To sailors of the 16th century, crossing the Atlantic was a very perilous undertaking, one which filled them with dread. Concerning a storm they encountered on the ocean, Pigafetta has this to say:
"During these storms the body of St. Anselm appeared to us several times. And among others on a night which was very dark, at a time of bad weather, the said saint appeared in the form of a lighted torch at the height of the maintop, and remained there more than two hours and a half, to the comfort of us all. For we were in tears, expecting only the hour of death."
Of course, we recognize this description today as St. Elmo's fire (an electrical discharge which appears on tall masts during stormy weather), but to Magellan's men it must have seemed like a supernatural apparition.
The expedition reached the land of Verzin (i.e., Brazil) on December 13, 1519. After staying for thirteen days and replenishing their supplies, the expedition headed south. Stopping in the Rio de la Plata, the expedition encountered cannibals for the first time whom Pigafetta describes as "giants". Apparently they were taller than the Europeans were. Magellan ordered that two of them be captured and brought back to Spain in irons:
"Forthwith the captain had the fetters put on the feet of both of them. And when they saw the bolt across the fetters being struck with a hammer to rivet it and prevent them from being opened, these giants were afraid. But the captain made signs to them that they should suspect nothing. Nevertheless, perceiving the trick that had been played on them, they began to blow and foam at the mouth like bulls, loudly calling on Setebos (that is, the great devil) to help them."
Thus we see the Spanish treatment of its new subjects take root during its formative years. This very year 1519 would see another Spanish expedition begin its conquest of the Aztec Empire in modern-day Mexico. Relations with the "giants" worsened and soon fighting erupted. The expedition suffered its first casualty when one of Magellan's men was hit with a poison arrow and soon died.
The expedition continued its southern trek but soon the southern hemisphere winter began closing in. On March 31, 1520 they reached Puerto San Julian at a latitude of 49 deg. 30' S. (the latitude measurements conducted during the voyage were extremely accurate; for example, the pilot on Magellan's ship recorded a latitude here of 49 deg. 20' S., off by just ten minutes of arc). Magellan decided to winter here until August 24, 1520. Soon after arriving at Puerto San Julian a conspiracy to take over the ships was discovered. The perpetrators were dealt with in an extremely harsh way:
"...as soon as we entered the port, the masters of the other four ships conspired against the captain-general to bring about his death. Whose names were Juan de Cartagena, overseer of the fleet, the treasurer Luis de Mendoza, the overseer Antonio de Coca, and Gaspar Quesada. But the treachery was discovered, because the treasurer was killed by dagger blows, then quartered. This Gaspar Quesada had his head cut off, and then he was quartered. And the overseer Juan de Cartagena, who several days later tried to commit treachery, was banished with a priest, and put in exile on that land named Patagoni (i.e., Patagonia)."
Just a historical note, quartering was the practice in which the executed criminal's body was cut into four pieces with each piece being displayed in a different place. If this was how the Europeans were going to treat one another, their harsh treatment of the natives in any lands they came across is not really surprising. All of the executed men were Spaniards (Cartagena had been captain of the Santo Antonio, Mendoza had been captain of the Victoria, and Quesada had been captain of the Concepcion). Magellan now put fellow Portuguese in charge of the other four ships because he trusted them more.
After the mutiny was suppressed the Santiago was sent south to scout the coast. On May 22, 1520 she ran aground and shipwrecked. Only one man out of a crew of 37 onboard the Santiago was killed during the shipwreck. The others were rescued. Now the expedition was down to four ships. On August 24, 1520 the four ships continued their trek southward. On October 21, 1520 they rounded a cape which they called the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins (i.e., Cabo Virgenes). On the other side was the entrance into the famous strait which now bears Magellan's name. They were in latitude 52 deg. S. Pigafetta makes this interesting statement:
"But the captain-general said that there was another strait which led out, saying that he knew it well and had seen it in a marine chart of the King of Portugal, which a great pilot and sailor named Martin of Bohemia had made."
