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.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (50)

How it began

Magellan’s scribe-Antonio Pigafetta



Ferdinand Magellan's admirer, Pigafetta

Pigafetta-Magellan’s scribe



History is fortunate in having a man like Pigafetta to document the most famous of all sea voyages. Urbane, well-educated, inquisitive and conscientious, his diary reveals humanity, shrewdness and a sense of humour. Ferdinand Magellan was his hero. At the conclusion of the voyage he dedicated a copy of his journal to Don Carlos so that, as he said in the royal court at Valladolid, the fame of so noble a captain shall not perish in our time.

He was engaged as a supernumerary on the paltry salary of a thousand maravedis a month, less than that of Magellan’s slave, Henrique, on fifteen hundred. He soon became an integral part of the crew and a personal assistant to the captain general as well as the ship’s scribe. Magellan was in many ways a prickly character and reading between the lines we see that Pigafetta may have had a moderating influence upon him.

Having spent some time in the Vatican’s diplomatic service and the Spanish court, he was no stranger to political intrigue. He understood the many factors hostile to Magellan. Dom Manuel, the king of Portugal, regarded Magellan as a traitor and harassed his family remaining in Portugal. The ancestral estate was vandalised and his relatives abused and even stoned until they fled for their lives.

Dom Manuel’s spies infiltrated the Casa de Contratatión and inflamed hatreds already seething. The captains of San Antonio, Concepción and Victoria were hand-picked by Bishop Fonseca and included his own bastard son Juan de Cartagena who would prove to be a serious trouble-maker. Even before the fleet sailed, Pigafetta noted in his journal that these captains did not love the captain general.


The Armada de Maluku was set up from the start to fail. In a way it was fortunate that Don Carlos, the 18 year old king, was surrounded by minders like Cardinal Adrian of Utrecht, Chancellor Sauvage and Guillaume de Croy who were distant from the feud between Spain and Portugal. The king had been born and raised in the Low Countries and didn’t even speak Spanish. Without their support, it is doubtful that Magellan would have gained command of the expedition.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (49)

the explorers

Prince Henry’s navigators

Dom Manuel ascended the throne at a turbulent period of Portuguese politics. He succeeded his cousin King John II, who had personally assassinated Manuel’s uncle and other aristocrats in a campaign to break the power of the nobility. It was a big surprise when Dom John nominated Manuel his successor, but John’s only surviving son was illegitimate, which ruled him out.

Manuel has been called ‘The Fortunate’ because he reaped the benefit of policies put in place by predecessors like Prince Henry, known as the navigator although he never went to sea. The Institute of Navigation at Sagres was the foremost nautical school of its time. Its alumni included such names as Vasco da Gama, Dias, D’Abreu, who had pushed Portuguese exploration down the west coast of Africa, around the Cape of Storms later renamed the Cape of Good Hope and established the sea route to Asia.

As a page in the court of Queen Leonora Ferdinand Magellan received a good education and had access to the latest news of explorations and cutting-edge techniques of navigation and seamanship. Portugal was the greatest sea-power of its time and these were exciting times. Lisbon was the most cosmopolitan of cities.

Magellan was about 25 years old when he embarked on his nautical career under admiral de Almeida. They rounded the Cape of Storms and sailed north up the east coast of Africa to the Sultanate of Kilwa, which was then the most prosperous enclave in the region. After a brief siege, Almeida conquered the city and set about building a Portuguese fortress. Another attraction in this region for the Portuguese was the fabled realm of Prester John, thought to be a Christian king in central Africa.

Returning home, Magellan was sent to fight in Dom Manuel’s war in Morocco in which he received a wound to his leg that caused him to limp for the rest of his life. He was also accused of corruption in a matter concerning distribution of war booty. He was never convicted of the offence but when he applied for an increase in his allowance from the king, Dom Manuel for some unknown reason refused. Then Magellan proposed to sail a fleet westwards to the Spice Isles. He believed the route would be shorter than the eastbound course. Again, Dom Manuel refused him. Magellan had been wounded in the service of his country and was no doubt offended by his sovereign’s lack of respect.

‘Well then,’ he said,‘I shall take my project to the king of Spain.’

‘You may do whatever you please,’ Dom Manuel replied.

As a sign of respect, Magellan offered to kiss the king’s hand. Dom Manuel thrust his hand behind his back and Magellan stormed out no doubt in a rage. Nowadays, Portugal has more or less made peace with its famous errant son. The explorations are honoured with a museum in the Tower of Belem, a popular tourist attraction, and an elaborate sculpture celebrating Prince Henry’s work on a bank of the River Tagus.
Tower of Belém

Tower of Belém



Dom Manuel-Magellan’s nemesis.




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