Wednesday, March 17, 2010


In 1519 A.D. Ferdinand Magellan led a small fleet -- five ships -- from Spain on a voyage to try and reach the Spice Islands by heading west. At the time, the Portuguese held the eastern routes, and there was some thought that the world might be round as the ancient Greeks had it after all, and Magellan was certain he could find the route.

Magellan himself was Portuguese, though he got a commission from Spain, and he convinced the King he could do the job.

Off they went, five ships -- a caravel and four carracks -- about 234 men, and yo, ho, ho!

I won't go into great detail, but the voyage was no Sunday afternoon sail on the pond. Storms, scurvy, mutiny, hunger, the usual. After trying every dent in South America, Magellan and his hardy, if diseased and starving, crews, found a strait, almost to the southern tip of the continent, and sailed through to the ocean he named the Pacific. Eventually they named the strait after him, too.

They thought they had it made. The Spice Islands should, according to the old maps, be a few days away.

Turns out that the ancient wisdom of how big around the globe was was off by ten or eleven thousand kilometers, and they sailed for a long damn time before, down to hunting and eating rats, and just before they were all about to croak from this or that, reached the Philippines, olé!

Paradise -- food, water, and heathens they could convert as they claimed the land for Spain!

The conversions got rolling pretty quick, but one of the local chiefs, Datu Lapu-Lapu, the next island over, wasn't eager to bend the knee to Spain or become a follower of Christ.

Words were exchanged. When it became apparent that Lapu-Lapu wasn't going to roll over, Magellan decided to demonstrate the might of the Spanish King and God. He and about fifty of his men loaded up the cannon on his ship, donned their steel armor, and sailed for the neighboring island of Mactan where Lapu-Lapu ruled. Bunch of savages with bamboo spears and arrows? A piece of cake. They were, by the Grace of God, the Spanish!

April 27th, 1521, the date. The Battle of Mactan.

Unfortunately, either because the tide was out or the shoals near the shore were too treacherous, or both, the sailors were forced to anchor a ways offshore and to slog their way to the beach.

In armor.

Carrying guns whose powder had to be kept dry, and thus raised overhead.

They were passing tired when they arrived but that was the least of their problems. The shore was out of the ship's cannon's range. Magellan was so sure he was going to kick native ass that he forbade his other remaining men to get involved. (By this time, one of the ships had been sunk and another had said "Piss on this!" and turned around to head home. Not that they made it.)

The bamboo spears and arrows would not penetrate the armor, but the Spanish were bare-legged and their arms and faces were uncovered, and the -- estimates vary from 1000 to 1500 -- warriors on the beach aimed for the non-armored spots and had at it.

It was something of a miracle that the Spanish contingent wasn't slaughtered entire. The ass-kicking didn't go the way Magellan figured it would, and they knew which one he was, so they concentrated on him. He was, by accounts, a fierce fighter, but ...

Magellan's body was never recovered, and the Spanish survivors -- how many is an unanswered question -- slogged back out to sea and sailed the hell away.

They still celebrate the battle in the Philippines today, and Lapu-Lapu has statues raised to his national hero status.

Later, of course, the Great Nations of Europe would take over the world and screw it up pretty good, but for a brief and shining moment, the locals got to shine.

As a postscript, with only a hundred men to operate three ships, the new commander, Juan Sebastian Elcano, burned one and loaded everybody onto the other two. They split up, and Elcano took the long way home, dodging Portuguese all the way.

The Portuguese did capture the second ship. Tossed the crew into gaol and kept the cargo.

To finish the tale, the last ship, The Victoria, with eighteen scurvy-ridden starving sailors made it back to Spain in September of 1522, having taken three years to circumnavigate the globe for the first time. They had enough spices on the ship have have made them all wealthy men, spices in those days being worth far more than their weight in gold. Alas, the King decided that the loss of four ships was worth something, so he confiscated the cargo and that was that

A sailor's lot was hard in them days, argh.

If the sailors had thought to eat some of those spices, supposedly as many as twenty-six tons of cloves and cinnamon they brought back, which had vitamin C in them, they would have escaped scurvy, but nobody knew what caused it back them.

Elcano eventually got another ship to try again, but died of scurvy on that trip.

And nobody lived happily ever after

The point of all this, of course, is that attitude is important, but it isn't everything ...


steve-vh said...

"Over the edge of the World" by Bergreen is a fantastic audiobook on the subject btw.

Some guy said...

Another martial arts myth shot to hell! What you hear in the Filipino martial arts is that Lapu-Lapu personally took out Magellan in hand-to-hand combat. Shooting him to death from a distance when he's bogged down is much less romantic.(Though better strategy.)