Ferdinand Magellan - Frederick Ober

The Young Mountaineer


In an obscure corner of Traz-os-Montes, the northeastern province of Portugal, we find the picturesque hamlet of Saborosa, where, about the year 1480, Ferdinand Magellan was born. Few portions of the Iberian Peninsula are more wild and rugged than this region: for rivers, hills and mountains are its salient features, its forests are vast, its scenery magnificent, though gloomy in the extreme.

The climate of Traz-os-Montes is proverbially bad, its roads are almost impassable; thus few strangers are attracted thither; and hence the people resident there are quite as isolated as though surrounded by the sea. A sea of mountains, in truth, separates them from their compatriots of the coast; but its waves are rigid, immovable, and of their qualities the ignorant mountaineers seem to partake. Indeed, one may visit Saborosa to-day and find there men and women unchanged from their ancestors of Magellan's time, four hundred years ago.

Ferdinand Magellan was born a mountaineer, and though he became a sailor (and through having become a sailor achieved the voyage which made his name immortal) he carried with him to sea the characteristics of one reared amid rugged surroundings. His views were elevated, his confidence in himself was supreme, his integrity unimpeachable; yet was he bound by obstinacy as by hoops of steel. His courage was dauntless, his perseverance knew no limits, and his belief in a fortunate star amounted to a superstition.

At the time of Ferdinand's birth and youth, his father ruled as the little lord of Saborosa, and was called a fidalgo, or nobleman. He was wont to boast that his family belonged to "the oldest in the kingdom," and many a time cautioned his son never to forget that he was a Magellan. Ferdinand did not forget, and no deed of his besmirched the family escutcheon, which, in the language of heraldry, was "On a field argent three bars checky, gules and argent; the crest an eagle, wings displayed."

The "eagle," it is true, looked more like a cormorant than any other bird; but there was no mistaking the "three bars cheeky" on a silver shield, which signified that some distant progenitor had signally achieved something, probably in conflict with the Moors. There was also the legend "Magalhaes"  below the shield, which was the family name, in Portuguese, inscribed as Ferdinand himself was wont to write it in his autograph. Respecting the different spellings of his name, it may be as well to make mention of them now, in this connection, since there are several, depending upon which language is adopted—whether Portuguese, Spanish, or English.

In the vernacular of our hero, his name was written Fernao de Magalhnes; in Spanish, Fernando de Magallanes, which we have anglicized into Ferdinand Magellan. The first name was bestowed upon him at his christening, the second when he made Spain his adoptive country, and the third after his deeds became world-famous and the chronicle of them was translated into English. Those familiar with him, doubtless, addressed the young man as Fernan, or Hernan, these being abbreviated forms of Fernando and Hernando, which have the same meaning in Spanish and Portuguese.

Fernan Magellan, then (assuming ourselves to be on a familiar footing with him), was the son of Pedro (or Peter) de Magalhaes, an hidalgo of repute in Traz-os-Montes, who was possessed of some wealth and owned a castle, together with vast estates consisting mainly of wild and mountainous lands covered with forests. In these forests roamed wild boars and deer, which Fernan, when arrived at a suitable age, greatly delighted to hunt. The shaggy crests of the mountains were also the haunts, tradition relates, of nomadic brigands, who would have desired no better fortune than to capture the son of a nobleman like Peter Magellan and hold him for ransom. If they had designs, however, upon Ferdinand, they were destined to be disappointed, for he was a reckless rider of the native horses for which the region is celebrated, and though he had many mad adventures, a capture by brigands was not one of them.

All the streams of Traz-os-Montes—and there were many of them, little and big, mountain-born and fed by springs of crystal clearness—ran, sooner or later, to the sea, in confluence with the Douro, near the mouth of which sat the rich old city of Oporto. From the beautiful vale in which Saborosa is situated, a swift-moving stream plunges directly into the Douro, and along the banks of both run roads which lead from the mountains to Oporto. This city, celebrated for the delicious wine which bears its name, is scarcely more than fifty miles, "as the crow flies," from Saborosa, and was early favored with visits from young Fernan, who found there a fine old aristocracy much to his liking.

