borgia, who succumbed in northern Italy at the age of thirty-nine. Lucrezia’s last years were devoted to piety and the education of her son Giovanni, whose father, Pope Alexander VI, was also his grandfather.

Jakob Fugger is not dead, but he is approaching the end, making more money every day. His colossal fortune is estimated at 2,032,652 guilders. In England Lord Chancellor Wolsey has just moved into Hampton Court palace. Among the works now popular with literate Europeans are More’s Utopia, Alexander Barclay’s The Shyp of Folys of the Worlde, and Machiavelli’s Il principe. Erasmus is enjoying his third popular success, Colloquia familiaria. Inspired by his renown, satire and morality plays are fashionable in the theater. Among the stage triumphs are Peter Dorland van Diest’s Everyman, John Skelton’s Magnificence, and Gil Vicente’s Auto da Glória.

Among the least-read works of the time are Copernicus’s Little Commentary and the Borgia pope’s bulls apportioning the New World between Spain and Portugal. Spain and France are arming heavily, preparing for a new war over Italian spoils. All crowned heads are ignoring the growing signs of a far greater conflict, the religious revolution, although nearly two years have passed since Luther posted his theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. Now he is drafting An den christlichen Adel deutscher Nation, calling on the German nobility to rise against Rome.


HOW MUCH Magellan is aware of all this is unknown. Probably very little. He has never been much interested in public affairs, and even if he were, following them closely would be impossible for him. For example, he will be at sea, beyond anyone’s reach, when Luther takes his stand at Worms. Thus he will die ignorant of Christendom’s coming schism, a tragedy for devout Catholics like him; he would have readily sacrificed his life defending the Church. Most of the rest of the contemporaneous tumult in Europe would seem irrelevant to him, although he would be wrong. All these events form a mosaic, and his expedition will become part of it. History is not a random sequence of unrelated events. Everything affects, and is affected by, everything else. This is never clear in the present. Only time can sort out events. It is then, in perspective, that patterns emerge.

The patterns of Magellan’s age are now clear. Its clarifying event was the shattering of the medieval world—medium aevum, as Renaissance humanists called it. That historic collapse was the legacy of countless events and influences, which combined to create the greatest European upheaval since the barbarians’ conquest of Rome. The religious revolution—which destroyed the Renaissance—was merely the most conspicuous thread in a very long rope. Others were the fall of Constantinople to Muhammad II in 1453, the humanists’ discovery of wisdom in the values of classical civilization, thereby dooming Scholasticism, a medieval attempt to fuse pagan learning and Christianity. As the Church relinquished its monopoly of education, renascent Europe became aware of a widening, unbridgeable gulf between reason and faith. The masses remained pious; the learned found serenity in rational thought.

Meantime the growth of commerce, particularly the prosperity of England and Germany, expanded the middle and merchant classes. These, growing in power and influence, became exasperated with the arrogant prelates even as the supernational authority of Roman pontiffs was being challenged by rising nation-states and strengthened monarchies. Secularism spread, fueled by the invention of printing, the growth of literacy, and the wider knowledge of the Scriptures in vernacular versions. All these forces raised doubts, discredited custom, bred skepticism, loosened standards, undermined the comfort and support of tradition, and, as Christendom decayed as a distinctive civilization, led to the emergence of modern Europe.

All this meant change, and was therefore resented by the medieval mind. It is perhaps significant that the science which showed the least progress in these years was geology. Because of its divine authorship, the biblical account of creation was above criticism. “If a wrong opinion should obtain regarding the creation as described in Genesis,” declared Pietro Martire Vermigli, the Italian reformer, “all the promises of Christ fall into nothing, and all the life of our religion would be lost.”

The menace of Copernicus was even greater. The Scriptures assumed that everything had been created for the use of man. If the earth were shrunken to a mere speck in the universe, mankind would also be diminished. Heaven was lost when “up” and “down” lost all meaning—when each became the other every twenty-four hours. “No attack on Christianity is more dangerous,” Jerome Wolf wrote Tycho Brahe in 1575, “than the infinite size and depth of the universe.”

Finally, the exploration of lands beyond Europe—of which Magellan’s voyage was to be the culmination—opened the entire world, thus introducing the modern age. The discoveries also undermined pontifical dogma on the character of the globe, introducing yet another threat to papal prestige. One of Rome’s oldest arguments was that the Church’s teachings must be true because everyone believed in the divinity of Christ. That had been plausible in the Middle Ages, but now, as reports poured in from navigators, travelers, conquistadores, and even missionaries, Europeans realized that other religions flourished in newly discovered lands, and those who worshiped alien gods there appeared to be none the worse for it.


DURING THE DARK AGES literal interpretation of the Bible had led the Church to endorse the absurd geographical dicta of Topographia Christiana, a treatise by the sixth-century monk Cosmas. Cosmas, who had traveled to India and should have known better, held that the world was a flat, rectangular plane, surmounted by the sky, above which was heaven. Jerusalem was at the center of the rectangle, and nearby lay the Garden of Eden, irrigated by the four Rivers of Paradise. The sun, much smaller than the earth, revolved around a conical mountain to the north. The monk’s arguments were fragile, and not everyone accepted them—the Venerable Bede, among others, insisted that earth was round—but Cosmas scorned them. Rome, agreeing with him, rejected their protests as an affront to common sense.

This patristic dismissal of so elementary a fact was a sign of how deep the wisdom of the ancient world had been buried. More than three hundred years before the birth of Christ, Aristotle had determined that the planet must be a sphere; after an eclipse he had pointed out that only an orb could throw a circular shadow on the moon. The existence of India and Spain was known in Athens. However, few other geographical or scientific facts were available to Aristotle, and this led him into error. Holding that land was heavier than water, and that the masses of each must balance, he had inferred that the distance between the Iberian Peninsula and the Indian subcontinent could not be great, and that, consequently, there was no land between them — that is, no North or South America. Therein lay the origin of Columbus’s error, which others would challenge and which Magellan, ultimately, would discredit.

Aristotle’s spherical theory of the globe had been the cornerstone of classical geography. The Greeks arbitrarily divided the planet into five zones, two of them polar, too cold to be inhabitable; two others temperate; and one an equatorial region. Albertus Magnus and Roger Bacon, their medieval successors, later concluded that the equator, because of its great heat, must be incapable of sustaining life. Their conviction that man could not survive in the tropics, widely accepted, persisted until the fifteenth century.

With the exceptions of Pliny, Macrobius, and Agrippa, whose contributions were slight, the Romans added nothing to geographical knowledge. However, in Alexandria, on the outskirts of the empire, a school of Egyptian astronomers led by Ptolemy and Hipparchus flourished four centuries after Aristotle. Their calculation of the earth’s circumference (twenty-five thousand geographical miles) was surprisingly accurate. They also partitioned the globe into 360 degrees, lined its surface with parallels of latitude and meridians of longitude, and, with their invention of the astrolabe, which measured latitude by “shooting the sun,” provided an instrument which was to be used by mariners, including Magellan, until the Elizabethan Age.

But the Alexandrians, like the Greeks, erred. They concluded that the earth was both immovable and the center of the universe. Furthermore, Ptolemy’s Geógraphiké hyphégésis (Guide to Geography), which greatly influenced medieval geographers, inferred that Asia extended much farther east than it actually does. Here again, those who were misled included Columbus, whose belief that Asia could be reached by sailing westward was thereby strengthened. Any doubts in his mind were resolved by Imago mundi, a comprehensive world geography by Pierre d’Ailly, a fourteenth-century cardinal and master of the College of Navarre. D’Ailly took the Aristotelian view that Europeans could reach India by sailing westward. Imago mundi became Columbus’s favorite bedside book. His copy, with heavy marginal scribblings, is preserved in Seville’s Biblioteca Colombina.

During the long medieval night, Hellenic and Egyptian learning was preserved by Muslim scholars in the Middle East, where it was discovered by early Renaissance humanists. After poring over it, Pope Pius II, Cardinal Borgia’s early critic, wrote his influential Historia rerum ubique gestarum. Though largely a rehash of Ptolemy, Pius’s Historia was by no means uncritical; earlier works notwithstanding, he reached the startling conclusion that Africa could be circumnavigated. His premise that an equator existed, even though it was invisible, went unchallenged; by then the spherical shape of the planet, and the Greek partition of it into climatic zones, was accepted except by those who insisted upon literal interpretation of the Scriptures.


THAT IS, it was accepted by scholars. Average people still assumed that the earth was flat, and their knowledge of the world beyond the horizon was largely derived from mythical lore. The sources of these fables were protean. Some could be traced to Homer. Others derived from romantic yarns told by wanderers; or the legends of Alexander the Great and Saint Thomas the Apostle; or the imaginative figments of Ctesias, a Greek who lived in the Persian court four centuries before Christ; or the Roman concoctions of Pliny and Gaius Julius Solinus; or in the extraordinarily popular fourteenth-century hoax Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight. Written in the Anglo-French of the time, the Travels is purportedly a collection of true narratives, retold by Mandeville. Actually all are fictive, but the narratives are so persuasive that “Sir John Mandeville” (or, in some versions, “Johan Maundville, chevaler”) was often believed where the Marco Polo genuine article was not.

Most medieval myths were set in Asia, which fascinated men then. Until the Tatar Peace of the mid-thirteenth century, no European had traveled east of Baghdad. The crusades and pilgrimages had provided some grasp of Palestine and Syria, but the Orient —“Cathay”—was considered magical, fantastic, and endowed with incredible wealth. Paradise was thought to be there somewhere, and it says much for medieval knowledge of the mysterious East that long after the first reports of Genghis Khan’s terrible campaigns reached the Continent in 1221, he was believed to be a great Christian monarch who was devoting his life to the conversion of infidels.

Thus credulous men swallowed whole the stories of the giants Gog and Magog, of a jungle race with long teeth and hairy bodies, of griffins, of storks who fought with pygmies, of people who created their own shade by lying down and blotting out the sun with an enormous single foot, of men with dogs’ heads who barked and snarled, and of the opulent patria of Ophir, in whose storehouse lay King Solomon’s jewels and gold. Ophir was only one of many fabulous lands which existed only in fantasy. Others were the lost continent of Atlantis, a legend dating back to Plato; El Dorado; Rio Doro, the River of Gold; the Empire of Monomotapa; the Island of the Seven Cities of Cibola, said to have been discovered in the Atlantic by seven bishops, fugitives from Moorish Spain; and St. Brendan’s Isle, based on the implausible tale of Saint Brendan, who was said to have found an enchanted land in the waters northwest of Ireland. In Magellan’s time many of these places could be found in atlases. Portugal’s Prince Henry the Navigator encountered a sea captain who said he had landed on the Island of the Seven Cities. As late as 1755 St. Brendan’s Isle was believed to be situated five degrees west of the Canary Islands, and Brazil Rock, also imaginative, was not stricken from Britain’s admiralty charts until 1873.

These were typical of the phantoms which confused and misled explorers sailing into unknown waters. Given the state of maps then, it is hardly surprising that so many ships failed to return; the wonder is that any of them found anything. Africa was shown as adjacent to India. The Indian Ocean and the Red Sea were small bodies of water. Egypt was placed in Asia; so was Ethiopia. Navigators poring over charts found such bewildering legends as “India Ethiope” and “India Egyptii,” and the fourteenth-century Catalan Atlas, which may be seen today in Paris’s Bibliothèque Nationale, is a farrago of distortions and inventions, including islands of griffins, the realm of Gog and Magog, a land of pygmies placed between India and China, an island called “Iana” where Malaya should be, and another island, “Trapabona,” where there is nothing but open sea.


ALTHOUGH the rest of Europe was unaware of them, a few adventurous souls living on the western and northern edges of the continent had been venturing into the unknown since the Dark Ages. Beginning in the sixth century, Irishmen had first visited, and then settled, the Orkney, Shetland, and Faeroe islands. Undoubtedly the Irish reached farther than that, for Vikings occupying Iceland in the ninth century found them already there. Then the Norsemen took over. After a thousand-mile voyage through some of the most dangerous seas in the world, Norway’s Erik the Red landed on Greenland at the end of the tenth century. Circa A.D. 1000, Erik’s son Leif reached North America. These feats were a prelude to the expansion of Europe, but they cannot be regarded as the first stages of that expansion. Ireland itself was virtually undiscovered, and to people south of Scandinavia the Vikings were pagan plunderers, almost as remote as Orientals and certainly not part of the civilized world. Moreover, Norse and Celtic medieval discoveries were never followed up. Since they were scarcely known outside the ranks of the explorers, they had no impact on the rest of the continent.

The Middle East was another matter. While the vast majority of Europeans knew almost nothing of the real Asia, some of them had been toiling busily on its fringes for three centuries. They were traders, which is significant; profit, not curiosity, was to be the prime motive behind the age of exploration. Because they were Genoese, Venetian, and, to a lesser degree, Pisan, and because they were highly successful, these merchants became major stokers of Italy’s prosperity. Their subsequent decline —after audacious Spaniards and Portuguese had discovered new ways to reach the Orient—dealt a mortal blow to that boom. The slump that followed was as responsible for the end of the Italian Renaissance as the religious rebellion against Rome.

Beginning with the crusades—from A.D. 1100 to nearly 1300—Oriental goods had reached the West through three main arteries. One was overland, on caravan roads across northern China and central Asia to the shores of the Black Sea. The other two reached the Middle East via the Indian Ocean. Cargoes were either sailed around the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula, past Yemen, up the Red Sea, and from there by land to Alexandria and Gaza; or—this way was favored by dealers in the highly profitable spice trade—up the Persian Gulf and thence by caravan to the Levantine coast. The entrepreneurs who awaited them at the end of each route transshipped the goods to Italy, southern France, and the Iberian Peninsula. There wagons took over, hauling the payloads to northern Europe.

