Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand MagellanFilipinos often remembered Ferdinand Magellan as the first European ever sets foot in the Philippine islands. He introduced Christian faith and converted many natives, befriended the local chieftains, made a blood compact with them. He staged a battle against Lapu-Lapu and died in Mactan. This was how some Philippine historians summarized Magellan’s life during his brief stay in the islands.

But Magellan is best remembered as the first explorer to circumnavigate the earth. The result of the Magellan Exploration was described as the “greatest human discovery” of all time. 

Magellan's early career

Magellan was born as Fernando Magalhaes in northern Portugal sometime in 1480. He was 10 years old when his parents, town Mayor Rodrigo de Magalhães and Alda de Mesquita, died. At an early age, he served Queen Leonor on the Portuguese Royal Court, where he developed his interest in the nautical sciences.

In 1505, 25-year-old Magellan joined the fleet of 22 ships sent by D. Francico de Almeida, who was appointed as the first viceroy in Potuguese India. A year later, he participated in the Battle of Cannore, where Portuguese was defeated by an Indian fleet, which had 200 cannon-equipped ships. In 1509, he and his friend Francisco Serrao joined the battle in Diu and later sailed in Malacca under Diogo Lopez Sequeira. Their expedition to Malacca failed.

Magellan and Serrao, under the new governor Alfonso de Albuquerque, joined anew in the conquest of Malacca in 1511. A year after the quest, Serrao went to Moluccas, which was then called the “Spice Islands”, while Magellan returned to Portugal with Enrique, a Malay companion he had indentured. He and Serrao exchanged correspondence where the latter shared information about the spice-producing territories. 

While serving in Morocco, Magellan was accused of engaging in illegal trade with the Moors. Though the accusation was proven false, he fell out of the king’s favor.

Magellan presented his idea to King Manuel I of navigating to the Moluccas by sailing east and asked to lead an expedition. The king denied his request. Failing to get support from the king and from his country, he renounced his nationality and left Spain in 1517.

While living in Seville, he took the name Ferdinand Magellan. He married Portuguese friend Diogo Barbosa’s daughter. They had two sons – Rodrigo de Magalhaes and Carlos de Magalhaes. Both died at a young age. His wife died in 1521.

Determined to find a new route to the East, Magellan dedicated his time in studying the recent charts. With the help of cosmographer Rui Faleiro, he investigated the possible access from the Atlantic to the South Pacific and the possibility of the Moluccas fall on the Spain’s side of the demarcation line of the Treaty of Tordesillas.

Background: the conquerors

During the Renaissance period, trade and commerce were thriving. People from Venice were already travelling and trading with Asian countries. They bought products, such as silk, fruits, attar of roses, perfumes, precious stones and Oriental spices – like pepper, ginger and cinnamon – from Asian markets and sell it to European markets. People from Venice monopolized the trade. Seeing this as a lucrative business, Spanish, Portuguese and other European people began trading with the Asian. A commercial rivalry developed among these Western people.

With the improvement of science in navigation and the invention of machines and marine instruments like map and compass, Spanish and Portuguese  led the exploration to the East. According to historians, their purposes of sailing to Asian countries could be summed up with three words - Gold, God and Glory. Both Spanish and Portuguese wanted to be the richest and powerful in the world by establishing colonies in the East, and aimed at spreading Christianity to Asian people.

Trade routes

The trading between Europe and Asia made possible because of existing three trade routes which connected both continents.

The first was the Northern Route which passed around the Caspian Sea and Black Sea and to Constantinople in the Mediterranean. The second was the Central Route which started from Malacca in the Malay Peninsula, then to the Indian Ocean and the Indian ports, then to the Persian Gulf to Baghdad and Constantinople, and finally to Cairo in the Mediterranean. The third was the Southern Route which also started from Malacca, then to the Indian Ocean and to the ports of India, then to the Red Sea, and finally to Cairo in the Mediterranean.

In 1453,  The Northern and the Central Routes were closed after the Turks captured the city of Constantinople. Only Venetian traders were allowed to use the Southern Routes on condition that they pay a fee. This led the Spain and Portugal to look for another route to Asia.

Division of the world

Portugal earned the prestige as the supreme navigator during the 15th century. She was the first country to sail to the East using alternate passage to India and establish colonies there. Meanwhile, Spain’s explorers claimed the areas of Americas.

