Magellan and the Pacific

Edward Everett Hale

Although only a small part of Hale's text deals with Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, his entire account is included here for its historical interest.

Fernando Magellan
from an old print


FERNANDO MAGALHAENS, the greatest of navigators, was the first who struck the east of Asia by the westward voyage from Europe. It was what Columbus had attempted; he had attempted it in four voyages. Magalhaens, using wisely the experience of almost a generation of Columbus's followers, succeeded. The remnant of his crew—without him, alas—were the first men to circumnavigate the world.

The man himself is one of the most interesting of heroes—a knight of old romance, of unselfish and dauntless courage, the first of seamen, and an accomplished gentleman, all in one. With his great voyage the real history of the Pacific Ocean begins. Till his time all men supposed that there was a narrow sea between America and Asia. He made the map of the world over.

Within the last forty years his remarkable voyage has been illustrated anew by the discovery in manuscript of forgotten narratives by his fellow-sailors, and by the observations of seamen and naturalists of our time. Everything which thus comes to light of his arrangements for his voyage and of the causes of its success reflects new honor upon him. In trying to describe this voyage anew I shall use these recent authorities. I shall not try, however, to change the custom of all recent French and English writers, who have almost unanimously called him Fernando Magellan, as they have called the strait which bears his name Magellan's Strait. This is but a matter of spelling, in which these authors have followed the Latin spelling of his name.

Magellan's Ships

He was born of a noble Portuguese family a few years before the discovery of the West Indies by Columbus. He was brought up in the court of King John II of Portugal, in those marvellous years of the end of the fifteenth century, when the enthusiasm for new discovery was at the highest,—when Da Gama sailed and succeeded, when little Portugal had half the world given to her by the famous bull of Alexander,* and when the King and nation alike were eager for new discovery. The young Fernando was trained for service on fleets as well as for the army. His early education was in the household of Queen Leonora, from which he passed into the service of King John, as afterward into that of King Emmanuel.

* The Kings of Spain and Portugal agreed, at Tordesillas, to divide the new discoveries by a meridian line three hundred and sixty miles west of the meridian of Ferro. Portugal was to take the eastern part, Spain the western. Pope Alexander confirmed this division in the year 1494.

His precise age at that time is not now known. But his first military and naval service, when he was yet a very young man, was in the great fleet of twenty-two vessels sent out by King John in 1505, under Francisco de Almeida, for the reduction of the islands in the East Indies discovered by Portugal. Magellan distinguished himself more than once in the critical operations thus begun. He was at the sack of Quiloa, and was in the expedition detached under Vaz Pereira to take possession of the island of Sofala. He assisted in the conquest of Malacca, and by his prudence and courage saved the expedition of Sequeira from a dangerous native conspiracy. In 1510 he was sent out, still farther east, for the exploration and discovery of the Spice Islands, of which the Portuguese had heard through the native traders. Magellan now was in command of a separate expedition. Serrano, always his friend, commanded another. Abren, a third officer, separated from Serrano by a storm, discovered Banda. Serrano was shipwrecked, but saved his life, and worked his way on to Amboyna, where eventually he established himself. Magellan meanwhile reached certain Malayan islands six hundred leagues, it is said, beyond Malacca. He was able to communicate with his friend Serrano, and from him gained information new to Europe as to the wealth of the Spice Islands and their position. This information was the basis on which, when the time came, he built the plan of his great expedition.

From this outpost of duty Magellan returned to Portugal. In a war which the King was carrying on against Morocco, Magellan was wounded in the knee, and forced to return to Portugal. This wound made him lame for life; yet it was the cause of one of the indignities which drove him from his own country. Another was the scornful reply given to an application which he made for an increase, due to him on the standard of his military rank in the palace, of allowances made to him for his horses. His claim was rejected, and he was told at the same time that his lameness was a pretence. Outraged by this indignity, Magellan renounced his allegiance. With all the pride of a Portuguese nobleman, he published a formal act, declaring that he abandoned the service of the crown of Portugal. With his friend Ruy Faleiro, who also was dissatisfied with Portugal, he went to Spain. He offered his services to Charles the Fifth, and never returned to an ungrateful country. It is but fair to say that even the Portuguese historians admit that this extreme course had full justification.

