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  • Writer's picturePaul D. Wilke

Ferdinand Magellan's Last Days and Totally Embarrassing Death


Introduction: Magellan Blows It

One wonders what was going through Ferdinand Magellan's mind during those final violent moments of his life. Was it panic? Desperation? Despair? After all, there he stood, alone, abandoned, and fighting for his life on some god-forsaken beach thousands of miles from home as a horde of angry natives closed in on him. He must have known the end was near, that no last-minute miracle would save him this time. The small party he'd landed with that morning had already fled over an hour ago, leaving their wounded Captain to his fate. What began as a swaggering show of force to intimidate a defiant chieftain ended up a fiasco. This was not a glorious death.

To make matters worse, Magellan's ally and recent convert to Christianity, Rajah Datu Humabon, the ruler of the Philippine island of Cebu, witnessed the disaster unfold from his canoes offshore. This wasn't his idea. The Rajah wanted to help. Before the battle, he'd offered a thousand warriors to fight alongside the Europeans, but Magellan had haughtily refused, telling him to do nothing but sit back and watch.

And that's exactly what he did, though in mounting horror at what he was seeing. Hadn't the brave Captain General guaranteed an easy victory? Wasn't this supposed to be a demonstration of European military prowess? What he was watching didn't look like that.

Magellan's death marked an inglorious end to an otherwise heroic odyssey. Until that morning, he had been on a winning streak, leading one of the most epic voyages in maritime history. Even the embarrassing circumstances of his demise don't erase his accomplishments.

Since leaving Spain in August 1519 at the head of a five-ship fleet and 260 men, the Portuguese mariner had already sailed halfway around the world, much farther than anyone else. Along the way, he had survived a dangerous mutiny and weathered vicious storms before discovering the straits at the southern tip of South America that now bear his name.

Navigating through the confusing maze of false passages and dead-end inlets that comprise the strait's winding 334 miles was no easy task. Still, Magellan did so in thirty-eight cautious days, leading his little flotilla past ancient glaciers while enduring fierce gales and shifting tides at the most southern point men had ever sailed.

Magellan might have stopped here and returned home after this partial, though significant, achievement. But he didn't. Quitting wasn't in his nature. He would succeed in his quest or die trying. He realized that he'd never have another chance as perfect as the one he had at that moment. There would be no turning back.

And so, on 28 November 1520, he pressed on into the eastern Pacific, the first European to do so. However, his calculations were off. Way off. He expected to find the Indies close to the west coast of South America. What he found instead was an apparently endless expanse of ocean. Although he had no idea then, he was entering Earth's largest body of water. Crossing it would take him and his crew to the limits.

The epic 98-day crossing of the vast Pacific brought scurvy, starvation, and thirst as supplies ran out, and not one bit of habitable land was sighted in all of those three months. As they began this marathon leg of the journey, Magellan proclaimed they would go forward, even if they had to eat the leather wrapping around the masts.

They were soon doing exactly that.

It must have looked as if the ocean would never end and they would sail on forever into the oblivion of that endless blue. Nineteen didn't make it. The rest were mere days away from sharing the same fate.

Antonio Pigafetta, the expedition’s chronicler, wrote of this time:

We were three months and twenty days without getting any kind of fresh food. We ate biscuit which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the mainyard to prevent the yard from chafing the shrouds, and which had become exceedingly hard because of the sun, rain, and wind. We left them in the sea for four or five days, and then placed them for a few moments on top of the embers, and so ate them; and often we ate sawdust from boards. Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece, and even then we could not get them(1)

In the end, they survived, though just. On 6 March 1521, they at last sighted land, first Guam, where they took on desperately needed supplies, and a week later, they reached the Philippines. Once there, Magellan realized the magnitude of his accomplishment when his slave, Enrique, a young man of Malay descent, found he could communicate with the Filipinos in his native dialect. At that moment, he understood reaching the Maluccas (Spice Islands) was within his grasp.

Battista Agnese Map of 1568 showing course of Magellan and Elcano around the world 1519-1522
Battista Agnese Map of 1568 showing course of Magellan and Elcano around the world 1519-1522

And he almost made it - another fortnight of easy sailing would have taken them to their goal, though he didn't know it. All they had to do was continue west as they had for the last three and a half months to reach their objective. Then, they could load up with spices and return home on sea routes familiar to Magellan from his prior service in the Far East with the Portuguese.

However, with success within reach, after so much trial and tribulation, Magellan lost his focus. Or, to put it better, it shifted to religion. By early April 1521, when the fleet reached Cebu in the middle of the Philippine archipelago, Magellan, the boundary-busting explorer, transformed into a missionary.

The countdown to his death on that beach began here.

This is that story.