These countries were competing each other by conquering lands. Their active sea explorations resulted in the discoveries of other lands.  In order to avoid war between Portugal and Spain, Pope Alexander VI issued a bull or the papal rule on May 3, 1493 dividing the world into two. Under the rule, all lands to be discovered in the east would belong to Portugal and lands to be discovered in the west would belong to Spain. In September of the same year the Pope reversed the first decision and allowed Spain to own lands to be discovered in the East. The King of Portugal protested the decision of the Pope. To avoid any conflict between the two nations, they concluded the Treaty of Tordesillas on June 2, 1494. The important provisions of this treaty were the following:

  • An imaginary line was drawn from north to south at a distance of 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. Lands to be discovered east of this line would belong to Portugal, and those on the west would belong to Spain.
  • If Spanish ships discovered lands east of the demarcation line, the said lands should be turned over to Portugal, and lands discovered by the Portuguese ships west of the line should be turned over to Spain.
  • No Portuguese ships shall be sent to lands belonging to Spain, and vice versa, for the purpose of trading with them.

Magellan's expedition to the "orient"

Magellan's Journey

With the help of Don Juan de Aranda, who held a high position in the Spanish-Indian House of Trade, Magellan was able to speak to King Charles I and was able to convince the Spanish king that he would be able to reach the Moluccas, which he maintained belonged to Spain, by navigating west.

Impressed by Magellan, King Charles I allowed an expedition to the Spice Islands under the command of Magellan. The young king provided five ships for his expedition, these include the flagship Trinidad, the Concepcion, the Victoria, the Santiago and the San Antonio. He had 270 crew from several nations, including Portuguese, Spanish, Italians, Germans, Flemish, Greeks, English and French. They were also provided a two year’s provisions.

The king saw economic and political advantages in allowing such expedition. If Magellan succeeded, it would open alternate passageway to the most sought-after Spice Islands without creating conflicts to its rival and neighboring Portuguese.

In naming Magellan as the commander of the expedition, the king also granted him and Faleiro the privilege of a 10-year monopoly of the discovered route for 10 years; they would be appointed as governors of the lands and islands found; 5 percent of profits of the travel; the right to impose collection of 1000 ducats.

In this endeavor, Magellan wanted to prove two things: 1) that the world is round and not plane as what many people believe; 2) there were other routes going to east by sailing west.

Before embarking on an expedition, Magellan and his men heard Mass in the Santa Lucia dela Victoria Church. The captain and the crew took a pledge of loyalty and recognized Magellan as their commander-in-chief. On September 20, 1519, the expedition left port and sailed across the Atlantic.

After two months of navigation, Magellan and his men reached South America, the first stop was Brazil. He then continued his voyage to Rio de Janeiro. On February 1520, they sailed through Rio dela Plata.

When they reached Port St. Julian at the southern tip of South America in March, his captains staged a mutiny against him. They failed to overthrow Magellan’s leadership as most of the crew were loyal to him. The rebels were punished severely.

From the southernmost tip of  South America, he crossed a straight to the Pacific Ocean. This strait is now called the Strait of Magellan.

When he crossed the Pacific, he only had three ships remaining. In March 1521, they reached the Ladrones Islands, which is now called the Marianas, where they rest and procure provisions. Magellan proceeded his voyage.  Before reaching the Philippine islands, half of his men were decimated by hardships, hunger, mutinies.  About 150 men survived in the daunting voyage.

On March 17, 1521, Magellan saw the mountains of Samar. They were the first Spaniards who set foot in the Philippines islands. They landed on Homonhon islet to rest. He then proceeded to Limasawa islet and met its chieftain Rajah Kulambu. Magellan befriended the chieftain and sealed their friendship with a blood compact. It was the first blood compact between Filipino and Spaniards.

On March 31 of the same year, Father Pedro de Valderrama, a priest who accompanied in the expedition, led the Spanish and Filipino in celebrating the Mass in Limasawa. It was the first Mass celebrated in the Philippines.  The Spaniards planted a large cross on the top of a hill. The Spaniards said a prayer of a Pater Noster and Ave Maria. Magellan took possession of the island and named it the Archipelago of St. Lazarus. It was on St. Lazarus day when he found the island. 

