October 3 – December 13, 1519

By 1519, a voyage across the Atlantic Ocean was, if not quite routine, no longer a black art either. There was an established set of best practices to follow. Ships from Spain stopped off in the Canary Islands for final preparations and provisioning, then rode the winds that blew across that archipelago all the way to Central or South America.

Everyone aboard was therefore shocked when Magellan ordered his fleet to sail due south from the Canaries, paralleling the coast of Africa rather than striking out into the open ocean. Although he did not deign to explain himself, it wasn’t hard to divine the reason for the unusual course: he was trying to avoid the Portuguese blockade which was reportedly waiting for his fleet in the standard transatlantic sea lane. Even so, the crew did not look favorably upon the choice. Sailors believed strongly in precedent, knew that, in a world of fickle winds and weathers, safety lay in hewing to the trails that had been blazed by others. The men muttered darkly to one another as they went about their duties.

Needless to say, the captain general’s enemies among the officers were only too happy to fan the embers of discontent among the rank and file. On the second day out of the Canaries, the San Antonio suddenly changed tack to charge up alarmingly close to the Trinidad. Annoyed, Magellan gestured and shouted from his quarterdeck for the ship to get back into line. Instead of doing so, Juan de Cartagena climbed onto his poop deck and began shouting back. Why, he yelled querulously, are we sailing in this direction? This course was not part of the plan of the expedition, nor was it the course that Magellan had filed with the harbormaster back in the Canaries; this course could be the death of all of them. Magellan, Cartagena said, was duty- and honor-bound to consult with the other officers before making so dramatic a change.

Well over 100 sailors aboard the two vessels witnessed this brazen challenge to the captain general’s authority. Magellan climbed up to his own poop deck to repeat his earlier injunction: “Get back into line! I alone am in command here!” The matter stood balanced on a knife’s edge as the two men stared one another down across a narrow gap of water.

Cartagena may very well have been hoping that the crew of the Trinidad would take his side, perhaps even take this opportunity to spontaneously rise up against their captain. But this they failed to do; for all that they may have been distrustful of their foreign-born leader and the course he had set, they had even less confidence in a rank landlubber like Cartagena. Unsure of his own crew’s loyalty if push came to shove, lacking any cannons or other means of forcing the issue, Cartagena sulkily climbed down to the quarterdeck and told his crew to obey their captain general’s orders to get back in line. Magellan had plainly won the first public contest of wills between the two, leaving Cartagena further diminished in the eyes of the men. The issue of who was truly in charge of the expedition was, however, far from settled in the minds of Cartagena and his cohorts.

In the meanwhile, Magellan’s cause was also helped by the weather, which remained glorious. For the first two weeks out of the Canaries, the fleet fairly romped across the ocean’s broad back, cutting the water almost as quickly as it would have had it charged directly southwest. On days like these, with azure sea and cerulean sky melding into a single brilliant panorama every day, with the stars coming out every night to wink and twinkle in a grand celestial parade, it was difficult for any but the most aggrieved to maintain angry thoughts of mutiny.

The fleet hugged the African coast that much tighter as it passed beyond the Cape Verde Islands, Portugal’s equivalent to the Canaries as a staging ground for empire. It followed the coastline even as it began to bend to the southeast. The crew could see the peaks of Sierra Leone — the Lion Mountains of West Africa — scraping the distant horizon. From this sight as well as their pilots’ astrolabe readings, they knew that they were fast approaching the Equator.