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Magellan the Missionary

The natives of Cebu proved quite malleable on questions of religion, or at least that's how they appeared. Magellan preached Catholic doctrines filtered through his translator, Enrique, and Rajah Humabon nodded along and agreed to convert without much fuss. Looking back at how things played out, there was likely more calculation to Humabon's decision than we give him credit.

During the first meeting, a Muslim merchant from Siam whispered a warning to Humabon about the dual nature of his visitors. "Have good care, O king, what you do, for these men are of those who have conquered Calicut, Malacca, and all India the Greater. If you give them a good reception and treat them well, it will be well for you, but if you treat them ill, so much the worse it will be for you." Enrique, overhearing this, affirmed the merchant's advice; if the Cebuan ruler refused to yield, Magellan "would send so many men that they would destroy him." (2)

After this threat, Humabon embraced the Spaniards - at least for the moment - and welcomed them as friends. Perhaps he reasoned it was better to keep them close as allies than enemies, to play it safe for the near term and give the visitors what they wanted.

On Sunday, 14 April 1521, Humabon and eight hundred of his subjects underwent baptism in an elaborate Easter ceremony orchestrated by Magellan with maximum pomp and circumstance to impress the new converts. (3) The expedition's priest, Padre Valderrama, brought an altar ashore for the crew to celebrate mass in front of the curious locals. Behind the altar were two velvet thrones, one for Magellan and the other for Humabon.

Let the show begin.

The Captain General made a grand entrance in his shining armor with a band playing and forty of his men marching behind, also in sparkling armor. A canon volley from the squadron in the harbor terrified the onlookers and sent them scurrying away in fear. (4) It was quite a display of theater and force meant to wow and intimidate the Cebuans.

Over the coming days, many more of the Rajah's subjects followed his example and converted. By the end of the next week, over two thousand had been baptized. In his newfound calling as a spiritual leader, Magellan called upon the amiable islanders to destroy their false idols. They agreed, though now with some reluctance. Humabon also agreed to swear allegiance to the distant monarch of Spain, Charles V, again without much fuss.

As a symbol of Cebu's new worship of the Christian God, Magellan erected a giant cross in town. Masses now took place daily, and he gifted Humabon an elegant white robe to wear at mass. He also gave the Rajah a fancy velvet chair to always be carried around in royal style. (5) A King must look like one.

At first glance, the Cebuans appeared to be thirsting for Christianity. Magellan immersed himself in the role of spiritual guide and even dabbled in faith healing. He reportedly cured one of Humabon's sick relatives, which helped feed his growing conviction that divine favor was shining down upon him from heaven. No matter the truth of the matter, the locals were quite impressed.

It was easy. In retrospect, too easy. True conversion doesn't work like this, neither on such a mass scale nor this fast, especially when the two cultures don't speak the same language or share a common metaphysical framework. And something else to remember: Every word that Magellan preached was filtered through Enrique's translations.

As a former translator, I know how much can be lost in spoken translation, especially when the concepts being exchanged are abstruse theological ones. Enrique would have done his best to explain them. Still, he was Magellan's uneducated slave, a young man in his early twenties, and not a professional interpreter schooled in the finer points of Catholic doctrine. Not only that, but he wasn't a native Portuguese and Spanish speaker. Even if his fluency was high, much would have been lost.

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How much meaning evaporated in translation or morphed into something else very different from what Magellan was trying to articulate? We'll never know for sure, but consider this. How do you cogently translate into an alien tongue doctrines like the virgin birth, the Incarnation, the Holy Trinity, the saints, and the meaning of the crucifixion and the resurrection to those with zero prior cultural context?

How do you do it when the language you are translating into lacks the vocabulary to do anything but crudely conceptualize these very alien concepts? Nuanced theological clarity would have been sacrificed in Enrique's translations, like taking a high-definition photograph of a beautiful landscape and recreating it in Minecraft or Roblox.

It's my opinion that the Humabon and his people never had but the most rudimentary understanding of Church doctrines. How could they? They might have converted out of enthusiasm or after being awed by Magellan's theatrics, but they did not do so out of genuine conviction. The mental worlds of the two cultures were light-years apart. A few weeks of missionary work preached by a single layman like Magellan and filtered through an untrained, non-native translator would have done very little to bridge that divide.

Nevertheless, Magellan drove on, believing in the virtue of preaching the Word of God to those who needed it. He viewed this project as a calling, a chance to save heathen souls for the greater glory of God and Spain.

One might feel a wee bit of cynicism at Magellan's motives. Greed and ambition no doubt played roles in driving his behavior on Cebu. Offering salvation and bringing new lands under Spanish control would undoubtedly benefit Magellan's career. He was an ambitious man.

But there was another side. Magellan honestly felt a strong sense of responsibility toward his new flock. He truly believed he was doing the Lord's work by bringing these godless souls to redemption. They deserved his whole effort, and he was conscientious enough to give it to them.

