Ferdinand Magellan - Frederick Ober

First Transpacific Voyage


Though greatly depressed by the loss of the San Antonio, Magellan bore up wonderfully beneath his misfortunes, which indeed seemed to be cumulative and never-ending. The heavier the burden the greater seemed his strength to bear it. He had lost two vessels of his fleet, one by wreck, and one by treason; but there remained three still true to him, and with these three, badly provisioned as they were, he resolved to continue.

He returned to the River of Sardines, beyond Cape Forward, where the scenery of the strait, which lay between great mountains covered with vast forests up to the line of perpetual snow, was more pleasing than on the Atlantic side. Desolation and sterility had attended the voyage southward for months; but midway the sound known as the Broad Reach the scenery had suddenly changed, with the most exuberant vegetation clothing the mountain-sides. This change was caused by drenching rains brought by the western gales against the sierras, and was, to the parched and blistered voyagers, an augury of better things in store for them.

Impressed by the beauty of the scenery, Pigafetta says: "I do not believe there is a more beautiful or better strait in the world than that one. We called it the Strait of Patagonia, and in it one finds the safest of ports, at every half-league's distance apart springs of pure water, and excellent woods." Fish were abundant too, while edible herbs grew around the springs; and with these articles of food the scanty provisions were eked out.

Sailing leisurely through the strait westward from the river, at last the sailors sighted the open ocean, after having been a month and eight days engaged in threading those labyrinthine passages. Much of the time, indeed, had been lost in seeking their recreant comrades, in exploring false waterways, and in fishing; but so long and involved had been this inland voyage, that Magellan believed the strait, or straits, to be all of four hundred miles in length.

On his way through, Magellan gave names to all prominent capes, bays, inlets, mountains, and harbors. From the constant fires seen burning on the hills and mountains south of the strait he called that region Tierra del Fuego, or Land of Fire, a name which it has ever since retained. The strait itself he purposed to call after the ship from which it was first seen, the Victoria, and seems to have had no thought of bestowing upon it the appellation by which it is now known, of Magellan, or Magalhaes; but posterity has been more generous to the discoverer than he was to himself.

It was with salutes from his cannon, and with tears of joy, that the captain-general greeted the appearance of the sea-coast promontory guarding the western opening of the strait, which he called Cabo Deseado, or Desired Cape. He had so long desired to view it, he had so long believed there must be some such headland based in the waters of the western ocean, that the "Desired Cape" expressed his heart-felt hopes. There the fleet anchored, in a harbor sufficiently secure, and replenished the provisions with fresh stores of fish; the crews took advantage of their last opportunity for liberty ashore, and all prepared themselves for the unknown voyage before them. One of the pilots had advised continuing on until the middle of January, sailing only during the daytime, so that the crews might have time for rest; but Magellan knew this to be impossible, and gave his men leave on shore for refreshment at Cabo Deseado.

Well was that promontory named, not alone for what it signified to Magellan, looking forward to it, but to him and his men in retrospection. They arrived within the shelter of its harbor on November 28, 1520, and after a few days of rest started on the voyage across the ocean, then unknown, the first week in December. What a triumph for Magellan when, with the coast of the continent on his starboard, he emerged from the region of fitful winds and tempests and was wafted by gentle gales onward towards his destination! His was, in fact, a double triumph, for he had not only discovered and explored the strait connecting the two oceans, but his was the first expedition of consequence ever launched upon the western ocean.

Seven years had passed since Balboa discovered it, from a peak of the Darien cordilleras, and though he had built and launched some brigantines, just before he was beheaded, and had made a short trip to prove their seaworthiness, little else had been done with them until after Pedrarias founded Panama, in 1519. Balboa was the precursor of Magellan, inasmuch as he discovered and first attempted to navigate the ocean called by him the great South Sea; but the captain-general of the fleet we have so far accompanied was the first to sail across and name it.

As the three ships held on their way over the bright and sparkling waters, unvexed by tempests, scarcely ruffled by gales, during more than one hundred days suffering neither from storms nor adverse currents, Magellan evolved the name by which that ocean has ever since been known: "Oceano Pacifica"  The Pacific  Ocean he called it, and rightly, says Pigafetta, "for during that time we did not suffer any storm, and in truth it is very pacific. And we sailed about four thousand leagues during those three months and twenty days, through an open stretch in that Pacific Ocean."

But the monotony of it! Ah, it was terrible! Even the dull-witted seamen, accustomed as they were to long months at sea, with scarcely anything visible for days but the heaving waters and o'er-arching firmament, suffered from a strange depression. Other sufferings, too, of a more poignant nature, had they, as we shall soon narrate; but the more vivacious spirits among them found diversion in observing the strange creatures that they saw, sporting in the waters and above them.

One of the most alert and inquisitive in the company was Chevalier Antonio Pigafetta, to whom we have referred already, on occasions, and it is to him that we are indebted for the best and fullest narrative of Magellan's voyage, written from personal observation. Pigafetta was a Venetian, who, chancing to visit Seville when the Magellan expedition was in preparation, promptly enlisted for the voyage. He was with the hero of our story throughout that voyage, and in the flag-ship at that, so was probably in more or less intimate communion with him all the time; yet Magellan seems to have paid him scant attention. He was one of the very few survivors of the expedition, one of the immortal eighteen who sailed around the world and back to Spain in the Victoria.

His narrative may have been written long after the occurrences mentioned therein took place; but in the main it is accurate, though subject to correction by comparison with the stories of the voyage by his contemporaries. To him we are indebted for the most detailed account of Magellan's doings, and the most intimate knowledge of his character. But for him, indeed, we should be at a loss for a well-rounded figure of the captain-general, especially after the Pacific was reached, and he had risen to heights of resolution and self-effacement almost sublime.

