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Magellan's Demise

Explorer Magellan brings disaster upon himself in an ill-timed invasion of a remote island of crafty natives.

When Ferdinand Magellan landed in the Philippines on the island of Cebu in 1521, there's no doubt he thought himself a man of exceptional quality. This was not without cause: for the irrepressible Magellan had managed to convince the 18 year old Carlos I, King of Spain that the Spice Islands[1] were on Spanish, and not Portuguese, territory. This may sound odd, given that the Spice Islands, or Moluccas, were in fact part of Indonesia, but in 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas declared that everything east of Rome was Portuguese territory, and everything west of Rome, Spanish. Magellan believed that by sailing west he could prove the islands were to be found in Spanish territory (as it panned out, even though they were reached from the west, they still fell into the Portuguese 'half' of the world). The islands were a considerable asset given the inflated price of spices, and Carlos I was pretty keen to get them in his clutches.

Our hero had then gone on to sail halfway around the world in five rickety ships, put down a major mutiny, and navigate the treacherous Magellan Strait.[2] His motley crew had survived largely on a diet of sawdust, rats and leather, and he'd incidentally named the Pacific Ocean along the way -- all of this with an assorted crew of men that spoke an equally assorted variety of languages, and without telling the captains of any of the other ships where, exactly, they were going. Not bad for a scrawny bourgeois Portuguese expat with a pronounced limp. He was feeling pretty damn good. King of the world. And then he found God.

In God We Trust

Magellan had always been a pious man: there wasn't much option in those days. But now, having achieved the seemingly impossible, his religiosity turned into fanaticism. His enthusiasm to convert the locals to Catholicism was twofold. He had, after all, achieved a remarkable journey, which he directly attributed to the benevolence of his heavenly father. More importantly, he believed that the natives' conversion to the Christian faith symbolized their acceptance of the Spanish crown as their earthly lord.

Thus, he began negotiations with the local ruler, Datu Humabon. After much discussion Humabon agreed to follow the Christian God, but only if he could continue to maintain his considerable harem. (Religiosity, it seems, is selective. The higher ranking the convert, the more flexible the terms -- after all, why let 40 or so nubile young women stand in the way of so grand a salvation?). Magellan agreed, and then went on to perform a rather remarkable trick.

Humabon had informed Magellan that one of his family were gravely ill. Magellan met the man, baptised him, his wife and ten children, gave him some herbs and presto, the man recovered. This impressive convalescence was attributed directly to the power of the Lord. The Filipinos, suitably awed, flocked to the ships' priest to be converted by the hundreds.

I say, go thataway!
I say, go thataway!

The captains of the remaining ships were getting decidedly nervous at this point, having witnessed, or at least heard, stories of the wrath of the Almighty on those who smugly claimed His power for themselves. They were acutely aware of how disastrous it could have been for all of them had the ailing patient died, and were more used to the traditional Spanish method of subduing natives -- raping, torturing, and selling them into slavery as pagans. Magellan's altruistic approach made them uncomfortable. Add to this that they were also extremely suspicious of Magellan himself. From the outset, they'd harbored a secret fear that Magellan was a Portuguese spy, and our protagonist had done little to dissuade them. He'd made them travel against their better judgment the wrong way around the world and hadn't even told them the objective of their journey.

So the intrepid sailors suggested to Magellan it was time to call it a day and head on to the Spice Islands to pick up their booty before heading back across the Pacific to Spain. But Magellan had a few surprises in store for them.

In the meantime, he'd generously offered to conquer Lapu Lapu, Humabon's rival on a nearby island. By this time Magellan believed he was unconquerable -- God had certainly done the right thing by him so far, and no doubt would continue to do so, and no pissant pagans were going to stand between him and his God. As a matter of fact, they managed to bring Magellan face to face with his Lord rather sooner than he expected.

Best Laid Plans

The armada council was horrified. The Spanish government expressly forbade expedition captains from risking their lives, and this was clearly an unnecessary battle. Magellan waved away their protests, assuring them that the cross of Jesus was the only protection he needed in the forthcoming hostilities. He argued that the heavenly Father would surely protect this most pious of his children against the savage riff-raff. But the Lord works in mysterious ways, and has from time to time has deserted His followers in their hour of need. Magellan was to be no exception.

He announced he would be waging this glorious battle on April 27, to everyone, including Lapu Lapu, who was no doubt rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of showing this foreign upstart a thing or two about native warfare. Magellan graciously declined all offers of help from the Filipinos, inviting them instead to join the spectators that would be watching from canoes offshore. He refused all strategic advice from locals, and instead asked for twenty volunteers from each ship, wishing to show those irascible heathens that a Christian army could win against seemingly insurmountable odds. The experienced marines were not included in the battle plans, and, deeply offended, stayed sulkily on their ships.

He chose for his forces 60 cabin boys, chefs and stewards. None had any battle experience. Many had to be shown how to load a musket. The other officers, realizing the folly of this adventure kept well out of preparations, deciding instead to keep their fingers crossed and joined the spectators.