This passage tends to suggest that some previous explorer had discovered the Strait of Magellan. But if so then why wasn't the news publicized all over Europe? And if so then why would Magellan winter at a latitude of 49 deg. 30' S. for five months when he knew that just a few degrees to the south lay the strait that would take him to the other side of the Americas? So Pigafetta may have just been flat-out wrong in this assertion. Whatever the case may be, Magellan sent the Concepcion and the Santo Antonio to explore the inlet and report back their findings. A great storm came up and engulfed the two ships and they were sent hurtling towards the west shore of the inlet. Luckily for them the inlet opened into the strait which they entered. The Trinidad and the Victoria waited for the two ships to report. After two days they began to lose hope for their comrades when all of a sudden the two lost ships reappeared with the good news about the discovery of the strait.
The strait now branched into a southeast channel and a southwest channel (leading to the Pacific Ocean). The Concepcion and the Santo Antonio were sent to explore the southeast channel while the Trinidad and the Victoria explored the southwest channel. The Santo Antonio became separated from the Concepcion. During the night there was a mutiny onboard the Santo Antonio and the mutineers decided to return to Spain without telling the other three ships. So now the expedition was down to three ships. Magellan succeeded in finding the outlet into the new ocean which he named Mar Pacifico (i.e., the Pacific Ocean). He then returned to rendezvous with the other two ships only to find that the Santo Antonio had disappeared. What had become of her was anyone's guess. He couldn't afford to wait around and find out. On November 28, 1520 the Trinidad, the Victoria, and the Concepcion sailed out into the broad Pacific Ocean.
Now began the most hazardous part of the voyage. They had to cross the largest ocean on the planet without enough supplies to last them through the crossing. The crossing took ninety-eight days. On March 6, 1521 they arrived in the Islas de los Ladrones (i.e., the Islands of the Thieves or the Marianas). By that time Magellan's men were suffering from scurvy due to malnutrition. The men had been forced to eat rats and sawdust in order to survive. Twenty-nine of the men had died and another thirty were near to death. The expedition's experience in the Marianas was not a pleasant one. Magellan had intended to land at Guam but before he could do so dozens of native boats approached the three ships. The natives climbed on board and made off with anything which wasn't nailed down (hence earning the name "Islands of the Thieves").
Magellan had no choice but to push on. He steered a course headed southwest. On March 16, 1521 they arrived at the island of Zzamal (i.e., Samar in the Philippines). There were several small islands off the coast of Samar which the expedition visited. The name chosen by Magellan for the entire island group was the Archipelago of St. Lazarus. They sailed south where they landed on the small island of Mazzaua (i.e., Limasawa which is just off the southern coast of Leyte) on March 28, 1521. A boat filled with natives approached the Spanish vessels. Magellan owned a slave named Enrique of Sumatra who tried to speak with the natives in the Malay language. One of the natives who turned out to be the local king was able to understand him. From then on communication between the Spaniards and the Philippine natives was not much of a problem. On Easter Sunday (March 31, 1521) Magellan and his men celebrated mass onshore. This was the first Christian religious service celebrated anywhere in the Philippines.
When Magellan asked the local king where was the best place to obtain supplies he was referred to the island of Zzubu (i.e., Cebu). He even offered to provide pilots who could guide Magellan there. On April 7, 1521 Magellan's three ships arrived in the port of Cebu:
"On Sunday the seventh of April, about noon, we entered the port of Zzubu, having passed by many villages, where we saw some houses which were built on trees. And nearing the principal town the captain-general ordered all the ships to put out their flags. Then we lowered the sails as is done when one is about to fight, and fired all the artillery, at which the people of those places were in great fear."
Magellan sought to awe the Cebuanos into submission by a show of force. But he had completely misjudged the people he was dealing with. The port of Zzubu (located where present-day Cebu City is) was not some backwater filled with hillbillies. Instead, Cebu was in those days an international seaport which routinely received trading ships from China, Brunei, and various other places. Indeed, only four days before Magellan arrived a ship from Siam had departed from Cebu. The local king was a man named Rajah Humabon (Rajah is an honorific meaning king) and he was distinctly unimpressed with his new visitors. When Rajah Humabon suggested that the Spaniards should pay tribute to him before being allowed into port, Magellan replied that the servant of the King of Spain paid tribute to no one. The king requested one day to think the matter over.
