Ancient history

Magellan's crazy expedition around the world

Anonymous portrait of Fernand de Magellan, 16th or 17th century, Mariners' Museum, Newport News (Virginia) • WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

In the spring of 1518, Fernand de Magellan, Portuguese hidalgo, concluded an agreement with the young king of Spain Charles I st to lead a commercial expedition to the other side of the world, to the Moluccas, an archipelago that today belongs to Indonesia. The objective was to buy the spices (cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, etc.) harvested in these islands and which, when sold on European markets, generated considerable profits.

Reach the East by sailing west

For twenty years, the Portuguese had controlled a direct sea route bypassing southern Africa. The alternative route chosen by Magellan is based on the same idea that guided Christopher Columbus:to reach the East by sailing west. He therefore decides to take the direction of South America to reach the passage that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the vast sea separating America from Asia. A passage that was only supposed to exist, all browsers that had previously tried to discover it having failed.

In the Capitulations , the monarch orders Magellan “to arm five ships with men and provisions and other things necessary for said voyage”. The preparations lasted more than a year. The first operation is to recruit the crew. The data relating to the number of crew members vary according to the sources, but a reasonable figure can be put forward at around 250 men. There are about 90 foreigners, corresponding to just over a third of the total. This percentage was then nothing exceptional, the crews of the Spanish fleets of the XVI th century often counting a minimum of 20% foreigners. The Italians were the most numerous with 27 men, followed by the Portuguese with 24 men. The Andalusians, numbering 54, were the majority among the Spaniards and represented just over a fifth of the recruits.

The organization of the crew was characteristic of the hierarchy of the navy of the time. The youngest, aged 10 to 17, were responsible for all cleaning tasks on board. The names of two of these servants of the Magellan expedition are known:Juanillo and Vasquito. Both were the sons of pilots Juan Carballo and Vasco Gallego. Then came the ship's boys, young sailors aged 17 to 25. They had, in particular, to climb the masts and to furl or hoist the canvas of the sails, and were entrusted with the hardest chores, requiring the greatest physical energy.

The ship's boys, young sailors aged 17 to 25, had to climb the masts and furl or hoist the canvas of the sails, and were entrusted with the hardest chores, requiring the greatest physical energy.

The bulk of the crew was made up of sailors, men over 25 who carried out operations requiring more in-depth knowledge, such as maneuvering the tiller or certain complex rigging, and requiring speed and precision on which depended the safety of all people. Ginés de Mafra, a good example of an expert sailor who would also become a pilot, left us one of the most moving accounts of the expedition to the Moluccas. Another remarkable account comes to us from an Italian, Antonio Pigafetta, embarked as an "auxiliary" (a military-like charge) and servant to Magellan.

Some sailors gained the trust of their leaders and became “second in command”. This was the case of the foreman, whose task was to direct the maneuvers and maintain discipline; the constable, responsible for the maintenance of weapons; the carpenter and the caulker, both responsible for making repairs and maintaining the ship.

The steward was an important character, but one who had a very bad reputation, because he kept the meager provisions under lock and key and was constantly accused of pilfering and of supplying only poor quality products. Juan Ortiz, the steward of the San Antonio , had to give in and give the key to the storeroom during the rebellion in Patagonia, when the mutineers, exhausted by the cold and rationing, put a knife to his throat.

Pilots trained at a good school

On board, a triple direction was ensured by the pilot, the maester (or second) and the captain. Pilots were often intellectually well-prepared people, especially those who passed the Casa de Contratación exams (an institution created in Seville in 1503 to control travel to the New World) and became pilots of the "route to the Indies". In the Magellan expedition, two pilots stand out for their good theoretical training:Esteban Gómez, pilot from Trinidad , and Andrés de San Martín, pilot of the San Antonio . On the other hand, two other pilots, Juan Rodríguez Mafra and Vasco Gallego, were illiterate, but compensated for their incomplete training with impressive experience.

The maester was the ship's financial manager. Juan Sebastián Elcano, a Basque sailor who, after owning his own ship, had to sell it and enlist on the ships of the Spice Fleet, is arguably the most famous maester of Magellan's expedition. Navigating the Concepción , he was almost hanged during the revolt in Patagonia. Finally forgiven, he discreetly fades away until Magellan dies during a confrontation with native Filipinos. He then took command of the Victoria and leads the return trip.

On trade routes, the maester exercised supreme command. But the Moluccan flotilla was a royal expedition, and a captain led each ship. All these captains were hidalgos, that is to say gentlemen, and some of them had little knowledge of the art of navigation, an obvious source of problems. In addition, tensions arise from the start over who will exercise supreme command of the fleet.

Just two weeks before departure, the king appoints a Castilian gentleman, Juan de Cartagena, as Captain General Magellan's "joint person", thus setting up a dangerous two-headed leadership for such a long and complex journey.