His father may have passed a portion of each year in Oporto, together with his family, then consisting of Fernan, a younger son whose name is not known, and two daughters, Isabel and Tereza. It was necessary, to break the monotony of life in that isolated community of Saborosa, to seek, occasionally, the social pleasures of Oporto, where the hidalgos of the country were wont to meet and indulge in stately recreations. Here, doubtless, Fernan acquired his liking for the sea, as the harbor of Oporto was crowded with shipping, and many a seafarer came here, with tales of adventure which the youth may have listened to, sitting on the quays, or on the decks of vessels just in from foreign ports.

At the time Fernan Magellan was growing to manhood all those great voyages took place which have since become fixed as important events in the annals of the world. He was twelve years of age when Columbus sailed from Palos; seventeen when his famous countryman, Vasco da Gama, doubled the end of Africa and found a new way to India; and twenty when Cabral, though by mistake, revealed the coast of the country since known as Brazil. Later in life he met and conversed with the navigators and soldiers who advanced the arms of Portugal in the Far East, and it is believed that he early sought acquaintance with such as were accessible in or near Oporto.

If the early period of Magellan's life had received a tithe of the attention bestowed upon his latter years, we might present a more nearly adequate account of his life at Saborosa, brief as it was; but, truth to tell, the material for it is scanty in the extreme, for next to nothing is known of his youth. Much has been imagined, many half-truths have been expanded into statements of facts; but in the foregoing paragraphs are embodied all that has been ascertained to be authentic.

He was an active youth, delighting in adventure; athletic, though slight of frame, and given to outdoor exercises rather than to indoor studies. In fact, it is not known that he ever received systematic training under the eye of a tutor, for his father probably shared the belief, then generally prevalent, that the sons of hidalgos needed no education, save that which fitted them for attendance at court and the profession of arms. It was the custom for noblemen to send their sons to court, dedicated to the service of their sovereign, to whom they looked for direction in their studies, and from whom they expected to receive their rewards if successful.

Just when Fernan Magellan left his mountain home for Lisbon, where he took his first lessons as a courtier, is not known, but it was probably before he was fifteen years of age. This is inferred from the fact that (according to Bartolomeo Agensola, author of the Conquest of the Moluccas)  he first entered the service of Queen Leonor as a page. Queen Leonor was the widow of King Joao (or John), surnamed "the Perfect," whose reign began in 1481, and during which (in 1486–1487) that brave navigator, Bartholomew Dias, discovered and doubled the Cape of Good Hope.

Six years before the sailing of Columbus Dias turned his prow into the waters of the Indian Ocean, and, returning to Portugal told his king what he had discovered. Owing to the terrific gales and seas he had encountered in rounding the Cape, he named it Cabo de Todos los Tormentor  (or, the Cape of all the Storms); but King John the Perfect demurred to this. He had not experienced the storms, and he had no vivid remembrance of tempestuous seas and baffling winds, as Dias had. He looked upon the discovery from a more lofty, world-embracing view-point, and he said, "Nay, gallant Bartholomew, the Cape of Storms it shall not be, but the Cape of Good Hope (el Cabo de Buena Esperanza)!

The hopes of King John were not realized by him, as he delayed sending Dias bak again to pursue his discovery to its sequence, and pass through the portal he had opened to India. Ten years were allowed to elapse before a great Indian expedition was fitted out, and John the Perfect had been dead two years when Vasco da Gama made his renowned and wonderful voyage from Lisbon to Calicut.

King John II. was succeeded by Emanuel, or Manoel, first of his name on the Portuguese throne, who was surnamed "the Great" and "the Fortunate"—not so much on account of what he had achieved as what others had done for him. During many years preceding his accession, the several sovereigns who had occupied the throne had labored for the advancement of Portugal's arms and influence along the coast of Africa. Prince Henry the Navigator had indicated the direction Portuguese ships should take, and the darkness was dispelled that for centuries had enshrouded Africa's shores. Each successor had contributed his mite, and during the reign of Joao the Perfect the last vestige of mystery had been stripped from the Atlantic coast of Africa by Dias, and a route to India indicated along its eastern shores.

