Ferdinand Magellan - Frederick Ober

Murder and Mutiny


Although the coast of South America was fairly well known before Magellan arrived off Cape St. Augustine, several Spanish and Portuguese navigators having explored it as far south as the mouth of the great river, La Plata, he was somewhat in doubt as to his exact position, notwithstanding his charts and his pilots. He did not venture to land before the second week in December, on the 13th of that month entering the magnificent harbor of Rio Janeiro.

This bay of the "River of January," so called from having been discovered by white men on the first day of the first month in the year, had been several years known to Europeans when Magellan entered it; yet the chief narrator of his voyage, Antonio Pigafetta, describes it and the people found there as if it were then for the first time seen. A pilot of the fleet, in fact, one Juan Carvalho, had been on the coast before, and had resided with the Indians of Rio for more than four years. He had with him at the time a son whose mother was an Indian woman, and who was large enough to take part in the fights waged by the voyagers later, in the Philippines.

Thanks to Juan Carvalho and his half-breed son, the fleet was well supplied with fresh provisions, of which the sailors stood in need, and a friendly intercourse was kept up with the natives throughout the stay. These provisions were in the shape of fowls, pineapples, and batatas, or sweet-potatoes. Of these the natives had more than sufficient for their needs, and with true savage generosity gave to the white men all their surplus. "For a fish-hook or a knife," says the Chevalier Pigafetta, "they gave me five or six chickens; for a comb a brace of geese; for a bell a large basketful of potatoes; and for a small mirror, or pair of scissors, as many fish as would sustain ten men many days."

And he continues, evidently borrowing some of his descriptive material from Vespucci (who was here several years before): "The natives, though they go naked, both men and women as well as children, and live more like beasts than anything else, often reach the age of one hundred and twenty-five to one hundred and forty years. They live in certain long houses which they call boii [bohio], and sleep in cotton nets called amache [hammocks]. They have boats also, called canoas, each made from a single great tree, hollowed out by the use of stone axes, for those people employ stone as we do iron, which they do not possess. They paddle with blades like the shovels of a furnace, and thus, black, naked, and shorn, they resemble the inhabitants of the Stygian marsh.

"The men and women there are as well-proportioned as we are. They eat the flesh of their enemies, not because it is good, but because it is their established custom. That custom, which is mutual (between them and their enemies), was begun, it is said, by an old woman whose only son was killed by an enemy. Some days later that old woman's friends captured one of the tribe who had killed her son, and took him to her hut. Seeing him, and remembering her son, she ran fiercely upon and. bit him in the shoulder, taking out a mouthful. Thus the custom originated. . . . But these cannibals do not eat the bodies all at once. Each one cuts off a piece and carries it to his hut, where he smokes it over a fire. Then every week he cuts off a small bit, which he eats with his other food, to remind him. of his foes."

If the natives of Brazil practised cannibalism, it was in a "ritual" manner, as a sort of religious custom. To the Spaniards they appeared very ludicrous, rather than fierce and alarming, for many of them were grotesquely painted in vivid colors, and some, though otherwise naked, wore fantastic girdles of parrots' feathers, with humps on their hips made from the longest plumes, which gave them a ridiculous appearance. After having been assured by Pilot Carvalho that the new arrivals meant them no harm, the natives capered about like monkeys, and a rainfall occurring about that time (which they had prayed for in vain during many weeks), they ascribed it to the advent of the strangers, and revered them accordingly.

It was not the first time that the cruel Spaniards, whose dispositions were anything but angelic or divine, had been taken for heavenly visitants; but in this instance the natives suffered no rude awakening by the exercise, on their visitors' part, of their superior skill in committing deeds of blood and cruelty. Magellan was too humane towards the natives of whatever land he encountered to suit the sanguinary Spaniards; nor was he mercenary enough to satisfy their desire for the acquisition of treasure. Many a time they denounced him, among themselves, for his leniency, and lamented his indifference to gold.

