Ferdinand Magellan and me(90)

Magellan's ships

Old fashioned diplomacy


Pigafetta was riding an elephant. The great beast walked with a swaying motion, swinging its trunk while a man wearing a turban sat astride its neck and steered by poking one big ear or the other. Pigafetta’s elephant was one of a convoy led by the Shahbanda along a winding road towards the fortress with the king’s palace inside. Each bore a crew member of the Armada de Maluku carrying gifts of Turkish robes, red caps, bolts of fine cloth and glass goblets that Carvalho judged suitable for a native rajah.

They passed through the fortress gate into the palace compound guarded by no less than 300 foot soldiers with swords, lances and shields. The driver ordered the elephant to squat and Pigafetta hung on as the beast went down on its knees so they could disembark. The Shahbanda led them into a large room full of priests and nobles, some dressed all in white and others in gold embroidered silk robes. Many wore curly-bladed daggers adorned with pearls and rubies. Suddenly, the gifts brought by the visitors seemed paltry and Pigafetta was almost ashamed.

The old fat rajah sat on a platform with a young boy. Both chewed betel nut and red juice ran down their chins. Behind them, many women sat in silence. The Shahbanda explained they must bow to the king three times with their hands on their head , raise each foot off the floor one at a time and then kiss their hands to the king.
This they did.

“You must not speak to the king directly. If you wish to say anything, tell it to me and I will pass the message to the king’s brother, who will tell it through a speaking tube to the prime minister, who will tell it to the king if appropriate.”
It fell to Carvalho, as spokesman for the Armada, translated by Pigafetta, to explain that the ships wanted nothing but to trade in peace with the great Rajah Siripada, to stock their ships with food, water and firewood.
This message passed along the tortuous line of communication, was received and acknowledged with a nod. The gifts passed along the same path, placed at the king’s feet and also acknowledged with a nod. Then a curtain was drawn across the stage and the king disappeared from view. The audience was over. The king would consider their request.
The elephants took them back to the big house on the shore where the Shahbanda lived and that night they were treated to a feast of goat, fish, chicken, peacock and rice wine but no pork and no women.
After morning prayers next day, the Shahbanda announced he was going to make war and they were invited, if they chose. Startled, they followed him to the stone ramparts overlooking the harbour where Trinidad and Victoria lay at anchor. Thirty six bronze and six iron cannons pointed their muzzles out at the harbour. The Shahbanda displayed them proudly. Each cannon was engraved near the touch hole with the Five Wounds of Christ, the Portuguese coat of arms. These cannons came from the royal foundry of Lisbon. The Shahbanda explained they traded gold and spices with Malacca in exchange for guns to enable them to fight the heathens inhabiting the interior.


“These people do not believe in Allah and reject the teachings of the prophet Mohammed. (Peace be upon him.) We have tried every way to enlighten them but they continue to worship their pagan idol.”
Suddenly, the hospitality of their hosts took on a different context. With the memory of the disaster in Cebu and the death of Magellan fresh to mind, Pigafetta was not the only one to express uneasiness. Were the Christian invaders being softened up like lambs for the slaughter?

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (89)

South China Sea


The pilot they had paid to take them to the Spice Isles could not be found on sailing day but Carvalho decided to proceed anyway. Leaving the harbour of Palawan they came across a large trading prau and Carvalho steered straight towards it as if to ram but then ordered the crew to throw grappling hooks and secured it alongside.
“Pigafetta, ask them if they have a pilot who knows Maluku.”

Three men said they had been to Maluku and Pigafetta invited them on board to talk, whereupon Carvalho ordered them bound with ropes and shackles. They struggled and shouted and shook their fists in the air as Trinidad disengaged from the prau and set sail, with Victoria following.


Pigafetta asked them what course to sail but they refused to answer, cursing Carvalho and all foreign devils in the name of the Prophet Mohammed, peace be upon him. Pigafetta, Carvalho and all his crew would sleep with a thousand scorpions and maggots would eat their eyeballs. From the deck where they were tied they attempted to spit on the icon of the Virgin Mary but the gobs fell short.

Carvalho called a meeting of the democratic council that had replaced the role of captain general. After considerable debate a motion was put and carried that the pilots each be paid two gold ducats for their services. Pigafetta carried this offer to the prisoners and it was sullenly accepted. They immediately ordered a course alteration from south east to south west, a right angle turn.

This was an opportunity for Pigafetta to add new material to his journal. The Moors were greater sailors than even the Portuguese. They invented lateen sails that enabled ships to sail to windward. They wrote the Almagest from the great work of Ptolemy, which was copied by Europeans and renamed Alfonsine tables. From these pilots he also learned the Chinese had invented the magnetic compass, which was a wonder of the world.

After nearly two weeks they came to a harbour and anchored off a city with houses on stilts around the shore, a stone castle and a tall tower, from which came a wailing chant. The pilots fell to their knees in prayer as a Alarge prau approached with musicians playing drums and flutes and stringed instruments while 12 bare-chested men dipped their paddles in time.