But now the character of the sea and sky began to change, as it always must in the end. One day the steady northeasterly wind that had been with the fleet ever since it had left Spain disappeared, to be replaced by choppier gusts that changed direction constantly. And with the shifting winds came rain, buckets of it slanting across the decks, soaking everything and everyone to the bone. Neophytes like Antonio Pigafetta and the three captains appointed by Bishop Fonseca now got an abrupt education on just how miserable life at sea could be. In this wet, it was impossible to light a cooking fire; meals consisted of sloppy chunks of wet hardtack and little else.  The men talked among themselves about how strange this weather was. Although this wasn’t the route that Magellan had planned to take, it was hardly a new or unknown one, being the one that Portuguese ships had been following to East Africa, India, and beyond for decades. (Indeed, Magellan had had his lookouts constantly scanning the horizon ever since leaving the Canaries for the Portuguese vessels that so regularly plied these lanes; he had no desire for a chance meeting with any of his countrymen.) This stage at least of such trips was usually completed without undue incident at this time of year. The old feeling among the crew that theirs was an ill-starred expedition, which had been largely banished by the first weeks of fine sailing, made a return with a vengeance.

As soon as the sails had been configured for one wind, it dissipated in favor of a new one. This was not just annoying and exhausting; it was actively dangerous. A ship caught out in an inclement wind with its sails set up the wrong way could be capsized or driven right under the waves. In the worst exigency, the only way to save the ship might be to chop the masts down with axes and let them fall into the water, a desperate remedy that would deprive the vessel of its only means of propulsion, unless and until its crew managed to improvise new masts and sails that could never work as well as the originals from the materials in its hold. Rather than risk such an outcome, Magellan’s fleet mostly gave up even trying to raise sails. The ships’ crews left the masts bare, hunkered down, and hoped for the best, letting the winds and currents carry them where they would.

The signal fire aboard the Trinidad was as impossible as the cooking fires to keep lit in such conditions. It was every ship for itself; they would just have to hope to find one another again after the storm abated. The worst fear was of being blown into the continent to their east, of having the bottoms of their vessels ripped away by the rocky shoals and being pitched helplessly into the churning waves; the vast majority of the men aboard could not swim. When the ships did dare to raise their sails, it was not so much to make further progress on any particular course as an attempt to forestall progress toward the threat that loomed, unseen but constantly felt, to their east.

The storm went on and on, howling and pounding at its fragile wooden playthings, trying the will and courage of even the hardiest souls aboard the ships. “We were in tears,” writes Pigafetta frankly, “only expecting the hour of perishing. Nobody hoped to escape from that storm.”

Then, in the midst of a dark night of the soul and of the sea, the sailors aboard the Trinidad looked up to see a heavenly glow radiating from the top of the mainmast, hissing and popping above the surge of wind and water. They fell to their knees in wonder and gratitude. For this was Saint Elmo’s Fire, a good omen and promise of protection bestowed upon them by that patron saint of sailors. Modern science tells us that the phenomenon occurs when the atmosphere becomes so ionized in a thunderstorm that any long, tapered surface — the mast of a ship, the wing of an airplane, even the steeple of a church — can start to act as a lightning rod, discharging energy visibly and audibly into the space around it. For the crew of the Trinidad, however, it was a miracle of God. And perhaps it was, in addition to being a miracle of science; the fact is that we live in a world full of miracles, however we choose to explain them.

Saint Elmo proved true to his benevolent reputation. Not long after the heavenly glow faded, the rain abated and the sea began to calm. The signal fire on the Trinidad was lit once again, and the ships learned to their relief that they hadn’t drifted so far apart at all. Magellan decided the time had come to leave the coast of Africa behind and strike out across the Atlantic, well to the south of where any remaining Portuguese hunters might expect their Spanish prey to pass.

He soon had reason to regret that decision. For within 24 hours the storm had been replaced by something that sailors feared almost equally: a deadly calm. The same masts that had so recently been naked were now festooned with every scrap of sail they could bear, to no avail. The canvas hung slack from its fastenings, unperturbed by the faintest trace of a breeze, and the ships seemed to sit as still on the ocean as lily pads on the surface of a lazy pond. This was the stuff of ocean-crossing nightmares: to be frozen in place on the open ocean, neither here nor there, with no land nor prospect of land anywhere, while the crew ate steadily through their precious stock of provisions. Over the course of the next two weeks, the fleet would manage only ten miles (sixteen kilometers) of westward progress.

