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Magellan at World's End

"On March 16, 1521," or so the song went, "the Philippines was discovered by Magellan." A catchy mnemonic, to be sure. Problematic? Even more certainly. As easy as it is to narrow down the narrative to a post-colonial morality play replete with caricatures - conquering foreigners, traitorous collaborators, muscular proto-nationalists made of bronze - history itself is rarely so unencumbered. It almost makes you wonder if, even to this forerunner of empire, history might also be more forgiving.

It's not especially difficult to dislike Ferdinand Magellan in first grade civics. Here was El Conquistador, invader from an alien land, herald of an age of European Imperialism that will last three hundred years if it had even ended at all. Even Filipino schoolchildren soon realize the sheer absurdity of that epithet "discoverer of the Philippines." Why? Weren't we here when he found us? Didn't we discover these islands? You'd be right to call it Eurocentric. As for circumnavigating the planet, his one claim to international fame, does it even count if he died halfway through it?

Then again, it wasn't as though Ferdinand's journey began with those five ships sailing from Seville. It didn't even begin in Spain at all - the man was born in Portugal. He'd been as far East as modern day Indonesia, rounding the Horn of Africa, avoiding pirates, braving the monsoons participating in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca in his twenties. He even gained distinction saving his expedition from a murderous conspiracy. Magellan had already made that trip to and back from South East Asia. What no one had yet done was reach Asia the other way around.


Now this was a time when the known world was split down the middle by Papal fiat (better known as the Treaty of Tordesillas); Brazil, Africa, and Asia were the exclusive stomping grounds of the Portuguese while the vast New World west of the Amazon were to her bitter rival Spain. Spain had uncharted wonders to explore, certainly, but as far as Sixteenth Century Europe was concerned it was Portugal who got the spicier, silkier, porcelain-ier slice of the global pie. Columbus himself was looking for China when he stumbled onto what is now the Carribean. Magellan was convinced by his observations of wind patterns and ocean waves that a westward passage would be a faster, safer voyage to the Spice Islands so he petitioned the Portuguese court to let him find it. After incurring the ire of Portugal's Manuel I over a campaign against Morocco, Magellan found himself hastily packing his bags and moving next door to Spanish Castille.

Writing as someone schooled primarily in the Philippines, it's odd thinking of Ferdinand Magellan like this, a migrant in someone else's empire. The fact that he moved to Spain (and eventually sailed) with a Sumatran slave he named "Henrique" does make things a bit more par for course. There is, however, still a real person there to talk about: an exceptionally single-minded man who nonetheless managed a few years of grounded life. In Seville, he marries a friend's daughter, lost two young children, and he continued to indulge his obsession for finding the westward route to Asia. Unlike Portugal who won custody of the established sea-lanes at Tordesillas, the Spanish were more than willing to take him up on his offer.

By 1519, he was on his way. They offered him five ships, a multi-ethnic crew of 270, enough food for two years of travel, and promises of wealth, titles, pensions, and any island after the sixth richest he found. He also won something Columbus did not: the support of the powerful Bishop Juan de Fonseca who, having snubbed the Columbian bandwagon four decades before, decided to secure financial support for Magellan's expedition. To secure his own investment however, he placed his own men in a few key crew positions just in case. One of these men happened to be Fonseca’s secret son, Juan de Cartagena.


Juan de Cartagena, who captained one of the ships and held sway over most of the men, was a bit of a cartoon villain if history is to believed. Magellan was never going to go without some anti-Portuguese discrimination from his Spanish crew, but the plots Cartagena laid against Magellan bordered on comical. He popped his first mutiny plot alongside two of the five captains halfway across the Atlantic; Magellan pinned him down for his insolence, eschewed the usual penalty of death, and had him shackled before letting him back to his command. On having reached St. Julian Bay on March, 1520, Cartagena and his lackeys mutinied again, refusing to obey him unless he ordered all five ships to turn back. Magellan trampled the mutiny with his flagship, the Trinidad, but once again pardoned Cartagena and his allies.

It wasn't like Magellan was entirely blameless this time though: he was having the fleet explore every coast, cove and inlet to see if one of them led out into the ocean west of the Americas. He drove that crew ragged even as winter began to breathe in and still, they had no evidence that there even was a passage to be found. They sent out one ship, the Santiago, to find the passage and they wrecked it in a storm. They sent out another ship, the San Antonio, and it escaped back to Spain. By the time Cartagena was found plotting yet again with one of the priests, he marooned both Cartagena and the priest on an unnamed island and this was the last time either was ever seen.

How sure was Magellan that there was even a passage to find? Surely, with no heirs, all that wealth wouldn't be worth dying for. His mission was also to the greater glory of Spain, his fatherland's rival and the motherland of all these mooks trying to kill him. They say that Magellan wept upon sighting the straits that bore his name. He must've been relieved he wasn't totally mad.