On July 26, 1519, barely two weeks before the departure, the king appointed a Castilian gentleman, Juan de Cartagena, as "joint person" of Captain General Magellan, thus setting up a dangerous two-headed leadership for such a long and complex journey. . And, in fact, friction appears very quickly between the two men. Magellan made decisions and changed course without consulting Cartagena, which protested ever more vigorously.

The conflict broke out in November 1519, because of a case of sodomy that occurred between the maester Antón Salomón and the cabin boy Antonio Ginovés. Magellan requests the presence of the other captains on his ship to discuss the problem, but Juan de Cartagena criticizes him for not having consulted him beforehand. Embarrassed at seeing his authority publicly questioned, Magellan seized Cartagena, exclaiming:"You are my prisoner", and the captain of the San Antonio finds himself with his feet shod in the vines, in a shameful position.

These disagreements culminate when the expedition tries to spend the austral winter in the Puerto San Julián estuary, in Patagonia. The cold and the lack of food push Juan de Cartagena and the main Spanish captains, including Maester Elcano, to rebel against Magellan. When the Captain General manages to put down the revolt, several mutineers are executed. But Cartagena, which he cannot bring himself to kill, is abandoned on a desert island. No one knows what happened to him.

Ready for all situations

The five ships of Magellan's flotilla were the Trinidad – the flagship commanded by Magellan – the San Antonio , the Concepcion , the Victoria and Santiago . They were sailboats just over 20 m in length, probably built in Cantabria. Only one of them will complete the journey around the globe. The Santiago shipwrecked on the Argentine coast, the San Antonio deserted and returned to Spain when the fleet entered the Strait of Magellan, and the Concepción is burned in the Philippines due to insufficient crew to sail it.

When the Victoria , commanded by Juan Sebastián de Elcano, and the Trinidad , commanded by Gaspar Gómez de Espinosa, are preparing to return to Spain laden with spices, a waterway discovered on the latter prevents it from returning to sea. The return voyage of the Victoria ordered by Elcano lasts almost ten months, starting from the Moluccas and passing through Timor and the Cape of Good Hope.

The ships were loaded with spears, swords, crossbows and arquebuses to arm two companies of 100 men each.

The flotilla was designed to deal with known and unknown enemies. She was equipped with about 70 pieces of light artillery, such as falcons, demi-culverins and extraordinary culverins, most of which could be fired overboard. This artillery fired lead balls for the manufacture of which metal plates and molds were taken, but it could also fire nails and stones. The ships were also loaded with spears, swords, crossbows and arquebuses to arm two companies of 100 men each.

Magellan and his men use this armament in their relations with the indigenous populations, sometimes by simple attempt of intimidation, but which does not always prove to be effective. When the chief of the island of Mactan refuses to submit to the king of Spain, Magellan sends three boats with 60 armed men. However, the crossbows and arquebuses cannot overcome the resistance of the natives during the fight which takes place on the beach, and the cannons which are in the boats are ineffective, because they are positioned too far away. The Europeans must withdraw, leaving seven dead, including Magellan, on the island. A few days later, the cannons are just as useless when it comes to rescuing expedition members ambushed by their former allies on the island of Cebu.

Surviving without fresh food

On an expedition of this magnitude, the key to success was food. The basis of the diet was the galette, a kind of sea bread cooked several times to keep it longer and called “biscuit” (from the Latin bis coctus , “cooked twice”). Wine was vital, as it replaced water when it was stagnant. To make sailors' fricot, vegetables such as lentils, chickpeas and beans were taken, which were cooked with salted fish or bacon. Oil and vinegar were also loaded. In anticipation of storms or enemy attacks preventing the lighting of a fire, a thousand cheeses were embarked, and the meals were then limited to bread, cheese and wine. As usual, the ships carried animals – cows and pigs – which were living supplies of milk and meat.

In this sense, the crossing of the Pacific represents the major challenge of the expedition. Pigafetta relates:“We sailed for three months and twenty days without tasting any fresh food. The biscuit we ate was no longer bread but dust mixed with worms and impregnated with mouse urine. The water we were forced to drink was putrid. We were even forced, so as not to starve, to eat pieces of oxhide with which the main yard had been covered. The sailors fight over the mice they hunt as if it were the most exquisite delicacy.

Sailors fight over the mice they hunt as if it were the most exquisite delicacy.

“Our greatest misfortune was to see ourselves attacked by a kind of disease by which the gums swelled to the point of surmounting the teeth, […] and those who were attacked by it could not take any food. These were the symptoms of scurvy, which claimed the lives of 19 sailors crossing the Pacific and two Native Americans aboard the ships.

