Adonis Diaries

“Magellan, the vanquisher of the seas”

Posted on: October 24, 2008


“Magellan, the vanquisher of the seas” by Stephen Swig (September 30, 2008)

I read an Arabic translation of Stephen Swig “Magellan, the vanquisher of the seas”. Magellan is the first mariner to circumnavigate earth’s seas and oceans.  Medieval Europe got hooked on all the varieties of spices and perfumes arriving through the Arab Moslem World; the aristocratic classes even added spices to their drinks and the values of spices and perfume were more expensive than silver and gold; people even sold lands in exchange of spices and perfumes because they were common currencies.

Prices of spices and perfumes were extremely high because the sources of their production were remote lands and by the time every port taxed the shipments and then traveling the deserts of Iraq and Syria and with the loss of one ship for every five in the seas due to the danger of sea faring and pirates then the prices skyrocketed through multi-levels of middlemen.  The Arabic kingdoms knew well the sources of production in Malaysia, and several islands beyond Malacca Straight.  Malacca Straight is still now the most strategic location for maritime commerce where all the ships coming from China, Japan, Viet Nam, Thailand, Burma and the south-east Asian countries and islands have to cross that straight westward and the reverse for the Nations doing commerce eastward.  All the spices and perfumes had to cross the Arab kingdoms one way or another and most middlemen were Arabs.

The European decided to conquer the Near East under the pretense of a Holy War to re-conquer Jerusalem.  The main target was Egypt where the shortest route was shipments arriving in the Red Sea.  Unfortunately for the European coalitions three targeted Crusading invasions of Egypt failed miserably and the whole business failed for lack of incentives to finance further campaigns.

It happened that in 1415 one of the sons of the King of Portugal, Prince Henrick, started to doubt the theory and affirmations of Ptolemy which stated that there are no exits in the Atlantic Ocean when you sail west or south and that past the equator in Africa nobody can return alive because of the heat, fire and Evil emanations.  Ptolemy even said that past the equator Africa is not inhabited and is a desolate land. Henrick resumed his research and investigations and trained mariners and built ships to verify his new theories.  Henrick died before he experiences the successes of his endurance and far sightedness.

Within a century, Portugal, the tiniest and poorest State in Europe, became the strongest and richest nations.  Portugal ships colonized the whole of Africa, India, and Malaysia and even reached China and Japan. King Juan II of Portugal had a meeting with Christopher Columbus but didn’t see any value of discovering another route to India going west the Atlantic since the southern route was completely discovered and known and the Pope had allotted Africa and India to the kingdom of Portugal.  The King of Spain invested in Columbus and the Pope had to divide the Atlantic Ocean into two zones and lands discovered were distributed between these two kingdoms; Brazil was within the dividing line of Portugal.

Magellan decided to tour around the world by seas going westward as Columbus: his closest mariner friend Francisco Sroa convinced him that the route westward is far shorter in order to visit him in the spice islands of Ternate, Mulouk, Panda and Ambo Ana.  Francisco had been living the good life for nine years among the aborigines’ four islands; it seems that the Arabs had not reached yet these islands.

Magellan was of a noble family of the 4th rank and he participated in three naval campaigns to India, Malacca and the Moroccan pirates; he was wounded several times and he limped form his left leg the rest of his life.  He was short, silent and barely could articulate clearly his ideas.  The King of Portugal Manuello failed him twice to increase his monthly pays or even giving him a deserved officer rank.  After a year of research in the King bibliotheca for navigation accounts he befriended a well recognized cartography Roy Valero and they shared a secret plan.

Magellan headed to Spain and got married and managed after two years to meet King Charles Quaint who resided in Valladolid (the city of Al Walid).  He convinced the King and the naval syndicate of import/export “House of India” that the Spice Islands fall within the demarcation line of Spain.  The king signed a lavish document with his oath of honor giving Magellan 5% of the profit of the islands and lands that he discovers and two islands if he finds over six islands.  The King would let Magellan dispose of 5 ships and all the expenses for provisions and mariners for two years.

Magellan personally cared for every detail because he had no idea of anything about the climate, people and storms in the trip.  For 17 months that took to prepare the ships for sailing Magellan faced many threats, coaxing and betrayals from the Portuguese representatives in Spain and he overcame many schemes to cancel the project.  The total expense amounted to over 8 million Maravedi, excluding the salaries of the mariners. On September 20, 1519 the five ships left San Lucar port coming from Seville.  The total manpower was 265 mariners; the largest ship of 120 tons was named San Antonio, the next in weight of 110 was Trinidad  and led by Magellan, then Conception of 90 tons, then Victoria of 85 tons and finally Santiago of 75 tons.  Four of the ships were led by Spanish officers and selected by the Emperor.

At the last minute a Venetian nobleman named Antonio Bejavita joined the crew by request from the papal representative to Spain and he would become the biographer of the trip and of Magellan.  After leaving the Canary Islands Magellan headed south instead of west and the Spanish captains could not obtain any explanations from the taciturn and silent Magellan.  Most probably that Magellan was acting on secret information that King Manuello had ordered the capture of his ships.  Arriving to the coast of Guinea they had to wait 15 days for the western winds to carry the ships toward Brazil and they almost got destroyed by a terrible storm.  Luckily, the Portuguese port of Rio de Janeiro was still not thoroughly controlled and the ships managed to refill with potable water and food on December 13.  Magellan put under lock for disobedience Antonio de Carthajena, the Captain of the San Antonio. 