These natives had no gold, but their fresh provisions were acceptable, especially the flesh of the peccaries, or wild hogs, which they killed in the forests with lances and brought to the fleet by the score. They were at first timid about going on board the ships, and queried among themselves as to the relation existing between the great vessels and the small boats, saying that the latter must be the children of the former, as they were under their constant protection. When at last they had overcome their timidity, they swarmed aboard the vessels in great numbers, looking for articles which they needed most and consequently attached the highest value to, such as pins and needles, scissors, and looking-glasses.

One day a comely but naked young woman came to the flag-ship alone, and while wandering wonderingly about saw a long, sharp nail lying on the floor of the captain-general's cabin. She looked at it admiringly, and, when she thought Magellan was not observing her, suddenly stooped over, picked it up, and thrust it into her hair. Then she immediately fled, as if afraid it might be taken from her by force. This maiden was described as a "comely woman," for she was shapely and fair-complexioned, with long, black hair and sparkling eyes; but allowance must be made for a peculiar deformity, self-inflicted, which at first glance transformed her into a most loathsome object. That is, like many others of her tribe, she had a long slit in her lower lip, in which was inserted a disk-shaped pebble as big as a walnut.

So hospitable were these, the first people Magellan encountered in America, that they built him a big bohio, or native house, many feet in length, and roofing it with thatch of palm-leaves, half filled it with precious Brazil-wood, in order to induce him to remain. Two weeks, however, was all he thought he could spare, for the voyage ahead was to be long, and he wished to get to winter quarters before the inclement weather set in. Refreshed and heartened by their stay, the voyagers sailed on southwardly again, their next tarrying-place being in the great estuary known as the Rio de la Plata, or River of Silver. Little, if any, silver has been found in the region drained by the vast Plata system, but thus it was named by its discoverer, from a tradition that the Indians near its headwaters were possessed of great treasure in that metal.

On its right bank, four years before (in 1516), Juan de Solis, a great explorer in the service of Spain, had been killed (and some say eaten) by the Indians, who attacked him and his men as they were ascending the river in small boats. The explorer fought like a lion; but his courage was of no avail, for a poisoned arrow between the shoulders laid him low. The memory of this disaster was still fresh with the pilots, and they cautioned Magellan against taking any risks on the River of Silver.

At the time the lamented Solis was killed he was chief pilot (piloto-mayor)  of Spain. Ten years after his death another of that rank (who, in fact, was piloto-mayor  at Seville while Magellan was outfitting his fleet) entered and explored the Plata. This was Sebastian Cabot, who was then following in the wake of Magellan with the intent of reaching the Moluccas by the route his predecessor had discovered. His experiences were similar to Magellan's, for he suffered from shipwreck in his fleet, from lack of provisions, and from mutiny. But, unlike Magellan, he had not the courage to continue in the face of difficulties no greater than the former encountered, and after wasting four or five years in and near the River of Silver, returned to Spain in disgrace.

Not far from the site of the present great city of Buenos Ayres, off in the estuary, Magellan anchored his fleet and sent boats ashore in search of provisions. The crews were warned against trusting the slayers of Juan de Solis, who had enticed him into their lairs by pretending to retreat, then turning upon him when unable to extricate himself from the jungle. This warning may have deterred them from following the natives they saw on the bank, who fled in evident alarm, "and in fleeing they took so large a step that with all our running and jumping we could not overtake them." Perhaps the Spaniards did not care to overtake the Indians, who were certainly canibali, or cannibals, and ate human flesh.

Finding that they were not pursued as though with relish for a fight, the chief of the runaways returned to the shore and indicated by signs that he desired to go on board the flag-ship, where, as his costume consisted solely of a goat-skin cloak, Magellan gave him a shirt of gayly colored cotton. He was very uncouth, even for a savage, with vile manners, and a voice like a bull. He was suspicious, also, and early the following morning, finding himself alone in the midst of strangers, leaped into his canoe and paddled ashore.

It has been supposed that, even thus early in his voyage, Magellan was looking for a strait, or passage, from one ocean to the other, as he partially explored the great estuary of La Plata before finally setting sail again for the southward. Off the coast a few leagues he sighted two islands which, on close approach, were seen to be alive with sea-birds "resembling geese," and which were probably penguins. Many were killed and skinned for food, and in a few hours' time the sailors procured five boat-loads of them. Sea-wolves, also, they saw, "which would have been very fierce, if they had had legs to run." These were seals, or sea-lions, and, like the wild-fowl, procured their sustenance in the ocean; but the Spaniards feared them as "man-eaters," and were very glad when they had left the islands in the distance.