The joy of the sailors at the end of the Pacific crossing is therefore not surprising, as Ginés de Mafra relates:"During the navigation of this flotilla, one day which was March 17 of the year 1521, a man who was in the top and called Navarro cried out:''Land, land!'' By these words, all rejoiced to the point that the one who gave the least signs of joy was considered mad. »

Goods of all kinds

The ships also transported goods of all kinds, making it possible to establish relations with the populations of the countries where they would dock. The fabrics were the most remarkable goods:strips of cloth in brilliant colors (red, yellow or silver), others of better quality such as velvet, as well as 200 colored caps, hats resembling the barretina (Catalan cap) which was the typical item of clothing for sailors of the time.

The ships also carried several pounds of saffron, the great Iberian spice, as well as 10 quintals of ivory and flasks of mercury. These products were used to exchange gifts where the ships were calling. Pigafetta thus relates that the Europeans, arriving in Borneo, offered the king “a Turkish coat, of green velvet, a chair of purple velvet, five fathoms of red cloth, a glass cup […], a golden writing desk”. In return, during an audience in the palace of the sultan of the islands, the latter offers them brocades and fabrics in gold and silk.

The spices of the Moluccas, the objective of the trip, are also acquired through barter. Pigafetta explains that, on the island of Jilolo, Europeans could acquire a bahar of cloves (measure equivalent to about 230 kg) against some of these items:10 fathoms of very good red cloth, 15 fathoms of lesser quality cloth, 15 axes, 35 glass cups, 150 knives, 50 pairs of scissors, etc.

When, on September 8, 1522, the Victoria anchored in the port of Seville, three years and a month had passed since the departure of the fleet. The ship will have covered a distance equivalent to almost twice around the world in a straight line.

When, on September 8, 1522, the Victoria finally drops anchor in the port of Seville, three years and a month have passed since the departure of the fleet. The ship will have covered a distance equivalent to almost twice around the world in a straight line. The clove it carried in its holds paid for the shipping costs and even brought in a small profit.

Only 18 members of the crew of the departure expedition returned to Spain, accompanied by three natives of the Moluccas. From Trinidad captured in the Moluccas by the Portuguese, only four survivors returned. An old marine saying from the 16th century century could well sum up the luck – or the bad luck – of the crewmen of this very long epic:“The sea is a mine where many get rich, but even more are those who lie at the bottom. »

Find out more
Magellan. The man and his feat, by Stefan Zweig, Robert Laffont, 2020.
Magellan's journey around the world, by Antonio Pigaffeta, Editions Paleo, 2008.

August 10, 1519
After more than a year of preparations, the flotilla of five ships commanded by Fernand de Magellan left Seville.
April 7, 1520
Magellan orders the beheading of the captain of the Concepción , Gaspar de Quesada, to crush a rebellion against his authority.
November 28, 1520
The three surviving ships of the expedition cross the Strait of Magellan and set out to cross the Pacific.
April 27, 1521
Magellan was killed during a confrontation with the natives of the island of Mactan, in what is now the Philippines.
November 6, 1521
Lead by Elcano, the expedition reaches the Moluccas Islands. Its members were received by the king of Tidore, al-Mansour.
September 8, 1522
The Victoria , the only ship to return from the expedition, enters the port of Seville, firing salvos of artillery to celebrate the event.

A “heinous sin” aboard the Victoria
Antonio Ginovés is the most infamous ship's boy of the first circumnavigation expedition. In November 1519, as they crossed the Equator, the captain of the Victoria informs Magellan that his Sicilian maester Antón Salomón has been caught committing what is then called the "odious sin" with a ship's boy, Antonio Ginovés. Magellan orders the two men to be imprisoned. After a summary judgment, Salomón is condemned to death by strangulation, sentence carried out a few weeks later. Antonio Ginovés is pardoned, but he mysteriously disappears shortly afterwards. It is assumed that he committed suicide, because he could no longer bear the teasing of other sailors, or that he was thrown overboard by someone who was afraid of being compromised.

The Magellan Road ends at Mactan
In the island of Mactan, a local chief enlists Magellan's aid against a rival chief. The Portuguese decides to leave with 60 armed men, with breastplates and helmets, aboard three boats. The boats must stay away because of the reefs. When 49 men descended, they were confronted on the beach by 1,500 natives who fired stones, arrows and spears at them, mainly aiming at the unprotected legs of the Europeans. Magellan orders the burning of the cabins of the natives, accentuating their fury. “We could not […] resist. The bombards we had on the launches were of no use to us”, the shallows preventing their approach. The natives thus manage to surround Magellan, gain the upper hand and kill him with spears.

Charms for bartering
The Moluccan fleet carried a good quantity of trinkets:combs, hooks, scissors, mirrors, German knives, as well as 20,000 colored glass beads to barter with the local populations. When they approached the Philippine island of Homonhon, or Suluan, they were visited by a group of natives whom Magellan ordered to be "given to eat and offered them red caps, mirrors, bells , ivory, [fabrics of] bocacie and other things”. In exchange, the natives give them fish, fruit – including coconuts – and drinks.