After the Rajah agreed to become a Spanish subject, at least nominally, Magellan turned his attention to the more ambitious project of making sure his puppet was the paramount political power in the region. 

And while he was at it, they could convert more Christians and additional territories for Spain to rule under Humabon. (6) It had been so easy so far. Of course, their writ wasn’t conquest and the baptism of indigenous peoples, as Magellan’s inner circle kept clearing their throats to remind him. But he resolved to do it anyway, and no amount of advice would change his mind. 

But there might have been another reason why his crew didn't push back too much on Magellan's holy distraction. They were having fun. While his inner circle urged Magellan to resume their mission of finding the Spice Islands, the rest of the crew were indulging in an extended period of debauched hedonism with the locals. 

The standing orders forbade sexual relations with heathen women. However, reality and human biology soon dictated behavior. The men had not had any female contact in over a year, not since they socialized with the Brazilian girls at the end of 1519. So much had happened after that brief stay in paradise, so much suffering and starvation and scurvy and stress and violence and anxiety and near-death experiences.

But now the pendulum swung to the other extreme, to some kind of dreamy garden of earthly delights. They had all the food and wine and women they wanted. After enduring the miseries of ship life for so long, this proved irresistible for the men. With their leader sidetracked for the near future on his personal religious crusade, the crew began slipping away from their duties to romp with the native girls in the bush, giving them trinkets like mirrors and bracelets in return for their feminine favors. 

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This was an erotic smorgasbord of easy flesh, at least compared to the suffocating sexual norms of sixteenth-century Catholic Spain, where both men and women dressed from head to toe in layers upon layers of concealing clothing to hide the sinful body; this was far different from the Philippines where the men wore little more than a loincloth and the women walked around bare-breasted in broad daylight. (7)

Magellan bent to the reality of the all-conquering libido and amended the intercourse prohibition to make it permissible (or at least less sinful) to sleep with the local women if they were baptized. This silly loophole simply added an extra silly step - the farce of a baptism - before mounting up and getting down to business. (8)

This carnival of carnality leaves one important demographic out of the equation: the native men. They were, by all reports, seething as they watched their women, their wives, daughters, and sisters, shagging randy foreigners with wild abandon.

Years later, someone asked one of the expedition's survivors, a Genoese sailor, why the Filipinos turned against them so violently after Magellan's death. "Violation of the women was the main trouble," was his reply. Yes, that was part of it, but as we'll see, more was going on here than sexual jealousy.

For Magellan, the reward of delaying their departure to convert more heathens was worth the risk of slipping discipline. Let the lads have their fun, as long as they did so discreetly. They would be back to the harsh rigors of sea life soon enough. He meant to continue pursuing his religious calling, at least for the near future, while his men intended to pursue their more primal ones.

After everything Magellan had been through and overcome, he might be excused for concluding that some divine destiny might be his for the taking. Things were going his way, and like a gambler on a run of good luck, he perhaps figured it would go on like this forever. With God by his side, all things were possible.

Of course, that’s not how it works in real life. 

As Boethius discovered a thousand years earlier, the wheel of fortune eventually turns and rolls over you. Where once you could do nothing wrong, now nothing goes right. Judgment errs. Mistakes are made. Sound advice is ignored. Foolish risks are taken. Magical thinking leads to questionable decisions, and overconfidence blinds one to the depth of those bad decisions. All of this leads to hubris, and then one is a short hop, skip, and jump into the abyss.

The Greeks knew this well. Boethius, in the end, did too.

It’s a truth as old as the oldest myths, and Magellan was about to reaffirm it. 

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Prelude to the Battle of Mactan

After baptizing the islanders, Magellan acted as Humabon's spiritual and political advisor. He was all but co-ruling with Humabon at this point. The next step was spreading the gospel abroad to the Rajah's outlying vassals. Envoys traveled to the neighboring islands, inviting them to accept Christ and Humabon's rule. 

Or else. 

Most did. But not all. One of those who refused was a minor chieftain on the nearby island of Mactan. He was a nobody, really, just one petty chieftain among several in the region. His name was Silapulapu, and he chose the 'or else' option.

No problem, Magellan thought. Silapulapu just needed a little extra encouragement. So one night soon after, he dispatched a boat full of marines to Mactan under master-at-arms Gonzalo de Espinosa. They were tasked with giving Silapulapu that little bit of extra encouragement he needed to come to his senses. This they did with goonish abandon, burning the rebel chieftain's largest village of Bulaia to the ground. They violated some of the women and (incongruously) erected a cross before leaving. (9)

Silapulapu tried to negotiate, saying he didn't want to fight but wasn't willing to submit the Rajah, who he detested. He offered some tokens of friendship but not the full tribute Magellan demanded. 