Competition between the Italians for this lucrative traffic was fierce. Even if only one out of five dhows survived a three-year voyage, the trader owning the fleet was enriched; a sack of pepper, cinnamon, ginger, or nutmeg was worth more than a seaman’s life, and a shipment from Araby would include fragrant ambergris, musk, attar of roses, silks, damasks, gold, Indian diamonds, Ceylonese pearls, and, very likely, hallucinogenic opiates. Shrewd merchants greased palms at every stage of a journey. In Middle Eastern wars they chose sides, knowing they would be rewarded by the winners. The Venetians were granted trading privileges during the fifty-seven-year Latin occupation of Constantinople, but they lost these after 1261, when the city fell to Greek troops led by Michael Palaeologus—henceforth the Byzantine emperor Michael VIII. Enterprising Genoese then replaced the Venetians by strengthening their ties with the Palaeologi. Using Constantinople as a base, they penetrated northern Persia, the Crimea, and distant reaches of the Black and Caspian seas; so ingenious were they, and so vigorous, that their central Asian contacts survived the breakup of the Mongol Empire. In Africa they sailed up the Nile as far as Dongola, in the Sudan; thrusting out from Tunis, they explored the Sahara and the Niger basin. Meantime the Venetians had established a monopoly in the Egyptian trade. Their cargoes came from South Asia—from the Moluccas, Malaya, and India’s Malabar Coast. Then, in the fifteenth century, such Venetians as Niccolò de’ Conti and John Cabot (he was born Giovanni Caboto) began penetrating the Orient directly from the west.

Yet even then the Atlantic beckoned. The traditional arteries of trade were cumbersome. Indian spices had to pass through at least twelve hands before they reached the consumer. The farther merchants were from the Middle Eastern scene, the greater their handicap. Spain and Portugal were particularly ill situated, but the Italians also suffered. Men groped toward a more direct route. In 1291 Genoese vessels had become the first to sail through the Straits of Gibraltar, bypassing Iberian ports and proceeding through the English Channel to Dutch anchorages. If the Portuguese and Spaniards were to harvest profits from seaborne commerce, they would have to find a new route to Asia. It was a challenge, and not for the fainthearted. In the same year that Gibraltar lost its virginity, two Genoese brothers, Ugolino and Guido Vivaldo, vowed to reach India by finding and doubling Africa’s southern tip. Bravely sailing out through the straits, they headed south—and were never heard from again. Another century would pass before the riddle of the Cape of Good Hope was solved, and by then Italy would have lost the baton of leadership.


AT THIS POINT in the history of exploration an eminent fourteenth-century Englishman appears in an unexpected role. He is Geoffrey Chaucer (1342–1400). Like most writers in all ages, Chaucer remained solvent by finding other employment from time to time. In 1368 he became an esquire of the royal household; later he was appointed clerk of the King’s Works. One of his royal admirers was Philippa, daughter of John of Gaunt and granddaughter of King Edward III. Chaucer’s avocation was the study of navigation. He modestly described himself as an “unlearned compiler of the labors of old astrologiens,” and in fact much of his Treatise on the Astrolabe was adapted from a Latin translation of the Composito et operato astrolabii of Messahala, an eighth-century Arabian astronomer. Nevertheless Chaucer was an enthusiast, and his enthusiasm was infectious. Young Philippa caught it. She became intrigued by his lessons in navigation. Later, as queen of Portugal, she taught them to one of her sons, Henry, who, sharing her enthusiasm, grew up to act upon it. He is remembered in history as Prince Henry the Navigator (1394–1460). Although the prince himself did little navigating, he sponsored voyages of discovery, encouraged seaborne commerce, developed the sailing vessel known as the Portuguese caravel, and designed a grand strategy to outflank Islamic power by establishing contact, first with Africa south of the Sahara, and then with the Orient. Islam survived his challenge, but in the process seamen inspired by Henry established the Portuguese overseas empire, which subsequently became the most extensive in the world, dominating European trade with India and the East Indies for 150 years.

In retrospect, their accomplishments seem almost miraculous, for despite the efforts of men like Chaucer and Prince Henry, navigation remained a highly inexact science. The prince is said to have improved the instruments used by navigators. One can only wonder what they were like before him. To be sure, latitude could be measured with any one of several versions of the astrolabe, chiefly the English cross-staff, a forestaff, or, in Magellan’s case, a calibrated backstaff. All, like their Egyptian forerunner, were primitive quadrants that measured the angle between the sun and the horizon. First-rate astronomers could also make an educated guess at longitude—if they were on land. But there was no way a man at sea could determine the longitude of his ship. To do that, he needed to read the position of the stars, which required knowledge of the precise time —an impossibility, since accurate clocks, with balance wheels and hairsprings, would not be invented until the middle of the next century. Of course, every captain had a compass, and all could compute dead reckoning. None, however, knew the difference between magnetic north and true north, or realized that dead reckoning suffered from disastrous errors arising from the drift of the water.

In the days of al-Idrisi, the twelfth-century geographer, Arabs had taught Sicilians how to sail boats, and Sicilians had passed the knowledge along to the Genoese, who had taught the Spaniards and Portuguese. But although the shores washed by the Mediterranean had been mapped, few captains had ventured beyond it. Even where coastlines could be found on charts, water depths were rarely shown. This massive lack of information, together with the abundance of misinformation, put a premium on the experience of seamen who, venturing into unknown waters, hoped to make it home.

Pilots on exploratory voyages carefully documented the progress of each expedition. When the leaders’ hopes were justified —when they reached strange lands and returned—these records, or rutters, became invaluable. Each was a detailed, step-by-step chronicle of the journey out and the journey back. Specific information included tides, reefs, channels, magnetic compass bearings between ports and headlands, the strength and direction of winds, the number of days a master kept his vessel on each tack, when he heeled it over for repairs, where he found fresh water, soundings measured in fathoms and speed in knots, measured by comparing the time required for a sandglass to empty with the progress of knots which were tied, at intervals, on a rope attached to a small log that was thrown overboard and paid out. Everything went in, everything—even the changing color of the sea—which might conceivably be useful to another pilot trying to reach the same destination.

Rutters were copied by hand and translated under supervision, but those opening new trade routes never reached the hands of printers. They were too precious. Some were sold. Others were declared to be state secrets; divulging their contents was punishable by death, for a rival captain with a rutter in his cabin could exploit another’s dearly bought knowledge. Once a way had been found, dangers were minimal, but the perils of the original explorers can scarcely be exaggerated.

It is a remarkable fact that virtually all of them came from one corner of Europe. Portugal and Spain had contributed little to Western civilization before then. In the five centuries since then they have produced several brilliant artists; apart from that, their achievements have been less than awesome. But this, incontestably, was Iberia’s hour. Within thirty years —a single generation—a few hundred small ships weighing anchor in Lisbon, Palos, and Sanlúcar discovered more of the world than had all mankind in all the millennia since the beginning of time.


THE FIRST probing voyages were cautious, even hesitant, and in perspective their accomplishments seem slight. In 1460, when Prince Henry died, Portuguese mariners had made only six unimpressive discoveries: three small archipelagoes off their own coast —the Azores, Madeiras, and Canaries—and, in northern Africa, Cape Verde’s fertile promontory, the Senegal River, and the port of Ceuta. The prince had been in his grave eleven years when João de Santarém became the first European to cross the equator and return unscathed. Another eleven years passed before Diogo Cão found the mouth of the Congo River. Finally, in 1486, a half-century after the prince’s first expedition, Bartolomeu Dias made a major discovery. Struggling through a mighty storm, he rounded the southern tip of Africa. He was anxious to sail on, convinced that India lay ahead, but his exhausted men forced him to return home. There King John II, after congratulating him, named the tip the Cape of Good Hope. To Dias’s dismay, however, his countrymen were indifferent to the implications of his rutter—an all-water route to India, outflanking the Middle Eastern merchants dealing in spices, perfumes, silks, drugs, gold, and gems.

Six years later the initiative passed to Spain, whose Castilian adventurers, having completed their conquest of the Moors’ last stronghold, were ready for new challenges. Because Arab traders had passed along fragments of Asian geography, Europeans had a general idea of the continent’s chief coastal features: India, China, Japan, the East Indies. Paolo Toscanelli, a Florentine scholar, had concluded that the Orient lay only 3,000 nautical miles west of Lisbon. Toscanelli strengthened the confidence of Genoa’s Christopher Columbus. Columbus had raised 500,000 maravedis for an expedition. He won over Louis de Santangel, Spain’s royal treasurer, and Santangel persuaded the crown to invest another 1 million maravedis—roughly $14,000—in a Columbian attempt to reach the East by crossing the Atlantic.

Off the Genoese seaman went, navigating by dead reckoning and, legend has it, crying to his men, “Adelante! Adelante!” (“Forward! Forward!”). Returning early in 1493, he electrified Christendom by reporting complete success. In Barcelona Isabella and Ferdinand held a grand reception for him. Honoring him with the titles Viceroy of the Indies and Admiral of the Ocean Sea (Almirante del Mar Océano), they told him to organize more expeditions to the Orient. Actually he couldn’t. He had found, not Asia, but the Bahama island of San Salvador. He refused to abandon his claim to the discovery of Cathay, however, and although he returned to the New World three times, he never changed his mind. He called the natives he encountered Indians, which is why the Caribbean Islands have been known as the West Indies ever since. In 1496, he was unable to sail around Cuba. His officers explained that they were thwarted by bad weather, but Columbus rejected the explanation. The real reason, he said, was that they were lying off an Oriental peninsula. He thought it was probably Malaya.

His claims continued to be accepted. In Lisbon King Manuel, ascending the throne in 1495, assumed that the Spaniards had stolen a march on him. Jealous, and aware of the pleas of Bartolomeu Dias, he gave Vasco da Gama four vessels and instructions to reach India via the Cape of Good Hope. Da Gama is not among the attractive figures of the age, although in many ways he was typical of it. Brawny, brutal, cruel, and vindictive, he sought to dominate strange lands by terrifying the inhabitants. Once he deliberately set fire to an Arab ship, burning alive some three hundred passengers, including women and children. Nevertheless he earned the rank of almirante, bestowed upon him by his grateful sovereign, for Portugal’s rise as a world power owed much to him. On November 22, 1497, he rounded the cape Dias had found. Equipped with an Arab map and accompanied by an Arab navigator, he pushed on, first reaching Mozambique and Kenya on Africa’s east coast, and then, after a twenty-three-day run across the Indian Ocean, Calicut on the southwest shore of India.


THE PORTUGUESE had finally found a new passage to India, one free of the costly transshipment and tolls exacted by the old routes from Egypt, Arabia, and Persia via Italy. For more than a century the economic consequences of this commercial revolution—for that is what it amounted to—were more spectacular than the discoveries of Columbus and his successors in what was coming to be known as the New World. While Spanish navigators were floundering about in the Caribbean “Indies,” the vaults of Lisbon’s banks were filling up with profits from the new trade. Indeed, until the turn of the sixteenth century the Portuguese scarcely thought of the possibilities lying on the far side of the Atlantic and even then Manuel’s ministers were preoccupied with the markets created by vessels doubling the Cape of Good Hope.

Afonso de Albuquerque took office as governor of Portuguese India in 1509. His duties were more military than civil; fighting Hindus and Muslims, he captured and fortified both Goa and, on the Arabian coast, Aden; then he landed on Ceylon and moved on to seize Malacca on the Malayan Peninsula, the center of the East Indian spice trade. From Malacca alone he sent home $25 million in loot. His Excelência roamed all over the underbelly of Asia. He dispatched twenty ships to the Red Sea, and, in 1512, planted Manuel’s colors in Celebes and the Moluccas. The Portuguese expansion continued to pick up momentum; in 1516





Duarte Coelho opened Thailand and southern Vietnam to Portuguese commerce, and the following year Fernão Peres de Andrade reached trade agreements on the Chinese mainland with both Peking and Canton.

Half a world away, Columbus had continued to make one landing after another in the New World, sending back reports on his increasing knowledge of the Orient. However, there was a growing suspicion among the mariners who had followed in his wake that they were not in Asia at all. By the late 1490s landings had been made in Honduras, Venezuela, Newfoundland, and on the North American mainland. In 1500 Gaspar Côrte-Real reached Labrador, and that same year Pedro Cabral, storm-driven from a course he had set for the Cape of Good Hope, stumbled upon Brazil. Cabral hoisted Portugal’s colors over Brazil; Vicente Yáñez Pinzón claimed it for Spain.

With the discovery of Panama, Colombia, and the mouth of the Amazon, a very long coastline had begun to take shape. It remained for Amerigo Vespucci, a Florentine merchant in the service of the Medicis, to define the emerging truth. In Spain on business, Vespucci had caught the exploration fever and sailed westward under the Portuguese flag. Later, in a letter to Italian friends, he wrote that on June 16, 1497, during one of his four expeditions to what he called the novo mondo, he had touched the mainland of a new continent. Although doubt was later cast on this claim, both Columbus and the Spanish government, which awarded Vespucci a lifetime appointment as piloto mayor—chief of Spain’s pilots—believed him reliable. In April 1507 Martin Waldseemüller, professor of cosmography at the University of Saint-Dié, produced the first map showing the Western Hemisphere. He called it “America,” and thirty years later Gerardus Mercator followed Waldseemüller’s precedent, though by then it was clear that the New World comprised more than one continent.

By the second decade of the new century—the 1510s—Europe’s developing image of the Americas resembled an enormous jigsaw puzzle whose pieces were rapidly falling into place. Commissioned by the English crown, John Cabot had explored the St. Lawrence River. Others were mapping the east coast of North America from the Savannah River north to what is now Charleston. On April 2, 1513, Juan Ponce de León, pursuing the medieval dream of eternal youth, landed four hundred miles to the south. Naming his discovery Florida (from Pascua Florida, Easter), he declared it to be Spanish territory. Other Spaniards claimed Argentina and explored the Gulf of Mexico, planting their flag in the Yucatán Peninsula. Toward the end of the decade, Montezuma II made the capital error of cordially welcoming Hernando Cortés, thereby sealing his fate as Mexico’s last Aztec emperor.

Although patriotic ardor burned in all these adventurers, their overarching goal had not changed. They were still looking for the mysterious East. The unexpected appearance of the New World had merely whetted appetites. Columbus had been thoroughly discredited by now, but the riddle remained: If the Americas were where the Orient was supposed to be, where was the Orient? And what, exactly, lay beyond the newly found landmass? Their logs reveal that early in the century several of them had stumbled close to the answer. In 1501 Rodrigo de Bastidas had explored Panama’s Atlantic coast. Late in the following year Columbus himself, making his final Atlantic voyage, had been blown ashore on Panama’s isthmus. It was the worst storm in his experience; his men, he wrote in his journal, “were so worn out that they longed for death to end their dreadful suffering.” Unaware that the Pacific Ocean lay only forty miles away, he and his exhausted crews celebrated Christmas and the New Year in a harbor near the eastern end of what later became the Panama Canal. Seven years later Spanish conquistadores actually founded a colony at Darién. But they, too, failed to cross the narrow strip of land.

