Early Modern Times – dire straits of Magellan

Early Modern Times - dire straits of Magellan

Dear readers,

500 years ago this month, the ships of Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan sailed into the Pacific after crossing through the strait which bears his name. Why did he make this journey, and how did this expedition glorify him in the annals of European discovery and colonialism, such that the Strait of Magellan has been dire for seafarers and the Indigenous peoples of southeast Asia alike?

Magellan was born around 1480 to a noble family in Portugal. By his mid-twenties, he was already involved in Portuguese ventures to displace Muslim rivals in the Indian Ocean. He participated in naval battles against Muslim fleets around the Indian subcontinent, culminating in the Portuguese seizure of Malacca in 1511. This strategic port in modern-day Malaysia was key to control of the Malacca Strait and thus to trade with Malays as well as to access to the Moluccas (also known as the ‘Spice Islands’)–not yet explored by Europeans. Bland and often rancid European cuisine was sorely Malacking in spice, which hitherto could only be obtained through Arab middlemen. Such a victory for the Portuguese could be celebrated with a spice-cold glass of sangria.

Rumours of Magellan’s spotty activities–including the accusation that he turned a profit on booty resold to Moroccan opponents during a Portuguese attack in 1513–led him to offer his services instead to the Spanish crown from 1516. The 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas had drawn a north-south line across the globe designating Asia and Africa to the Portuguese and the Americas to the Spanish. Magellan and others sought to show that the Moluccas were located within Spanish possessions. In 1518, Magellan was approved to lead a voyage to the Moluccas through the oceanic areas granted to Spain: not eastwards around Africa, but westwards around the southern tip of the Americas. In other words, Magellan was commissioned to seek a SPacifically Spanish route to the Spice Islands.

After resistance from the Portuguese crown as well as from Spaniards dismayed at an expedition led by the Portuguese Magellan, his fleet of five ships set out on Sept. 20, 1519. The ships crossed the Atlantic by the end of November, but spent most of 1520 stopping in various ports in South America while searching for a route to the southern tip. Frustration at this seemingly futile quest led to a mutiny, near modern-day Argentina, of Spanish commanders against Magellan–which he decisively quelled, executing one Spanish commander and exiling another. This may have been the first example, in European history, of a fruitless and carnivorous instance of an Argentinian beef (with Magellan).

By this time, one ship was wrecked, while another abandoned the voyage. The remaining three ships of the expedition sailed through a passage located at 52°50′ S, the strait which would be named after Magellan. It took five weeks to navigate this notoriously difficult passage which has sunk many a vessel. On November 28, 1520, they finally arrived at the peaceful South Sea, dubbed the ‘Pacific’. The worst, however, was to come. As Scott M. Fitzpatrick and Richard Callaghan note in their 2008 article on ‘Magellan’s Crossing of the Pacific’, after more than three months of a voyage traversing 15,000 kilometres, Magellan ‘lost dozens of men to dehydration, malnutrition and scurvy, and saw only two small uninhabited coral islets along the way’ before they reached the Marianas Islands in March 1521–much further north than their intended destination of the Moluccas. After 99 days deprived of fresh food and water, perhaps his ships were Molucky to have made landfall at all.

Magellan then sailed to the Philippines, established a Spanish alliance and Christian conversion with a local ruler, but lost his life in a conflict with the Chief of Mactan Island in the central Philippines towards the end of April 1521. He never lived to see the successful completion of the voyage to the Moluccas and completion of the circumnavigation of the globe under his navigator Juan Sebastián del Cano, though only one ship made it back to Spain. Historians have lauded his successful navigation around the strait, but his entanglement in the early modern project of trade, conquest, and imperialism complicates his reputation today. Magellan’s legacy in the so-called ‘age of discovery’ is far from straitforward.

Early Modern Times will return in January!

Happy holidays,

Simon Kow

Director, Early Modern Pacifiction Studies Program

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