Beyond the Southern Passage is where a lot of our Elementary Textbook histories tend to start: with the last three ships and the creeping realization that Magellan was cheated. The state of the ships was bad enough. Even with the smaller crew, Magellan was only given half the food he was promised. We've heard of the diet of sawdust, brined leather and rats - a diet that caused a fair amount of scurvy among other things. How was he supposed to know this new ocean was going to be as vast and empty as it was? Maybe he expected to find another continent? Finding the passage may have staved off mutiny for a while but this encroaching grip of severe malnutrition may very well stomp mutiny in a more decisive manner. The only bit of luck that seemed to find Magellan on this new ocean was consistent winds and peaceful waters: he named it the Pacific having never encountered a typhoon there. On March 10, 1521, a verdant new island of curious brown-skinned natives was discovered by Magellan for the glory of Spain. That island was Guam and its natives nearly robbed his ships bare when he allowed them on board. He got back at them by introducing the natives to gunfire and plundering their island for pigs, chickens and freshwater.

Ten days later, on the Feast of Lazarus whom Christ raised from death, they caught sight of an island followed by the sight of more, and bigger ones in the horizon. In the first journey round the world, the final stop was our shores.


The intuitive thing is to read the accounts of that fateful "discovery" from hindsight. Hindsight is always 20/20 given the context of consequences: imperialism, colonial mentality, discrimination, indoctrination, war, and abuse. When we imagine those waterlogged mariners though, being welcomed by our ancestors off the shores of Homonhon, might there be other ways to remember what happened? Lapu Lapu and Mactan are still a month away. Magellan's death was still a month away. Might it have been that after years at sea, Magellan and his crew was fine to just trade?

As quickly as conflict did follow contact, this was still the first-time Filipinos traded directly with Europeans. Unlike Columbus who pretty much captured and enslaved the first gold-encrusted native he saw from the word go, Magellan offered his hosts ivory, mirrors. fine linen cloth, and other European crafts in exchange for fresh fish, local wine and fruit (the first international pasalubong.) Accounts of his meetings with Homonhon’s Rajah Kolambu and Cebu’s Rajah Humabon are touching insights into cultural exchange during an age of frequent war. Accounts tells of gifts of steaming hot rice in porcelain jars, of mock battles among Magellan’s sailors, of inviting the Europeans to banquets and of the first Christian burial there.

It’s easy to cast Kolambu and Humabon as Judases, given how openly Magellan pitched vassalage under Spain to them. Usually, this self-interest to unify the tribes of the islands under the Rajahs on behalf of Spain is contrasted with the obstinacy of Lapu-Lapu, the first of many future martyrs for Philippine independence. Then again, many Filipino regions at the time where already puppet states and vassal kingdoms under foreign powers: Manila at the time was a puppet of the Kingdom of Brunei after the latter invaded then displaced the Kingdom of Tondo. Meanwhile, Pangasinan was a tributary (albeit sovereign) kingdom of Ming China. Even in Mactan, only Lapu Lapu refused to bend the knee; his co-chief Zula sent two goats to symbolize his approval. It was even Zula who suggested that attacking Lapu-Lapu together might change his mind.

Through the compound foolishness of refusing Zula’s aid, taking on Lapu-Lapu with only his own men, not attacking before sun-up when he had the chance, and not covering his landing party with enough artillery, the battle went quite badly for Magellan. Hit by a poison dart to the arm, he never even managed to draw his sword all the way. Limping from an injury he sustained all the way back from his campaign in Morocco, Lapu-Lapu’s forces cut him down on the spot. Humabon wept over his death, it is said.


Magellan sailed to the ends of the world and found it in Mactan on April 27, 1521. His men fled. Returning to Cebu, the slave Enrique supposedly convinced Humabon that one of the other captains planned on kidnapping him, was spared when Humabon slew 28 sailors in a trap-banquet, and returned to Sumatra as arguably the first man to truly circle the Earth.

That said, three ships sailed off of Cebu but only one found its way back to Seville – weeks short of three years since they left. "Primus Circumdedisti Me," "You circumnavigated me first!" This motto, wrapped like a ribbon around a meridianed globe, was awarded to occasional mutineer Juan Sebastian Elcano who limped the expedition to eternal glory, minus four ships, 210 men, and Magellan himself whom he had once mutinied against. He was made a Marquis for his trouble and his lineage remains: the 17th Marquis de Buglas lives in Silay City, Negros Occidental.

Magellan had no living children and, because irony is a universal force, his wife died the same year he did. I suppose he has two entire galaxies named after him, as well as two lunar craters, a Martian crater, and a penguin but you wonder if any of that was worth being cast as a classroom villain. But then I remember the accounts of Magellan’s relationship with the Rajahs. I remember the blood compact and I imagine how they must’ve convinced each other into such an intimate agreement. I am reminded of those paintings of the First Mass at Limasawa and the baptism of Rajah Humabon,

wondering if there was some true evangelism there or, at the very least, true belief yielding true belief. Most of all though, I am reminded of Humabon’s wife who fell in love with an icon – a beautiful statue in the style of the Infant Jesus of Prague – and received it as a present. Four decades later, when the Spanish returned to conquer what they found, the icon was still there. Four centuries later, here we are and the icon is still there.

How could something that became so beloved to Filipinos also come from a man who would herald so much suffering? It’s not impossible. Great deeds are by definition consequential and so it is also with the flaws of great men. Here was a man who dragged five waterlogged buckets to the edge of the known world and an entire ocean after. For better or for worse, he introduced our ancestors to the West, a fate that would have happened sooner or later. Had he returned to Spain alive, would Spain have thought of us differently? Certainly, his death didn’t terrify the Spanish away. Either way, who can really tell?

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