Vasco Núñez de Balboa did it. On September 25, 1513, the thirty-eight-year-old Balboa, a member of a Spanish expedition led by Rodrigo de Bastidas, climbed his celebrated peak and beheld the vast Pacific below. Clambering down, he reached the shore of the ocean four days later, christened it the South Sea (El Mar del Sur), and claimed it “and all its shores” for his sovereign. This was both extravagant and, in a way, impious; it defied the Vatican policy set forth by Alexander VI after Columbus’s first voyage. The Borgia pope was partial to Spain, being Spanish himself, but Portugal could not be denied her new empire; the Portuguese role in the explorations had been too great.

The pontiff therefore awarded the Portuguese all non-Christian lands east, and Spain all those west, of an imaginary north-south line drawn 100 leagues west of the Azores and the Cape Verde Islands. This had infuriated England’s Henry VII, who, refusing to recognize papal jurisdiction, vowed to build his own empire and designated Cabot as its first builder. For various reasons Lisbon and Valladolid * had also been dissatisfied. War between them appeared imminent. Then they negotiated the Treaty of Tordesillas, redrawing the line 270 leagues farther west. The pope’s decision was accepted as valid for discoveries until then, but in the future the Spaniards could claim whatever they could reach by sailing westward and the Portuguese what they could find sailing to the east. But this, too, was unsatisfactory. The negotiators had overlooked the fact that the world was round. Eventually explorers from the two countries would meet. Thus the Moluccas—the Spice Islands—fell in a gray area. Portugal had occupied them and claimed them, but Spain sulked. And everyone wanted them. To Ferdinand Magellan, the dilemma represented opportunity.


Balboa claims the Pacific, 1513


DURING THESE YEARS of high excitement in the Americas, Magellan was a Portuguese soldier on the other side of the world, where Lisbon’s trade was flourishing and men-at-arms like him were fighting to expand King Manuel’s colonial territories. Beginning in 1505 he served there seven years, variously stationed in Africa, India, Malacca, and Mozambique. This was when Portugal broke Muslim power in the Indian Ocean. By all accounts, Magellan repeatedly distinguished himself in combat and at sea.

In his idle hours, spent on the docks, he talked to Asian pilots and navigators from as far away as Okinawa, asking about tides, winds, magnetic compass readings—the kind of information which, if they had kept records, would have been in their rutters. Through this method he became as well informed about the Indonesian archipelago as any European seaman. But he was equally interested in reports from the New World, particularly accounts of Balboa’s discovery. Like all European mariners, he believed that the new sea west of Panama must be very small. The great question was how it could be reached by water — where one could find what the Portuguese called o braço do mar and Spaniards el paso—a strait through which ships could pass from the Atlantic to El Mar del Sur beyond.

Repeated testing of the hemispheric land barrier had proved discouraging. The narrowness of the Panamanian isthmus was unmatched elsewhere. From Labrador, at the sixtieth degree of north latitude, to at least lower Brazil, at the thirtieth degree of south latitude, the Americas presented a solid, intimidating front of earth and stone. In the north the thousands of islands and inlets above what is now the Canadian mainland raised hopes for a northwest passage, and in some breasts these hopes endured for four centuries, until the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen threaded the countless straits between 1906 and 1909, only to find that the freezing of sea lanes and other arctic conditions made the route impractical. Most navigators had written off the north four centuries earlier, however. It was generally agreed that the break in the landmass, if there was one, must be in the south. Yet searchers there had also been frustrated. Some early cartographers showed the southern continent extending all the way to Antarctica.

That was more or less the situation on October 20, 1517, when the approximately forty-year-old Magellan, having renounced his Portuguese nationality, arrived in Seville accompanied by several pilots and his Malayan slave Enrique. He had come to offer his services to the Spanish crown. What befell him there resembles one of those Victorian morality tales in which Ragged Dick or Faithful Fred reaches the teeming city, is bewildered by its chaos, foils scheming rogues bent upon exploiting him, meets kind allies, survives a series of disappointments, and finally wins through by pluck and daring.

Magellan encountered no rogues then—they would come later—but Seville was certainly chaotic, especially within the Casa de Contratación, the royal house of trade. It was there that merchants who were prepared to finance expeditions met captains eager to lead them, there that the two bargained under supervision of the king’s magistrates, and there that the Portuguese explorer headed. The hall was surrounded by taverns swarming with adventurers, pilots, and seasoned mariners, some of them men who had sailed with Columbus, Côrte-Real, or John and Sebastian Cabot, and all of them bearing maps and plans guaranteed to enrich their King Carlos, their sponsors, and, not incidentally, themselves. Magellan, in need of an ally, found one in Diego Barbosa, a fellow Portuguese expatriate well acquainted with the Magellan family. Diego had served the Spanish crown here for fourteen years. He took an instant liking to Magellan. So did his son Duarte, a mariner himself. Finally, Beatriz Barbosa, the daughter of the family, fell in love with Magellan, and, after a brief courtship, became his bride.

Backed by his new relatives, Magellan approached the Casa de Contratación and formally presented the proposition which he and Ruy Faleiro, a Portuguese astronomer, had drawn up in Lisbon. It envisaged a westward voyage halfway round the globe to the Moluccas, the expedition to be led by him and funded by the Spanish crown, whose possessions the islands would then become. A commission of three officials rejected the plan, but immediately after the hearing, one of the commissioners, Juan de Aranda, sent word that he wished to see the petitioner in private. Aranda—the Casa’s agente, or factor—wanted to question Magellan further. Being a man of business, he was intrigued by the possibility of wresting the Spice Islands from Portugal. After hearing further details he offered to sponsor Magellan’s application for royal support. In return he expected one-eighth of the enterprise’s profits. That winter he carried on delicate negotiations with the chancellor of Castile and enlisted the help of the monarch’s privy councillors. Meantime Magellan had written Faleiro, summoning him to Spain.


EARLY IN THE FOLLOWING YEAR King Carlos, with the approval of his privy council, received the partners at Valladolid. Magellan and Faleiro convinced him that the Moluccas, the remote Indo-Pacific archipelago then known as the Spice Islands, lay on Spain’s side of the papal line of demarcation. They also said that the Portuguese route there—through the Indian Ocean and the Sunda Sea—was needlessly long. The islands, they explained, could be reached by a much shorter route from the west. To be sure, this meant penetrating the American barrier from the south, but that could be done by sailing through a South American paso whose location was known to them alone. Persuaded, Carlos pledged his support of the partners from Lisbon. He put it in writing; then, after knighting Magellan, he appointed him capitán-general of what he christened the Armada de Molucca.

Thus the enterprise was launched—or so the record reads. Common sense, however, insists that there must have been more to it than that. The new admiral had been only one of hundreds of supplicants in the Casa that day. He had succeeded where the others had been turned away, not because he had charmed the Barbosas, Aranda, the king’s privy council, and the king himself —his charm, by all accounts, was slight—but because he had struck them as an exceptionally qualified Portuguese captain and navigator who knew precisely what he was doing.

His knowledge of the south seas was profound. Although he had never reached the Spice Islands, he had learned a great deal about them from a friend, one Francisco Serrão, a Portuguese skipper who had been so smitten with the islands that he had decided to spend the rest of his life there, fathering children and basking in the paradisaical climate. Serrão had written long, lyrical, detailed letters describing the archipelago; Magellan had showed them to the Spaniards in Valladolid. It was true, he conceded, that he had yet to sail in the waters of the Western Hemisphere. Yet he was knowledgeable about them. As a Portuguese of noble blood with service in Africa, Asia, and the islands beyond, he had had access to Lisbon’s celebrated Tesouraria (Treasury). There, before defecting to Spain, he had pored over the rutters, logs, and sailing directions of fellow countrymen who had explored the Americas. Their accumulated knowledge was now his.

It was his certitude, however, which had impressed the Spanish court most. Other petitioners had speculated. Magellan said he knew, and his decisive manner confirmed him. He was absolutely positive that the Moluccas belonged to Spain, and Faleiro had brought a globe of his own design to back him up. Both men assured the court that they knew precisely where to find the paso, the legendary open sesame to Balboa’s ocean. When the king had asked why it wasn’t shown on the globe, Magellan had replied that the secret was too precious; they could not risk a leak.

His conviction was genuine, but it was built on quicksand. Faleiro’s globe was flawed. Due to compensating errors, his calculations of longitude were only four degrees off, but that was enough to discredit them. The islands were on Portugal’s side of the line, not Spain’s, and the more men learned about that part of the world the stronger Lisbon’s claim would become. And—far more important—the partners’ assurance that Magellan could find the strait linking the Atlantic and the Pacific was equally false. After five centuries their error is clear, though their sources seemed plausible at the time. The first was a map drawn by Martin Behaim, the Nuremberg geographer who had been royal cartographer to the Portuguese court; the second a globe produced by Johannes Schöner in 1515; and the third a report from the western Atlantic which reached Magellan either shortly before, or soon after, his move from Lisbon to Seville. The map and the globe showed a southern passage between the oceans. In the light of later evidence it is clear that Behaim and Schöner had put it in the wrong place, but they appeared to have been confirmed in 1516, when Juan Díaz de Solís, who had been sailing along the coast of South America under the illusion that he was near the Malayan Peninsula, came upon the gigantic funnel-shaped estuary leading to what is now Buenos Aires.

Although Díaz de Solís was killed by Indians, members of his expedition found their way home, and to Magellan their description of the Río de la Plata, as Sebastian Cabot later named it, must have seemed to be the final piece of the puzzle. Indeed, even today it is hard to believe that the estuary—actually the outlet of two enormous rivers—is not open sea. Its mouth is 140 miles wide, and its western shore is 170 miles inland. To Europeans accustomed to the Guadiana River of Spain and Portugal, the Tiber, or the Rhine, it must have resembled the great straits they knew—the Dardanelles or Gibraltar. They were wrong, and so was Magellan, misled by them. But persuasive errors have played key roles in history before. So it was here. Had the capitán-general known the truth, his confidence would have been eroded. Carlos and his privy council would have rejected the uncertain applicant. Even if they hadn’t, Magellan’s iron will, which was to become vital to the voyage, would have been weakened, probably fatally.


HOW MUCH Lisbon learned about the Valladolid audience is unknown. Probably very little. But it was enough: a seasoned Portuguese mariner, familiar with the Tesouraria’s holiest secrets, had been commissioned by the Castilian monarch to pry the Spice Islands loose from Portugal. His fleet was already forming up. It is a measure of Manuel’s alarm that he instructed his ambassador to Madrid, Álvaro da Costa, to sabotage the expedition. Fortunately for history, Costa was a fool. He attempted to coerce Magellan, and when that failed he tried to intimidate the Spanish king, first telling him that Portugal would regard continued support of the venture as an unfriendly act, then that Magellan and Faleiro wanted to return home but had been denied permission to leave Seville—a lie which, when exposed, resulted in the cold dismissal of the bumbling envoy. Nevertheless, attempts to sandbag the undertaking continued, and some of them were a nuisance. When Magellan began signing up crewmen, Sebastian Álvarez, Portugal’s consul on the spot, urged them to desert. He also spread vicious rumors; cornering the flota’s four Spanish captains, he whispered to them that their capitán-general was a double agent who planned to lower Spain’s colors, raise Portugal’s, and defect with the entire armada.

This ugly seed fell on fertile ground. Only one of the four was an experienced professional mariner; the other three were haughty young dons, Castilian courtiers held in high favor by their sovereign, resentful of their subordination to a foreigner. Thus the enterprise began to accumulate difficulties long before its five anchors were weighed. Because of Álvarez’s dirty tricks—he fed gossips tales that the mission was highly dangerous and the vessels unseaworthy—the recruitment of seamen bogged down. Those who finally signed on were the dregs of the waterfront: ragged, filthy, diseased drifters who babbled to one another in broken Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, English—even Arabic. Meddlesome officials of the port of Seville tried to reject the Portuguese among them, including several who were Magellan relatives; Duarte Barbosa, his brother-in-law; and Estevão Gomes, one of the ablest pilots in either Iberian country.

The capitán-general was thwarted again and again. He ordered equipment; it failed to arrive. Funds which had been promised by Carlos and his privy council miscarried. Magellan, his patience endless, successfully appealed to the king and royal agents. Finally he confronted the most intractable obstacle: his partner. Faleiro, who had never been to sea, insisted that they share a joint command. It was an impossible demand; had it been met, the ships would not have survived the first leg of their long journey. Precisely how the admiral deflected this challenge is unknown. Some accounts say that Faleiro was declared insane; others tell of an imperial edict appointing him commander of a second expedition, which never sailed. In any event, he turned his maps and astronomical tables over to Magellan, and the five bowsprits finally took the bone in their teeth on September 20, 1519, sailing westward before the wind, under taut sails bearing Spain’s royal cross of St. James.

The capitán-general watched the mainland recede in the wake of Trinidad—his flagship, or capitana. Then he opened an unsettling, last-minute dispatch from his father-in-law, relaying reports of a conspiracy between three of the Spanish noblemen. The leader was Juan de Cartagena, commander of San Antonio and an intimate of the bishop of Burgos, thought by some to be the bishop’s bastard. When the right moment arrived, Diego Barbosa had been told, Cartagena would give the signal for a mutiny.


BARBOSA was no alarmist. The hostility of the dons was real. One of them had precipitated a violent public row with Magellan before the fleet had even left Seville, and it is not unlikely that the


Magellan’s Armada de Molucca sails from Spain

Castilians had decided to get rid of him after he had disclosed his planned route. He had no choice but to take the warning seriously, and it provided the voyage’s first test of his leadership. His response was revealing, if not altogether reassuring. If patience and thoroughness were among his traits, so were an extraordinary passion for secrecy, insistence upon ruthless discipline, and determination to dominate his subordinates at any cost. To plot mutiny, if the report was true, was criminal, but the dons’ feelings of resentment were not. Nor were they unreasonable. As holders of royal commissions the officers rightly expected that, once at sea, they would be taken into their admiral’s confidence, provided with maps, informed of the course they would follow, and, most important, told the location of the all-important paso.

He told them nothing, gave them nothing. Resolving to force any revolt into the open but not to lose, he kept the Castilians at a safe distance. During the first, ten-week leg of the voyage, from Spain to Brazil, the other vessels were ordered to follow in the flagship’s wake. Late each afternoon a lantern was hung from Trinidad’s fantail. Under standing orders, they were required to keep it in sight, and when the lamp flashed a signal at sunset each day the four subordinate galleons—San Antonio (Cartagena), Concepción (Gaspar de Quesada), Santiago (Juan Serrano), and Victoria (Luis de Mendoza)—approached the flagship’s stern to receive orders for the three night watches.

