Ferdinand Magellan - Frederick Ober

The Long-Sought Strait


John the Giant quickly found some others of his fellow-countrymen and women, whom he evidently told of the good treatment he had received, as they came swarming to the shore. Like him they were half naked and altogether savage, with painted faces, skin-covered feet, and of gigantic size. The women were not so tall as the men, but broader across the shoulders, al4byery corpulent. They were more timid than the warriors, and it would have been better for the latter if they had been less bold, for there was no longer the novelty about them that proved so attractive at the arrival of the first Patagonian, and which shielded him from harm.

The natural instincts of the Spaniards and Portuguese were beginning to assert themselves, dominant over everything else being rapacity and covetousness. They implored Magellan to send out into the country to seek the village or camp of these people, which might perhaps be found worth despoiling. So he organized and sent forth a small party, which, under guidance of John the Giant, climbed the hills enclosing the harbor, and disappeared in a dense and pathless forest. After hours of toilful travel the white men arrived at a long bohio, or hut, roofed with guanaco-skins, and this, the giant assured them, was the only village they possessed. One hut, and that containing absolutely nothing of value to the Europeans, was all they found; and when they returned with this story, Magellan resolved that, inasmuch as the natives possessed nothing but themselves and the strange guanacos, he would take along specimens of both man and beast.

Such good reports had been taken by giant John to the Patagonians, that when two young and lusty warriors, having their hands full of presents, were shown a pair of manacles and asked by Magellan if they would not like to wear them on their ankles, they unwarily assented. The irons were brightly polished, and appeared so attractive that when assured the proper place to wear them was on the lower limbs, they thrust out their legs, at signs made by the armorer, and before well aware of what had happened to them the bolts were riveted, and they were securely fastened to the deck. As soon, however, as they discovered the trick by which they had been entrapped, they cast away their gifts, and yelled to their friends ashore, in voices that seemed like the bellowing of mad bulls. Their rage was fearful to behold, for they frothed at the mouth, they strained at their chains, and in their despair called upon their demon-god, Setebos, to aid them.

"When any of those people die," says Pigafetta "ten or twelve demons, all painted, appear to them and dance very joyfully about the corpse. One of those demons is much taller than the others, and he cries out and rejoices more. Our giant told us, by signs, that he had seen those demons, with two horns on their heads, long hair, which hung to their feet, and belching forth fire from their mouths. That largest demon they call Setebos."

This is the first mention of a god, or demon, by the name of Setebos, and it may interest our readers to learn that this Patagonian deity was appropriated by Shakespeare, in his play of the "Tempest," as the familiar of the uncouth Caliban, who is supposed to have been a Carib. That is, the omnivorous Shakespeare, who was the greatest borrower of other men's words and phrases of any age, deliberately purloined both Setebos and Caliban from the old books in which he found their names, and thus made them immortal.

Magellan was well punished for the mean stratagem he had employed in capturing these inoffensive giants, for in them he soon found he had "caught a Tartar." At first they refused to be pacified, but soon they clamored for food and drink, and it became difficult to satisfy their demands, for their appetites were enormous. Each giant "ate a basketful of biscuit, and drank half a pailful of water at a gulp," while the rats that infested the ship, and which were caught and tossed to the prisoners by the sailors, were swallowed by them as delicious morsels. They did not even stop to skin them, such was the raging appetite of these barbarians; and Magellan may well have reflected upon his folly in adding to his crews two men with mouths and stomachs of such vast capacity. Their two mouths were equal to twenty ordinary ones to feed, and yet the captain-general persisted in his course, until one of the giants died on the flag-ship, and the other was carried to Spain by the mutineers on the San Antonio.

John the Giant had brought Magellan a guanaco, as an offering indicating his good-will; but when the cries of his comrades came to him from the ship—he being at the time on shore—he is said to have organized a party of savages for their rescue. He and his companion savages were quickly driven from the shore, but one of the men-at-arms from the Trinidad  was wounded in the thigh by a Parthian arrow and died immediately. "Our men had muskets and cross-bows," naively admits the narrator of the event, "but they could never hit any of the giants, for they never stood still when they fought, but leaped about hither and thither. Of a truth, they ran swifter than horses." Magellan's men burned all the possessions of the giants, thus adding to the distress of these poor savages in the height of winter, and then returned to the ships.