Magellan gave Lapu Lapu one last chance, and sent him an ultimatum decreeing that if the insurgent would accept the sovereignty of the Spanish, with the local Christian king as his immediate superior, all would be well. Lapu Lapu sent back a vitriolic message saying he wasn't afraid of the Spanish, as he had the finest spears of bamboo, with fire hardened tips. He also asked if Magellan could postpone the conflicts until the following morning, to allow for a proper native force to be assembled for the battle. The Spaniards laughed heartily at this message, and agreed to the delay.

The Natives Get Restless

The battle plan was set. Magellan and his army of 60 would march into shore, while several bateaux, armed with cannons, would fire into the amassed army of savages. Once the cannon fire had dispersed their troops, Magellan's men would race in to finish them off with swords and guns.

It wasn't a bad plan. Under most circumstances it would have been enough to secure victory, but Magellan, in his fervor, had neglected to survey the island. There was a reef surrounding the appointed battlefield, and this reef prevented the armed boats from getting within firing distance of the shoreline.

So when day broke the next day, the invading forces found themselves stranded on the coral, too far from the beach to be of any real use. Undaunted, Magellan hurled himself into the thigh deep waters, and started awkwardly marching toward shore. His men followed suit, and, encumbered by armor, were exhausted before they reached the surf line.

Lapu Lapu, on the other hand, had organized his men behind three rows of trenches, well back from the water level. The Spaniards were confused, running ashore and shooting arrows that the natives easily deflected with shields. When the Europeans were far enough inland, the native forces flanked them and attacked viciously.

At this point, some of the more clever of Magellan's men realized that they were in real strife, so they did what any self-respecting man in the face of oblivion would do: they turned tail and ran like hell for the boats. Magellan was left with less than ten of his original force, surrounded on all sides by furious natives. Unable to watch the awful spectacle further, the Cebu warriors launched a rescue party, but as fate would have it, they were instantly dispersed (four were actually killed) by the fire from one of the Spanish ships that had also thought to rescue their leader.

Our hero fought bravely. Shot in the foot by a poisoned arrow, he reached down and, in magnificent Hollywood fashion, wrenched it from his ankle and continued with the battle. Speared in the face, his lance was torn from his hand by a falling body, his sword arm had been all but severed, and he collapsed to his knees in the shallow surf. When the warriors had finished with him, nothing survived. Not a shred. Humabon offered Lapu Lapu a reward for the return of Magellan's remains, but none could be found.

And The Winner Is...

Magellan had masterminded and led the first true circumnavigation of the globe.[3] And while it can be argued that he didn't make it back in one piece (or even one hundred pieces, for that matter), he did get through the hard bit, the uncharted bit. So how did history reward him?

Fourteenth-century map of Africa: Magellan himself didn't quite make it this far
Fourteenth-century map of Africa: Magellan himself didn't quite make it this far

For a long time, it didn't. The credit for this remarkable journey was solely awarded to Captain Juan Sebastian del Cano, who incidentally had been part of the earlier mutiny on the voyage. Del Cano returned on a single ship, the Victoria, with just 18 of the original 290 crew, and a load of spices that easily covered the expenses of the journey. Of course, he neglected to mention Magellan in his tales of hardship and glory, ensuring that Magellan's name was sullied to the point of oblivion. Juan Sebastian manfully accepted all responsibility for the first circumnavigation of the earth and its many rewards. It wasn't until centuries later that credit was awarded to our hero, with re-emergence of an unexpurgated account of the journey -- the clandestine diary of Antonio Pigafetta. Had it not been for this diligent diarist and his remarkable survival, Magellan's history may have been recorded quite differently. Of course, Magellan's Spanish contemporaries suppressed and edited this account at the time, saying Magellan was "spawn of the devil, witness his cloven hoof" (an oblique reference to his limp). So it took a couple of hundred years before historians started to scratch their heads and think that there might be something in this Magellan business after all.

Today, he has the dubious privilege of being the namesake of a search engine, and is an enduring reminder that great men can make great mistakes, even with the hand of God to lead them.


  1. See Spice Wars
  2. One after another, captains tried to follow in Magellan's wake, only to suffer shipwreck in the rocky, foggy pass. It took 60 years and the expertise of Sir Francis Drake before another ship would wend its way through the 350 mile Estrecho de Magallanes.
  3. While Magellan didn't complete the journey, he made it past the farthest eastern point he had travelled in previous journeys. He's therefore credited with the first circumnavigation. At the very least he discovered the pacific ocean, and navigated the last major uncharted waters.


  1. Timothy Joyner. Magellan. International Marine Publisher, 1994.
  2. William Manchester. A World Lit Only by Fire : The Medieval Mind & the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. Little Brown & Company, 1992.
  3. Arthur Sturges Hildebrand. Magellan. , 1924. [Out of Print]

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