The dons fumed. Cartagena, as senior captain and skipper of the fleet’s largest vessel, attempted to serve as their spokesman. He merely provoked a snub. The Spanish captains were baffled by their commander’s sailing direction. They had assumed that he would take them directly to the New World. Instead, when they reached 27 degrees north latitude, he changed their course. Now they were paralleling the African coast. He had an excellent reason for this. Before leaving Spain a reliable informant had brought him ominous news: Manuel of Portugal had sent two flotillas to intercept him. They would be lying athwart the direct route to Brazil. Magellan had decided to evade them; he would skirt Africa and then cross the Atlantic Narrows. Had he told his skippers that, they would have understood at once. But he was taciturn by nature and distrusted them anyway. So when Cartagena called out from his deck, asking where he was taking them, Magellan replied: “¡Que le siguiessen Y no pidiessen más cuenta!” (“Follow me and don’t ask questions!”)

Furious, the offended don answered this insult with one of his own. For three successive days he absented himself from the sunset ritual, remaining below and sending his quartermaster topside with instructions to address the fleet commander, not as capitán-general, which custom required, but merely as capitán. Magellan ignored the slight, feigning indifference, then called a meeting of all armada officers aboard the flagship. Again Cartagena tried to question him; again the admiral disregarded him. He was deliberately inciting insubordination, and when he succeeded—when the young nobleman lost his temper and shouted that he would refuse to obey future orders—Magellan put him under arrest. He seized him, snapped, “Sed preso” (“You are my prisoner”), and turned him over to a nearby alguacil, or master-at-arms. Another Spanish officer, Antonio de Coca, replaced Cartagena on San Antonio’s quarterdeck. The other three Castilian officers stood mute and the moment passed. For the present, at least, the admiral’s authority as capitán-general had survived defiance.

On Tuesday, November 29, 1519, Trinidad’s lookout raised the Brazilian coast, and two weeks later the five ships sailed into the bay of Rio de Janeiro, discovered by the Portuguese eighteen years earlier. Although Magellan never confided in anyone, in Rio he held the first of his many talks with a member of the expedition, a youth who, after the voyage, was to become his biographer. Antonio Pigafetta was a member of the Venetian nobility who had come aboard representing the signory of Venice. Don Antonio’s mission was to observe and report home on the spice trade, but soon his chief interest, and his idol, was the capitán-general. In his diary he began entering copious descriptions of the admiral’s every move, noting, for example, that in Rio Magellan tasted pineapple for the first time and converted all the natives on shore to Christianity.

Delighted with the weather and the local women, the fleet’s crews would have preferred to linger in Rio indefinitely, but their leader ordered them to hoist sail; according to Schöner’s globe, the Río de Solís, as the Río de la Plata was then called, lay a thousand miles to the south, and he was impatient to find his priceless paso. After hugging the shore for two weeks, the flagship, with the other vessels streaming behind, passed the cape of Santa María and then, just beyond a low hill which they christened Montevidi—today Montevideo, Uruguay—lookouts sighted the great estuary. The men, seeing that it was impossible to glimpse a far shore, cheered lustily; without exception, Pigafetta wrote, they believed this to be the mouth of the legendary strait. Their leader was sure of it, convinced that here, where Juan Díaz de Solís had died less than four years earlier, lay the inlet which would lead him to Balboa’s Mar del Sur and, six hundred leagues to the west, the coveted, disputed Spice Islands.


HIS DISCOVERY of his crushing error came gradually, like a man’s realization that he has irrevocably lost his most prized possession. It has to be here, he tells himself, or, I left it there; it must be somewhere. The fact that it is forever gone is insupportable at first;


The Río de la Plata, from an early atlas

acceptance of the disaster comes slowly, accompanied by a sickening feeling of emptiness. So the bleak truth must have come to Magellan. Despite Faleiro’s calculations, Schöner’s globe, Behaim’s map, and the fourteen-year-old Portuguese pilots’ rutters in Lisbon’s Tesouraria, the capitán-general had found, not a strait, but only an immense bay. He was nothing if not stubborn. For nearly a month he explored and reexplored the Plata, desperately trying to find an opening and always failing. Finally, on Thursday, February 2, 1520, he abandoned hope. Once that happened—once he grasped the implications of his defeat—the depth of his grief can only be imagined. It meant that his every Valladolid assurance, given in good faith to King Carlos and his privy council, had been false. He could share his disappointment with no one; if his Castilian captains knew the truth, they would clap him in irons, lock him up in the flagship’s brig, and return him to Spain, a defrocked Knight Commander of Santiago charged with fraud, imposture, and extortion of royal funds. Abandoning his search was therefore out of the question. Like Cortés at Veracruz, he had burned his boats. A return to Portugal, where he was wanted for treason, was also out of the question. Either he found glory, or disgrace—and execution—would find him.

The strait, if it existed, could only lie to the southwest; thus his future, if he had one, also lay there. In the first week of February, without a word of explanation to his baffled officers and men, who knew only that their destination was the balmy south seas, he led them crawling through treacherous currents and surging tides, down the desolate, barren, and increasingly bitter Patagonian coast toward antarctic latitudes, praying that his dream would be redeemed by the reach around the next cape, or the next, or the one after that. Every harbor, every cove was scouted, with his leadsmen taking soundings, till shoals forced him to quit and move on to the next inlet. On February 24 his hopes rose in the Golfo San Matías. He sent parties of men in ship’s boats to search thoroughly. They did, but returned weary and dejected, having found nothing. The Bahía de los Patos followed, then the Bahía de los Trabajos and the Golfo San Jorge. All ended in disappointment.

Each day the weather grew more depressing. No European had ever been this close to the South Pole. * The days grew shorter, the nights longer, the winds fiercer, the seas grayer; the waves towered higher, and the southern winter lay ahead. To grasp the full horror of the deteriorating climate, it is necessary only to translate degrees of southern latitude into northern latitude. Rio de Janeiro, where they had first landed, is as far below the equator as Key West is above it. By the same reckoning the Río de la Plata is comparable to northern Florida, the Golfo San Matías to Boston, and Puerto San Julián, which they reached after thirty-seven days of struggling through shocking weather, to Nova Scotia. The sails of their five little ships were whitened by sleet and hail. Cyclones battered them twice a week or more. Both forecastles and after-castles had been repeatedly blown away on every vessel and replaced by ship’s carpenters. Crews shrank as the corpses of men pried loose from frozen rigging slid to briny graves. Yet the paso remained as elusive as ever.

In dismal, chilly, miserable Puerto San Julián, having inched down 1,330 miles since leaving the Río de la Plata, Magellan decided to hole up in winter quarters. They had reached the forty-ninth parallel—the forty-ninth degree of south latitude. There, on Saturday, March 31, he told his royal captains that he meant to continue south until he had found the strait, even if it took them below seventy degrees. Some thought they heard him promise to turn back if their frustration continued as far down as seventy-five degrees south latitude, but if he said it, he cannot have known what it meant; at that parallel the fleet would have been frozen fast in what is now the Antarctic’s Weddell Sea. Nevertheless his mood was undeniably implacable. Sunday morning—Palm Sunday—he reduced bread and wine rations for all hands. Almost certainly he intended to provoke revolt. He was aware that the tinder was there, awaiting a spark. There were Spaniards in the crews who were loyal to their Castilian officers. And the dons, he knew, were in an ugly mood. On Monday he summoned them to dine with him. Their refusal was curt. It was a desafio, a challenge; in effect they had thrown down the gauntlet. And that evening, April 2, 1520, they mutinied.


THEY CAME AT NIGHT—thirty armed Spaniards in a longboat, led by Juan de Cartagena, Antonio de Coca, and Gaspar de Quesada, rowing with muffled oars toward San Antonio, the largest ship in the fleet. King Carlos’s privy council would have been surprised to know that Cartagena no longer commanded the ship. In Valladolid the planners of the expedition had envisaged the capitán-general on the quarterdeck of the flagship Trinidad, with the Castilians commanding the other four. But once at sea, Magellan, exercising his supreme powers as admiral, had begun switching skippers. Now, six and a half months after their departure, a Portuguese officer, Álvaro de Mesquita, one of Magellan’s cousins, conned San Antonio. Only Concepción and Victoria remained in the hands of the dons. If Cartagena could regain his old command, however, the mutineers, controlling three vessels, could bar the way to the open sea and hold their admiral at bay. And aboard San Antonio, all hands were asleep. Why Magellan had not alerted Mesquita and ordered him to post guards is puzzling. Ordinarily he was the most vigilant of leaders, and the omens of trouble had been unmistakable. Perhaps he could not believe they would actually rebel. They were, after all, well-bred aristocrats, who had sworn holy oaths of obedience in Seville. And treachery was not only a capital offense; it was also shameful. He may also have doubted their resolve. In the coming days they were, in fact, to prove irresolute, but at the outset they moved with confidence, swarming up rope ladders and boarding the big ship, which quickly became their prize. Mesquita awoke to find himself surrounded by men with drawn swords, and, moments later, manacled and confined to the purser’s cabin. Until now the coup had been bloodless. Then Mesquita’s officers, wakened by the tumult, demanded an explanation, and one of them, the ship’s master, Juan de Elorriaga, roughly challenged the mutineers. Quesada and his servant knifed Elorriaga six times; the officer fell to the deck mortally wounded. That ended the resistance. After clapping all crewmen loyal to Magellan in irons, the mutineers broke into the storeroom and issued wine to the rest of the men. Quesada remained aboard and brought Juan Sebastián del Cano over to serve as master. The others quietly returned to their own ships.

Tuesday morning Magellan rose as usual, unaware of any change in his command. He was soon to be enlightened. In winter quarters the fleet’s daily routine began with dispatching a ship’s boat ashore. Its mission there was to fetch water and wood for all five vessels, each of which contributed men to the working party. When the boat reached San Antonio, its bos’n was vexed to find no rope ladder lowered and no crewmen ready to join him. He angrily called for an explanation and was told that the ship was now under the command of Capitán Gaspar de Quesada, who no longer honored orders from the “así llamado” (“so-called”) capitán-general. The bos’n hastily returned to Trinidad. Magellan calmly instructed him to tour the other vessels, demanding pledges of loyalty. Victoria and Concepción refused. Only Santiago’s Serrano, Spanish but loyal, swore that he would remain so.

Thus the lines of battle were drawn. In any fight Santiago—at seventy-five tons the smallest of the five—would be quickly sunk. The flagship could not continue round the world alone. The admiral seemed checkmated, but his dilemma over the paso—not to mention his temperament—meant that yielding was out of the question. Now, as so often, patience was his sheet anchor. He quietly awaited word from the rebels. When that word arrived—in the form of a letter from Quesada, speaking for the others—it revealed their pathetic weakness. Their noble birth was to be their undoing after all. The letter expressed no wrath, no piratical defiance; there was no ultimatum, nor even a list of demands. Instead the dons were submitting a suplica, a petition. On reflection they had decided to acknowledge his supreme authority, as conferred by their sovereign. In their subordinate role they merely asked for better treatment at his hands, a little respect for their high birth, and some information about his plans, particularly how he proposed to reach the Spice Islands. All this was set forth in the most florid, most oleaginous Spanish prose.

Mutineers may command, but they cannot beg. Their strength derives from force alone; if they disavow it, they are naked. Magellan now had their measure; with audacity, he could regain control of his fleet. He knew the rebel captains expected him to lunge toward San Antonio. The ship’s size argued for that; so did his cousin’s imprisonment there; so did the presence on its quarterdeck of Quesada, now the chief conspirator. Therefore Magellan, knowing the value of the unexpected, decided to retake Victoria, whose Castilian commander was the less formidable Luis de Mendoza. The counterattack would be made by two longboats. The larger boat, with the wind at its back, would carry fifteen heavily armed men led by Duarte Barbosa. To lead the other, smaller craft the admiral picked Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, the fleet’s master-at-arms and commander of its marine guard. Gómez’s crew consisted of only five men, but its mission was crucial—to strike the first blow and thereby create a diversion.

Piloting his boat to within hailing distance of Victoria, Gómez called ahead that he bore a letter from the capitán-general. Mendoza, feeling unthreatened by the little boat—he had sixty Spaniards behind him—gave the master-at-arms permission to board. That closed the trap, for while Gómez had the undivided attention of the ship’s crew, Barbosa and his men, unobserved in the bleak fog, slipped around the vessel’s lee side.

Magellan’s letter bluntly summoned Mendoza to the flagship. After reading it, the don, scornful of so obvious a trap, cried derisively, “You won’t catch me going there!”—“¡No me pillarás allá!” His laugh was cut off; Gómez, with one violent slash, had slit his throat. That was a signal to Barbosa and his party; they sprang on deck and attacked the mutineers from behind. Within minutes Victoria was the admiral’s prize and Barbosa was issuing orders to hoist sails. Before the other two rebel ships could grasp what had happened, Trinidad, Santiago, and Victoria had formed a rough line across the mouth of the bay, cutting off the only line of escape. Helpless, they capitulated. Mesquita, freed from his irons, chaired the subsequent court-martial. On Saturday his cousin the capitán-general passed sentence.

Knowing he would need as many hands as possible once he resumed the voyage, Magellan spared all but Quesada, Cartagena, and a Spanish priest who had fomented the rebellion. There was only one execution; Quesada, guilty of murder, had to die. Because he was an aristocrat, he was spared the garrote. But there was also blood on the hands of his servant, Luis de Molino. Molino protested that he had only been obeying orders, and Magellan, giving that weight, told him that he would be permitted to live provided he swung the blade decapitating his master—a grisly choice, though it cannot have taken Molino long to make it. As was customary in that time, the bodies of both treacherous captains, Mendoza and Quesada, were drawn and quartered, after which the reeking, bleeding quarters were displayed on poles, the theory being that the spectacle would intimidate any men too dull to have learned the wages of mutiny.

That left Cartagena, who had held high office under the king, and the priest, an anointed man of God. The capitán-general could not bring himself to shed the blood of either. Yet carrying them around the world in irons was impractical. Therefore they were to be imprisoned until the fleet departed Puerto San Julián and then left behind. As the five vessels sailed on August 24, the two marooned men were abandoned on the frigid shore with a thin ration of wine and food. Magellan had declared that he was leaving their fate to a merciful God, but in the sixteenth century the quality of divine mercy had proved to be strained and brackish. During the wretched days that lay ahead for the castaways they may have envied their drawn and quartered co-conspirators.