The farther southward they sailed the greater became the cold, for by this time the southern winter was upon them. During one of the many fierce gales that assailed the fleet two of the flag-ship's cables parted, as she lay at anchor in an open bay, and she barely escaped the rocks of a lee-shore. After this, succeeding to a three-days' calm, came another terrible storm, in which the forecastles of all the ships were carried away, and the "holy body of St. Elmo" again appeared, this time accompanied by two other apparitions of like character, which were called by the sailors Santa Clara and St. Nicholas. As these celestial beings enveloped in fire appeared at the mastheads, the storm suddenly ceased, and all the seamen fell upon their knees in prayer, vowing pilgrimages to a holy shrine if permitted to return in safety to their homes.

A winter on the coast of Patagonia, which Magellan had now reached, was to be the experience of the Spaniards, unless they chose the alternative of returning on their tracks. This latter course Magellan would not for a moment entertain, so a port was sought in which the fleet could be safely moored, and was found in that of St. Julian, just above the 5oth degree of south latitude. It is still on the map by the name Magellan bestowed upon it. Here, on the last day of March, 1520, the fleet was brought to anchor, and, in a sheltered harbor abounding in fish, preparations were made to pass the winter of the southern latitudes. The shores were sloping and pleasant as compared with the savage-looking coast they had but recently passed, and there was sufficient wood and water to supply the necessities of the ships.

Though fish were abundant in the bay, and the provisions on board the fleet were sufficient for a long time to come, still, with a winter of inaction ahead of him and his voyage not half accomplished, the prudent Magellan reduced the seamen's rations as soon as the anchors were dropped.

At once there went up a great chorus of protest, in which, we may be sure, the disaffected captains heartily joined. Merely because, the seamen said, the voyage had been commenced at the wrong season of the year, and on account of their commander's bad reckoning, they must lie up for five or six months, was no reason they themselves should be made to suffer. They should turn about and go home, instead of wasting time in a wilderness of ice and snow, as helpless as a bear in a hollow tree. "Back to Spain! Back to Spain!" became the cry; but Magellan would not heed it.

"Never will I return," he said, in reply to an importunate officer—"never, until I have accomplished the intent of this voyage. It was undertaken at the orders of my lord the king, who hath chosen me to command, above all others; and he shall not be disappointed! No, my men, we shall not go back. Here will we stay—here, till the coming of spring unlocks the icy fetters and subdues the rigors of winter. Already have we penetrated farther south than any other navigators—even twelve or thirteen degrees nearer the antarctic pole than lies the Cape of Good Hope. And having gained so much, shall we lose it all, for lack of courage to persist a little longer?

"I marvel that Castilians, who conquered the Arab Moors and discovered the way to America, should be guilty of such weakness. As for me, though I be no Castilian, and though I have a wife and son awaiting me in Seville, never shall that city see me until I return triumphant! For gold I care not; for fame I care not; but my lord and king hath intrusted me with this mighty mission, and accomplish it I shall! So, my men, though ye may marvel that I should seek, towards the southern pole, the strait or passage from the Atlantic to the great South Sea—and thus far have sought it vainly—yet find it we shall, and by means of it enter upon that voyage to the Islands of Spices."

The seamen were silenced for a time, though far from satisfied. When the three faithless captains, Juan de Cartagena, Luis de Mendoza, and Gaspar de Quesada, called upon their crews to mutiny, there was immediate response. It was April 1st, 1520. In the middle watch of the night, the captain of the San Antonio, Alvaro de Mesquita, who had superseded both Cartagena and Coca (a kinsman of the captain-general), heard a disturbance on deck and hastened from his cabin. He was at once confronted by Cartagena, and a body of men about thirty in number, armed to the teeth. While confused, and unable to recognize his assailants in the darkness, Mesquita was brought to his knees, and at the point of the sword made to surrender. Hearing a scuffle, his boatswain, Juan de Lorriaga, came running up, at the same time blowing his whistle for the crew to assemble.

