Ferdinand Magellan and Me (51)

How it began

    Magellan’s ships

    Ships of Magellan under sail

    Armada de Maluku

    click for Ferdinand Magellan

    The Armada de Maluku set sail from Sanlucar de Barrameda on 10 August 1519. About 270 men aboard five ships headed out into the vast unknown on the most ambitious voyage ever yet attempted. Many sailors had no idea where they were going. Magellan remained tight-lipped about their destination not only to lessen the risk of discontent among the crew but also because he knew that Portuguese spies were active. It was widely known that their destination was the Spice Isles but even Magellan himself did not know how far away they were. He and all his contemporary navigators, including Columbus, underestimated the circumference of the Earth by a factor of about one third. Columbus thought he had found the Orient when he arrived at the Orinoco River in Central America. Little did he know he was many thousands of miles away from China.

    The whole of Europe was deeply ignorant of anything beyond the Azores Islands. Fabulous tales of weird creatures and treacherous seas had been handed down from the Roman author Pliny. John Mandeville elaborated the tale with imaginative fiction such as men with one eye in the middle of their chest, sixty-foot high cannibals and women who were great warriors; a revival of the old Amazon myth. Dangers facing sailors included magnetic islands with the power to sink ships by drawing the iron nails out of their hulls. And of course the sea was full of monsters that could smash or crush a ship.

    Magellan’s charter from the king makes no mention of any plan to circumnavigate the world. His passion was to find a westwards route to the Spice Isles so that Spain could comply with the terms of the treaty of Tordesillas that reserved the eastbound route for Portugal. That’s why Dom Manuel hated him and was intent upon stopping him. Magellan was well aware of that danger.

    Pigafetta describes Magellan’s standing orders for the proper conduct of his fleet. Although Trinidad was neither the biggest nor the fastest ship, Magellan chose her for his flagship. Trinidad would lead the way and the others were to follow. At night she would display a torch from the poop so they could keep her in sight. When the captain general wished to change course because of a wind shift, impending danger or foul weather he would display two lights on the poop. Three lights meant the fleet should reduce sail by unlacing bonnets, the extensions secured to the foot of sails to increase their area in fair weather. Four lights was the order to strike sail. If they were sailing towards rocks or reefs Trinidad would fire a mortar.

    Magellan’s priority in the early days was gunnery practice for his raw crew. He knew Dom Manuel was fitting out a ship or ships to pursue him. Magellan was a seasoned naval veteran but not so his rather polyglot crew. He’d had considerable difficulty finding experienced seamen, exacerbated by the restriction on Portuguese sailors imposed by the Casa de Contratatión. His other concern was with three of his four captains: Juan de Cartagena, Gaspar de Quesada and Luis de Mendoza. He didn’t trust any of them. His fourth Captain, Juan Serrano, was Portuguese. In an attempt to conceal his nationality he had been recently naturalised a citizen of Castile. He was an old shipmate and a cousin of another old shipmate, Paco Serrano, who now lived in the Spice Isles. Paco was Magellan’s main source of information about the Spice Isles. Magellan had written to him promising to join him in the Islands ‘…whether by way of Spain or of Portugal.’ Magellan’s devotion was neither to the king of Portugal nor of Spain but to the great voyage upon which he was now embarked. And nothing would stand in his way.


Published by


Sailor from wayback with a Master's degree in Technology Management. Prefer classical music to rap and chicken curry to steak.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.