But at that point Magellan’s prospects did not appear to be much brighter. In quelling the mutiny he had, in a sense, increased the odds against himself. If he reappeared in Seville discredited by failure, it was doubtful that Spanish authorities would accept his version of the violent interlude in San Julián. The gruesome deaths of three Castilian noblemen and a priest would certainly be investigated, and it was by no means certain that the dons’ mild suplica would be seen as justification for execution. The capitán-general might well find himself on trial for murder. Only if he returned a conqueror could he expect amnesty, and as weeks wore on conquest had seemed more elusive than ever. The armada was down to four ships now; Santiago, sent on an exploring mission, had been lost in a storm. Mighty gales tossed them daily; the weather was growing steadily worse. To the west, snowcapped mountains were clearly visible. They began to see “seawolves,” or seals, and penguins, which they called “ducks without wings” (“patos sin alas”). After anchoring below fifty degrees south latitude, Magellan decided to hibernate for another eight weeks, until he could be certain that winter was spent. By now he must have been close to total despair. Every hope had died glimmering. The possibility of redemption seemed very remote. During a year at sea he had covered nearly nine thousand miles, suppressed a bloody uprising, explored every indentation in what seemed to be an endless coast of rocks and sand, and found absolutely nothing.

His desolation was ironic, for during those eight fearful, brooding weeks, from August 26 to October 18, he was only 150 miles —two sailing days—from immortality.


ON SUNDAY, October 21, 1520, a day of high, harsh, howling winds, lookouts clinging to the fleet’s topmasts sighted a steep eminence which, as they approached, was perceived as a wall of naked white cliffs. Closing, they saw that these formed a cape, beyond which lay an immense bay of black water. The day was St. Ursula’s. In remembrance of her, Magellan christened the peninsula Cabo de los Vírgenes. But his officers, still dreaming of the south seas, were unimpressed. The sound, all four pilots agreed, was a fjord similar to those which had been observed in Norway. “We all believed,” Don Antonio Pigafetta wrote afterward, “that it was a blind alley.” Only their commander was curious. However, because he had wasted over three weeks investigating the Río de la Plata nine months earlier, he could spare little for this exploration. He told San Antonio and Concepción that he wanted them to see how far westward they could sail into the bay, but he wanted them back in five days at most.

As the fifth day waned with no sign of them, he grew anxious, and then was alarmed when the lookout in the masthead of his flagship reported a distant column of smoke—then the maritime signal sent by shipwrecked sailors. Magellan was issuing the order to lower boats when the sails of both missing vessels appeared off the port bow. They were gaily decorated with flags, all hands were shouting and waving, and as they hove to their cannons fired three thundering salvos. Clearly something extraordinary had happened.

Serrano boarded the flagship from Concepción to explain. They had been approaching the western end of the harbor, he reported, when a squall overtook them. As it cleared they saw that the bay did not end. Instead a channel—“first narrows,” he called it—opened. Passing through this, they had entered a broad body of water, then “second narrows,” followed by another widening in the channel. On the third day they had to turn about, to return in the five days allotted them. But they had found no end to the passage; every narrowing led to another opening. The width of the labyrinthine waterway varied from two to twenty miles. Seamen casting lead had found no bottom. They had not entered a river; the water was brine all the way, and on both sides the tides ebbed and flowed.

The stoical Magellan betrayed no excitement, but he called for a final salvo of bombards in honor of King Carlos—who, unknown to him, was now being crowned Emperor Charles V—and led his men in prayer. The following morning, Thursday, October 25, with his Trinidad leading the way, all four ships glided past the barren headlands, and entered the strange new watercourse, named Canal de Todos los Santos by the capitán-general but known to history as the Strait of Magellan. Off his starboard prow, although he did not know it, was the southernmost tip of what is now known as South America; to port, a large island and a maze of smaller islands beneath which lay Cape Horn, some 350 miles above the Antarctic Peninsula. So cold was the island maze that the shivering Indians who lived there warmed themselves over perpetual fires. The flames, visible to Magellan, prompted him to call the southern shore Tierra del Fuego—Land of Fire.

Negotiating the strait’s tortuous turns later challenged sailors of all ages, but for the flota’s helmsmen, dependent upon wooden tillers and clumsy, bellying sails, it was exhausting. The passage was a confused, tangled skein. At various points it led westward, northward, and southward. Again and again it halved and became two channels, forcing the admiral to pause and divide his command until he knew which one was the throughway. The bays assumed weird shapes. In the lateral channels rocks, appearing beneath sudden shoals, threatened to gouge holes in the ships’ bottoms, and on the first day one wild squall followed another, sometimes threatening to capsize the lead ship, Magellan’s Trinidad. Then the weather improved. In this they were singularly lucky; subsequent navigators found that foul weather was usually prevalent throughout the strait. Indeed, that became a major reason for their failure to get through it.

After a month in the seaway no one doubted that they had found the legendary paso. Three hundred miles of it lay behind them, and now unfamiliar birds flew overhead, a sure sign of another ocean ahead. Another fork confronted them. After ordering San Antonio and Conceptión to spend a maximum of five days investigating the southeastern route—Trinidad and Victoria would wait here—Magellan called a meeting of his officers. He faced a decision—whether to sail home with news of their discovery or continue on to the Spice Islands—and he wanted their reports on the amount of provisions left. All told the same story: soon they would be running short. The holds contained three months of supplies, no more. Estevão Gomes, pilot of the San Antonio, argued vehemently that they should turn back. Stores were not the only consideration, he said; the ships were badly in need of refitting. Furthermore, no one knew the distance between them and the islands. If it was far, the entire fleet might perish on the merciless ocean, victims of thirst and starvation, their fate forever unknown.

It was good advice. Magellan chose to ignore it. They would push on, he said; no doubt there would be hardships, but even if they had to eat the leather on the ships’ yards, he would keep his promise to King Carlos, trusting to God to help them and provide them with good fortune (“de pasar adelante y descubrir lo que había prometido”). The captains were enjoined, on pain of death, from telling their men of the supply shortage. Gomes was unconvinced, however; the prospect of sailing onward frightened him even more than Magellan’s threat of death and mutilation for mutineers. He decided to quit the armada with his ship. During the scouting of the southeastern channel, San Antonio, with Mesquita in command, showed Serrano’s Concepción its heels. Serrano did not know precisely what had happened, but since desertion by the capitán-general’s cousin was impossible, he inferred that the pilot had led a successful revolt against the captain. Magellan had to face the hard fact that his biggest ship, with the bulk of his stores, was headed homeward. He was now down to three bottoms, and the supply situation, bad as it had been, was now worse. Yet he never considered altering his course. In an order issued “in the Channel of Todos los Santos, off the mouth of the Rio del Isleo, on November 21, fifty-three degrees south of the equator,” he declared that as “capitán-general of this armada” he had taken the “grave decision to continue the voyage.”

His resolution was strengthened when another pinnace, sent ahead, reappeared on the third day with the electrifying news that Balboa’s Mar del Sur had been found. Hurrying there, the admiral looked out on the prize Columbus, Cabot, Vespucci, and Pinzón had sought in vain: the mightiest of oceans, stretching to all horizons, deep and blue and vast with promise. Its peaceful, pacífico appearance inspired his name for it, though that came later. In that first rapturous moment he could not speak. Perhaps for the first time in his adult life, he was overcome by emotion, and his reserve broke. Don Antonio writes that “il capitano-generale lacrimó per allegrezza”—Magellan had burst into tears.


THE LITTLE armada’s 12,600-mile crossing of the Pacific, the greatest physical unit on earth, is one of history’s imperishable tales of the sea, and like so many of the others it is a story of extraordinary human suffering, of agony so excruciating that only those who have been pushed to the extremes of human endurance can even comprehend it. Lacking maps, adequate navigational instruments, or the remotest idea of where they were, they sailed onward for over three months, from November to March, moving northwestward under frayed rigging, rotting sails, and a pitiless sun.

Even for the age of discovery, Magellan’s situation was unique. Previous explorers had known that if all else failed, they could always return to Europe. That option was closed to him. Ignorant of South America—having started from the mouth of a strait known only to him—he had no base to fall back upon. Once he had left the eastern horizon behind, he had to sail on—and on, and on.

He had no way of knowing the true width of the Pacific. All the information available to him vastly underestimated its extent.





In Europe it was assumed that everything depended upon the location of Ptolemy’s Terra Australis Incognita, a necessary balance for a spherical world, without which the entire planet would topple over. But some assumptions had been made, and Magellan was acting upon them. In fact they were all wrong. Had he been told the actual distance that lay ahead of his small boats, he would have been incredulous; no one in Europe had ever dreamed that so broad a sea even existed. It was as though all his sources of information—the cartographers, astronomers, and cosmographers of the time—had conspired to betray him. Schöner’s globe, then thought reliable, put Japan only a few hundred leagues west of Mexico. Indeed, everything Magellan had read or heard had encouraged him to believe that after a short cruise he would raise Dai Nippon. Instead he was lost on the earth’s greatest ocean, a trackless seascape so enormous that if all the earth’s landmasses were dumped into it, thousands of miles of water would still remain.

The expedition had left Sanlúcar with 420 casks of wine. All were drained. One by one the other staples vanished—cheese, dried fish, salt pork, beans, peas, anchovies, cereals, onions, raisins, and lentils—until they were left with kegs of brackish, foul-smelling water and biscuits which, having first crumbled into a gray powder, were now slimy with rat droppings and alive with maggots. These, mixed with sawdust, formed a vile muck men could get down only by holding their noses. Rats, which could be roasted, were so prized that they sold for half a ducat each. The capitán-general had warned them that they might have to eat leather, and it came to that. Desperate to appease their stomach pangs, “the famine-stricken fellows,” wrote Antonio Pigafetta, who was one of them, “were forced to gnaw the hides with which the mainyard was covered to prevent chafing.” Because these leather strips had been hardened by “the sun and rain and wind,” he explained, “we were obliged to soften them by putting them overboard four or five days, after which we cooked them on embers and ate them thus.”

The serenity of the Pacific maddened the crews. Yet, as Don Antonio realized, it also saved them: “But for the grace of God and the Blessed Virgin in sending us such magnificent weather, we should all have perished in this gigantic ocean.” Some died anyhow; nineteen succumbed to starvation and were heaved overboard. Those left were emaciated, hollow-cheeked wraiths, their flesh covered with ulcers and bellies distended by edema. Scurvy swelled their gums, teeth fell out, sores formed inside their mouths; swallowing became almost impossible, and then, for the doomed, completely impossible. Too weak to rise, some men sprawled on decks, cowering in patches of shade; those able to stand hobbled about on sticks, babbling to themselves, senile men in their early twenties.

No other vessels crossed their path; indeed, in the six months that passed after they left San Julián they did not encounter another soul. False hopes were raised twice, about halfway through their ordeal, when islands were sighted which proved to be uninhabited and with no bottom for anchoring. Finally, on March 6, 1521, when the life expectancy of the hardiest of them could have been measured in days, they made a genuine landfall. It was Guam in the Marianas, then a nameless isle which, they found, was inhabited by hostile Micronesians—natives who were alienated, perhaps, by the stench emanating from the very bowels of the three wretched ships. Nevertheless Guam provided them with a reprieve. After a warrior party had paddled out to the fleet and stolen a skiff, Magellan sent forty armed men ashore to recover it. They returned with the skiff, and, far more important, fresh water, fish, fruit, poultry, and meat.

Pressing on after three days of convalescence, Trinidad, Conceptión, and Victoria sighted the large Philippine island of Samar on March 16, and then, south of it, tiny Suluan and its neighbor, Homonhon, in the entrance to what is now Leyte Gulf. According to Pigafetta, the capitán-general believed that he had found the Moluccas, but that is highly improbable; Magellan was too skillful a navigator, and knew Oceania too well, to have confused north and south latitude. The Spice Islands were over a thousand miles away. The likeliest explanation for Don Antonio’s confusion is that the admiral, realizing there was no hope of wrenching the Moluccas away from Portugal, had decided to make amends by staking another claim in the name of the Spanish king. And that is precisely what he did, declaring the archipelago, together with all men and beasts therein, to be the property of His Christian Majesty, the sovereign of Castile and Aragon. *

He had chosen to go ashore on Homonhon because it appeared to be uninhabited; his men were too sick to cope with another unfriendly reception. But some natives, beaming with hospitality, crossed over from Suluan bringing quantities of oranges, palm wine, fowls, vegetables, and an abundance of two nutritious delicacies new to the Europeans: bananas and coconuts. When the admiral responded with gifts of bright kerchiefs, bells and bracelets of brass, gaudy red caps, and colored glass beads, they were delighted.

In their pleasure the capitán-general found a kind of retroactive exoneration. The port officials in Sanlúcar had laughed at his cargo manifests listing such gewgaws. Indeed, the privy council in Valladolid had at first balked when it found itself being billed for, among other trifles, a thousand mirrors, fifty dozen pairs of scissors, and twenty thousand noisemakers. He had explained that he anticipated possible difficulties in establishing rapport with strange natives, and his service in the Orient had convinced him that trinkets would smooth the way. After he had once more paraded his knowledge of islands — even exhibiting his Malayan slave Enrique—the privy council had deferred to his judgment, but the ridicule of the officious panjandrums on the docks had rankled him.

Enrique was still with him, and now, three years after he had been a privileged spectator at his master’s royal audience, this retainer unexpectedly presented him with a gift beyond price. On March 25, during their second week in the Philippines, the expedition moved on to the neighboring island of Limasawa. They were in the Visayan Islands, a part of the enormous Philippine archipelago which is linked, culturally and linguistically, with Sumatra and Malaya. Shortly after they had landed on the new island Magellan heard a great cheering and, moving toward the noise, found his servant surrounded by merry natives. It took a while to sort things out. Born in the Visayans, Enrique had been sold into slavery in Sumatra and sent to Malacca, where Magellan had acquired him. Since leaving the Malayan Peninsula in 1512, he had accompanied his owner to India, Africa, Portugal, Spain, and, for the past eighteen months, on this voyage. An apt linguist, he was fluent in both Portuguese and Spanish, but here on Limasawa, for the first time since his childhood, he had overheard people speaking his native language. He had joined in, and they had welcomed him as one of their own.