"This fool may foil our work," hissed Quesada, "if we allow him to live," and springing upon him with a dagger, stabbed him in the throat. He fell, dying, to the deck, and while his life-blood ebbed away the mutineers hastened to secure the crew. Having done this, they ordered all the cannon loaded and the vessel cleared for action. Then, to propitiate the crew, they brought up bread and wine from below, which, with other provisions, they dispensed with lavish hand.

Thus the largest ship of the fleet was won. The Concepcion, commanded by Quesada, was of course already in the hands of the enemy, while the Victoria  captained by Luis de Mendoza, treasurer of the armada (and, like Cartagena, jealous of Magellan), at once declared against the captain-general. Three ships were in revolt, and only two were left to Magellan: the Trinidad, which he himself commanded, and the little Santiago, under Serrao, the Portuguese. Half the number of men comprising his crew were of his own nationality, and all were loyal to Magellan.

What a situation confronted Magellan on the morning of April 2d. So quietly had the transfer of authority on board the three ships taken place, that he was unaware of what had occurred, until, sending an order to the San Antonio  to go ashore and careen, his boat's crew was met by a refusal to obey. They found the ship's cannon pointed at them, and a harsh voice shouted: "Keep off! This is Admiral Cartagena's flag-ship. Take that  to the Portuguese usurper!"

In all haste, then, the boat's crew rowed back to the flag-ship with the evil news, which Magellan received quite calmly, only remarking: "Row round among the fleet, and find for whom they declare, as I would like to know how many are against me."

"For the king—and ourselves," was the answer returned from every vessel save the Santiago, when hailed and asked the crucial question.

"Not quite the answer I would have," observed Magellan, quietly. "How great a difference one word would make. If, now, it were only 'For the king and Magellan'—as it should be. And as it will be, sooth, before the sun goes down!"

He was not only undismayed by the perils of that desperate situation, but he seemed elated at the prospect of something worthy of his highest efforts. His skill and cunning were to be matched against the skill and cunning of the mutineers, and woe upon the ones that failed! He asked no odds—they surely were against him—and in fighting the enemy he chose the very weapons they had used against himself: duplicity and finesse. Choosing the Victoria  as the most vulnerable vessel in control of the mutineers, he sent a letter to her captain, Luis de Mendoza, inviting him to a conference on the flag-ship. He sent it by the hands of a trusted lieutenant, Gonzalo Espinosa, who received private instructions before he left the ship. At the same time Espinosa departed on his mission, another boat was made ready and filled with picked men in charge of Magellan's brother-in-law, Duarte Barbosa. He had his instructions, also, which he followed to the letter. Magellan's was the brain that guided the weapons, which these two sent home to the heart of the foe.

Mendoza, as Cartagena once had done, made the mistake of crediting Fernan Magellan with a milder disposition than he really had. He allowed Espinosa to come on board his ship, and sneeringly took the letter to read it. Waiting, as if for an answer, Espinosa sidled up to Mendoza, drew a dagger from his girdle, and in a flash sank it in his breast. The victim of Magellan's cunning and Espinosa's intrepidity sank to the deck and expired. Instantly, while Mendoza's crew stood appalled and helpless, Duarte Barbosa led his men over the Victoria's  rail, and encircled Espinosa with a bristling array of pikes and lances.

"For whom do ye declare?" he shouted to the crew. "For the king and—"

"Magellan!" they cried with a will. "The king and his admiral, Fernan Magellan!"

"Then up with this ensign, which is Magellan's," rejoined Barbosa; "and up with the anchor, too, for we sail to the entrance of the port, there to take our stand beside the admiral's ship, lest the mutineers escape."

The Trinidad  was already in motion, sailing towards the harbor-mouth, where she was soon joined by the Santiago  and the Victoria. There they formed an avenging triad, the flag-ship in the centre, and a consort on each side of her. Instead of two ships, to three against him, Magellan now had three to two; and though in tonnage and guns his ships may have been inferior, he possessed the great advantage of having outwitted the conspirators at their own game, which was now in his hands, to be played to its ending, in their discomfiture and punishment.