On January 10 the ships arrived at the current vast gulf Montevideo where the river Rio de La Plata empties.  Magellan first thought was that this estuary is the debouche to the Pacific Ocean.  After 15 days, the three ships sent to investigate returned with negative results.  The Equator was long past and the progress was toward cold and desolate regions.  On February 24 the ships arrived in the gulf of San Matthias and the investigations were negative again as was the cases with the gulfs of Bahia de Los Bathos and Bahia de Los Shrabajos.  Winter gained on them and by March 31 Magellan decided to spend the winter in the desolate small gulf of San Julian on latitude 49 so that the potential rebellious Captains and sailors would not dare turn back to Seville.

But the rebellion happened and mutineers captured three ships during the night.  Magellan counter-attacked in broad daylight and captured the Victoria which gave him an advantage and then blocked the retreat of the remaining two ships.  Magellan beheaded Luis de Mendosa and ordered Juan de Cartagena and the priest to be discarded on the land with some food.  Winter forced Magellan to stay in the gloomy and desolate Gulf of San Julian four months.  The Prince of the Sea made his mariners work non-stop to keep despair and depression at bay which might exacerbate their spirit.  

When spring arrived the mariners saw a fearful sight; a giant with large feet (Patagonia) was standing on a hill and gesticulating and throwing sand on his head, a sign that he is ready to communicate with them.  Unfortunately, one of the giant specimens was to be captured to send to the Emperor; he died miserably of hunger during the trip.  The ship Santiago was wrecked on the river Rio de Santa Cruz but the crews were safe; two mariners walked 11 days to warn Magellan of the disaster.

On August 24 Magellan resumed his voyage south intending to reach latitude 75 and returning via the Good Hope straight if he failed to find an exit to the Pacific.  Magellan was actually within two days voyage to his victory when he stayed two months on a tiny gulf.  On October 21, 1520 they saw what would be called “Head of the Virgins” with dark water.  Magellan ordered three ships to investigate the entrance and to return within 5 days.  Nasty storms almost destroyed the remaining ships waiting at the entrance.  Suddenly, they heard the ships firing their canons for the first time and the news was good: the water was salty and the depth of the water remained stable signs of an exit to a sea.  For the first time Magellan cried hot tears of joy!

The four remaining ships delved in that black desolate gulf; there was total silence and the ships were surrounded by high stiff cliffs and snow mountain tops shown further away and freezing winds blowing during the nights. At every bifurcation Magellan investigated the water ways. At one point Magellan sent the San Antonio toward the south-east branch and sent a canoe to investigate the south west branch while he waited at the entrance.  The canoe returned within 3 days with the definitive great news but the San Antonio crews rebelled and quit the trip and returned to Spain without giving notice.  The other three ships resumed their advance and exited to the ocean.

On November 28, 1520 the three ships fired their canons to salute the newly discovered ocean. Until Mars 6, 1521, the mariners sailed in a completely serain sea (thus, the name Pacific) with blue skies, very sunny and no winds. The mariners had to boil the leather of the mast to eat and 19 died of famine or the tenth of the total remaining crews. By Mars 17 the ships discovered three islands and they had reached the Philippines (called in honor of the later Spanish Emperor Philip II).  Magellan could now claim this land as his own since he had discovered more than 6 islands so far. The natives were impressed by the strength of iron and were bartering 16 parts of gold for 14 equal weight of iron.  Magellan ordered his crews from refraining to sell their spears and helmets for fear that the native get a wake up call to the true value of gold.

In the island of Massawa, Magellan’s slave renamed Henrick and who was captured in Malacca years ago discovered that he returned home.  This person was the first captive and first man who toured earth and returned to his native island!  On April 7, 1521 they landed on the main island of Sibo which was very prosperous and ate in Chinese porcelain dishes. 

In order to unify the islands under the Spanish throne Magellan convinced King Homabone of Sibo to conquer the smaller Island of Mactane headed by King Silabolabo.  Until now the natives were very impressed by the body armatures of the white soldiers, their rifles and their canons and Magellan wanted to impress King Homabone even further; he decided to conquer Macatane at the head of only 40 mariners.  Since the ships had to stay far at large the canons were of no use and the rifles of the mariners on the canoe could not even pierce the protective gears of the natives.  Magellan was killed and the Spanish retreated without retrieving their leader’s body.  The symbol of white invincibility was chattered. King Homabone decided to trick the Spanish navigators to a lavish dinner and killed 27 of the most important officers.  The remaining 115 mariners were left with no skilled navigators and elected Carvalo to lead them and they roamed the seas with no clue to where they were heading.  They had to burn the ship Conception that was leaking from everywhere.  They sailed for two months pirating whatever ships they encountered until they landed in Mindnaw in the island of Borneo.

Finally the crews revolted and appointed three individuals to lead them: Gomez de Spinoza on the Trinidad, Delcano on the Victoria and Ponsero the head navigator. One of the native captives led them to the Muluk Island, the ultimate goal of the trip, and loaded their ships with spices.  The ship Trinidad was to stay in the port for major repairs and only Victoria sailed to Spain.  Victoria was not to land on any Portuguese colony for fear of being captured and sentenced of treason.  On February 13, 1522 the Victoria left Timor meaning to return through Good Hope Straight without further landing anywhere.  Then meat got rotten and had to be thrown overboard and the bread got spoiled and famine returned scarier than ever.


On September 6, 1522 three years after five ships left to tour Earth, out of 265 mariners and more natives on the return trip from the Pacific islands only 18 mariners returned on the smallest of a decrepit Victoria.  The most glorious trip on seas was lead by Delcano, one of the early rebellious officers.  Only ten of the mariners of the San Antonio who arrived a year ago were living and they were saved from punishment because Delcado refrained from divulging the truth of their treason.

2 Responses to "“Magellan, the vanquisher of the seas”"

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October 2008

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