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M. B. Synge

Magellan Sails round the World

T HEY had left Seville on 20th September 1519. A week later they were at the Canaries. Then past Cape Verde, and land faded from their sight as they made for the south-west. For some time they had a good run in fine weather. Then "the upper air burst into life and a month of heavy gales followed. The Italian count, who accompanied the fleet, writes long accounts of the sufferings of the crew during these terrific Atlantic storms.

"During these storms," he says, "the body of St. Anselm appeared to us several times; one night that it was very dark on account of the bad weather the saint appeared in the form of a fire lighted at the summit of the mainmast and remained there near two hours and half, which comforted us greatly, for we were in tears only expecting the hour of perishing; and, when that holy light was going away from us, it gave out so great a brilliancy in the eyes of each, that we were like people blinded and calling out for mercy. For without any doubt nobody hoped to escape from that storm."

Two months of incessant rain and diminished rations added to their miseries. The spirit of mutiny now began to show itself. Already the Spanish captains had murmured against the Portuguese commander.

"Be they false men or true, I will fear them not; I will do my appointed work," said the commander firmly.

It was not till November that they made the coast of Brazil in South America, already sighted by Cabral and explored by Pinzon. But the disloyal captains were not satisfied, and one day the captain of the S. Antonio  boarded the flagship and openly insulted Magellan. He must have been a little astonished when the Portuguese commander seized him by the collar, exclaiming: "You are my prisoner!" giving him into custody and appointing another in his place.

Food was now procurable, and a quantity of sweet pine-apples must have had a soothing effect on the discontented crews. The natives traded on easy terms. For a knife they produced four or five fowls; for a comb, fish for ten men; for a little bell, a basket full of sweet potatoes. A long drought had preceded Magellan's visit to these parts, but rain now began with the advent of the strangers, and the natives made sure that they had brought it with them. Such an impression once made there was little difficulty in converting them to the Christian faith. The natives joined in prayer with the Spaniards, "remaining on their knees with their hands joined in great reverence so that it was a pleasure to see them," writes one of the party.


An Atlantic fleet of Magellan's time.

The day after Christmas again found them sailing south by the coast, and early in the New Year they anchored at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata, where Solis had lost his life at the hands of the cannibals some five years before. He had succeeded Vespucci in the service of Spain, and was exploring the coast when a body of Indians, "with a terrible cry and most horrible aspect," suddenly rushed out upon them, killed, roasted, and devoured them.

Through February and March, Magellan led his ships along the shores of bleak Patagonia seeking for an outlet for the Spice Islands. Winter was coming on and no straits had yet been found. Storm after storm now burst over the little ships, often accompanied by thunder and lightning; poops and forecastles were carried away, and all expected destruction, when "the holy body of St. Anselm appeared and immediately the storm ceased."

It was quite impossible to proceed farther to the unknown south, so, finding a safe and roomy harbour, Magellan decided to winter there. Port St. Julian he named it, and he knew full well that there they must remain some four or five months. He put the crew on diminished rations for fear the food should run short before they achieved their goal. This was the last straw. Mutiny had long been smouldering. The hardships of the voyage, the terrific Atlantic storms, the prospect of a long Antarctic winter of inaction on that wild Patagonian coast—these alone caused officers and men to grumble and to demand an immediate return to Spain.


Ferdinand Magellan, the first circumnavigator of the world.

But the "stout heart of Magellan" was undaunted.

On Easter Day the mutiny began. Two of the Spanish captains boarded the S. Antonio,  seized the Portuguese captain thereof, and put him in chains. Then stores were broken open, bread and wine generously handed round, and a plot hatched to capture the flagship, kill Magellan, seize his faithful Serrano, and sail home to Spain.

The news reached Magellan's ears. He at once sent a messenger with five men bearing hidden arms to summon the traitor captain on board the flagship. Of course he stoutly refused. As he did so, the messenger sprang upon him and stabbed him dead. As the rebellious captain fell dead on the deck of his ship, the dazed crew at once surrendered. Thus Magellan by his prompt measures quelled a mutiny that might have lost him the whole expedition. No man ever tried to mutiny again while he lived and commanded.

The fleet had been two whole months in the Port S. Julian without seeing a single native.

"However, one day, without any one expecting it, we saw a giant, who was on the shore of the sea, dancing and leaping and singing. He was so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist; he was well built; he had a large face, painted red all round, and his eyes also were painted yellow around them, and he had two hearts painted on his cheeks; he had but little hair on his head and it was painted white."

The great Patagonian giant pointed to the sky to know whether these Spaniards had descended from above. He was soon joined by others evidently greatly surprised to see such large ships and such little men. Indeed, the heads of the Spaniards hardly reached the giants' waists, and they must have been greatly astonished when two of them ate a large basketful of biscuits and rats without skinning them and drank half a bucket of water at each sitting.

With the return of spring weather in October 1520, Magellan led the little fleet upon its way. He was rewarded a few days later by finding the straits for which he and others had been so long searching.

"It was the straight," says the historian simply, "now called the straight of Magellans."


A ship of the sixteenth century.

A struggle was before them. For more than five weeks the Spanish mariners fought their way through the winding channels of the unknown straits. On one side rose high mountains covered with snow. The weather was bad, the way unknown. Do we wonder to read that "one of the ships stole away privily and returned into Spain," and the remaining men begged piteously to be taken home? Magellan spoke "in measured and quiet tones": "If I have to eat the leather of the ships' yards, yet will I go on and do my work." His words came truer than he knew. On the southern side of the strait constant fires were seen, which led Magellan to give the land the name it bears to-day—Tierra del Fuego. It was not visited again for a hundred years.