To Charles V., Magellan and Faleiro at once proposed the plan of the great voyage which was to strike the Spice Islands on the eastern side by sailing west from Spain. This was simply a renewal of the plan of Columbus, but it was a renewal with the advantage of twenty-five years of experience and discovery. No time was to be lost in exploration of America. The squadron was to be fitted out for trade with the Spice Islands. Magellan knew where they were, what their natives wanted, and what they could produce in return. To his eager statement and Faleiro's the King of Spain gave a careful and sympathetic hearing. He finally agreed to fit out an expedition, at the royal charge, on the complete scale which the adventurers proposed. The chief part of the profit was to come into the royal treasury. On this basis a contract was signed on the 22d of March, 1518.

Then followed endless intrigue, especially at Seville, where was then the great naval establishment of Spain. The jealousy of other naval commanders, who left no stone unturned to deprive a Portuguese nobleman of a charge so great, was the centre of all the difficulties which surrounded the plan. But Charles was true to his promise. The expedition was fitted out more thoroughly than any which had ever sailed from Spain. Poor Faleiro, however, went crazy before he saw it sail. But at last, all difficulties being in a fashion surmounted, the squadron fairly got to sea on the 20th of September, 1519. It consisted of five vessels, the Trinidad, the Sant' Antonio, the Conception [sic, Concepción], the Victoria, and the Santiago. The first two were of 120 toneles, the third of 90, and the others of 80 and 75 each. A tonele is about one and a fifth of our tons. The flag-ship was therefore of about 144 tons of our measurement.

Thoroughly equipped in stores for trade, in armament, and in sea furniture, the squadron had this misfortune: the second vessel was under the command of Juan de' Carthagena, who had been appointed, in consequence of the jealousies about Magellan,as veedor or “inspector” of the expedition, as a kind of guard against his over-authority. From the first Magellan regarded him as an intermeddling spy, and he was probably right in that opinion. Before the fleet left the Cape Verd Islands to stretch across the Atlantic, Carthagena claimed the right to know what were the King's orders. Magellan replied by putting him in the stocks, which was of course the most shameful indignity to an officer of his rank. At the importunity of the other captains, Magellan yielded so far as to liberate him from confinement. But he deprived him of office, and kept him under arrest till they all arrived at San Julian at the beginning of the Southern winter.

Their first American port was the Bay of Rio Janeiro, to which they gave the name of Santa Lucia. It had been explored by Lopez four years before, and even before that time. There was one Portuguese trader settled on an island in the bay, the pioneer settler of the great city which stands there to-day. The whole crew were delighted with the luxuries of the climate and the cordiality of the simple natives. “You can buy six hens for a king of diamonds,” says Pigafetta, the amusing historian of the voyage. “They are not Christians, but they are not idolaters, for they adore nothing; instinct is their only law.” This is his summary account of their religious habit and condition, an account proved to be quite inadequate by more careful inquiries. After thirteen days spent in this bay the squadron resumed its voyage of discovery.

They looked in at the great estuary of the river La Plata; but Solis,§ who had lost his life there, had already discovered that this was not a passage to the Pacific. Still coasting southward, they sighted and perhaps landed on the Island of Penguins and the Island of Sea Lions, and here were struck by a terrible storm. Not far from these islands, on the shore of the continent, they discovered the Bay of San Julian, and here Magellan determined to winter.

§ Juan Díaz de Solís, in 1516.