The significance of this incident was enormous. Enrique was merely happy, chattering away in Malayan, but Magellan was ecstatic. Both were back on familiar ground, which meant that by sailing westward they had returned to the lands where they had first met. Obviously Enrique was the first circumnavigator of the world. By completing the circuit of the globe, the expedition had provided the first empirical proof that it was a sphere.


IN CHRISTENDOM it was Semana Santa, Holy Week. A full year had passed since the San Julián mutiny. The paso had been found and threaded, the great ocean crossed, and the earth circumnavigated. Magellan and his men were rejoicing, riding high on a cloud of euphoria, which was both understandable and ominous—ominous because they were celebrating in one way, he in another, and the two would become irreconcilable. They entered a collision course after April 7, when Magellan spent three days sailing his flota to the much larger island of Cebu, between Leyte and Negros. There the interplay between the commander and his crews took on overtones of dramatic conflict, which was to end tragically.

The seamen were expressing their jubilation in the immemorial manner of men who have cheated death. They were mostly young, and after two weeks of rest and a restorative diet they felt virile. None had known female companionship since leaving Brazil at the end of 1519, five seasons earlier. Even if the girls on Cebu had been sheathed in Mother Hubbards, the crews’ discipline would have yielded to lust. As it was, by custom only married women wore clothing. The youths were surrounded by naked, nubile maidens who stirred uncontrollable desire in sailors who had been raised in a society which regarded nudity as prurient. The proximity of the sexes provided maximum temptation, the dense jungle offered maximum opportunity, and the predictable result was a saturnalia. The men ran wild. Afterward they said that the Filipino maidens preferred white lovers, finding them exotic and more vigorous than native boys. Of course, that was what they would say. Yet there has never been any suggestion that their advances were resisted. Apparently the apposition of the two cultures created a powerful sexual tension. The crewmen, being Christians, were afflicted with a sense of sin which increased their carnal appetites, while the guiltless, innocent girls enjoyed wanton tumbles beneath the banyans and, afterward, the gift of a mirror, a bracelet, a bangle, or a knife.

All this should have been anticipated. It had been, in the sense that Magellan’s standing orders forbade it. But orders do not enforce themselves, particularly under such circumstances. A martinet was needed, and Magellan was exhibiting a strange passivity, wholly out of character and entirely inadequate to the crisis. He did attempt one corrective measure; on his orders the fleet chaplain, Pedro de Valderrama, denounced sexual intercourse with pagan women as a mortal sin. Unfortunately the only consequence of that was an irreverent farce; before mounting the girls, seamen baptized them, thus desecrating a holy rite and reducing the padre’s threat to a joke. The Filipino men, of course, did not find it laughable. Their pride was deeply wounded. As the debauchery continued, fathers and brothers decided that their hospitality was being exploited, and for husbands the humiliation was even greater. The writhing women in the bush were not only sisters and daughters; many were also wives. Some of the seamen were running amok in harems, where gifts of mirrors and bracelets were also appreciated. The situation was volatile, deteriorating, and building dangerously.

Although venery was the most flagrant of the crews’ offenses, it was not the only one. Other standing orders of the armada were being flouted, and by officers as well as men. Indeed, the worst offender was the capitán-general’s brother-in-law. Since the fall Magellan’s most trusted captains had been Duarte Barbosa, captain of Victoria, and the Castilian Juan Serrano, Concepción’s commander. Private trade with the natives was forbidden to all members of the armada, yet some officers, Victoria’s skipper among them, were surreptitiously bartering iron, new to the islands and obviously useful, for gold and pearls, which, to Philippine peasants who hadn’t the remotest idea of their value on the other side of the world, were commonplace and useless. Barbosa was also guilty of drunkenness, absence without leave, and a record of prurience which was remarkable even in the midst of what had become, in effect, a festival of lechery. During this critical period Magellan’s mind was on other things, but after marines brought his brother-in-law staggering back to his ship after a three-day binge, the capitán-general had to act. Barbosa was arrested, shackled, demoted, and deprived of his command.

Had the admiral hewed to that line, restoring order by brandishing the whip, he might have survived the voyage to enjoy the fruits of his great success. But in those heady days, carried away by his sense of exultation, he too had abandoned himself to excesses. As his men wallowed in indulgence, he was exploring another extreme. Since his arrival in the Philippines he had been gripped by a religious fever. It was not an immaculate piety; like the European missionaries who followed him to far lands over the next four centuries, he confused evangelical zeal with colonial imperialism. Even as he converted Filipinos to Christianity, he also expected them to accept Spanish sovereignty. He saw no divided loyalties in this, no dual objectives; to him it was one crusade, with crucifix and flag advancing together.


EASTER’S ARRIVAL on March 31, their first Sunday at Limasawa, had provided an opportunity which, the devout Magellan believed, was God-sent. He had seized it by entertaining his hosts on Limasawa with a theological version of bangles and beads—a flamboyant Mass. Padre Valderrama was asked to celebrate the services with flair, and the flota’s officers were ordered to provide him with every possible assistance. Their commander wanted a show, and he got it. An altar having been brought ashore, a glittering cross was attached to it. The priest, wearing his vestments, performed Eastertide rituals, after which the capitán-general and his men approached in twos, kissed the crucifix, and received the host while gunners aboard the ships fired volleys and all hands cheered.

The armada’s guests that morning had been Rajah Colambu, whose Mindanao jurisdiction included Suluan, and his brother Siaui. Already Magellan was singling out influential chieftains for attention—men who, once they had accepted Christ, could rule in the king’s name until royal administrators arrived from Spain. The Easter spectacle had served its purpose admirably. After Valderrama’s Mass the two guests of honor had knelt before the altar, imitated the movements of the supplicants who had preceded them, and then, according to one account, ordered native carpenters to build a cross so large that when it had been “set on the summit of the highest mountain in the neighborhood, all might see and adore it.” Before their departure, Magellan had told the brothers that if they should find themselves at war with other, pagan, natives, his men and ships would be at their disposal. If that force did not prove adequate, he would return from Spain with one which was.

On Cebu he stalked a more powerful figure, his majesty the rajah Datu Humabon, ruler of the great island. The rajah’s entourage included a Muslim trader who had just arrived from Siam on a junk and who, recognizing the cross of St. James on the sails of the arriving fleet, whispered that these visitors were the pillagers of India and Malaya. Humabon ignored the warning; warming to the capitán-general from their first meeting, the rajah immediately consented, through Enrique, to a perpetual treaty of peace with Spain. Pressed by Magellan, he also agreed to burn his pagan idols and worship Jesus Christ as his lord and savior. Once more Magellan played the role of stage manager; the rajah’s initiation in his new faith, celebrated on the second Sunday after Easter, was even more liturgical and ostentatious than the earlier Mass on Lima-sawa. Humabon’s subjects massed densely outdoors round a market square, in the midst of which an altar, decorated with palm branches, dominated a high platform. Behind the altar and beneath a sheltering canopy were two thrones wreathed in red and purple satin. Humabon occupied one throne; the other awaited the arrival of the capitán-general.

Magellan made a spectacular entrance. Wearing an immaculate white robe and preceded by forty men in gleaming armor, he advanced beneath the fluttering silken banner of Castile and Aragon, unfurled here for the first time since it had been presented to him, twenty months earlier, in Seville’s church of Santa Maria de la Victoria. As a band played stirring marches, the armada’s officers paraded behind their leader. The Spaniards bowed their heads, a large cross was raised above the platform, and the fleet’s cannons boomed across the harbor. That nearly ended the ceremony. The native congregation, hearing gunfire for the first time, panicked, began to scatter, and returned only when they saw that their ruler—who had been forewarned—remained composed and enthroned.

The rajah knelt and was baptized; Magellan, as his godfather, renamed him Don Carlos. His majesty’s heir, his brother, and his nephew, the king of Limasawa, followed him to the font; so, unhappily, did the Muslim trader from Siam, who had been given no choice. They were christened Hernando, Juan, Miguel, and Cristóbal. All that was pro forma, in Spain if not in the Philippines, but the rituals which followed would have stunned Christians throughout Europe, Catholic and otherwise. Worshipers of the Lord Jesus were expected to be monogamous, or at least to pay monogamy lip service. Humabon, however, had drawn the line there. He wanted to save his soul but refused to abandon his harem. After protracted negotiations Magellan had succeeded where the emissaries of Henry VIII, in their appeals to Pope Clement, had failed. Padre Valderrama was persuaded to overlook the rajah’s little quirk. Therefore the women, costumed and gaudy with lipstick and fingernail polish, were presented one by one (there were forty in all) and blessed with such Spanish names as Juana, Catarina, Juanita, and Isabella. Humabon’s favorite—Doña Johanna, as she now was, the namesake, unknown to her, of Spain’s demented queen mother—received special recognition. Because she outranked the others, Magellan presented her with a carved image of the Madonna and child. Then the spectators were invited to enjoy Christian rebirths themselves.

Only a few hundred came forward then, but by the end of the following week virtually every inhabitant of Cebu—a total of twenty-two hundred, according to one of the flota’s crew—had chosen Christ. The surge in conversions was a personal triumph for Magellan. It was also a striking example of how a religious fanatic, which is what he had become, may be invested with psychic gifts. After the royal christenings at the outdoor Mass, Humabon, taking him aside, had told him that one member of the island’s ruling family longed to be baptized but had been too ill to attend, and was, in fact, dying. Investigating, the capitán-general had found the man so sick that, in the words of Don Antonio, he “could neither speak nor move.” Magellan discovered something else; the women nursing the afflicted man were also praying for him, but praying as heathens—thus seeking to propitiate the pagan idols their rajah had just repudiated. Shocked and indignant, the admiral-become-preacher denounced the infidel nurses, sent them away, and decided to try his hand at faith healing. With Humabon as his witness, he vowed to demonstrate how belief in Christ could cure the doomed. After baptizing the patient, the patient’s wife, and their ten children, he asked the man how he felt. Miraculously reinvested with the power of speech, the invalid replied haltingly that he felt well. Magellan put him on a regimen of milk and herbs, and within five days the man who had been given up for lost was up and about.


THIS FEAT made a tremendous impression on both the Filipinos and the officers of the fleet, though the two saw it very differently. The natives became passionate converts, while the officers worried. Increasingly they had been troubled by their commander’s state of religious exaltation. They considered themselves devout, but they were aware that God, in his wisdom, did not smile consistently upon those who sought to work miracles. All were familiar with, or had heard of, at least one religieux who had suffered a humiliating public disappointment, and they were chilled by the thought of what might have happened if their commander’s patient had collapsed before his eyes and died. Furthermore, they regarded Magellan’s altruistic, indulgent approach to the natives as folly, contrasting sharply with the Iberian school of colonial administration developed by earlier explorers. Had this expedition been led by Cortés, or the pitiless Da Gama, the Filipinos would now be unchristened slaves. Not all of Magellan’s lieutenants felt that way, and none was prepared to reproach him to his face, but all agreed that after three weeks on Cebu it was time to resume the voyage.

At an officers’ council, called by their commander, they proposed immediate departure. No mention was made of the growing hostility of the native men, a consequence of the seamen’s goatish rampages. Instead they advanced their strongest arguments, and chose their ablest spokesmen to advance them. Serrano, now the armada’s senior captain, pointed out that they had been sent, not as colonizers or priests, but to find the western route to the Spice Islands. That was their sole mission. In fact, their royal orders specifically forbade deviation from it. Others spoke up. At their last council, they recalled, the capitán-general had justified the call at this port on the ground that, in reporting to the king, they could more fully describe the archipelago’s possibilities. They now knew all they needed to know about Cebu. There was no reason to remain any longer. It was time to go.

Once again Magellan disagreed. Having discovered the Philippines, he believed it his duty to assure their loyalty to Spain. To him the Datu Humabon was no longer a native chieftain; he was Don Carlos, a Christian king. Then, to the horror of the council, he revealed that he had given this ruler certain assurances. They were, in effect, a repetition of his guarantee to the brothers Colambu and Siaui. The enemies of Humabon-Carlos, the rajahking, were also Spain’s enemies. Any man who refused to acknowledge his sovereignty—or the divinity of Christ—would be killed and his property confiscated.

Such an enemy, he told the astonished council, existed. His name was Lapulapu, and he was the petty rajah of Mactan, a tiny isle nearby. Traditionally Mactan had fallen within the dominion of Cebu’s rajah, but Lapulapu was an irascible insurgent. He was also particularly hostile toward the men in the Spanish fleet; recently he had ignored a requisition for supplies to feed the visitors. Magellan regarded this refusal as an excellent reason for a trial of strength. He intended to form a punitive shore party, armed seamen who would teach the defiant pagan a lesson, and he had decided to lead it himself.

His officers were appalled. The Spanish monarch had expressly ordered the capitán-general to remain with the fleet, aloof from all landing parties. Indeed, it was a basic principle of both the Spanish and Portuguese governments that the leaders of naval expeditions should never risk their lives in such hazardous adventures. Duarte Barbosa reminded his brother-in-law that the last man to ignore that rule, Juan Díaz de Solís, had been killed at the Río de la Plata. Magellan waved him off. Since his triumphant debut as a faith healer he had felt invincible. In the coming fight, he told the council, he would rely on the cross of Jesus and the support of his patroness, Our Lady of Victory. Armed as he was by them, he could not fail.


NOW IN LATE APRIL of 1521, on the eve of this wholly unnecessary battle, Magellan was everything he had never been. He had never before been reckless, imprudent, careless, or forgetful of the tactical lessons he had learned during Portuguese operations in East Africa, India, Morocco, and Malaya. But he had not been a soldier of Christ then. Here, shielded by divine intervention, he scorned the precautions observed by mortal men preparing for action. Professional fighting men value deception, secrecy, surprise. He announced to Spaniards and Filipinos alike that he would invade Mactan on Saturday, April 27—he believed it was his lucky day—and he invited the people of Cebu to come watch. Before going into action professional fighters study the terrain, and, if the operation is to be amphibious, the tides. Because he disdained all he had learned, he was unaware of Mactan’s encircling reef, which at low tide—at the hour he had chosen for his attack—would prevent his ships from providing covering fire. Professionals court allies. He loftily declined the rajah-king’s offer of a thousand veteran warriors, rejected Crown Prince Lumai’s suggestion that he take the enemy from the rear with a diversionary landing, and rebuffed the Cacique Zula, a Mactan rival of Lapulapu, who proposed that he attack the flank of the rebel chief as the Spaniards waded ashore. Magellan urged each of them to join the spectators, including all the converted chieftains, who would watch from a score of balangays—native canoes—offshore. He needed no help, he said; he and his men could, and would, do the job alone.