One day Pigafetta peered over the gunwale to see hundreds of fins circling in the stagnant water below. The sharks had come. Sailors always took their arrival as an ill omen; it was said that they could smell impending death as surely as an old salt could smell approaching land on the breeze. Some of the men fished for the sharks using big iron hooks, but, even when their efforts were successful, the flesh was tough and scant in proportion to the size of the creatures, with a bitter, unpleasant aftertaste.

Still, it was better than — or at least different from — the hardtack that was by now nearly the crews’ only source of sustenance, what with almost all of the other food having been either eaten by them already or ruined by the storm. Each man was allowed just one and a half pounds (.7 kilograms) of hardtack to eat each day, along with six pints (three liters) of the weak sailor’s wine, whose minimal alcohol content functioned more as a preservative than an intoxicant. Some began to remark the first warning pangs of what could soon become the horrid disease of scurvy, as their bodies cried out for the essential nutrients that hardtack and wine alone couldn’t supply.

Idle hands being the Devil’s playthings, the becalmed ships became Petri dishes of discontent. As always, Bishop Fonseca was present in malevolent spirit, stirring the pot through his appointees among the officers. Their ringleader Juan de Cartagena, having recovered his spirit after his comeuppance in the first days out of the Canaries, took up the cause of disrespecting and deprecating Magellan with gusto once again. One of the little ritual of this life at sea was for each of the other ships to formally salute the flagship each day at dusk with the words, “God save you, captain general sir, and ship’s master and ship’s company!” One evening the ship’s crier of the San Antonio unaccountably changed the wording, referring to Magellan only as captain of the Trinidad rather than captain general of the whole expedition. Magellan, whose ears were always keenly attuned to such slights, immediately ordered his own crier to demand the salute again, said properly this time. It was Cartagena himself who replied, bellowing insolently across the water for everyone to hear that, since Magellan didn’t like the salute he had been given, he would get no salute at all henceforward. He won that round; Magellan didn’t know how to force the issue. For the next several days, Cartagena stayed true to his word, bestowing no evening salute whatsoever.

Magellan pondered how to regain the initiative and reassert his command of the expedition, knowing all the while that his window of time for doing so was short. He was well aware of what was being said in the nooks and crannies of his ship and the others about this foreigner who had led the fleet so disastrously into these unfamiliar seaways. He was cognizant as well that his authority was being further diminished for each day he allowed Cartagena’s blatant insubordination to continue.

Command at sea was a strange, delicate thing. A captain or admiral wasn’t buttressed by any tangible institutional structure in the same way that a general or king on land was. The captain had only the habits of command and deference to reply upon. If his crew should one day refuse to obey his orders — if, for that matter, they should one day chose to pitch him overboard along with his instructions — he had no way to compel their compliance, no higher authority upon whom he could call. Magellan knew that insubordination such as Cartagena’s would become the habit throughout his fleet if it was left unaddressed, until that habit blossomed into a full-fledged mutiny. He could best reestablish the lived reality of his command by making a convincing show of it before matters got so far out of hand. It was a question of willpower rather than physical strength. He just needed the right opportunity.

And then, out of the blue, an otherwise unfortunate incident provided him the chance he was looking for. The ship’s master of the Victoria was one of the expedition’s non-Spaniards, a native of Sicily named Antonio Salomone. One day Luis de Mendoza, Bishop Fonseca’s hand-picked captain of the same vessel, wandered into the officers’ bunk room to find Salomone in the midst of a sexual act with a young apprentice seaman. This was a difficult situation. Although highly illegal by the laws of Spain, such dalliances were hardly unusual aboard ships at sea, packed as they were with young men who were cut off from any sexual outlet other than one another, and were not exactly spoiled for other forms of recreation either. Most captains simply looked the other way. Salomone, however, was an officer, the third in his vessel’s chain of command, who was fraternizing with an ordinary seaman. This was harder to overlook in the grand scheme of things. Mendoza, for his part, didn’t know quite what to do. Aware that Cartagena wouldn’t know any more than he did, he reluctantly sent a note to Magellan on the Trinidad, telling him what had transpired and asking his advice.

