At first it was a mere smudge on the horizon to which Pigafetta paid little heed. The ship kept on, propelled by a breeze that had hardly varied in nearly four months of sailing this endless sea. Magellan had torn up his charts and tossed them overboard in disgust. They were just lies. They should have reached the Spice Isles weeks ago but instead encountered only two uninhabited atolls surrounded by reefs.
The captain general called it the Pacific Ocean but he may as well have called it the Ocean of Death. Dying men lay comatose around the deck; their skin discoloured by a purple rash, their sunken eyes pleading for relief or deliverance. At least a score had been consigned to the deep blue sea and more were soon to follow.
Next time Pigafetta looked, the smudge had grown and he thought it might be a rain squall. Then the lookout in the crows nest called “Tierra. Tierra.” At first no one believed it but Pigafetta stared and began to think it might be true. The cry was taken up by others and the captain general appeared on deck and soon the healthy were slapping one another on the back and even the dying managed a kind of grimace.
Three tall and woody islands rose out of the sea but as they approached, a fleet of native canoes set out from shore sailing so fast it was almost unbelievable. These boats had two hulls and skimmed across the water with one hull up in the air. Then they stopped and reversed without turning around. They soon surrounded the three ships, climbed aboard like a plague of locusts and swept up anything they could lay their hands on: buckets, ladles, ropes, hammers, hatchets and anything not bolted down.
“Stop! Stop! Stop!” Magellan cried, to no avail. He called upon the master at arms and Espinosa, mustered his men at arms with crossbows. They opened fire and the natives were astonished. Shot in the chest or abdomen, they pulled out the crossbow bolt, gazed at it quizzically and fell down dead. With slashing cutlasses, the men-at-arms waded in among the thieves and forced them back overboard.
They also stole a skiff tied astern, which Magellan was determined to retrieve. He brought the ships to anchor. After clearing the deck of dead bodies, he organised a force of 40 men at arms, one boat from each ship, and led them ashore.
The village among palm trees was abandoned. Presumably the natives were hiding in the jungle. They found pigs, chickens and a variety of fruit which they stuffed into their mouths as they looted. They found wicker baskets full of rice and urns full of water. The captain general ordered the village set on fire and it was utterly destroyed.
The fleet sailed on while ravenous men gorged themselves. The captain general named these islands Ladrones, or Islands of Thieves so that others who came afterwards might beware.