Magellan’s strategy was not without precedent. Samuel Eliot Morison points out that “almost every group of European intruders into Africa and America felt that to cement an alliance with the nearest tribe of natives they must deploy fire power against next-door enemies.” Champlain in Canada, Cortés in Mexico, the English in the Carolinas, the Portuguese in India and Africa —all had conquered by dividing. “But,” Morison adds, “for Magellan to do it here, when he had the local situation well in hand, was utter folly.”

He might have pulled it off, had he picked the right men, and enough of them, and then handled them properly. Estimates of the force which would oppose him range from 1,500 to 2,000 natives, but they were an undisciplined mob, a prey to panic, armed with only the most primitive weapons. The whole lot could have been easily routed by 150 properly equipped Spaniards trained in the use of crossbows and harquebuses and led by Gómez de Espinosa, the armada’s alguacil, and his disciplined marines. Cortés and Francisco Pizarro, similarly outnumbered, vanquished the Mexicans and Peruvians. But Magellan spurned conventional approaches. He limited his landing party to 60 seamen because, he said, he intended to show the Filipinos a victory won by Christian soldiers against the greatest odds imaginable. And he wanted to lead only volunteers, 20 from each vessel. This meant that the party would include none of the tough marines, who, deeply offended, stayed on their ships. In the end, according to Don Antonio, Magellan wound up with a motley contingent of unseasoned, unblooded cooks, stewards, and cabin boys—crew temperamentally unsuited for the job ahead, unfamiliar with their weapons, and, as it turned out, inadequately protected by armor, which should have been one of their chief advantages in the fight; corselets and helmets were issued to them, but not —and this was to prove decisive—greaves or leg armor. Lastly, their capitán-general was to be their only officer. That, too, was his doing. Because the members of the council had disapproved of his plan, he had excluded them.

Since the humiliation of Lapulapu would serve as well as his defeat, Magellan decided to give him a final chance. Late Friday evening, as the inexperienced volunteers prepared to pile into three bateaux and row ashore at midnight—undrilled, unrehearsed, unaccompanied even by petty officers—their admiral sent an ultimatum ashore, choosing as couriers his slave Enrique and the Siamese Muslim trader, now known to his fellow Catholics as Cristóbal. The rebel chieftain would be spared, he was told, if he acknowledged the local suzerainty of Cebu’s “Christian king,” accepted the Spanish sovereign as his overlord, and paid tribute to Magellan as commander of the armada. If, on the other hand, he persisted in his defiance, he would learn that Spanish lances could wound. Lapulapu scorned the terms. In a fractious reply he jeered that his troops were also armed with lances, fashioned from the finest bamboo, and with fire-hardened stakes. The Spaniards were amused by that, and laughed even harder at the naive postscript. He would be grateful, the petty rajah added, if the Spaniards would delay their attack until morning, when his opposing force would be greater. Here Magellan actually obliged him. Overestimating his foe’s intelligence, he decided that the request was an attempt to trick him into a night attack. He therefore postponed his operation. It hardly mattered. The landing party—sixty men—arrived in the dark anyway. After a brief pull at the oars the three craft ran aground three hours before daybreak.


THEY WERE NOT, however, ashore. When the Saturday sun rose on an ebb tide, they found themselves stranded on the reef, still far from the beach. Realizing that the boats could not negotiate the intervening coral, Magellan detailed eleven men to remain aboard and cover the landing with the bateaux bombards. Then he stepped out into thigh-deep water and ordered the remaining seamen to follow him and storm the shore. Several of the crew repeatedly implored him not to lead, writes Pigafetta, “but he, like a good shepherd, refused to abandon his flock.”

As they stumbled forward, encumbered by their armor and waist deep in water, it dawned upon the more experienced of them that there would be no covering fire. The reef was too far out; the boats’ small cannons could not reach the enemy. Broadsides from the more powerful guns of the fleet might have been feasible, but Barbosa and Serrano, having been excluded from the mission, were sulking in their bunks below decks, and there was no way their commander could reach them.

The attackers, wading in with all their equipment, were exhausted even before they reached the surf line. There they became confused. Facing them were three forces of naked warriors drawn up, not at the water’s edge, as they had expected, but well inland. According to Pigafetta, Lapulapu, displaying an intuitive grasp of tactics, had deployed his troops behind a triple line of trenches, forming a crescent to envelop the advancing invaders. He had also stationed himself and his bodyguard behind the deepest part of the crescent, out of the Spaniards’ range. If they wanted him, they would have to come after him. Magellan’s experience dictated a prudent withdrawal, but after all his grandiloquence that would mean a shaming loss of face. Instead he issued the command to open fire. Those seamen trained in the use of harquebuses and crossbows responded as best they could, but their ragged volley accomplished nothing. None of the balls, bolts, and arrows reached the mini-rajah, and the rest of them rattled ineffectively off the wooden shields of his men. According to Pigafetta, who was to remain with his capitán-general until the end, the noise of the muskets at first frightened the defenders into backing away, but the respite was brief. Magellan, “wishing to reserve the ammunition for a later stage of the encounter,” in Don Antonio’s words, called out, “¡Alto el fuego!”—“Cease fire!”—“but,” Pigafetta continues, “his order was disregarded in the confusion. When the islanders realized that our fire was doing them little or no harm, they ceased to retire. Shouting more and more loudly, and jumping from side to side to disconcert our aim, they advanced simultaneously, under cover of their shields, assailing us with arrows, javelins … stones, and even filth, so that we were scarcely able to defend ourselves. Some of them began to throw lances with brazen points against our captain.”

The landing party advanced until Magellan realized that the natives were trying to draw them into a trap. In an attempt to panic the enemy, he sent a small party to fire a nearby village. “This,” Don Antonio writes, “only increased their ferocity.” Actually it was worse than that. The party was cut off, and despite their armor all of them—including Serrano’s son-in-law —were speared to death. Alarmed at last, the capitán-general ordered a withdrawal to the boats. He handled it skillfully, dividing his vastly outnumbered party in half, one half to hold the spearmen at bay while the others recrossed the ditches. All went well until, negotiating the last trench, they struck a snag and were held up. Lapulapu scented triumph. Splitting his own force, he sent men racing around both Spanish flanks in a bold attempt to cut them off before they could reach the bateaux.

It was at that point that Magellan paid the ultimate price for having left his marines behind. Discipline in the landing force disintegrated; nearly forty of his men broke for the sea. They lurched across the coral, reached the boats, and cowered there, leaving their embattled leader to fight his last, terrible fight with a loyal remnant: Don Antonio and a handful of others. The uneven struggle lasted over an hour and was fought out in full view of a floating, mesmerized, horrified, but largely immobile audience: the rajah-king of Cebu, Prince Lumai, the Cacique Zula, the other baptized chieftains in the balangays, and the timorous men in the bateaux. The newly converted Filipinos awaited divine intervention by the Madonna, the saints, Our Lady of Victory, or Jesus Christ himself. It never came. Ferdinand Magellan, Knight Commander of the Order of Santiago and emissary of His Christian Majesty of Spain, had no miracles left. Toward the end a small band of his new Christians, Cebu warriors unable to endure the awful spectacle, landed on Mactan to rescue their godfather, but the moment they were ashore a Spanish gunner out in the armada, where no one had stirred till now, fired a medieval culverin at the beach. Castilian luck being what it was that Saturday, the wild shot scored a direct hit on the rescuers, killing four instantly and dispersing the others.

But it took a lot to kill the capitán-general. A poisoned arrow struck his unarmored right foot; reaching down, he ripped it out and fought on. He and his embattled band were knee deep in surf now, showered by stones, sod, and spears—Pigafetta writes that the natives would retrieve the spears and hurl the same one five or six times. Twice Magellan’s helmet was knocked off; twice his men recovered and replaced it. Then he was speared in the face. Half blinded by his own blood, he slew his attacker with his lance, but the weight of the falling spearman wrenched the lance from his grip. Empty-handed, he started to draw his sword and found he couldn’t; an earlier wound had severed the muscles in his sword arm. Seeing him helpless, Lapulapu’s warriors closed in. All but four of Magellan’s men were dead. The survivors tried to cover him with their bucklers, but a native wielding a long terzado—a scimitar—slashed beneath the shields, laying Magellan’s game leg open. As he fell face downward in the water, Pigafetta, bleeding himself from an arrow, saw a dozen warriors “rush upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light and comfort, and our true guide.” Somehow Don Antonio, Enrique, and the two others fought free. “Beholding him dead,” Don Antonio writes, “we, being wounded, retreated as best we could to the boats, which were already pulling off.”

Nothing of Magellan’s person survived. That afternoon the grieving rajah-king, hoping to recover his remains, offered Mactan’s victorious chief a handsome ransom of copper and iron for them. Lapulapu was elated; he had not possessed so much wealth in his lifetime. However, he was unable to produce the body. He could not find it. He searched; accompanied by a delegation from


The death of Magellan

Cebu, he and his warriors carefully examined the shallow surf where Magellan had thrashed his last. The corpses of the other victims lay where they had fallen among the battlefield debris—arrows, discarded spears, fragments of armor—but that was all. None of the capitán-general’s parts turned up; no shred of flesh or tissue, no shard of bone. The only explanation, as inescapable as it is gruesome, is that Mactan’s defenders, in their murderous fever, literally tore him apart, and the sea, which had brought him so far, bore his blood away. Since his wife and child died in Seville before any member of the expedition could return to Spain, it seemed that every evidence of Ferdinand Magellan’s existence had vanished from the earth.


IT WAS ILLUSION. His life had ended, but his voyage had not. To be sure, its next few days were shaky. The magic nimbus which had clothed the Spaniards in glory was gone, as dead as their commander. The disgraceful behavior of the men who had fled to the boats, abandoning their leader, left an unpleasant aftertaste among Filipinos, but there was another reason for their disenchantment. After the chaplain’s memorial service for him, the armada’s prurient seamen, insensitive to their loss, continued to wear out their welcome by impregnating Filipino females. Long afterward one member of the armada’s crews, a Genoese, was asked why the Visayan people had turned against them. He replied: “Violation of the women was the main trouble.”

The revulsion was felt on all levels of native life. In a particularly striking act of backsliding, Cebu’s rajah reverted to paganism and deceit. On the Thursday following the tragic and pointless battle, Humabon, as he again called himself, sent a message to the fleet. Twenty-nine Spaniards—the best officers and most skillful pilots—were invited to dine ashore with him. According to Don Antonio, who declined to attend, two of the guests, growing suspicious, slipped away from the feast and returned to their ships. They had thereby saved their lives; the others, including Duarte Barbosa and Serrano, were cruelly slain. Terrified, the crews aboard Trinidad, Victoria, and Concepción fled with the tide, blindly groping their way through the archipelago. Off the Philippine island of Bohol, between Cebu and Mindanao, the three galleons became two. Concepción was leaking badly, and since there weren’t enough seamen to nurse her along—since its departure from Sanlúcar the flota had lost 150 men—she was set afire and sunk.

On November 6, 1521, after four months of wandering through the Indonesian islands, Victoria reached the Moluccas. There she was joined by Trinidad—Magellan’s flagship. But Trinidad would never again see European waters. She was on her last legs. It was not for lack of seamanship. Her captain now was Gómez de Espinosa, who had been Magellan’s point man in suppressing the San Julián mutiny nineteen months earlier. But Gómez was luckless now. After sailing northward to a point off Hokkaido—trying to reach Panama—the capitán-general’s old flagship was first driven south by high winds, then pursued by a Portuguese fleet. António de Brito, the fleet’s commander, had heard of Magellan’s expedition but not his death. He wanted to arrest him and clap him in irons. Finally cornering Trinidad in Ternate, in the Moluccas, he impounded her papers and stripped her of sails and gear. During a squall she “broke up,” Morison notes, “and became a total loss.” Brito’s report to Lisbon testifies to the cruelty of the age. He had beheaded one member of Trinidad’s crew—because the man was Portuguese, he declared, he was a deserter—and had considered putting all the ship’s complement to the sword. Instead, he wrote, “I detained them in Maluco because it is an unhealthy country, with the intention of having them die there.” Something like that happened; only four of Trinidad’s crewmen survived and eventually made it back to Europe.

Victoria, more fit, sailed homeward carrying twenty-six tons of spices in her hold. It was the expedition’s penultimate irony that her captain was Juan Sebastián del Cano, who, a year and a half earlier, had been among the leaders of the San Julián mutiny. He and his pilot, Francisco Albo, completed the expedition’s circling of the globe. They did it superbly. Unlike Magellan, they faced no unknown waters; the seas beyond their prow were familiar and charted. There was, however, a challenge of another sort. Because her sails bore the royal cross of Castile and Aragon, Victoria was a fair prize for the Portuguese, and Manuel’s empire had become so huge that Cano and Albo, sailing halfway round the world, had to avoid all ports of call in Malacca, the Indies, Africa, and Mozambique. The Cape Verde Islands—known as Ilhas do Cabo Verde since becoming part of the Portuguese royal domain in 1495—should also be avoided if at all possible. All hands, according to Pigafetta, took a vow to die rather than fall into the hands of the Portuguese (“Ma inanti determinamo tutti morir che andar in mano dei Portoghesi”).

For the pilot this meant plotting one long detour after another in a shaky, battered, worm-eaten ship reeking of decay; a listing wreck of groaning timbers taking in water from every seam, manned by sickly figures as they crept across the Indian Ocean, round the tip of Africa, and, in extremis, up Africa’s west coast—altogether, a voyage of 17,800 excruciating miles, the longest leg of the 39,300 miles covered by the expedition. * During their eight months of agony nineteen sailors perished. The crew was reduced to eighteen skeletal phantoms, all that remained of the 265 men who had left Spain three years earlier. After a hairbreadth escape from the Iberian enemy at Santiago, in the Cape Verde Islands—they pretended they were returning from America—lookouts sighted Cape St. Vincent on September 4, 1522. Victoria reached Sanlúcar four days later, and then ended the voyage in triumph, sailing up the Guadalquivir to Seville.