Ten days later, Magellan dispatched an emissary to one of the other minor chieftains on Mactan, named Zula, demanding delivery of the tribute owed to Humabon. Zula sent his son to the royal court at Cebu with less tribute than promised. 

The son claimed that Silapulapu, perhaps smarting from the humiliating raid days earlier, was preventing his father from sending his full tribute. He suggested Magellan launch another punitive raid, and Zula would participate with his warriors this time. Magellan leaped at the opportunity but went far beyond what Zula asked. Instead, he proposed leading the attack in person. 

Humabon cautioned that one boat of men might not do the job and offered a thousand warriors. Silapulapu would be prepared this time. Better to go in heavy. Given these offers of assistance, especially from the Rajah, Magellan would have had more than enough to subdue Silapulapu. Yet he turned down both. This was a terrible mistake.

His two fellow captains, Juan Serrano and Duarte Barbosa, begged him not to go. Serrano reminded Magellan that they had already lost many men and that the risk didn't justify the reward. He had a point. Ginés de Mafra, a Genoese crewmember and chronicler, summarized the consensus of this fateful Captain's Council: "A man who carried on his shoulders so momentous a business had no need to test his strength. From victory . . . he would benefit little; and from the opposite, the Armada, which was more important, would be set at risk." (10)

The Captain General supposedly wavered in the face of these arguments and made two concessions to mitigate the risk, though these had the opposite effect in retrospect. To address the concerns that the fleet would be vulnerable, he would take only a small group of volunteers, twenty from each ship. 

As historian William Manchester puts it, "Magellan wound up with a motley contingent of unseasoned, unbloodied cooks, stewards, and cabin boys - crew temperamentally unsuited for the job ahead." (11) In other words, he wasn't taking Espinosa's disciplined marines but going in alone with a small force of untested amateurs.

This was another terrible mistake. 

These were signs of dangerous overconfidence. Magellan probably would have done it differently if he had expected to meet stiff resistance. This implies that he never imagined there would be much fighting. And why would he? The Filipinos they'd encountered didn't seem all that warlike, and their weapons were primitive compared to what the Europeans could bring to the battlefield. Magellan's overconfidence led to sloppy and indifferent planning, which led to disaster.

Luckily, we have a firsthand account of the battle from one of its participants, chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, who stood with Magellan almost to the end.

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The Battle of Mactan

Okay, here's how it went down: Just after midnight on 27 April 1521, Magellan and his 60 men loaded into three longboats and rowed the two miles from Cebu to a point offshore from the beach at Mactan. Humabon and his chiefs followed in twenty or thirty of their canoes to play their assigned role as spectators. Magellan's ships, the Conception, Trinidad, and Victoria, were anchored out in the bay.

Arriving a few hours before daylight, around 2 a.m., Magellan decided to pause and send an ultimatum to Silapulapu. He wanted to give the rebel one last chance to yield without a fight. Otherwise, he would face the consequences. Best case scenario: Silapulapu would be cowed by this armed demonstration and no fighting would be necessary. That was likely the expected outcome. 

Pigafetta wrote, "The Captain before attacking wished to attempt gentle means and sent on shore the Moorish merchant to tell those islanders who were of the party of Silapulapu, that if they would recognize the Christian King as their sovereign, and obey the King of Spain, and pay us the tribute which had been asked, the Captain would become their friend, otherwise we should prove how our lances wounded. The islanders were not terrified, they replied that if we had lances, so also had they, although only of reeds, and wood hardened with fire." (12)

The decision to pause and send a message demanding Silapulapu's submission was the same thing as saying, "Ready or not, here I come!" It was yet another sign of overconfidence and that he wasn't expecting much resistance. Any element of surprise was gone.

Silapulapu meant to fight, even if his warriors only had primitive spears "wood-hardened by fire." After this final attempt at a diplomatic resolution, Magellan waited until dawn to move in. Unfortunately, the tide had gone out by then, and his longboats couldn't get any closer than a mile from shore before bottoming out. And so, Magellan and 48 of his men climbed out and began wading through thigh-deep water to the beach. The other 11 stayed behind to guard the boats. 

When they reached shore, Silapulapu emerged from the jungle with about 1,500 warriors ready for battle. This must have been an unpleasant surprise for the four dozen Europeans. 

Silapulapu had divided his army into three divisions. The left and right wings were to probe the flanks while the center kept them engaged to the front. The tactics the Mactans used imply an understanding that European weapons were dangerous and demanded the utmost respect. Thus, they maintained a wary distance at first. The Mactan warriors made quick dashes to throw a spear or shoot an arrow before returning to safety. 