Here, alas, began his more serious troubles—troubles which followed him, in one or another misfortune dating from San Julian, all through his voyage. The disaffection of Carthagena and what must be called his party broke out as soon as the instructions were given for wintering so far from home. They declared that the provisions were not sufficient. The disaffection does not seem to have demoralized the crews as badly as it did their officers, yet when the crisis was over, Magellan said he pardoned forty of them, and this was a large remnant in a force of only two hundred and thirty-six men. The disobedience of the commanders first showed itself in an open act the day after their arrival in harbor, on Palm-Sunday, 1520, which fell that year on the 1st of April. Magellan invited the chief officers of the fleet to hear mass with him, and to dine on board the flag-ship. Of the captains only his own cousin, Mesquita, came. He appeared with the officers of his ship. De Coea came also, who held the rank of “contador,” with his staff. But Mendoza and Quesada did not come, and of course Carthagena did not, who was under arrest on Quesada's vessel. The night after this unsuccessful dinner party Quesada and his prisoner Carthagena, with thirty men from the Concepción, crossed to the Sant' Antonio and seized her, making Mesquita their prisoner. Quesada took command of this ship, and Carthagena resumed command of the Concepción. The conspirators were thus in possession of three ships, and began to dictate terms to Magellan. They told him that they were ready to acknowledge him as chief and to kiss his hands, but that the King's commands for the voyage must be obeyed, and they professed, perhaps supposed, that these commands did not involve a winter sojourn at San Julian. Magellan curtly told them to come on board the flag-ship. When they refused, he sent Espinosa with six armed men on board the Victoria, with a peremptory order to Mendoza to come on board the Trinidad. When Mendoza declined contemptuously, Espinosa closed on him and stabbed him; a sailor struck him over the head with a cutlass and killed him. This bold act virtually broke up the conspiracy. Magellan sent another boat under Barbosa to seize the Victoria, and the next day put the other two vessels under officers who were devoted to him.

On the 4th of April he quartered the body of Mendoza and proclaimed him a traitor. On the 7th he beheaded Quesada as a traitor. Carthagena and the priest Sanches de la Reina, who had joined in the conspiracy, were adjudged guilty of treason, and sentenced to be left at San Julian after the squadron sailed. Forty men of lower rank were, as has been said, “pardoned,” with the condition that they should serve loyally through the rest of the voyage.

Fortunately for the credit of civilization, none of the savages of the country appeared while this tragedy was in progress. Magellan made the ships secure at the shore, built a forge and storehouse, and some huts for barracks, and established a little observatory, where Andres San Martin determined the latitude as 49° 18.' Longitude, in those times, they could not well determine.

While they were thus occupied a little party of natives appeared, and after some friendly signalling one or more of them came on board. Magellan directed a sailor to land, and to imitate every gesture of the first who appeared, as a token of friendship. The man acted his part so well that the gentle savage was propitiated, and readily came to an interview. On this or another occasion six Indians consented to go on board the flag-ship. Their Spanish hosts gave them a kettle full of biscuit—enough for twenty men, in the Castilian measure of appetite. But the hungry Indians devoured it all. Two, at least, of these visitors were of unusual size. The Spaniards only came up to their girdles. But, as the children's books say, these were “friendly giants.” One of them saw the sailors throwing rats overboard, and begged that he might have them for his own. Afterward he regularly received the rats caught on board the ships as a daily perquisite. Before their voyage was over, Magellan's sailors were glad enough to follow his example, and to place these fellow-voyagers on their bill of fare at the rate of a ducat apiece.§

§ Or twice the price of a mouse.

This party of six—and a party of nine seen at another time—which may have included part or all of the first six, are all of the natives whom Magellan and his men ever saw. Of these, it seems certain that two at least were very large. All the Indians wore large shoes, which they stuffed with straw for warmth. From this custom the Spaniards gave them the name of Patagons, meaning in Spanish those who have large feet.§ When Magellan was about to sail, he determined to carry the two giants home as curiosities. It was impossible to overpower either of them in fair contest, and he resorted to treachery, which can only be excused on the theory of the Spaniards at that time that all these savages were to be ranked among brutes, over whom Christian men had certain special rights. The two friendly giants, being about to leave the ships, Magellan loaded them with presents. He gave them knives, mirrors, and glass trinkets, so that their hands were full, then he offered to each a chain. They were passionately fond of iron, but could not take the chains from [the] very embarrassment of riches. With their full consent, therefore, Magellan bade the smith fasten the chains to their legs by the manacles which were attached to them. When it was too late the poor giants found, as so many wiser men have found, that they had accepted too many presents, and that in their very wealth they were made slaves. When they discovered this they were wild with rage, and vainly called on their god Setebos* to come to their succor.

§ See Origin of Some Early Place Names for other explanations.

* Shakespeare took the name Setebos from Eden's narrative of this voyage.