We will now accompany Signor Antonio, for a while at least, as he was the only man of that company who was thoughtful enough to set down in extensor  what he saw and heard. Fernan Magellan was extremely neglectful in this respect, and it is doubtful if he ever gave the matter of his great achievements a thought—after they were accomplished. It was enough for him to do;  let others, if they liked, tell how it was done. Still, we should have liked an account of his doings as given by himself, and we can hardly forgive him the omission. Fortunately, he had (though perhaps unaware of the fact), a chronicler of his deeds in Pigafetta, who, though not a Boswell (inasmuch as he gives us but little pertaining to Magellan's personality), is better than nobody at all. And, lest this remark seem ungracious, it should be added that, in his own particular province, he was without a peer in the fleet.

While they were sailing along the west coast of South America, says the observant Antonio, they were amused by the fish-hunts that took place in the water. The fish that did the hunting he calls the albacore, bonito, and dorado—names they bear today—and the hunted were the golondrini, or sea-swallows—otherwise, flying-fish. "When the above three kinds of fish find any of those flying-fish, the latter immediately leap from the water and fly as long as their wings are wet—more than a cross-bow's flight. While they are flying the others swim back of and under them, following their shadows, and no sooner have they fallen into the water than they are seized and eaten."

Not all of Pigafetta's time was given to diversion, however, as he employed much of it, while the captive giant was aboard, in acquiring a vocabulary of Patagonian words. Many pages of these words are given in his book, and they are, of course, very valuable to the philologist. During this time he and the giant became very intimately acquainted, and, in fact, he seems to have been almost the only friend the poor fellow had in the fleet. He was an intelligent as well as very tractable giant, whose only failing was an enormous appetite, and that, of course, might make him disliked on board ship, especially by the cook.

Apart from his appetite, he was a most interesting personage, and when he saw Pigafetta writing down some chance words he had spoken, he at once divined the use of pen and paper (though he had never seen them before in his life), and voluntarily repeated as many words as he could think of, taking great pleasure in seeing them in writing. He also showed his friend how to make fire, by rubbing two dry sticks together until the sparks fall on the inflammable pith of a certain kind of tree found in Patagonia. All this shows that something of value may be learned even from an ignorant savage whose highest ambition is to gratify an insatiable appetite, and who prefers his food raw rather than cooked.

At last, after a month of that monotonous sailing, a terrible thing happened to the fleet. It was attacked by the scurvy, and men died by the dozen at a time. Among the first victims was the captive giant, who, when he found himself at death's door, desired his friend to present a cross, which he kissed, and then immediately cried out, in a feeble voice, "Setebos!" in order to propitiate his deity, whom he thought this act might offend. In truth, he said that if he had not done so the vengeful Setebos would have entered into his body and cause it to burst; still, he desired to be baptized before he died.

Soon after the death of the giant, admits the veracious Pigafetta, he and his comrades were so pinched by hunger that they were glad to devour the rats they caught in the hold of the ship—when they could catch them. They had thought it great fun to catch and toss them into the maw of the giant; but that voracious creature had eaten so many that they had become very scarce. Rats were sold, he says, "for half a ducado apiece, and even then we could not get enough of them." As for their provisions, consisting chiefly of biscuit, "it was biscuit no longer, but merely an offensive powder, swarming with worms." Of fresh provisions they had none for more than three months, their drinking-water became putrid, and, says Gomara the historian, "they held their noses as they drank, for the vile stench of it."

Then came home to Magellan the words he had uttered in the strait: that he would eat the leather on the main-yards before he would turn about for Spain—for of a truth he and his comrades had to do it. No meat was left to them, no fish could be caught; and so they cut the tough old hides from the yards, and, after soaking in the sea for several days, broiled them on the embers. They were exceedingly hard, as may be imagined, "because of the sun, rain, and wind "; yet the pieces were devoured with relish, and such of the crew as could not get enough were obliged to fill themselves up with sawdust.

Added to the horrors of famine were those of thirst and heat, for they were now near or under the equator; the vertical sun blazed down upon them relentlessly, the pitch oozed from the. seams of the vessels, and the seamen, when forced to climb the rigging, often fell lifeless to the decks. During nearly one hundred days, no land was seen save two small islands, destitute of vegetation. Sea-birds hovered over them, but they could not be caught; man-eating sharks swam the waters around them, but were as wary as they were ferocious. Says the pious Pigafetta: "Had not God and His blessed mother given us good weather, we would all have died of hunger in that exceedingly vast ocean. And of a verity, I believe no such voyage will ever be made again!"

Taken together with the termination of that voyage, or its prolongation, rather, around the globe, doubtless no such voyage will be made again. Throughout the whole of it Fernan Magellan bore himself as might have been foretold of him. He neither complained nor allowed others to do so; he ate the same food as was served to his crews, and surpassed any man of them all in the number of hours he stood watch, by night and by day.

The course from the strait had been in the main northwesterly, changing slightly after the equator was crossed. The voyage across the Pacific was a month longer than that of Columbus across the Atlantic, and the distance traversed three times as great; yet there was no thought on the part of Magellan of temporizing with his crews, nor hesitation as to the course he should pursue. On, on, ever sailing towards an evasive horizon, without beacon or buoy to guide him, Magellan pursued his watery way to the Spice Islands, resolved to continue until the last ounce of food was consumed, and the last man dropped dead at the helm.