Magellan wasn't concerned. He'd bragged earlier that one fully armed and armored European was worth a hundred half-naked natives in any fight. And so it seemed at first; the Mactans' wooden spears and arrows bounced off Spanish armor like ping pong balls. 

In response to Silapulapu's deployment, Magellan divided his force into two platoons to guard his flanks. His crossbowmen and musketeers opened fire at the enemy army for about an hour but inflicted very few casualties. 

The Mactans employed two effective counter-tactics against the European missile weapons: they maintained a healthy distance and used their wooden shields to absorb the crossbow shots. The cumbersome muskets the Europeans deployed were accurate only at close range. Thus, the one tool Magellan had that might have won the battle outright proved useless. 

The Mactans began pressing their attacks with more confidence. 

Pigafetta wrote, "The islanders seeing that the shots of our guns did them little or no harm would not retire, but shouted more loudly, and springing from one side to the other to avoid our shots, they at the same time drew nearer to us, throwing arrows, javelins, spears hardened in fire, stones, and even mud, so that we could hardly defend ourselves. Some of them cast lances pointed with iron at the captain-general." (13)

Magellan still wasn't concerned, though he should have been. He still could have retreated, reassessed, and returned in force. In hindsight, an orderly withdrawal would have allowed him to return later with his Cebuan allies. 

But that would have been too much for the proud Magellan to swallow, not after all the boasting about how he'd do it himself. Admitting he needed allied help would have undermined the lord-above-it-all image he was trying to cultivate. Instead, he doubled down and advanced. 

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If his missile weapons couldn't win the day, terror might. 

He sent a small party to attack a Mactan settlement just off the beach. There, they set fire to 20 or 30 huts. But this didn't work as planned. It didn't terrorize the Mactans. No, it just pissed them off more. The raid had the same effect as kicking a hornet's nest. Now, the islanders counterattacked with even greater ferocity. 

In the chaotic melee that followed, the first two Europeans were killed. After this, the psychological tide of battle shifted in the Silapulapu's favor. It was clear that these strange foreigners were not invincible supermen after all. White men with shaggy beards bled and died just like everyone else. 

As the fighting wore on, the Mactans adapted their tactics. Noticing that the European body armor made their torsos all but invulnerable to their wooden weapons, they began going after their unprotected legs. Right about this time, Magellan took a shot in his right leg with a poisoned arrow.

Now, at last, the gravity of the situation finally dawned upon him. He gave the order to conduct an orderly retreat, which quickly dissolved into an every-man-for-himself dash back to the long boats. Here the dangers of bringing untrained volunteers with little combat experience revealed themselves.

A quick retreat wasn't an option for Magellan. That window had closed. His leg injury meant he would now have to limp that long mile to the boats while fighting for his life the whole way. A few others, around six or eight, according to Pigafetta, remained with Magellan. Pigafetta was one of them. The situation was desperate.

Here is Pigafetta's description of this final phase of the battle. Since he was with his Captain almost until the end, it's worth quoting his testimony at some length.

"We were oppressed by the lances and stones which the enemy hurled at us, and we could make no more resistance. The bombards which we had in the boats were of no assistance to us, for the shoal water kept them too far from the beach·. We went thither, retreating little by little, and still fighting, and we had already got to the distance of a crossbow shot from the shore, having the water up to our knees, the islanders following and picking up again the spears which they had already cast, and they threw the same spear five or six times; as they knew the Captain they aimed specially at him, and twice they knocked the helmet off his head."

"He, with a few of us, like a good knight, remained at his post without choosing to retreat further. Thus we fought for more than an hour, until an Indian succeeded in thrusting a cane lance into the Captain's face. He then, being irritated, pierced the Indian's breast with his lance, and left it in his body, and trying to draw his sword he was unable to draw it more than halfway, on account of a javelin wound which he had received in the right arm. 

"The enemies seeing this all rushed against him, and one of them with a great sword, like a great scimitar 1 gave him a great blow on the left leg, which brought the Captain down on his face, then the Indians threw themselves upon him, and ran him through with lances and scimitars, and all the other arms which they had, so that they deprived of life our mirror, light, comfort, and true guide." 

"Whilst the Indians were thus overpowering him, several times he turned round towards us to see if we were all in safety, as though his obstinate fight had no other object than to give an opportunity for the retreat of his men. We who fought to extremity, and who were covered with wounds, seeing that he was dead, proceeded to the boats which were on the point of going away." (14)

Better late than never, Humabon sent in his warriors to save Magellan. It was too late. As they neared shore, the fleet fired a belated volley toward the beach, which only ended up killing four of Humabon's men. 

Something else worth mentioning: Magellan's crew had not lifted a finger to help their beleaguered Captain until that late salvo after he had fallen. This was strange. They would have seen how badly the battle was going long before then. The fact that Magellan fought on by himself for a whole hour without reinforcements hints at the dangerous discontent among the crew that had lingered since the mutiny a year earlier at San Julian off the coast of Patagonia. 

