Magellan's Expedition

   by Charles Kimball

In 1521 Ferdinand Magellan returned to Southeast Asia, this time employed by Spain, and he came from the east instead of the west. Magellan was looking for a way to reach the Spice Islands by sailing west, and he found it when he sailed down the South American coast to the strait that now bears his name. Morale was high as his three tiny ships entered the Pacific, but the trip took much longer than anyone expected; both the winds and the sea were calm, and no land larger than a coral atoll was sighted along the way.

At last, after three months of perfect weather and perfect misery they came to Guam, where they took on supplies and continued west. One month later they sighted the Philippines, and Magellan felt like he had been raised from the dead, so he named the archipelago "San Lazaro" (St. Lazarus), after the resurrected friend of Jesus. No European had seen these islands before, but Magellan knew he was close to the Moluccas, because his personal Moluccan slave, Enrique, understood some of the language of the natives.(1)

Magellan did not stop anywhere for long until he reached the central island of Cebu. There he baptized the local chief, Humabon, and two thousand of his followers. The price of Humabon's conversion was aid in fighting an enemy chief, Lapu-Lapu of Mactan island, one mile away. Magellan was so confident of victory that he only took sixty men to Mactan. Humabon brought 600 warriors to help, but Magellan told him to stay on the sidelines. His crew could do the job by themselves.

Lapu-Lapu heard they were coming and assembled 1,500 warriors of his own to meet them. The resulting battle was one-sided; the Spaniards never even got to Mactan's shore, and only eight of the sixty men survived. Magellan was not among the survivors. Today the Filipinos venerate Magellan for discovering their islands, and Lapu-Lapu because he was the first Filipino to resist colonialism.

Magellan's death gave Humabon second thoughts about the alliance. He invited 24 officers to a banquet, plied them with palm wine and women, and then attacked them, killing all but two or three. Now only 100 of the original 270 crewmen were left to the expedition. This was not enough to man all three ships, so they burned the one in worst shape, the Concepcion, and divided her crew and provisions between the other two, the Trinidad and the Victoria. It only takes a week to sail from the Philippines to the Moluccas, but the crew had no idea where to go, so they wandered aimlessly around Borneo and the Sulu Sea for three months. Finally they reached the Spice Islands and loaded a cargo of cloves; overloaded, in fact, for the Trinidad sprung a leak and could go no farther. Juan Sebastian del Cano, the expedition's new commander, chose not to wait for repairs and took the Victoria alone, a wise move since the Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese not long after that. He and 17 men made it back to Spain, 10 months and 11,000 miles later. Add to that the 17 men captured and later released by the Portuguese, and you have 35 survivors for the whole expedition.

When it came to spices the Philippines only had cinnamon, so at first Spain was more interested in Indonesia. But for a few years it was uncertain who was allowed to have both. In 1494 the Pope tried to prevent quarrels between Spain and Portugal by issuing a treaty that divided the whole non-European world between them. The dividing line was drawn at longitude 45o West, giving most of the New World to Spain and Africa and Brazil to Portugal. Once European ships entered the Pacific, it became necessary to draw a similar property line there. It seemed logical to simply continue the first line to the other side of the world, where it becomes longitude 135o East. The problem was that nobody knew for sure where the 135th meridian actually ran. The news from Magellan's expedition caused Spanish geographers to draw maps with the crucial meridian passing through Malaya, putting both the Philippines and the Spice Islands on the Spanish side of the line. Actually they are on the Portuguese side, since 135o East really runs through New Guinea, but before the invention of accurate chronometers the only way one could determine longitude was by guessing ("dead reckoning"). Magellan had erred by overestimating the size of Asia and underestimating the size of the recently discovered Pacific.

On this evidence Spain sent two naval expeditions to conquer the Moluccas: one followed Magellan's route, and one sailed directly from Panama. Both failed for logistical reasons; the Spanish route from Europe to Indonesia was 5,500 miles longer than the Portuguese one around Africa, giving Portugal the advantage. Finally at the Treaty of Sarragosa (1529), Spain accepted a Portuguese offer of 350,000 ducats (about $16,450,000 in 1994 dollars) to forget the claim. However, the Spaniards eventually got a foothold in the Spice Islands, when the natives of Ternate became so angry at Portuguese clumsiness and cruelty that they expelled their masters in 1574. The Spaniards immediately moved in and set up their own outpost on the island, which lasted until the Dutch took it in 1663.

- Since Magellan and Enrique had been in Southeast Asia before, they now get the credit for being the first men to go all the way around the world.

This is also a good place to point out that while the Philippines was one of the last places in Southeast Asia to become civilized, Magellan was not the first civilizing influence. Since 1000 A.D. Chinese merchants had been coming to Luzon, trading Chinese goods for local raw materials like resins, shells, pearls and hemp. Manila was founded as a trading post to make the Chinese-Filipino trade easier. And there was also the influence of the Moslem traders, mentioned in the previous chapter.

  ©Copyright 2000 - 2003 Charles Kimball