Not satisfied with this success, Magellan tried to make more captives. He directed nine of his strongest men to compel two of the Indians to take them to the station where their women were. One of them escaped, but the other was subdued after a hard conflict. He consented to lead them to the wives of the two prisoners. When the women heard of the fate of their lords they uttered such screams that they were heard at the ships far away. The Spaniards had such superiority in numbers that they expected the next morning to carry the Indian women and their children on board ship. But meanwhile two Indian men came, who spent the night with them, and at daybreak the whole party escaped together. In their flight they killed one of the Spaniards with a poisoned arrow. Magellan sent a large party on shore and buried him.

And so they parted—the Spaniards and the Patagonians. The two giants were separated; one was placed on the Trinidad, and the other on the Sant' Antonio. It was from these experiences that Europe took the notion, which is, perhaps, not yet fully dispelled, that Patagonia was a region of giants.

Before the Southern winter was over, Magellan despatched the Santiago to explore the coast. At more than one hundred miles' distance from them the vessel was lost on the rocks. The crew fortunately escaped, and remained encamped on the shore for two months, supplied with provisions from the home station, while they collected such stores as they could from the wreck.

On the 24th of August they all left San Julian, where the winter, after all, had not been uncomfortable. Pigafetta speaks of ostriches, foxes, and rabbits which they found there, and of trees which yielded incense. Sailing south they spent more than a month in the river of Santa Cruz, provisioning the vessels with water and wood. And now Magellan was sure that the real voyage was to begin, and gave orders that every one should receive the communion and go to confession like a “good Christian.”

Sailing still south, on the 21st of October, which is the day of St. Ursula and the eleven thousand virgins, they made the great discovery of the opening of Magellan's Strait. They doubled the high cape, which is still called by the name of the virgins, and entered the first reach of that remarkable channel from ocean to ocean, which in a zigzag course of nearly five hundred miles gives everywhere deep water for navigation, and almost always affords easy access to the shore, and with no lack of good harbors. “I think,” says Pigafetta, in his transport on getting well through it, “that it is the best strait in the world.” The squadron sailed bravely down the first reach, which, as will be seen by the map, runs southwesterly. After the second narrows the whole passage widens, and here Magellan divided his squadron, and sent the Sant' Antonio to examine the southeastern passage, while with the other vessels he sailed to the southwest.

Map of the Strait.

With his own vessels he pushed westward with more and more assurance of success. Stephen Gomez, a Spanish pilot, who had a deservedly high reputation as a navigator, had eagerly urged the return of the whole squadron, now that they know the passage to the Moluccas was found, but Magellan declared that now they had found it, they must use it. He sent an order to every ship that no man should discuss the quantity of provisions, and that no man should speak of returning. With his own vessels he pushed on to a point where the channel was but five leagues wide, but still deep, and with every evidence of the Western sea. and here he waited for the Sant' Antonio.

But the Sant' Antonio never came. Her captain was his loyal cousin, Alvaro de la Mesquita; but her pilot, or, as we should say, sailing-master, was this Stephen Gomez. Gomez, with Guerra, who is called the notary, determined to return to Spain, and raised a mutiny on board the ship. They seized Mesquita, who in the affray wounded Gomez, and was wounded in return. Gomez was made captain, and took the vessel back through that part of the strait which they had discovered, and so returned to Spain. They arrived at Seville on the 6th of May, 1521. They had on board the giant John, but about the time that they crossed the equator, the poor fellow died.