At last the ships fought their way to the open sea—Balboa's Southern Ocean—and "when the Captain Magellan was past the strait and saw the way open to the other main sea he was so glad thereof that for joy the tears fell from his eyes."

The expanse of calm waters seemed so pleasant after the heavy tiring storms that he called the still waters before him the Pacific Ocean. Before following him across the unknown waters, let us recall the quaint lines of Camoens—

"Along these regions, from the burning zone

To deepest south, he dares the course unknown.

A land of giants shall his eyes behold,

Of camel strength, surpassing human mould;

And, onward still, thy fame his proud heart's guide,

Beneath the southern stars' cold gleam he braves

And stems the whirls of land-surrounded waves,

For ever sacred to the hero's fame,

These foaming straits shall bear his deathless name.

Through these dread jaws of rock he presses on

Another ocean's breast, immense, unknown,

Beneath the south's cold wings, unmeasur'd, wide,

Received his vessels, through the dreary tide,

In darkling shades, where never man before

Heard the waves howl, he dares the nameless shore."

Three little ships had now emerged, battered and worn, manned by crews gaunt and thin and shivering. Magellan took a northerly course to avoid the intense cold, before turning to cross the strange obscure ocean, which no European had yet realised. Just before Christmas the course was altered and the ships were turned to the north-west, in which direction they expected soon to find the Spice Islands. No one had any idea of the vastness of the Pacific Ocean.

"Well was it named the Pacific," remarks the historian, "for during three months and twenty days we met with no storm."

Two months passed away, and still they sailed peacefully on, day after day, week after week, across a waste of desolate waters.

"Alone, alone, all, all alone,

Alone on a wide, wide sea."

At last one January day they sighted a small wooded island, but it was uninhabited; they named it S. Paul's Island and passed on their way. They had expected to find the shores of Asia close by those of America. The size of the world was astounding. Another island was passed. Again no people, no consolation, only many sharks. There was bitter disappointment on board. They had little food left. "We ate biscuit, but in truth it was biscuit no longer, but a powder full of worms. So great was the want of food that we were forced to eat the hides with which the main yard was covered to prevent the chafing against the rigging. These hides we exposed to the sun first to soften them by putting them overboard for four or five days, after which we put them on the embers and ate them thus. We had also to make use of sawdust for food, and rats became a great delicacy." No wonder scurvy broke out in its worst form—nineteen died and thirteen lay too ill to work.

For ninety-eight days they sailed across the unknown sea, "a sea so vast that the human mind can scarcely grasp it," till at last they came on a little group of islands peopled with savages of the lowest type—such expert thieves that Magellan called the new islands the Ladrones or isle of robbers. Still, there was fresh food here, and the crews were greatly refreshed before they sailed away. The food came just too late to save the one Englishman of the party—Master Andrew of Bristol—who died just as they moved away. Then they found the group afterwards known as the Philippines (after Philip II. of Spain). Here were merchants from China, who assured Magellan that the famous Spice Islands were not far off. Now Magellan had practically accomplished that he set out to do, but he was not destined to reap the fruits of his victory.

With a good supply of fresh food the sailors grew better, and Magellan preferred cruising about the islands, making friends of the natives and converting them to Christianity, to pushing on for the Spice Islands. Here was gold, too, and he busied himself making the native rulers pay tribute to Spain. Easter was drawing near, and the Easter services were performed on one of the islands. A cross and a crown of thorns was set upon the top of the highest mountain that all might see it and worship. Thus April passed away and Magellan was still busy with Christians and gold. But his enthusiasm carried him too far. A quarrel arose with one of the native kings. Magellan landed with armed men, only to be met by thousands of defiant natives. A desperate fight ensued. Again and again the explorer was wounded, till "at last the Indians threw themselves upon him with iron-pointed bamboo spears and every weapon they had and ran him through—our mirror, our light, our comforter, our true guide—until they killed him."

Such was the tragic fate of Ferdinand Magellan, "the greatest of ancient and modern navigators," tragic because, after dauntless resolution and unwearied courage, he died in a miserable skirmish at the last on the very eve of victory.


The first ship that sailed round the world.

With grief and despair in their hearts, the remaining members of the crew, now only one hundred and fifteen, crowded on to the Trinidad  and Victoria  for the homeward voyage. It was September 1522 when they reached the Spice Islands—the goal of all their hopes. Here they took on board some precious cloves and birds of Paradise, spent some pleasant months, and, laden with spices, resumed their journey. But the Trinidad  was too overladen with cloves and too rotten to undertake so long a voyage till she had undergone repair, so the little Victoria  alone sailed for Spain with sixty men aboard to carry home their great and wonderful news. Who shall describe the terrors of that homeward voyage, the suffering, starvation, and misery of the weary crew? Man after man drooped and died, till by the time they reached the Cape Verde Islands there were but eighteen left.

When the welcome shores of Spain at length appeared, eighteen gaunt, famine-stricken survivors, with their captain, staggered ashore to tell their proud story of the first circumnavigation of the world by their lost commander, Ferdinand Magellan.

We miss the triumphal return of the conqueror, the audience with the King of Spain, the heaped honours, the crowded streets, the titles, and the riches. The proudest crest ever granted by a sovereign—the world, with the words: "Thou hast encompassed me"—fell to the lot of Del Cano, the captain who brought home the little Victoria.  For Magellan's son was dead, and his wife Beatrix, "grievously sorrowing," had passed away on hearing the news of her husband's tragic end.