Long ago the Andalusians had given up the Armada de Molucca for lost. Now its survivors were hailed for achieving, in the words of one of their countrymen, “the most wonderful and greatest thing that has ever happened in the world since God created it.” Waterfront landsmen tried to fathom what the emaciated crewmen, calling down to them from Victoria’s decks, meant when they said that their cannons, now saluting the white bell tower of Seville’s La Giralda, had also been fired to celebrate the discoveries of Magellan’s Strait, the Pacific Ocean, and the Philippines. News of their return rapidly spread across the city, across Spain, across Europe. And now came the expedition’s final cruel irony. In Val-ladolid Charles V, having returned from the unpleasantness with Luther at Worms, was pleased to receive, and honor, the last commander of the voyage’s last ship—a man who, had he had his way in Puerto San Julián on April 2, 1520, would have overthrown Magellan even before the fleet had reached the strait.

The canonization of Juan Sebastián del Cano arose from no misunderstanding. Over a year earlier San Antonio, conned by the treacherous Estevão Gomes and his partners in crime, had returned to Seville, where the authorities had convened a royal commission of inquiry. The renegades, assuming that the armada’s remaining vessels had sunk with the loss of all hands, had their tale ready. The gist of it was that they had sailed away from Magellan after discovering that he was planning to betray his command to the Portuguese. Believing it their duty to resist, they testified, they had saved San Antonio by overpowering its captain—Magellan’s cousin Álvaro de Mesquita—and returning home. Magellan’s discovery of the strait had been unmentioned. There was a vague reference to the expedition’s entering a bay (“entraron en una bahía”), but they had then sworn that his search for a paso had been futile (“inútil sin provecho”).

Unconvinced, the commissioners had withheld final judgment pending further news of the flota—meanwhile imprisoning, of all people, Captain Mesquita. Now that the truth was available to them, they released Mesquita and awarded him reparations. The doom of the traitors seemed certain. Logically, the next step should have been an investigation of the earlier mutiny, in which Cano had been their accomplice. It was never taken. He shielded them, and his word was enough, for tarnishing his new image was unthinkable. Castile’s powerful dons had faced a choice between lionizing the capitán-general and honoring the man who had brought the armada’s last ship home. They reached their decision swiftly. The leader of the expedition was now merely a dead Portuguese. Cano, on the other hand, was not only a Spaniard, and very much alive; he was also a member of a noble Basque family. Therefore it was his name, not Magellan’s, which was heard everywhere, exalted and aggrandized.

The emperor, displaying the same ineptness which had distinguished his imperial performance at Worms, directed the farce. Summoning Cano to his court, he knighted him, granted him an annual pension of five hundred gold ducats, and presented him with a meretricious coat of arms on which the inscription Primus circumdedisti me (Thou first circumnavigated me) encircled a globe—thereby giving him full credit for all the capitán-general’s achievements. What made all this particularly shameless was that Francisco Albo, whose logs contained the truth, and without whom Victoria could not have found safe harbor, had accompanied Cano to Valladolid. Afterward Antonio Pigafetta had also been received at the court; as a Venetian of noble birth, he could not be ignored. During the audience he had unwisely presented Charles with the holograph original of his shipboard diary. He never saw it again. Fortunately he had made a copy.

Magellan’s name, when it was mentioned at all, was spoken almost with disdain. Before sailing he had left a will, but none of its beneficiaries—the poor, prisoners, those in the care of monasteries and infirmaries—received a single Spanish maravedi. In Seville he was survived only by his father-in-law, Diego Barbosa, who, having lost two of his children and a grandson to Magellan, cursed the day he had met him. Cano’s advertisers seemed triumphant. It seems never to have occurred to them that history could not be so easily manipulated—that eventually Don Antonio, the other survivors, and the extant logs and records of the voyage would expose them, as in time they did. Nevertheless the most barefaced lies die hard when influence and prejudice have a vested interest in them. Even after true accounts of those three years had appeared and been verified, skepticism flourished. In Castile the feats of the world’s greatest explorer continued to be distorted. His accomplishments were belittled, attributed to others, or, as in the case of the evangelistic obsession which marked his last days, mocked. It was said of the Philippines that he had found them pagan, left them pagan, and by his blundering had assured that they would remain pagan. In Spain the memory of this cruel sally died long before the century ended. Priests in the islands, however, savor it as the culminating Magellan irony, for there the crude Madonna and child which he presented to Rajah Humabon’s first wife may still be found, reverently preserved, and there 60 million Filipinos—85 percent of the population—are Roman Catholics.


SOME TWENTY-FIVE degrees from the south celestial pole two luminous galaxies, easily visible to the naked eye, span the night sky. These companions of the Milky Way are the Magellanic Clouds, trails of glory which arouse awe, give the heavens grandeur, and testify to the immensity of the universe. So high are they that their distance can be grasped only by a mighty sweep of the imagination. A ray of starlight from there, traveling at its speed of over 186,291 miles per second—6 trillion miles a year—cannot become visible on earth for 80,000 years. Thus the illumination which was leaving the Clouds when Magellan emerged from his strait and crossed the Pacific will not reach this planet for another 795 centuries, a cosmic perspective which would have pleased him, as, say, the Magellan Project of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory would not. The capitán-general believed in divine mysteries. He would have had little patience with technologists who poach on territory sovereign to God.

He was not the wisest man of his time. Erasmus was. Neither was he the most gifted. That, surely, was Leonardo. But Magellan became what, as a child, he had yearned to be—the era’s greatest hero. The reason is intricate, but important to understand. Heroism is often confused with physical courage. In fact the two are very different. There was nothing heroic about Magellan’s death. He went into that last darkness a seasoned campaigner, accompanied by his own men, and he was completely fearless because as he drew his last breath he believed—indeed knew—that paradise was imminent. Similarly, the soldier who throws himself on a live grenade, surrendering his life to save his comrades, may be awarded the medal of honor. Nevertheless his deed, being impulsive, is actually unheroic. Such acts, no more reflective than the swift withdrawal of a blistered hand from a red-hot stove, are involuntary. Heroism is the exact opposite—always deliberate, never mindless.

Neither, if it is valor of the first water, may it be part of a group endeavor. All movements, including armies, provide their participants with such tremendous support that pursuit of common goals, despite great risk, is little more than ardent conformity. Indeed, the truly brave member is the man who repudiates the communal objective, challenging the rest of the group outright. Since no such discordant note was ever heard around the Round Table, young Magellan, in his enchantment with the tales of Arthur, Lancelot du Lac, and Gawain, was being gulled. It follows that generals, presidents—all leaders backed by blind masses—are seldom valiant, though interesting exceptions occasionally emerge. Politicians who defy their constituents over matters of principle, knowing they will be driven from office, qualify as heroic. So, to cite a rare military instance, did General MacArthur when, protesting endless casualty lists with no prospect of an armistice, he sacrificed his career and courted disgrace.

The hero acts alone, without encouragement, relying solely on conviction and his own inner resources. Shame does not discourage him; neither does obloquy. Indifferent to approval, reputation, wealth, or love, he cherishes only his personal sense of honor, which he permits no one else to judge. La Rochefoucauld, not always a cynic, wrote of him that he does “without witnesses what we would be capable of doing before everyone.” Guided by an inner gyroscope, he pursues his vision single-mindedly, undiscouraged by rejections, defeat, or even the prospect of imminent death. Few men can even comprehend such fortitude. Virtually all crave some external incentive: the appreciation of peers, the possibility of exculpation, the promise of retroactive affection, the hope of rewards, applause, decorations—of emotional reparations in some form. Because these longings are completely normal, only a man with towering strength of character can suppress them.

In the long lists of history it is difficult to find another figure whose heroism matches Magellan’s. For most sixteenth-century Europeans his Vorstellung—to circle the globe—was unimaginable. To launch the pursuit of this vision, he had to turn his back on his own country, inviting charges of treason. His ships, when they were delivered to him, were unseaworthy. Before his departure Portuguese agents repeatedly tried, with some success, to sabotage his expedition. When he did sail, his hodgepodge crews couldn’t even communicate in the same tongue, and the background of the captains assigned to him almost guaranteed mutiny and treachery, which indeed followed. Unable even to confide in anyone else after his crushing disappointment at the Río de la Plata, he stubbornly continued his search for the strait he alone believed in, and when he had at last found it, deserters fled with his largest ship and the bulk of the fleet’s provisions. Of his other four vessels, three could not complete the voyage. During the armada’s crossing of the Pacific, an epic of fortitude, it was its commander’s inflexible will which fueled morale and stamina. His discovery of the Philippines dwarfed his original goal—the Moluccas—and he died trying to bring them into the modern age.

The shabby circumstances of his death are troubling, representing flagrant deviance from his code of conduct. They may be partly explained by his exhilaration after sailing around the world, and partly by the fact that, living in a God-ridden age, he was distorted by its imperatives. Yet the distortion in him was slight when measured against other chief figures of his time. The hands of contemporary popes, kings, and reformers were drenched with innocent blood. His were spotless. Granted that his misjudgments on Mactan were unworthy of him, the fact remains that few men have paid so high a price for their lapses. He lost not only his life, but, of even greater moment, the triumphant completion of his voyage and vindication in his time.

His character was, of course, imperfect. But heroes need not be admirable, and indeed most have not been. The web of driving traits behind their accomplishments almost assures that. Men who do the remarkable—heroic and otherwise—frequently fail in their personal relationships. This unpleasant reality is usually glossed over in burnishing the images of the great. So many eminent statesmen, writers, painters, and composers have been intolerable sons, husbands, fathers, and friends that they may fairly be said to have been the rule. Lincoln’s marriage was a disaster. Franklin Roosevelt, to put it in the kindest possible way, was a dissembler.

They were achievers. Genuine paladins are even likelier to have been objectionable. Yet their flaws, though deplorable, are irrelevant; in the end their heroism shines through untarnished. Had Ferdinand Magellan met Jesus Christ, the Galilean might have felt a pang of disappointment—which the capitán-general might have shared—but Magellan, like Christ, was also a hero. He still is. He always will be. Of all the tributes to him, therefore, the Magellanic Clouds are the most appropriate. Like them, his memory shines down upon the world his voyage opened, illuminating it from infinity to eternity.


THE FULL significance of the great voyage was not grasped until much later, but its most profound implication had begun to emerge two months before the Victoria’s return to Spanish waters, when she was anchored off Santiago in the Cape Verde Islands. There the shore party became entangled with the Portuguese over what at first appeared to be a trivial argument. They disagreed over which day of the week it was. Throughout their long absence, now approaching three years, Pigafetta had scrupulously dated each day’s entry, beginning with “Tuesday, September 20, 1519,” when the Armada de Molucca left Sanlúcar de Barrameda, and continuing with “Wednesday,” “Thursday,” and so on. Arriving here he noted that the date was Wednesday, July 9, 1522. But crewmen who landed to pick up supplies reported that in Santiago it was Thursday, July 10.

Don Antonio was puzzled. It was inconceivable that he could have missed a day. He checked with Albo, who, on instructions from Magellan, had also kept a record of the days in his ship’s log. Albo agreed: It was Wednesday, no question about it. The Cape Verde Portuguese, they decided, had somehow fallen into error. However, when they reached Sanlúcar on what they knew to be Saturday, September 6, the Spaniards greeting them insisted that it was Sunday, September 7. Somehow the flota had dropped twenty-four hours out of the calendar.

None of the great geographers, neither Aristotle, Ptolemy, nor Pierre d’Ailly, had anticipated this riddle. Sixteenth-century European men of science, as startled as Pigafetta and Albo, toiled over their desks until they came up with what, they unanimously agreed, was the only possible solution. Copernicus, they concluded, was right. The earth was rolling eastward, completing a full cycle every day. Magellan and his men had been sailing westward, against that rotation; having traversed a full circle, the circumnavigators had gained exactly twenty-four hours. Geocentrism—the age-old conviction that the earth was the center of the universe—was therefore discredited. The earth was not only round; it was moving. In fact, it was revolving around its own axis.

Magellan was not there to savor the moment, but it was his finest. In many ways it was the crowning triumph of the age, the final, decisive blow to the dead past. Those with the most to lose ignored their defeat, denied the discovery, and denounced those who endorsed it as heretics. Couriers had galloped off to report both the circumnavigation and the confusion over dates to the pope. He now rejected the obvious explanation. Actually, he would have been betraying his predecessors in Saint Peter’s chair if he had accepted it. The Church had always held that whenever observed experience conflicted with Holy Scripture, observation had to yield. And the authority of the Bible, historically interpreted, denied the possibility of a heliocentric system.

Accordingly, the Holy Office in Rome declared that the notion of a moving earth circling the sun was “philosophically foolish and absurd and formally heretical, inasmuch as it expressly contradicts the doctrines of Holy Scripture in many places, both according to their literal meaning and according to the common exposition and interpretation of the Holy Fathers and learned theologians.” Twenty-eight successive pontiffs agreed. It took the Church three hundred years to change its mind. Copernicus’s De revolutionibus was removed from the Catholic Index in 1758, but the ban on Galileo’s Dialogue continued until 1822, exactly three centuries after Albo’s log and Don Antonio’s diary had become available to the Holy See.

Nevertheless, patristic mulishness could not diminish the glory of the armada’s achievement. The power of the medieval mind was forever broken. Medieval certitude had been weakened by the Renaissance. Nationalism, humanism, rising literacy, the new horizons of trade—all these had challenged blind, ritualistic allegiance to the assumptions of a thousand years. But Magellan’s voyage exposed its central myth. Europe was no longer the world, and the world was no longer the center of the universe. Since the earth was revolving daily, heaven and hell could not be located where they had been thought to be, and in rational minds there was a growing skepticism that either of them existed. God without heaven was inconceivable, at least the medieval God was, but here reason ended. Christendom found the prospect of a godless world intolerable. Because faith in a higher power was needed, it would be necessary to find, or even to fabricate, another Creator, a new King of Kings and Lord of Lords — “Si Dieu n’existait pas, il faudrait l’inventer” (“If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him”), Voltaire would write in 1770.

He insisted that it was unnecessary. He scorned l’infâme, as he called the Church, but not God’s existence—“toute la nature crie qu’il existe.” Yet he protested too much. Doubt plagued Voltaire. Strong, ardent, and devout men have been struggling with its challenge for nearly five centuries. They have met with varying degrees of success. Worldwide there are now a billion Christians alive. Confidence in an afterlife, however, is another matter. The specter of skepticism haunts shrines and altars. Worshipers want to believe, and most of the time they persuade themselves that they do. But suppressing doubt is hard. Secular society makes it harder. Hardest of all is the sense of loss, the knowledge that the serenity of medieval faith, and the certitude of everlasting glory, are forever gone.


user comment image
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

Share your Thoughts for A World Lit Only by Fire

500+ SHARES Facebook Twitter Reddit Google LinkedIn Email
Share Button