There, after losing control of three of his five ships, Magellan fought back and overcame the mutineers. He then held a summary court-martial and condemned the ringleaders: he beheaded one and left another two stranded when the fleet left San Julian several months later. The other forty mutineers received a death sentence, which Magellan ended up commuting. He couldn't afford to kill all of them without jeopardizing his mission. Everyone was needed, even the ones who hated him. The whole affair left simmering animosities.

Mactan was an unexpected opportunity for the remaining Magellan haters to be rid of their Captain without challenging him directly. Historian Laurence Bergreen suggests that their inaction might have been a quiet mutiny, one that could easily be denied afterward as "just following orders," should Magellan have made it out alive. 

Bergreen argues, "From the standpoint of the men in the ships, this mutiny had the advantage of being easy to disguise; the revolt consisted of what they failed to do rather than what they did. In effect, they allowed the Mactanese to do the dirty work for them; they left Magellan to die the death of a thousand cuts in Mactan harbor." (15)

The casualties were light on both sides. Eight Europeans died, along with four of the Rajah's warriors who were killed by friendly fire. Pigafetta notes that only about fifteen Mactans died, a tiny percentage of their force. It was a complete victory. Humabon wept and tried to recover Magellan's body, but Silapulapu refused to give it up. 

As he closed his account of this battle, Pigafetta offered this tribute to Magellan:

"He died; but I hope that your illustrious highness will not allow his memory to be lost, so much the more since I see revived in you the virtue of so great a captain, since one of his principal virtues was constance in the most adverse fortune. In the midst of the sea he was able to endure hunger better than we. Most versed in nautical charts, he knew better than any other the true art of navigation, of which it is a certain proof that he knew by his genius, and his intrepidity, without anyone having given him the example, how to attempt the circuit of the globe, which he had almost completed." (16)

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The Bloody Banquet

The stunned crew appointed Juan Serrano and Duarte Barbosa as co-captains of the expedition. Though they didn't know it, their reign would last only a few days. Magellan's slave and translator, Enrique, who had fought beside his master at Mactan, took to his bed, claiming that a battle injury kept him from his duties. There was more to it than that. Magellan's death freed him from his bondage; at least, that's what he believed. This was true according to the will Magellan signed before leaving Spain in 1519. 

But his master was gone, and the new captains didn't give a damn about any will setting him free. Enrique was the expedition's only means of communicating with the Cebuans, making him indispensable beyond his lowly status. A violent argument ensued. Barbosa demanded that he get his ass out of bed and back to work, or else he'd be whipped like the slave he was. 

Barbosa's boorish behavior was a reality check for Enrique, whose status hadn't changed. He realized it never would, not with his master gone. He'd continue serving as before, and when they returned to Seville, Barbosa told him he would be the slave of Magellan's widow, Madame Beatriz. 

Any questions, Enrique? No? Now get back to work! 

Furious, Enrique got out of bed and went ashore. Order seemed restored and all was well again. But that was far from the case. Enrique went to the Rajah, who was having a bit of an existential crisis now that his defender and spiritual guru was gone. Enrique convinced Humabon that the Europeans were plotting against him and that he needed to act fast before they did. Betray or be betrayed. 

He found a receptive audience in Humabon. Magellan's unheroic demise dispelled the aura of invincibility that he had cultivated. He wasn't blessed by God, it turned out. Humabon likely faced many unpleasant political realities from his decision to kowtow so obsequiously to a false prophet. 

Moreover, victorious Silapulapu now loomed more prominent as a potential threat. He had defeated the Europeans in battle and killed their leader. Unlike Humabon, he hadn't rolled over and meekly submitted without a fight. No, he fought and won, proving it could be done. His prestige would have been sky-high in the aftermath of this victory. 

Also, there might have been grumbling among Humabon's own subjects, in particular, his cuckolded men who wanted the Europeans gone for obvious reasons. Raw self-interest left Humabon open to any options. A vengeful Enrique had some to offer. 

And factor in plain old greed as a motivator. Humbon saw an opportunity to lay his hands on the Europeans' possessions, including those marvelous caravels on which they'd sailed the oceans. He devised a plot.

Four days after Magellan's death, on May 1, he invited the crew to a banquet to lavish them with jewels and gifts they could take back to King Charles in Spain. They had no reason to suspect treachery. The wily Rajah had feted them with many such banquets over the past few weeks. It would be another fun evening of good food, wine, and women. 

Suspecting nothing, around a quarter of them came, including the newly minted captains, Barbosa and Serrano. Pigafetta stayed behind, nursing a head wound from the battle. This probably saved his life, for the banquet was a trap. 