King Emanuel, fortunately, was wise enough to grasp what King John had let fall when his hand was palsied by death. He had also the sagacity to continue the voyages which for several years had been intermitted, but for which great preparations had been made. His reign has been called, and perhaps rightly, Portugal's "golden age"; but he merely harvested what his royal forerunners had sown. The golden grains dropped by their navigators and colonists in the sea-sands off Senegal, the Gulf of Guinea, and the Congo, yielded their increase to Dom Manoel. On the death of John II. he fell heir to all that had been accomplished, accumulated, by him and by others, and thus it came to pass that in his reign there sailed such expeditions as Vasco da Gama's to India; Cabral's, which resulted in the discovery of Brazil; Cortereal's to the coast of Labrador, and Almeida's to the Indian Seas.

It was in 1495 that Manoel succeeded John II. as King of Portugal, and shortly after received into his service the youthful page, Fernan Magellan, who was warmly welcomed as the son of a faithful hidalgo, who kept in order the wild and stubborn people of Traz-os-Montes. It was at the court of Dom Manoel that Magellan passed what may be called the formative period of his life, in which he was really educated. That he received an education, in the sense of being instructed in schools, there is no record to show; but his mind was always open and receptive. The vicinage of king's courts is not generally considered favorable to the acquisition of learning; but to be at Dom Manoel's court, in the closing decade of that most wonderful century in the history of Portugal and Spain, was in itself an education to a youth like Magellan.

He had only to open his eyes and observe what was going on about him to be placed, as it were, in touch with the farthest ends of the earth. For he was in Lisbon when Gama sailed forth to discover, if possible, an ocean route to India around the Cape of Good Hope and through the Indian Ocean; and he was there, also, still a hanger-on at court, when the triumphant navigator returned with success  inscribed upon his banners.

He heard the salvos of artillery that welcomed the veteran home, he listened to the praises that were showered upon him by the king and the nobility, and witnessed the enthusiasm of the populace over the greatest event since the return of Christopher Columbus from his voyage to America. More than all this—more than forming merely a unit in the unrecognized masses that welcomed back Da Gama—he became acquainted with the navigator, and is said to have visited him at his house in Lisbon. There, no doubt, he received from his own lips the story of wonderful adventure: adown the West-African coast, around the Cape, along the east coast nearly to the equator, and then the bold dash across the Indian Ocean to Calicut.

Vasco da Gama had set out for his Indian voyage in July, 1497, and returned in September, 1499. Three years later he sailed again; but, meanwhile, Dom Manoel the Fortunate had despatched Cabral, with thirteen ships, to follow up the first adventure and take possession of ports which Gama had merely reported to exist but could not hold. Cabral bore farther westward than Gama, and hence, unwittingly, discovered the unknown coast of Brazil; but he lost nearly half his ships, and among the brave men who went down with one of them (of which he was commander) was Bartholomew Dias, who first of all led the way around the Cape of Storms.

Thus, while Fernan Magellan was spending the days of his youth as a courtier, probably in idleness by day and in dissipation by night, these great events happened of which he was a witness. Vasco da Gama sailed for India twice and returned, before the courtier, Magellan, felt deeply enough the inspiration towards adventure to himself set out for the Orient. How he could have remained so long in idleness, or at least inactive, while such great things were happening, and he in the midst of them, seems inexplicable.

While expedition after expedition was being fitted out and despatched for the far ends of the earth—to Labrador and Brazil, Africa and India—Fernan Magellan stayed in Lisbon an idle observer. "Of their coming and going, of their many victories and rare defeats, of their successful venture or disastrous loss, how much he must have heard! The whole country was seething with excitement. The new worlds, alike of the East and of the West, held out a brilliant picture of infinite possibilities to the humblest in rank. The dock-yards rang with the sound of axe and hammer, and the ships were barely launched ere they sailed for the lands that were to bring riches and distinction to every one—to every one, at least, who lived! Men left their country in shoals, careless of danger, heedless of death-rates, mindful only of the possible glory that awaited them. We can imagine the effect that experiences such as these must have had upon one so adventurous as Magellan. At such a time, when all around him were up and doing, it was impossible that he should remain a mere spectator."