Meanwhile Magellan waited for his false consort, but of course he did not find her. He came to anchor in the mouth of a river which probably flowed from the mountains of Terra del Fuego, which they called the River of Sardines, from the immense quantity of this fish which they found there. They waited there four days, but sent out a boat well manned to explore the channel, and this boat returned on the third day with the joyful news that the Pacific was found. The cape at the extremity of Terra del Fuego was called “Dezeado,” the “desired” cape, the discovery of which answered so many longings. “We wept for joy,” Pigafetta says, and they may well have done so. They could not yet follow up their discovery, for they had but two vessels. They went back to meet the Concepción and Sant' Antonio with their joyful news. But, as the reader knows, the Sant' Antonio was gone. After the report of the other vessel, nothing more could be done than to leave messages for their lost consort, and, with only three vessels now, to pursue the great discovery. Then began that extraordinary voyage which gave to the Pacific Ocean its name. For three months and twenty days the little squadron sailed on, and no storm broke the tranquillity. They made, as they supposed, more than fifty leagues a day, which they estimated by the log, their dead-reckoning being the only way they had of computing their longitude. To us of to-day this voyage is the most interesting achievement of Magellan, and for some farther detail of it we would gladly exchange many pages of Pigafetta's account of the language of the Brazilians, or of the intrigues of the islanders of the East Indies. But such detail cannot be purchased today even with tears. It is, perhaps, the general fate of long months spent at sea that they afford to mankind little or no history. At the one moment of his life when the chronicler has a great abyss of useless time, which he would gladly employ in any innocent occupation, he has nothing to chronicle. When events and action come in upon him they leave him no fit time to make his record. When he has that time, in the fortunate quiet of his cabin, as the trades bear him over a calm ocean, there is nothing to record.

For its freedom from storms the ocean received from Magellan the name of The Pacific Ocean, which it has ever since retained. That name has gradually blotted out the name of the “South Sea,” which had been given it by Balboa and the other Spaniards who first discovered it by looking southward from the Isthmus of Panama. That isthmus, as young readers are not apt to remember, runs from the northwest to the southeast, and a traveller crossing it from the Atlantic to the Pacific travels in a southwesterly direction. The ocean seen from it was therefore the South Sea.

We now know the Pacific as an ocean studded with innumerable islands, with inhabitants well provided with food from their own land and water; but it was the extraordinary fortune of Magellan in this great voyage to sail more than ten thousand miles and light on but two islands, both of which were barren and uninhabited. He found no bottom close to the shore. At the second he stopped to fish for sharks, and gave it the name Shark's Island, or “Tiburones.” And so impressed were the crew by their dismal welcome that the two were called “Desventuradas,” the Unfortunate Islands.

These two islands, the first born to Europe of the multitudes of the Pacific Ocean, cannot now be identified. The indications given by the different narrators of Magellan's voyage are inconsistent, vague, and shadowy. They may be briefly stated.

On leaving the strait and South America, Magellan bore on a course which is described by Pigafetta as four thousand leagues between west and northwest quarter northwest. The great commander probably told Pigafetta that he meant to steer in this general direction. Accordingly such a line will be found on some of the old globes and maps. But the fortunate discovery of the log-book of one of the “pilots” gives us now the course, the declination of the sun, and the computed latitude for every day of the Pacific voyage. It appears that Magellan held well to the north, not far from the coast of South America, till he had left, on the west, Juan Fernandez and Mas-a-Fuera without seeing them, and only then struck to the northwest, and afterward to the west. He thus came out upon the equator after a voyage which by their dead-reckoning was four thousand leagues, and by their mistaken computation of longitude was 152° west of the meridian of Ferro, 159° 40' west of our first meridian of Greenwich.

If that longitude could be accepted as correct, it is not difficult to draw an imaginary line to this meridian on the equator from the point on the South-American coast where they lost sight of land, three hundred and fifty or perhaps four hundred miles north of the strait. Such a line has been drawn, and the two Unfortunate Islands appear upon it as S. Pablo, discovered on St. Paul's Day in latitude 16° south, longitude 135° west of Greenwich, and Tiburones, 12° south, longitude 145° west.

But while the discoverers did not even attempt to give the longitude of these islands, we have in four different accounts four different statements of their latitude. It is therefore quite impossible to fix with any certainty upon the accurate charts of to-day the two Unfortunate Islands. Amoretti supposed that they were to be found among the smaller islands of the Society group. But in this he was deceived by his impression, taken from Pigafetta's narrative, that Magellan made a straight course from the strait to the equator. Had Magellan struck any such island, where were bread-fruits or cocoa-nuts, or anything to eat, he would have been glad to land to recruit his dying seamen, for they were now suffering from a terrible invasion of scurvy, which was a disease not well known in those times. Pigafetta's description of it is sadly accurate: “Our greatest misfortune was that we were attacked by a sort of malady which causes the gums to swell so that they rise above the teeth, in the upper and lower jaws alike, and those who are attacked by it can take no nourishment. Nineteen of our men died of it, among whom were the Patagonian giant and a Brazilian whom we had taken on board. Beside the dead,we had twenty-five or thirty sick sailors, who had pains in their arms, legs, and other parts of their body; but they recovered.”

