Into Uncharted Waters


"Your own countrymen have disowned you, Don Fernão," said the young King Charles of Spain, the most powerful ruler upon earth, soon also to inherit the title of Holy Roman Emperor.

Ferdinand Magellan

Don Fernão paced a bit at that, lugging behind him a leg made lame in the service of his former king. He was about forty years old, with a dark full beard, heavy in the brows, suggesting a man of formidable will, difficult to approach.

"Sire," he said, "you know what envy can do. It sees things wrong-side-out. A man's very virtues then condemn him. So I have renounced my allegiance to Portugal. I am a Spaniard now."

"Perhaps someday you will renounce me also."

"Never, my king! You have given employment to a man who cannot rest still. When I was a boy I didn't roam the hills — I roamed the sea-charts and the stars. My wife and our two daughters have gone to God. I have nothing left upon earth but God and — and the seas."

"Your crew will be mainly Spaniards," said the king.

"Sire, I have many Portuguese loyal to me," Don Fernão replied, but the king interrupted him.

"Your crew will be mainly Spaniards."

"Yes, sire."

"Your western route to the Spice Islands will serve me well, if you succeed," said Charles. "I want no trouble now with Portugal." Charles had trouble enough on his hands, with the uprisings in Germany brought on by a monk named Luther. Don Fernao's plan would give Spain a way to reach the Spice Islands, without having to encroach upon waters controlled by the Portuguese around the Cape of Good Hope and along the coasts of India. Nor would the Spanish have to confront their rivals in Brazil. Neither nation was sure where their regions of governance, settled by a longitudinal line drawn by Pope Alexander VI, began and ended. "You shall have your ships, Don Fernão," said the king.

Other Worlds

There was, of course, no Global Positioning then. It's easy to reckon your latitude in the northern hemisphere when the night is clear. Polaris, the North Star, shows you. But the southern hemisphere has no pole star so accurate, and it would be more than two centuries before a mathematician would develop a sure way to reckon longitude.

Nor did Don Fernão know how long the journey west to the Spice Islands would be. That depended upon the exact size and shape of the earth, and the size and the relative positions of the continents. How do you stock provisions for a trip to the nearest galaxy? On September 20, 1519, Don Fermão and his ships left their harbor at Sanlúcar de Barameda.

Only a few small areas of the inhabited world are still somewhat mysterious to us, the deep interior of the Amazon jungle, perhaps. Don Fernão encountered plenty of mysteries, as he put ashore at the great estuary of the Rio de la Plata, and farther south: people who ate their defeated enemies, who wore no clothing, and who worshiped a demonic spirit called Setebos (Shakespeare used that name for the god of the witch Sycorax and her beastlike son, Caliban). They encountered a featherless "goose" which we know as the penguin, flying fish, and the shark, whose meat they found disagreeable. They tasted the rich marrow and drank the milk of the coconut. They saw and described the llama and the alpaca. They saw in one region odd beds slung by ropes, called amaca, our "hammocks."

Wherever man sails, he stows his sins away with him, and so did the men under Don Fernão's rule. Four of his five ships mutinied before they even began the really arduous part of the journey. We're not told why, except that national pride seemed to have played a part. He had the ringleader beheaded and quartered, and marooned another mutineer and a priest on the coast of Patagonia. But also, wherever they put ashore, he erected a cross, to claim the land for Spain and to dedicate it to the Lord who died for all people.

The Land of Fire

The Portuguese admiral Vasco da Gama had sailed around the Cape of Good Hope, eastward to India, a feat celebrated in epic by Camões, the national poet of Portugal, in The Lusiads. What Don Fernão accomplished was far more dangerous, because the tip of South America, Cape Horn, is much farther to the south, the seas of the south Atlantic are notoriously wild, and the land, the Tierra del Fuego, is barren and inhospitable. That may explain why one of Don Fernão's ships turned tail as they entered, at last, the straits that came to bear the commander's name: the Straits of Magellan.

Picture windswept rocks surging from the sea, with little more life than lichens and cold-weather plants hugging the ground; a maze of waterways leading roundabout in all directions, and as likely as not to end in treacherous shoals farther from your end than when you began; nothing fresh to eat; and all of this for almost 400 miles. Don Fernão Magellan was confident, though, that the straits would eventually lead to the great sea to the west, because they were so far inland, and the water was salty.

We might note here that Henry Hudson had had the same confidence when he entered the vast northern bay later named for him; he too thought he was on his way to China. Hudson entered that bay but never left it. His men, having lost all hope and patience, made sure of that.

After three weeks of threading the waterways, in mid-December 1519, Magellan entered the ocean of the south, and, because the sea was calm, he christened it the Pacific.

What's in that ocean, though, once you have cleared the straits? Nothing, nothing for many more hundreds of miles; and Magellan and his men were reduced to eating sawdust, the oxhide ligaments of their sails, their old biscuits (now nothing more than powder littered with the dirt of rats), and the rats themselves, their only source of protein. Their gums turned black and rotten, and men began to die of scurvy. Still Magellan sailed on, and on March 16, 1520, having returned across the equator, his remaining three ships entered the archipelago of the Philippines.

The Christ Child

Don Fernão stood now before another king, the rajah of the island of Cebu (modern Philippines). He welcomed Don Fernão with great ceremony and feasting, and, as they sat together, Don Fernmão learned that it was the custom in that land to abandon elderly parents once they had outlived their use.

"Lord King," said Magellan, "there is one God, who made heaven and earth and all that is in them. He has commanded that everyone should honor and obey his father and mother."

The king and his people were interested, so Magellan went on, revealing many other truths of the Christian Faith. They begged him to leave behind two men to teach them, but Magellan by now could not spare a soul. Still, he said that his priest would baptize them, and teachers and priests would come after.

"But you mustn't accept the Christian Faith out of fear, or out of a desire to please me," he said, shedding tears of joy. "Your belief must be sincere. Your action must be free. If you don't become Christian, we will not harm you, but will treat you well. Yet we will love you more if you stand with us for Christ."

And so they did. Hundreds of Cebuanos were baptized. The baptism of the queen is a charming incident. She saw a wooden carving of Mary with the infant Jesus, and fell so in love with it that she wanted to become Christian for the sake of the baby, agreeing to burn all of her wooden idols, and to honor the Queen and her Son instead. She took the name Jehanne, that is, Joan; and the king and Magellan called one another brothers.

Magellan never made it back to Spain. He died a few days later, having been persuaded by the king of Cebu to attack a treacherous rival on a nearby island. In that battle, leading a few dozen men hindered by bad footing in the shore-water against 1,500 warriors on solid land, he was struck by a poisoned arrow, and fell, trying to protect his retreating men to the last. The enemy overtook him and slew him, keeping his body as a memorial of their triumph.

One ship returned to Spain in 1521. Of the roughly 270 men who set out with Magellan, only eighteen came back, including, most fortunately, Magellan's careful biographer, and a pilot who took detailed logs. It was, nevertheless, the greatest voyage ever conceived and completed by man.

We know little of Magellan's personal holiness. Of his courage and perseverance there can be no doubt, nor that he too, like the queen of Cebu, revered the God who dwelt among us as a little Child.