“What’s this?” Carvalho demanded of the pilots. “This is not the Spice Isles.”

“No. This is Brunei, where we leave you to find your own way.”

“Treachery! I’ll have you back in chains if you don’t take us to the Spice Isles.”

To everyone’s surprise,the head man in the boat smiled and said “Welcome to Brunei,” while his crew handed up gifts of betel leaves and areca nuts, urns of rice wine and bundles of sugar cane.
Carvalho was speechless but Pigafetta offered an explanation.

“They probably think we are a Portuguese ship.”
The ships no longer flew the Habsburg eagle and Trinidad still had Magellan’s coat of arms on the poop rail either side.
“We had better all speak Portuguese,” Pigafetta advised.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (88)

South China Sea

South China Sea


Although the number of hungry mouths had been reduced by more than half, the spectre of starvation still stalked the Armada de Moluccas, now consisting of two ships, Trinidad and Victoria. The ration was one meal per day. Without Magellan’s iron rule they blundered westwards for no real reason instead of southwards towards their destination – the Spice Isles. Magellan’s charts were useless in these waters. They were now like Moses wandering in the desert without the pillar of cloud to show the way. Pigafetta felt he owed it to the great man’s memory to correct the navigation. He knew the Spice Isles lay on the equator and they needed to sail southwards while evading the numerous dangers in their path.

Desperate for food, Carvalho anchored off an island and sent a boat ashore but a crowd of natives on the beach brandished spears, bows and arrows and blow pipes and turned them back. The boat returned to the ship and the Armada retreated. At another island the landing party was heavily armed and fought off the natives while plundering their village for bananas, rice, coconuts and pigs.

Pigafetta was enthralled by these adventures and studied the locals like an anthropologist. ‘These people go naked,’ he wrote in his journal, ‘and work in the fields. They have blow pipes with poison darts and spears barbed with fishbone. They breed large cocks and place spurs on their legs and make them fight to the death against one another. The owner of the winning cock wins a prize. They have distilled rice wine that is better than the palm wine of Cebu and their women have the same equipment as all other women.’

Eventually they found a pilot who, for two gold ducats, claimed to know how to sail to the Spice Isles. He spoke some Portuguese and warned that Portuguese ships sometimes sailed these waters, which caused Carvalho to send lookouts to the crows nest in case Dom Manuel still pursued them here.

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Ferdinand Magellan and me (87)

ship Victoria

Lonely sea and the sky


Like whipped dogs the once proud ships of the Armada de Moluccas fled from the scene of their humiliation. Dawn revealed a small island, apparently uninhabited, with a tolerable anchorage and before noon they came to a halt to lick their wounds.
Disbelief was the main sentiment in Trinidad’s great cabin. How could this have happened? The most powerful king on Earth representing the most advanced culture in history, defending the one true faith, had been defeated by heathen tribesmen. Unthinkable! To Carvalho it was an outrage, to Espinosa a puzzle and to Pigafetta it was a great shame worthy of tears.


A head count tallied 115, less than half the number who had sailed from Seville. Many were wounded and some would yet die. Valderrama was among those killed and they were left without a priest. Most of the fleet’s talent was gone. Andrés de San Martin, chief pilot and astrologer had evidently been unable to read his own horoscope.

Now they had to decide who would make the decisions Magellan had handed down so imperiously. Carvalho, Albo and Gallego were pilots with at least some knowledge of navigation but little experience in running a ship. Elcano had served as Victoria’s master and, before the Armada de Moluccas, had been owner and captain of a ship carrying Spanish soldiers to the wars in North Africa. But Elcano was a mutineer, having served time in chains for his part in the mutiny at Port St Julian. It was Elcano who raised the topic on everyone’s mind.


“Now we are rid of the tyrant we can conduct the ships as we please and according to the rules of the Casa de Contratatión, which require decisions to be made by majority vote.”

“And who are the voters?” Espinosa asked.

“Why, all of us here; the senior men of the Armada.We must not fall back into Magellan’s tyranny.”

Magellan had always said a horse cannot have two heads and Pigafetta was uneasy with the idea of a ship run by a debating society. First debate concerned Elcano’s proposal to dispose of one of the ships since they had not enough crew to man all three. After exchanges among Elcano, Espinosa, Carvalho and Master Andrew, chief gunner, the matter was put to a vote and by a small majority the council agreed to scuttle Concepción, which was rotten with worm.

It took two days to strip her of everything useful and disperse her crew between Trinidad and Victoria. Carvalho was elected captain of Trinidad and shifted his few belongings into the great cabin that Pigafetta still regarded as Magellan’s. While Concepción burned, another council meeting convened to discuss the next big question: Where do we go from here? To Pigafetta the answer seemed obvious –– the Spice Isles–– but how do we get there without Magellan?

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