We now know that this disease was induced by the lack of fresh meats and vegetable food. The provisions of the squadron were now at the very worst, “Our biscuit,” says Pigafetta, “was no longer bread; it was dust mixed with worms, of smell unbearable. Our water was stinking and putrid. We were at last reduced to chewing the bits of oxhide with which the mainmast had been protected from the chafing of the ropes. These hides, by exposure to sea and air and sun, had become so hard that we had to soak them in the sea for four or five days before we could make them a little tender; then we broiled them to make them eatable. We were often reduced to sawdust for food; and mice were regarded as such dainty morsels that they were sold for half a ducat apiece.”

In the several manuscripts of Pigafetta the two Unfortunate Islands are figured. But as they are represented as close to each other, while in fact, according to his own text, they were two hundred leagues apart, the representation only throws a doubt on all the numerous drawings of like character with which these curious manuscripts abound. Such as the drawing is, we copy it from one of the French manuscripts in the National Library of Paris.

Sailing on from the Unfortunate Islands, Magellan crossed the equator. His method of obtaining longitude was very deficient, and he knew it was; but he supposed, as has been said, that he was in our west longitude 159° 46.' This would have been well within the Spanish half of the world, according to Alexander VI's bull. Its limit in the Pacific was our meridian 132° 14' east of Greenwich. Calculating back from his position when he reached the first land which can be fixed, he was really about 172° west of Greenwich—about 13° on the equator farther west than he supposed. In longitude he had crossed half the Pacific, reckoning to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands, which he was seeking. But he had made all the northing requisite, so that he had sailed more than half his way. He entered the Pacific on the 28th day of November, and crossed the equator on the 12th of February. He had still twenty-two more days before he could refresh his scurvy-tainted crew.

But at last, on the 6th of March, they saw two small islands. Soon a number of small sails appeared, as the islanders came out to meet the ships. They seemed to fly, for they had large sails of matting of triangular form above their little boats, and the Spanish seamen saw for the first time the curious catamaran of the natives of those waters.

A third and larger island, which is either that since known as Guahan or that known as Rota, tempted Magellan to land. He called it Ivagana. But so many of the natives swarmed upon his ship, and so rapacious were they in stealing whatever they could lay their hands upon, that he found himself almost at their mercy. They begged him to land, but at the same time stole the boat which was fastened to the stern of the ship. At last Magellan did land in a rage. He burned forty or fifty of their huts, several of their boats, rescued his own, and killed seven men.

It was observed that the islanders did not know the use of the bow. If a Spanish arrow passed through the body of one of the poor wretches, he tried, naturally enough, to withdraw it, and afterward “looked at it with surprise,” to the pity, one is glad to say, of their invaders, who were not much of the pitying kind. After the invasion the squadron continued its westward course, followed by a hundred canoes. The savages now showed fish, as if they wished to trade, but the women wept and tore their hair, probably “because we had killed their husbands.”

Pigafetta gives quite an elaborate account of these people from what must have been very slight material. It reminds one of the midshipman's despatch, reached from the east. The Pacific Ocean regarding some of their neighbors, to the English Admiralty: “As for manners, they have none; and their customs are very filthy.” “They have,” says Pigafetta, “neither king nor chief. They worship nothilng; and they go naked.” Thus he begins an account which, as our present knowledge proves, is singularly accurate.

Ten days more of ocean for poor Magellan's scurvy-tainted crew. But at last, on the 16th of March, 1521, “at the rising of the sun,” they found themselves near the high land of Zamal. It is the Samar of modern maps of the Philippine group. The islands of Asia had been reached from the east. The Pacific Ocean had been crossed, and its mystery uncovered to the world of Europe. “I do not think,” says poor Pigafetta, “that any man will ever wish to undertake such a voyage again.”