As they gorged themselves on food and drink, armed Cebuans appeared out of the treeline and began butchering the Europeans. The ambush became a slaughter. A few managed to flee back to the ships, but most were cut down where they dined, including Captain Barbosa.

The survivors on the ships watched in horror as the Cebuans dragged Captain Serrano, bound, bloodied, and battered, to the shore. Enrique was now presumably translating for his new masters. They offered to ransom Serrano for one of the ships' guns. This was provided, but the Cebuans demanded more, which was granted, and then they asked for even more. 

This farce went on through a few more demands and concessions until it became clear they had no intention of freeing Serrano. Serrano, weeping and praying, confirmed that everyone else was dead, twenty-seven total. He was the only one left. He wept and begged them to come to his aid. 

Magellan would have. He'd have loaded up a boat with armed men and charged into the fray. Two months earlier, when the native Chamorros of Guam snuck off with a boat from one of their ships, that's what he did: landed a boatload of men and burned, pillaged, and killed until they gave back what they had stolen. But Magellan wasn't there anymore.

After losing their leaders for a second time in one week, there was no appetite to mount any rescue operation for one man. With that, a decision was made to weigh anchor and depart, leaving Serrano to the mercy of the vengeful Cebuans. 

As they departed, the crew listened to his pitiful wailing. They also watched their former hosts and dear allies tearing down the cross Magellan had erected in better days. The Christian experiment in the Philippines was over for now. 

And just like that, the Cebuans rejected Christianity, returned to their own gods, and expelled all those Euro cocks in one last cathartic orgy of violence. 

After this calamity, only 115 shocked men remained out of the 260 that left Spain in August 1519. (17)

Humabon, Silapulapu, and Enrique vanish from the pages of history. 

Their tale is finished here. 

But Magellan's isn't quite yet. 

A conquistador marching forward to victory
AI Image Generated by DALL-E


Epilogue - After Magellan

The day after fleeing the massacre, the survivors burned the Conception to consolidate the reduced crew onto the two remaining ships, the Victoria and the Trinidad. After a meandering course, they reached the Maluccas and loaded up with valuable cloves. From there, they decided to split up and return by different routes. The Trinidad stayed behind for repairs and then tried to go home by traveling east across the Pacific. We'll never know why anyone thought this made sense, and it went about as bad as you might expect.

Trinidad tried and failed to make its way east, battered by storms, plagued by scurvy (of course), and fierce headwinds barring the way. They didn't get far. A Portuguese flotilla captured its emaciated and depleted crew who were either executed or imprisoned for trespassing. Trinidad's voyage was over. Only four of its sixty men ever returned to Europe.

Only Victoria now remained. After many adventures and close calls, she returned to Spain in 1522 with eighteen ragged and half-starved survivors. However, its precious cargo was intact, which meant that the expedition turned a profit for the Crown even after losing four out of five ships and 93 percent of the crew. 

Replica of Magellan's ship, the Victoria which circumnavigated the globe 1519-1522
Punta Arenas - Chile-Replica of Magellan's ship, the Victoria, which circumnavigated the globe 1519-1522

Magellan's reputation took a beating. His native Portugal renounced him as a traitor for serving Spain. In Spain, former mutineers who survived the voyage, including the final Captain of the Victoria, Sebastian Elcano, offered up self-justifying horror stories about their dead Captain that left him looking like an egomaniacal tyrant bent on killing them all to accomplish his reckless ambitions.

That they were even alive and celebrated as heroes in Spain for circumnavigating the globe was due mainly to Magellan's leadership in getting them so far in the first place. Had the mutineers had their way, the voyage would have returned home in disgrace that first year, having failed to do anything more than explore the South American coastline. Magellan's reputation only recovered long after his death, largely thanks to Pigafetta's admiring account of his accomplishments.

How should we judge Magellan today with the hindsight of five centuries? First, I'm not interested in applying twenty-first-century morality to a different time and place. That's not fair. Magellan was a remarkable man for his time but that time was very different from ours. Overall, he was a just and humane leader as long as he was unquestioningly obeyed. He could be coldly cruel if challenged, as in the aftermath of the mutiny, but violence was never his first choice. 

He didn't care if his men loved or hated him, as long they did their duty and obeyed him. Magellan's famous stubbornness was why the voyage pressed on when so many of his fellow officers wanted to play it safe and return home. That stubbornness guarded a vision that kept the expedition going far beyond anyone could have dreamed, down the length of a continent, through a labyrinthine strait, and across the planet's most immense ocean. Only a man like Magellan could have pulled it off. Sometimes it takes a sonofabitch to accomplish great deeds.