Christianity introduced to the natives

After a week of staying in Limasawa, Magellan and his men sailed to Cebu. The ships arrived in Cebu on April 8, 1521.  Magellan asked his Malay slave Enrique to assure the natives of Cebu that they came as friends and were not enemies. Rajah Humabon, Cebu chieftain, welcomed them and soon a blood compact ensued.

Mass was celebrated in Cebu on April 15, 1521 and a cross was erected. During their stay in Cebu, Magellan converted the Cebuanos to Christianity. About 800 natives were baptized and embraced the Christian faith, among them was Rajah Humabon and his wife. They chieftain was given the Christian  name Carlos in honor of King Charles, while his wife was named Juana, in honor of King Charle’s mother.  Magellan also gave Juana an image of the Infant Jesus, which later became the Patron of Cebu.

The battle of Mactan

Not all Filipino natives extended a warm and friendly welcome to Magellan and his men. Rajah Lapu-Lapu, one of the chieftains of Mactan island, refused to recognize the King of Spain as his sovereign.

According to Philippine historian Theodoro Agoncillo, Magellan tried to interfere with the quarrels between the two chieftains of Mactan – Rajah Sula and Rajah Lapu-Lapu. This was to show the latter his power.

Sula asked Magellan’s help to defeat his rival. Magellan agreed to help and launched an attack against Lapu-Lapu

The written account of Antonio de Pigafetta, a chronicler who accompanied Magellan in the expedition, described the Battle of Mactan. He said in the early morning of April 28, Magellan and around sixty of his men, consisted of musketeers and crossbowmen, sailed for Mactan. When they reached the island, 49 of his men leaped into the water and walked through the water to reach the shore, while 11 men remained behind to guard the boats.

Pigafetta recounted they were outnumbered by Lapu-Lapu’s men, about 1,500 of them. The natives charged upon the Spaniards as soon as they reached the land. The musketeers and crossbowmen tried to disable the natives by shooting at them from a distance but it was useless as shots failed to harm or wound the natives because they wore shields made of thin wood.

The natives, on the other hand, retaliated by hurling stones, iron-tipped bamboo spears at them. When natives recognized Magellan, many turned upon him. They knocked his helmet off his head, another hurled a bamboo spear on his face. Magellan was able to kill his attacker by piercing the latter with a lance. However, he could not draw a sword because his arms was badly wounded.  One of the natives hacked his left leg with a cutlass. This caused Magellan to fall face downward. More natives charged upon him, hitting him with an iron, piercing him with bamboo spears and cutlasses until he was dead.

Seeing their leader killed, the Spaniards retreated to the boats and pulled off. Nothing of Magellan's body survived, that afternoon the grieving rajah-king (Humabon), hoping to recover his remains, offered Mactan's victorious chief a handsome ransom of copper and iron for them. Lapulapu was elated; he had not possessed so much wealth in his lifetime. However, he was unable to produce the body. He could not find it. He searched; accompanied by a delegation from Cebu, he and his warriors carefully examined the shallow surf where Magellan had thrashed his last. Nothing turned up, The only explanation is that the Mactan defenders literally tore him apart and the sea, which had brought him so far, bore his blood away. Since his wife and child died in Seville before any member of the expedition could return to Spain, it seemed that every evidence of Ferdinand Magellan's existence had vanished from the earth,"quoted from Pigafetta’s The Magellan Expedition chronicles. 

The importance of Magellan's expedition

The Spaniards who survived the battle decided to leave Cebu. Two ships remained – the Victoria and the Trinidad. The Victoria, commanded by Sebastian del Cano, sailed to Europe by way of Africa and succeeded in returning to Spain. The Trinidad, which sailed via the Pacific, was captured by the Portuguese.  Of the 270 men who joined Magellan in the expedition, only 18 men made it back to Europe.  Although Magellan failed to return to Europe, his expedition proved to be a success. His discovery of a new route – crossing the Atlantic and the Pacific – ended the Venetian monopoly. The route helped Spain in establishing global empires by colonizing land in Europe, the Americas, Africa, Asia and Oceania.

His death prevented Magellan from reaching his initial goal – Moluccas – but he was able to circumnavigate the globe, giving proof and establishing the fact that the earth is round.

When the remaining explorers, headed by Del Cano, returned to Spain, they found their date was behind. They lost one day. They claimed they consistently maintained the ship’s log from the first day of their journey up to their return to Europe. This peculiar fact resulted in the establishment of the International Date Line.