Magellan, although generally more cognizant of his men’s welfare than most captains of his era, didn’t shirk from being ruthless when he thought that the greater good demanded it. He ordered that the two perpetrators be sent over to the Trinidad, and that the captains and pilots of all of the ships in the fleet join him there as well for an impromptu trial. Even the recalcitrant Cartagena was tempted enough by the prospect of the spectacle to turn up. He and his fellow officers became the jury of the trial, whose courtroom was the deck of the Trinidad and whose audience was all of the crew of that ship and of the others, straining their eyes and ears to see and hear the proceedings across the water. The facts of the case being not in question, it didn’t take long for Magellan, who took the role of the judge, to sentence the prisoners. The young seaman, who claimed to have been victimized unwillingly by Salomone, was to be let off unpunished apart from a stern reprimand. This mercy would prove no mercy at all; the boy would suffer such torment and ridicule from his fellow sailors that he would jump overboard to his death the following April — or, according to another account, would be thrown overboard. His older companion in sodomy would meet his fate even sooner: Magellan ordered that Salomone be clapped in irons and tossed below decks immediately, to be executed as soon as the fleet made landfall.

The ruling was a cruel one, but it accomplished a number of things for Magellan. It demonstrated the very authority he had been in danger of losing, showing him to be a man of decision, a man of action, and most of all a man who was not to be crossed lightly. The very fact that it had been Magellan rather than Cartagena who had conducted the trial and pronounced the sentence on behalf of the whole fleet reestablished the reality of the former’s command. Further, he perversely proved his impartiality to the Spanish sailors by condemning another foreigner among them to the ultimate punishment. Even the belated timing of the execution was well-judged: it was a sailor’s superstition that one placated the mysterious powers that ruled the ocean waves by promising them a sacrifice during a time of crisis and then following through after deliverance, not before.

But Magellan wasn’t finished. Having demonstrated his ongoing authority publicly, he asked the other captains to join him in his cabin for a private meeting.

The five men could barely fit themselves into the close, cramped space. Staring at Cartagena literally nose to nose in the stifling heat, Magellan asked the captain of the San Antonio calmly why he had stopped delivering the requisite nightly salute to his captain general. Unnerved by the steely dark eyes that bored into his own, Cartagena was not so calm; he exploded in torrents of spittle-flecked invective against Magellan, ridiculing not just his decisions that had landed them all in this terrible situation but his honor and his bloodline. This was too much for the captain general. Rising from his chair in one swift motion, he grabbed his rival by the collar and slammed him against the wall. “You are under arrest for mutiny!” he hissed.

For the first time, Cartagena displayed outright fear. Turning to Gasper de Quesada and Luis de Mendoza, his two ostensible allies, he hectored them to join him in ridding themselves of this Portuguese interloper and taking charge of the expedition once and for all. Whereupon Juan Rodríguez Serrano of the Santiago, the only experienced sea captain in the entire group, said that he for one stood with Magellan, that they’d have to do away with him as well if they wished to take over. This was the pivotal moment. Quesada and Mendoza looked at one another, looked at Magellan and Serrano, looked guiltily at Cartagena. And they said nothing. The fact was that neither Cartagena nor either of them was remotely qualified to lead a fleet such as this one on even the most routine of voyages, which this voyage most certainly was not. Now that they were well and truly cast out in the wild blue ocean, perhaps they realized all of a sudden that their best chance of survival and eventual success lay with the man who had brought them this far. Even more than this, though, one senses that Magellan simply overmastered them through sheer force of will. His hold on them would not prove permanent, but it was enough to carry the day here and now.

So, Magellan threw open his cabin door and called to a number of brawny seamen who had been standing nearby; it seemed the captain general had had a good idea of how this meeting would go down from the start. They pulled a bewildered and terrified Cartagena up onto the poop deck. The ship’s pillory was then hoisted up to the same location.