Once he settled on an objective, nothing but death could stop him, which in the event is what happened. In this regard, he resembles the other great captains and conquistadors of this early age of exploration. Other rugged and fearless men like Hernan Cortes, Francisco Pizarro, Christopher Columbus, Vasco de Gama, and Amerigo Vespucci, these (and others) pushed the boundaries of the known world, forever reshaping how we view our place in it. Magellan thus deserves a place up there in this pantheon of transformative historical figures. 

The modern consensus is that he was second to none as a captain and navigator. Getting through the straits in good order the way he did was an accomplishment that never ceases to impress mariners who understand how treacherous those straits can be, even today, never mind going in blind five centuries ago. 

Photo of Strait of Magellan with snow-capped mountains
Photo of theStrait of Magellan

His discoveries also put to rest the stubborn notion that the New World was somehow a part of Asia. In fact, his voyage proved beyond any doubt that these were two separate continents spanning from the Arctic almost to the Antarctic; between the Americas and Asia were only thousands of miles of ocean peppered with tiny islands.

There have been only a few other societies that birthed exploration cultures - the ancient Greeks and Phoenicians in the Mediterranean and the Vikings in Northern Europe come to mind - but none of them were driven by such strong convictions to keep on expanding, colonizing, and conquering, as the Spanish and Portuguese of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. 

They knew no limits but kept pressing outward, always looking for new lands to dominate and exploit. God, glory, and greed irresistibly spread European flags around the world for the next five centuries, creating the world we have today. As an explorer, preacher, and finally, would-be conqueror, Magellan was a representative example of that new type of brash and assertive European in its earliest iteration. 

The rest of the world, slumbering in an eternal status quo of caste, custom, and foggy superstition, could not imagine a wider world beyond their local horizons. Sleepwalking through history, they were not ready for what was coming. Mighty China certainly wasn't; she burned her treasure fleets in the early fifteenth century and turned inward, convinced she was the center of the world and nothing else mattered.

By the early decades of the fifteenth century, India was already getting bullied by the little Portuguese Empire; this was followed by the English and centuries of subjugation. It was the same story everywhere. In the Americas, the two most powerful empires, the Aztecs and the Incas, proved no match for even a handful of enterprising Spaniards who came, and saw, and conquered. 

Talent, ambition, and fortitude were the new currencies, allowing upstarts like Magellan, Cortes, Pizarro, and Columbus to play roles previously limited to elite nobles and priests.  

Yes, Magellan's little experiment in Christianity failed, and he lost his life in an unnecessary fight he picked. Even so, Spaniards cut in the mold of Magellan soon returned with even more insistent priests, more powerful warships, and better-armed soldiers. And when they did, they finished what Magellan started. 


Additional Resources


End Notes

(1) Laurence Bergreen. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. HarperCollins, 2019, 214.

(2) Lord Stanley Alderley. The First Voyage Round the World, by Magellan, Hakluyt Society, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central, 164.

(3) Edward Frederic Benson. Ferdinand Magellan. Easton Press, 1990, 203. 

(4) William Manchester. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. Little, Brown, 1998, 272.

(5) Aderley, 174.

(6) Maximilian of Transylvania. “The First Voyage Round the World/Letter of Maximilian, the Transylvanian.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library.

(7) Robert Silverberg. The Longest Voyage : Circumnavigators in the Age of Discovery, Ohio University Press, 1997. ProQuest Ebook Central, 153.

(8) Manchester, 270.

(9) Silverberg, 154.

(10) Bergreen, 276.

(11) Manchester, 277.

(12) Aderley, 100.

(13) Ibid.

(14) Ibid, 101-102.

(15) Bergreen, 285.

(16) Aderley, 102.

(17) Bergreen, 297.


Works Cited

Alderley Lord Stanley. The First Voyage Round the World, by Magellan, Hakluyt Society, 2010. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Benson, Edward Frederic. Ferdinand Magellan. Easton Press, 1990.

Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. HarperCollins, 2019.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself. Random House, 1983.

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. Little, Brown, 1998.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, A.D. 1492-1616. Oxford University Press, 1974.

Silverberg, Robert. The Longest Voyage : Circumnavigators in the Age of Discovery, Ohio University Press, 1997. ProQuest Ebook Central,

Benson, Edward Frederic. Ferdinand Magellan. Easton Press, 1990.

Bergreen, Laurence. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe. HarperCollins, 2019.

Boorstin, Daniel J. The Discoverers: A History of Man’s Search to Know His World and Himself. Random House, 1983.

Manchester, William. A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age. Little, Brown, 1998.

Morison, Samuel Eliot. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, A.D. 1492-1616. Oxford University Press, 1974.

Transylvania, Maximilian of. “The First Voyage Round the World/Letter of Maximilian, the Transylvanian.” Wikisource, the Free Online Library,,_the_Transylvan. Accessed 1 Jan. 2024.


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