During the night Rajah Humabon had an abrupt change of heart. In the morning he informed Magellan that he no longer wanted tribute. He suggested that Magellan and himself undergo a simple ceremony in which they exchanged a little blood from their arms in order to cement their new friendship. Magellan agreed and soon he and Rajah Humabon were blood brothers, or so it seemed at the time. In reality Rajah Humabon was plotting the eventual destruction of the Spaniards.
Now for the first time during the voyage the topic of religious conversion raised its ugly head. Several of the natives expressed an interest in learning more about Christianity. As Pigafetta puts it:
"And the captain told them that they should not become Christians for fear of us, or in order to please us, but that if they wished to become Christians, it should be with a good heart and for the love of God. For that, if they did not become Christians, we should show them no displeasure. But that those who became Christians would be more regarded and better treated than the others. Then all cried out together with one voice that they wished to become Christians not for fear, nor to please us, but of their own free will. Then the captain said that if they became Christians he would leave them weapons which Christians use..."
So there was an obvious inducement to become Christians for the Cebuanos. By doing so they would be given some of the Spanish weaponry which they so much desired (e.g., arquebuses, body armor, etc.). On Sunday, April 14, 1521 a large platform was set up in the city for a mass baptism ceremony. Rajah Humabon was the first Cebuano to become baptized followed by fifty of his chief advisors. Next, the queen (i.e., Queen Juana who was the chief wife of Rajah Humabon) was baptized along with forty of her attendants. When she saw a carving of the Christ child which the Spanish had, she asked for it as a gift. When the Spanish conquistador Miguel de Legazpi arrived in Cebu in 1565, this carving of the Christ child was recovered in almost perfect condition (an event which was and is considered something of a miracle). Today if you want to see the statue (known as the Santo Nino) you have to go to the Basilica Minore del Santo Nino in downtown Cebu City.
The situation in Cebu seemed to be settled. Soon thousands of Cebuanos were lining up to receive baptism. There was just one little fly in the ointment. The rajah of the neighboring island of Mattan (i.e., Mactan) refused to obey Rajah Humabon and convert to Christianity. His name was Cilapulapu (i.e., Lapulapu). Rajah Humabon convinced Magellan that Lapulapu wouldn't present much of a threat. With a force of only sixty men Magellan should be able to completely crush Lapulapu's forces. Thus began a military blunder the likes of which would not be seen again until a certain General Custer attacked some Indians at the Little Bighorn River. Magellan arrived off the coast of Mactan with a force of sixty men in three small boats in the early morning hours of April 27, 1521. When dawn arrived forty-nine of the men led by Magellan himself jumped into the shallow water and attempted to wade ashore. There to greet them were almost 3,000 of Lapulapu's warriors.
The Spaniards were in full body armor. Nevertheless a rain of arrows and javelins poured down on them from the shore. Magellan, realizing he had blundered, called a retreat but it was too late:
"Our large pieces of artillery which were in the ships could not help us, because they were firing at too long range, so that we continued to retreat for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore, still fighting, and in water up to our knees. And they followed us, hurling poisoned arrows four or six times; while, recognizing the captain, they turned toward him inasmuch they hurled arrows very close to his head."
About eight of Magellan's men were pinned down with Magellan, unable to move (including Pigafetta himself). The rest made it back to the boats. Magellan had been shot through the leg with a poison arrow. A crowd of Cebuano warriors surrounded him and one stuck a javelin through his leg. Magellan collapsed and was soon hacked to pieces. In the confusion the eight men who had been with him at his death, made it back to the boats. All told, the Spaniards had lost eight dead and the Cebuanos had lost fifteen dead. In the annals of military history this was but a small skirmish. But to the men of the expedition the news was devastating. It was clear to them that Magellan had been the brains behind their expedition. Now he was dead. How were they ever going to get home alive now?