Although the musketry failed to do any execution, owing to the inability of the musketeers to hit a moving mark, yet the tremendous reports and the sulphurous smoke that came from the unwieldy arquebuses frightened the savages away. The harbor of San Julian presented—but for the presence of the fleet—once more a scene of solitude and desolation. Two months yet remained of the winter season, but Magellan concluded to make an attempt to get farther down the coast, at the risk of being wrecked by a sudden storm, for the monotony of existence there was unbearable. Still inflexible in his determination to rid himself of his chief rival, the mutineer Juan Cartagena, he placed him and the priest, Pedro Sanchez, on an islet in a curve of the bay, well supplied with provisions, a tent and boat, then sailed away, and left them to a fate much worse than death.

The protests of these unfortunate men are not recorded, nor their prayers; but how despairingly must they have gazed after the retreating ships, and thought upon their helplessness when the giants should return, and, finding them alone, attack them. Even if the savages should prove more merciful than Fernan Magellan, and spare their lives, could they survive another season, with their provisions exhausted, and the rigors of winter to oppress them? As already mentioned, some of their fellow-voyagers afterwards returned along the coast in time to rescue them from starvation; but whether they called in for them at San Julian, or unfeelingly kept on their way to Spain, is unknown, for their fate is involved in mystery.

It was with this sin on his conscience that Magellan left the port where he had found shelter more than four months, and, the last week in August, sailed for Santa Cruz, where, in a desolate harbor near the mouth of the river, he remained two months longer. A large store of dried and salted fish was laid in here, for future provisions, and some wreckage picked up, which had drifted ashore from the Santiago. The latitude of Santa Cruz was quite accurately determined by the pilots at, or near, fifty degrees south of the line, and the name of harbor and river may still be found on modern maps. Less than two degrees south of Santa Cruz appeared the opening into the strait, or water-passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, which, evidently, Magellan was seeking. The fleet had left the river and harbor on October 18th, as the weather conditions had vastly improved, and signs of spring were on every hand. Only three days later, the Victoria, which was in the lead, sighted a promontory, which Magellan named "el Cabo de las Virgenes," or the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, in remembrance of those hapless saints, as it was discovered on their "feast-day." Rounding that cape, athwart which fierce gales blew forbiddingly, an opening was discovered, which a long month of exploration proved to be that to the strait connecting the two oceans.

It has been a matter of controversy, in which geographers and historians have shared, whether or not Magellan had previous knowledge, or intimation, of the existence of this strait. The chief chronicler of his voyage, Pigafetta, declares that he knew where to sail in order to find it, because he had seen it depicted on a map in the possession of the King of Portugal, which was made by Martin of Bohemia, otherwise Martin Behaim. This is hardly possible, however, unless Martin Behaim created the strait from pure conjecture, for he died in 1506, before any voyage had been extended so far south as latitude fifty degrees below the equator. Magellan may have met him in Lisbon, where he resided for a time, and where he probably deceased, and from conversations with him may have inferred the existence of the strait so long concealed. Whatever the cause of his search for it, and whether he had proof sufficient to satisfy himself that there was a strait, he cannot be deprived of his laurels as discoverer.

It was a theory of Columbus, that if he could but break through that barrier between the two oceans, he might sail around the world, and in his last voyage he strove frantically with winds and seas to achieve his purpose. In vain, however, did the great Admiral scan the Caribbean coast of Honduras, Panama, and Darien. He returned, sorrowing, and in great distress, to Spain, where he soon after died. Nine years later, in 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa, until then an unknown adventurer, was favored with the first glimpse of the ocean now known as the Pacific; and seven years after, Magellan found the way into it from the Atlantic.

Map of Magellan Strait.


Several expeditions, Spanish and Portuguese, had preceded him down the coast of South America, but no proof has been advanced that any of them made a "southing" so great as his. A strait, or the semblance of one, was laid down upon globes bearing date 1515, and 1520, by the learned Schoner; but as the cartographers of that period were prone to construct their maps and globes less with a regard to accuracy than with reference to what the world desired, scant attention should be paid to this. It is known that for many years, at least, from the date of the first voyage of Columbus to Magellan's, the so-called "secret of the strait" was the object of solution by many an explorer. In the capitulation between the King of Spain and Magellan, in truth, the latter is instructed to go "in search of the strait"—as though one was presumed to exist somewhere, despite the efforts, constantly baffled, of explorers to find it.

