I T is said that Ferdinand Magellan, the hero of all geographical discovery, with his circumnavigation of the whole round world, had cruised about the Spice Islands, but what he really knew of them from personal experience no one knows. He had served under Almeida, and with Albuquerque had helped in the conquest of Malacca. After seven years of a "vivid life of adventure by sea and land, a life of siege and shipwreck, of war and wandering," inaction became impossible. He busied himself with charts and the art of navigation. He dreamt of reaching the Spice Islands by sailing west, and after a time he laid his schemes before the King of Portugal. Whether he was laughed at as a dreamer or a fool we know not. His plans were received with cold refusal. History repeats itself. Like Christopher Columbus twenty years before, Magellan now said good-bye to Portugal and made his way to Spain.
Since the first discovery of the New World by Spain, that country had been busy sending out explorer after explorer to discover and annex new portions of America. Bold navigators, Pinzon, Mendoza, Bastidas, Juan de la Cosa, and Solis—these and others had almost completed the discovery of the east coast, indeed, Solis might have been the first to see the great Pacific Ocean had he not been killed and eaten at the mouth of the river La Plata. This great discovery was left to Vasco Nunez de Balboa, who first saw beyond the strange New World from the Peak of Darien. Now his discovery threw a lurid light on to the limitation of land that made up the new country and illuminated the scheme of Magellan.
Balboa was "a gentleman of good family, great parts, liberal education, of a fine person, and in the flower of his age." He had emigrated to the new Spanish colony of Hayti, where he had got into debt. No debtor was allowed to leave the island, but Balboa, the gentleman of good family, yearned for further exploration; he "yearned beyond the sky-line where the strange roads go down." And one day the yearning grew so great that he concealed himself in a bread cask on board a ship leaving the shores of Hayti. For some days he remained hidden. When the ship was well out to sea he made his appearance. Angry, indeed, was the captain—so angry that he threatened to land the stowaway on a desert island. He was, however, touched by the entreaties of the crew, and Balboa was allowed to sail on in the ship. It was a fortunate decision, for when, soon after, the ship ran heavily upon a rock, it was the Spanish stowaway Balboa who saved the party from destruction. He led the shipwrecked crew to a river of which he knew, named Darien by the Indians. He did not know that they stood on the narrow neck of land—the isthmus of Panama—which connects North and South America. The account of the Spanish intrusion is typical: "After having performed their devotions, the Spaniards fell resolutely on the Indians, whom they soon routed, and then went to the town, which they found full of provisions to their wish. Next day they marched up the country among the neighbouring mountains, where they found houses replenished with a great deal of cotton, both spun and unspun, plates of gold in all to the value of ten thousand pieces of fine gold."
A trade in gold was set up by Balboa, who became governor of the new colony formed by the Spaniards; but the greed of these foreigners quite disgusted the native prince of these parts.
"What is this, Christians? Is it for such a little thing that you quarrel? If you have such a love of gold, I will show you a country where you may fulfil your desires. You will have to fight your way with great kings whose country is distant from our country six suns."
So saying, he pointed away to the south, where he said lay a great sea. Balboa resolved to find this great sea. It might be the ocean sought by Columbus in vain, beyond which was the land of great riches where people drank out of golden cups. So he collected some two hundred men and started forth on an expedition full of doubt and danger. He had to lead his troops, worn with fatigue and disease, through deep marshes rendered impassable with heavy rains, over mountains covered with trackless forest, and through defiles from which the Indians showered down poisoned arrows.
One of the first maps of the Pacific.
At last, led by native guides, Balboa and his men struggled up the side of a high mountain. When near the top he bade his men stop. He alone must be the first to see the great sight that no European had yet beheld. With "transports of delight" he gained the top and, "silent upon a peak in Darien," he looked down on the boundless ocean, bathed in tropical sunshine. Falling on his knees, he thanked God for his discovery of the Southern Sea. Then he called up his men. "You see here, gentlemen and children mine, the end of our labours."
The notes of the "Te Deum" then rang out on the still summer air, and, having made a cross of stones, the little party hurried to the shore. Finding two canoes, they sprang in, crying aloud joyously that they were the first Europeans to sail on the new sea, whilst Balboa himself plunged in, sword in hand, and claimed possession of the Southern Ocean for the King of Spain. The natives told him that the land to the south was without end, and that it was possessed by powerful nations who had abundance of gold. And Balboa thought this referred to the Indies, knowing nothing as yet of the riches of Peru.
It is melancholy to learn that the man who made this really great discovery was publicly hanged four years later in Darien. But his news had reached Magellan. There was then a great Southern Ocean beyond the New World. He was more certain than ever now that by this sea he could reach the Spice Islands. Moreover, he persuaded the young King of Spain that his country had a right to these valuable islands, and promised that he would conduct a fleet round the south of the great new continent westward to these islands. His proposal was accepted by Charles V., and the youthful Spanish monarch provided Spanish ships for the great enterprise. The voyage was not popular, the pay was low, the way unknown, and in the streets of Seville the public crier called for volunteers. Hence it was a motley crew of some two hundred and eighty men, composed of Spaniards, Portuguese, Genoese, French, Germans, Greeks, Malays, and one Englishman only. There were five ships. "They are very old and patched," says a letter addressed to the King of Portugal, "and I would be sorry to sail even for the Canaries in them, for their ribs are soft as butter."
Magellan hoisted his flag on board the Trinidad of one hundred and ten tons' burden. The largest ship, S. Antonio, was captained by a Spaniard—Cartagena; the Conception, ninety tons, by Gaspar Quesada; the Victoria of eighty-five tons, who alone bore home the news of the circumnavigation of the world, was at first commanded by the traitor Mendoza; and the little Santiago, seventy-five tons, under the brother of Magellan's old friend Serrano.
What if the commander himself left a young wife and a son of six months old? The fever of discovery was upon him, and, flying the Spanish flag for the first time in his life, Magellan, on board the Trinidad, led his little fleet away from the shores of Spain. He never saw wife or child again. Before three years had passed all three were dead.
Carrying a torch or faggot of burning wood on the poop, so that the ships should never lose sight of it, the Trinidad sailed onwards.
"Follow the flagship and ask no questions."
Such were his instructions to his not too loyal captains.