A pillory. (Public Domain)

A form of torture and ritual humiliation that had been in use on land for centuries by this point, the pillory was a T-shaped wooden contraption of about the height of a man. Its horizontal bar opened and closed on hinges, and had a large hole drilled through it for a miscreant’s neck to pass through, along with two smaller ones for his wrists. Once clamped inside, the victim might be left standing for hours in that extremely uncomfortable position.

Thanks to this pillory’s elevated location, not only the crew of the Trinidad but those of the other vessels as well now witnessed the proud Cartagena being subjected to this treatment, a punishment that was usually reserved for only the most wayward of ordinary seamen. While he was wincing and cringing on the poop deck above, the other captains reconvened in Magellan’s cabin to discuss what was to be done with him. It was an extraordinary meeting in its way; almost without their realizing it was happening, Magellan had in the space of moments brought Quesada and Mendoza over completely to his side, at least for the time being, in the power struggle that had bifurcated the fleet for weeks. Mendoza dared to speak up, asking to be given custody of the prisoner on his own ship the Victoria, promising to ensure that he caused no further trouble. Magellan’s dark eyes narrowed as he considered this request. Then, with an abrupt nod, he granted it, on the condition that Cartagena must be returned to the Trinidad if ever he was asked for.

The fact was that even Magellan shrank from the probable consequences back in Spain of executing Bishop Fonseca’s son alongside the unlucky sodomite Antonio Salomone. Then, too, he believed that by giving over his enemy — who was also, until so very recently, Mendoza’s ally — to the latter’s care, he could demonstrate trust in his subordinate, show he was willing to let bygones be bygones. He had little fear that Cartagena himself would be able to muster much support among the crew after the public humiliation he was currently enduring just above the heads of Magellan and the other captains was finished. And indeed, Cartagena gave every appearance of being utterly broken in spirit as he was lowered into the longboat that would take him to the Victoria.

All told, it had been a very good day for the captain general, during which he had reasserted his authority and tamped down if not permanently eliminated the mutinous impulse among his underlings. He finished the day off by taking one last calculated risk. His Portuguese pilot major Estevão Gomes, with whom he continued to have a strained relationship despite their shared nationality, lobbied hard to replace Cartagena as captain of the San Antonio, but Magellan passed him over, thereby cementing his undying enmity. Instead Magellan chose as the new captain of the San Antonio another of Bishop Fonseca’s coterie of appointees, an underling of Cartagena named Antonio de Coca, hoping thereby to further demonstrate his even-handedness and to bring the erstwhile conspirators that much more solidly into his camp. This last decision on his day of triumph proves that, while Magellan was immensely clever, he was far from infallible; it would have serious consequences in his future, and not for the good. For now, though, Coca resumed the nightly salute demanded by protocol, and Magellan felt satisfied with the choice.

In Agamemnon by the ancient Greek playwright Aeschylus, the fleet that is to carry the heroes of Greece to Troy on the eve of the Trojan War is trapped in port by inclement weather for many weeks, until the titular hero agrees to sacrifice his own daughter to the gods in atonement for the blood that is about to be spilled. Now, the ritual comeuppances of Antonio Salomone and Juan de Cartagena seemed to do the same trick for Magellan’s fleet. Looking up at the masts, the crew espied for the first time in a fortnight a slight rippling in the sails above them. A frisson of excitement ran through the men, who rushed to reconfigure the canvas to catch every scrap of air. The trace of a breeze gradually became a wind, and suddenly the ships were moving again.

The wind continued to freshen, lifting the mood of the crew as it filled the sails. The fleet marked the two-month anniversary of its departure from Spain by crossing the Equator into the Southern Hemisphere.