Let us say that Magellan had faith, and he found it; but so had Columbus, Vespucci, La Cosa, Ojeda, Coehlo, and others, and they found it not. Magellan merely pushed on a little farther than his predecessors, and had the courage and persistence to continue, in the face of every obstacle of whatever kind. At the outset, all his officers were against him; at the very gateway to the western ocean a well-planned mutiny nearly frustrated his intentions; then a long winter of demoralizing inaction intervened; but here, at last, before him open wide, he saw the portal to the Pacific! He had reached, at last, the "Tail of the Dragon," as the ancients called the conjectural termination of South America towards the antarctic region; but he would not sail around it, he would practically sever it, by effecting a passage through to the western coast.

He was then about seventeen degrees south of the Cape of Good Hope, and the actual tip of the continent, or the island, outlying thereon, now known as Cape Horn, was yet three degrees to the southward. It may not come amiss to recall, in this connection, that while the Cape of Good Hope was discovered in 1487, and first doubled in 1497, the Strait of Magellan was not discovered or navigated till 1520, and Cape Horn was first rounded nearly a century after, or in 1616. Thus slowly proceeded the explorers of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, cautiously creeping from one headland to another, and consuming years in covering distances traversed to-day in weeks and in months.

Rounding the promontory of the Virgins, Magellan saw beyond it a. broad inlet, with lofty, snow-topped mountains in the distance, and bold shores. A sheltered bay afforded secure anchorage, and there the fleet passed the night; though a storm broke over them towards morning, and the vessels were obliged to "stand off and on" till noon of the next day. Returning to the anchorage in the spacious bay, Magellan first inspected the San Antonio  and Concepcion, commanded by Mesquita and Serrao, and then ordered them to make a reconnoissance, lasting not more than five days, and return to him in what is now called Possession Bay. There was no assurance then that the inlet was more than an estuary, like that of the Plata, or a false bay without an outlet, hence he would not venture with the fleet until the real character of the supposed-strait was disclosed. The two craft proceeded as directed, first entering a narrow channel between lofty shores, then disclosing a broader body of water which the Spaniards called Lago de los Estrechos, or Lake of the Straits. Another constriction of the channel succeeded, beyond which appeared a great sound known to-day as the Broad Reach, which, though bounded by shores on either hand, stretched southward, apparently an illimitable distance. The surface of the sound appeared as rough as that of the ocean, with huge billows rising and falling in the distance, and the discoverers thought they had really reached the farther sea of which they were in search. Believing this, and the time they were to be absent having expired, they returned to Possession Bay, with flags and streamers flying in token of success. Magellan had been troubled about their continued absence, and the crews shared his apprehensions; but when the two pioneers hove in sight, with their flags flying in the wind and cannon booming loudly, all then knew that favorable news was soon to be received.

"The ocean! The ocean!" shouted Serrao from the Concepcion, being in the lead. "We have seen the waves, and the billows. The currents—the tides—too, are strong, and the soundings almost without depth!" Magellan accepted the report for what he hoped it was, the truth, without subjecting it to searching analysis, for it bore out his conjecture.

"Thank God our Lord!" he exclaimed, fervently. And in response to the reports of the lombards on the incoming ships, his own artillery thundered. All hands were summoned on deck, dressed in their best attire, and, himself garbed in velvet, with a plumed cap on his head, a jeweled sword at his side, Magellan attended a service of thanksgiving conducted by his chaplain on the deck of the flag-ship. Orders were given at once to set sail for the sound that had been mistaken for the sea. When its true nature was discovered—when it was found that it split at length into several channels, Magellan called the fleet together and held a consultation. There was no doubt, he said, that one of these channels, perhaps all of them, led to the great western ocean, of which they were in search; but, though he had his own opinion, and his decision was unalterable, he would submit it to his officers: whether they should proceed, having found the long sought passage, or return to refit. They had about three months' provisions remaining; they had spent six months in winter quarters near the scene of their discovery, in order to proceed at the best season, on the voyage to the Moluccas. The season had arrived, they were launched upon the broad road to success, and he, Magellan, believed they should proceed, trusting in Providence for favoring gales.

All the officers, comprising the captains, pilots, and chief navigators, agreed with Magellan—all save one. This one was Estavao Gomez, who, though a Portuguese, was at odds with his commander through jealousy. He himself had desired to lead an expedition to the Spice Islands, and as he was a skilled navigator, with knowledge of nautical matters that Magellan did not possess, he felt the king had acted unjustly towards him. He advanced arguments, however, of greater weight than those Magellan urged: that their provisions were not sufficient for a protracted voyage such as was, doubtless, now before them; that no living soul knew how long it would be, nor exactly what course to take, once they were embarked upon the waters of the as yet unknown ocean.