That night Rajah Humabon requested Lapulapu to return the body of Magellan. Lapulapu refused. He intended to keep the body as a war trophy. The Spaniards elected two new leaders to lead the expedition, Duarte Barbosa and Joao Serrao. On May 1, 1521 Rajah Humabon invited the new leaders to breakfast. Twenty-four men went to dine with their "Christian" ally. Pigafetta could not go because he was still nursing the wounds he had suffered at the Battle of Mactan. Soon a great commotion could be heard from the ships. The shore party had been treacherously attacked by the forces of Rajah Humabon. Only one remained alive and he was Joao Serrao. He yelled from the shore that the others were dead and that Rajah Humabon demanded a ransom for his life. The highest ranking officer still aboard the ships, Joao Carvalho, refused to pay the ransom. Fearing more treachery from the Cebuanos, the three Spanish ships promptly weighed anchor and left.
Before leaving Cebu, Pigafetta was able to amass a word list of the Cebuano language as it was spoken at that time. The following table gives a sample of Pigafetta's word list with comparisons to modern Cebuano:
As you can see, many of the words that Pigafetta recorded in 1521 are very similar to the modern Cebuano equivalents.
Now the expedition had a problem. Out of an original crew of 270 men only 120 were left. That was not enough to man three ships. It was decided to abandon the Concepcion and burn it so that it wouldn't fall into Portuguese hands. The crew of the Concepcion were distributed among the two remaining ships. They sailed southwest and soon arrived at the island of Pulaoan (i.e., Palawan). The island was inhabited by Moors (i.e., Moslems). They then proceeded to the city of Brunei on the island of Burne (i.e., Borneo) arriving in July 1521. After leaving Brunei the expedition stopped on the coast of Borneo to repair the ships. This took more than a month. Taking off again, they were finally able to find someone who could give them directions to the Moluccas, and so they proceeded south to the islands of what is now called Indonesia. They finally arrived at one of the islands of the Moluccas on November 8, 1521.
Now the Spaniards exchanged all of their trade goods (which chiefly consisted of red cloth, glass, etc.) for cloves. Both the Trinidad and the Victoria were loaded to capacity with the rare spice. Unfortunately when it was time to go the Trinidad sprang a leak and could not leave. It would take weeks to repair her. So it was decided that the Victoria would sail without the Trinidad. The Victoria left port on December 21, 1521 under the command of Juan Sebastian de Elcano. Passing off the coast of the island of Timor they entered the Indian Ocean and sailed west towards Africa. On May 19, 1522 they rounded the Cape of Good Hope (i.e., the southern tip of Africa). By now the ship was falling apart. The top of the mast had been damaged during a storm. And the men were starving yet again.
On July 9, 1522 they reached the Cape Verde islands (under Portuguese control). So desperate was their plight that they sent some men onshore to obtain supplies. Some much needed rice was purchased but the Portuguese authorities became suspicious and decided to detain thirteen of the men. The Victoria left in a hurry fearing that the Portuguese would impound the ship. On September 8, 1522 they arrived back in Seville from whence they had departed three years earlier. Out of an initial crew of 270 men, only 18 men made it back alive. Such were the risks of 16th century exploration.
Upon arriving home Pigafetta noted that the calendar was inexplicably advanced one day. He had kept a careful daily journal and he was sure that he had recorded each and every day. So he was at a loss to explain this inconsistency. Of course, we laugh today recognizing that in crossing the Pacific Ocean, Magellan's expedition had gained a day by crossing the International Dateline. Of course, back then there was no International Dateline. It had not been needed before Magellan. It took the best minds in Europe in the 16th century to explain this discrepancy. In following the sun west through a full 360 degrees of longitude the expedition had lost one full day.
I must admit that I fully enjoyed this book. But then again, I'm a history buff. But I would caution the casual reader that it is impossible to figure out what is really going on unless you consult the footnotes. That is because the translation is put into 16th century English and all the place names are the obsolete versions which Pigafetta actually used. I found myself constantly paging back and forth between the main text and the footnotes. For these technical reasons I can only give this book three stars. If you can get past the technical obstacles then I think you will enjoy this story. After all, it is the greatest adventure story in history!