Magellan had hoped and planned to make landfall in South America at a particular bay, a spectacular natural harbor that had first been visited and charted by a Portuguese expedition in January of 1502 — the same Portuguese expedition that included in its ranks Amerigo Vespucci, who published a book about it in 1503, thus beginning the unlikely process of bequeathing his name to not one but two continents. Because of the month of its discovery, the commander of the expedition had called the spot Rio de Janeiro, or “January River,” on the assumption that it must mark the mouth of a great river. In point of fact, no such river existed at this location, but the words would stick throughout time, first as the name of the bay, then as that of the sprawling port city which would eventually be built inside it. (Today, the natural harbor that cradles the city of Rio de Janeiro is known as Guanabara Bay.)

Ironically in light of all the maneuvering Magellan had recently undertaken to avoid any contact with the Portuguese, one of the many islets that dotted the bay was actually home to a Portuguese trading depot that had been set up in 1511. The pilot of the Concepción, whose name was João Lopes Carvalho, was himself a Portuguese who had been a part of the expedition that had built it. He had then stayed behind at Rio de Janeiro to mind the store, so to speak, for four full years before hitching a ride back to Europe with another group of traders. He had told Magellan before this latest expedition of which he was a part left Spain that Portugal typically sent only one trading fleet to the site per year, that said fleet had already made its visit for this year, and that none of his countrymen had volunteered to stay behind as permanent residents at the depot after he had left. He had further promised that the natives who lived on the shores of the bay were friendly, that they would welcome them with open arms (plus, he guffawed to his shipmates, open legs). Magellan had accepted his assurances that Rio de Janeiro would be a perfect spot for his own fleet to rest, restock, and take stock before commencing to look for a route around or through the Americas to Asia.

Now, though, having lost so much time and stores to evasive maneuvers and to uncooperative weather, he felt that he couldn’t afford to be too fussy about trying to hit his preferred target precisely. The important thing was simply to bridge the gulf of the Atlantic Ocean as quickly as possible, configuring the sails for maximal speed rather than trying to hold the ships’ course to some fine-grained degree marker on the compass. Thankfully, the wind stayed strong and favorable. A day came when birds could be seen in the sky, always a sign that an ocean crossing was nearing its end. Then, on November 29, there came that welcome cry from the top of the masts: “Land ho!” Everyone with the dexterity to scramble up to the lookouts’ perches did so, one after another, to peer at the hazy green hills that hovered just at the limits of visual perception, like a mirage floating enigmatically above a bluish-gray desert.

But this wasn’t any mirage; this was the very real Americas. A sullen Estevão Gomes informed Magellan that they had reached the southern continent at its most easterly point, well to the northeast of their intended destination of Rio de Janeiro. The captain general now made a decision that cost him much of the goodwill he had gained among the crew by getting them safely across the Atlantic. Rather than trying to go ashore here, at a place that was not yet well charted and that appeared to be guarded by a disconcerting number of reefs, he ordered the fleet to follow the coastline southwestward toward the known security of Rio de Janeiro. The winds were not so favorable for this course; for a full two weeks, longer than the entire Atlantic crossing had taken once the wind had started to blow, the ships tacked their way laboriously down the coast, while their crews hungered and thirsted and twitched with impatience to leave their floating confinement. It was tiring sailing by any measure. On at least one occasion, the ships were seized by an unexpected combination of wind and current and very nearly dashed against the rocky shoreline.

Then, finally, on December 13, the lookouts spotted the inviting mouth of the nonexistent January River, right where it was supposed to be. The fleet slipped inside, past the rocky sentinel that would later be named Sugarloaf Mountain, perched incongruously like one of its namesakes turned on end. Just beyond lay the tropical paradise that Amerigo Vespucci had labeled a second Eden. Rolling hills of lush green vegetation surrounded the bay on all but the seaward side, while the air was filled with the cawing of strange birds and the chattering of monkeys. As the capstans cranked and the anchors splashed into the water, scores of naked, dark-skinned people were already shouting and waving excitedly to the haggard seamen from the shore. Some of the native men jumped into canoes to row out and greet the ships, seeming every bit as friendly as the Concepción‘s pilot had said they would be. Two months and ten days after departing the Canaries, one week short of three months after leaving Spain, Magellan’s fleet had arrived in a whole new world.

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

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