Magellan turned to his captains again and said: "Senores, these are the words of one disaffected, who, albeit he hath a little knowledge of navigation, yet knoweth no more of what is ahead of us than I myself know. The voyage, it is true, may be extremely long—it can be nothing less than tedious, perhaps involved in danger; but, my men, to what will it lead in the end? As yet, we have done nothing but expend the substance of our lord the king, to no avail, for we have found only this strait, that is supposed to lead into the farther ocean. Shall we, then, return with that barren information, merely, and permit some other, more courageous and persistent mariners, to follow on our tracks and garner what we ourselves have sown? In my capitulation  I am promised a tithe of the vast riches—and you are to share them with me—of the Spice Islands; their government, also, is to be under my supervision, and we are to establish for our lord the king, who is likewise emperor over vast domains, a kingdom in the East.

"Now, my decision is unshaken; though I would desire that it might be yours, my comrades. I am for proceeding, to the very last extremity. Our provisions are wasted, it is true; but, even if we are reduced to eating the leather on our ships' yards, I shall still go on, and attempt to discover what hath been promised by me to our lord the king; I trust that God will aid us, and I believe that He will give us good fortune."

"On! On! We will go on!" were the cries that saluted this impassioned speech of the commander, and thus it was decided. Only Estavao Gomez appeared sullen, for he was even then scheming the mutiny that soon deprived Magellan of his largest ship. He was skilled as a navigator; he conducted the San Antonio  safely back to Spain; and he has the further distinction of having made a subsequent voyage along the coast of North America, during which he visited Massachusetts Bay.

Again, as before, the Concepcion  and the San Antonio  were sent off exploring, somewhat in advance of the Trinidad  and Victoria, with instructions this time to investigate the southeast arm of the great sound, while Magellan inspected the southwest arm, which was eventually found to lead to the Pacific. Unless it led finally in the right direction, they were to return to the main channel and pursue the course the captain-general had taken. Magellan himself rounded the point known as Cape Forward, whence he kept on to a stream which he called the River of Sardines, from the abundance of small fish therein, where he anchored, and refreshed his crew. They went ashore and cut wood, which gave out a fragrant odor in burning, and filled their water-casks, all the while awaiting the arrival of the other ships. But a week passed without tidings, and then Magellan concluded to retrace his course in search of them. The Concepcion  was soon found, sailing towards them leisurely, but of the San Antonio, Serrao could give no news whatever, as she had out-sailed his vessel, he said, from the very first. She seemed to have done so with intention, because, although he had tried several times to intercept her in the narrower channels, she had effectually avoided him, and had probably returned to the Atlantic coast.

Magellan lost a week in vain attempts to discover her fate. He sent the Victoria  northward as far as the entrance of the strait, explored every inlet of any size leading out from it, as well as what is now called Admiralty Sound (which the missing ship had been detailed to inspect), and planted letters of instruction, with flags above them, in various places along shore where they could not fail to be seen by a passing vessel. At last he was compelled to accept the conclusion that the ship had either sunk to the bottom with all hands, or had been taken possession of illegally and turned towards the homeward track.

What had happened has already been intimated: The sullen Gomez had fomented an insurrection on board the ship he piloted, where his known skill was so much thought of that he had no trouble in convincing the crew that it was for their interest to return to Spain, rather than proceed with Magellan. They seized the captain, Mesquita, who was wounded in the scuffle that ensued, and placed him in irons. Then all sail was set for the Atlantic, slipping past the Concepcion  in the night, and a direct course laid for the coast of Africa.

Nearly six months later, May 6, 1521, the recreant crew arrived in Spain, at the port of Seville, where the unfortunate Mesquita, though the only innocent man aboard, was clapped into prison, still in irons, and there detained for sixteen months. The rascally Gomez and his accomplices reported the complete failure of the expedition, with the loss of every vessel except their own, which they, at the risk of death from exposure and starvation, had piloted back to Spain. Thus they had saved one ship, for the king to send out again if he chose, and had spared no pains to rescue the property and lives endangered by the rashness of Magellan, whom they could not denounce forcibly enough to his majesty.

A second time, despite his reluctance to do so, Magellan put the question to his officers: "Will ye continue with me, or return? Our provisions are less than ever, inasmuch as the San Antonio, being the largest ship, carried the most. of them. But my determination is no less strong than it was at the beginning, and my faith in God still firm."

And his captains and pilots replied, no less promptly than before: "We will sail with you to the other side of the globe, and if we live we shall discover the new way to the Islands of Spices!"