He had traveled to lands Columbus had only dreamed of, faced down challenges that would later undo other commanders, and braved all kinds of physical dangers on the first circumnavigation of the globe. But, after becoming the first European to journey from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, Ferdinand Magellan interfered in local tribal politics on Mactan Island in the Philippines and was killed before the horrified eyes of crew members unable to save him.
In his history of American naval operations in WWII, naval historian Samuel Eliot Morison noted that the month before he died, Magellan and his men reached an island in the Philippines known as Limasawa, where “westward-advancing Christianity first met eastward-advancing Islam.” That phrase has become more pregnant with irony and portent in the 60 years since Morison wrote them. It also inspires a different way of viewing Magellan’s odyssey.
In one of the last essays of his long, illustrious career, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. assailed the Bush administration for going “eyeless in Gaza” by venturing into Iraq with poor intelligence. Even then, though, Bush and his Cabinet had at least some information from journalists, historians, diplomats, refugees, and defectors.
Now flash backward five centuries, as Magellan--like the Bush administration, failing to proceed with care in a faraway land--decided to aid a local chieftain who had converted to Christianity. Not happy that 800 of these tribesmen followed their king to Christianity all in one night, the pious explorer insisted that others in the area do likewise. Their refusal led him to burn their villages.
Nearly two weeks later, instead of leaving while he could, he demanded that these tribes provide his crews with provisions. When they replied that they could only provide some, he decided to teach them a lesson by leading 50 to 60 men on three boats on a punitive mission.
The result was something like a maritime version of Custer’s Last Stand. Suddenly, Magellan found himself facing three or four thousand natives, roused to fury first by being fired on (ineffectually) by musket and cannon from a distance, then by watching their huts burned by the Spaniards. Though he had previously benefited by some natives’ perceptions that he and his men were god-like figures, his sense of vulnerability evaporated now, especially when the natives noticed that a) his bare legs left him exposed and b) he could only pull out his sword halfway because he’d been wounded in the arm.
Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian traveling with the crew, described what happened next:
"When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off."
When your leader is traveling in lands where he not only doesn’t know the history but even the language or geography, the temptation is overwhelming to urge caution upon him. But caution was not what led Magellan to greatness. Caution did not lead him to sail beyond the limits of the known world. Caution was not the byword of the country under whose flag he sailed--Spain, well launched toward its destiny as the great 16th-century empire.
If you want to read a thrilling account of Magellan’s epic voyage and of the terrible fate that befell him on April 27, 1521, an excellent place to start is with William Manchester’s A World Lit Only by Fire. In fact, I’d advise you to read only those chapters in this work dealing with the explorer. As for the rest of this history of the transition between the middle and modern ages, skip it--Manchester, an excellent chronicler of 20th-century history, had compounded his mistake of ranging far beyond his usual writing domain by a) sticking overwhelmingly to secondary rather than primary sources, and b) rehashing the same old stereotypes about the Dark Ages that historians had long overturned.
But as I said, the Magellan portion is something else entirely. It began as a foreword to a biography of Magellan by Manchester’s friend Tim Joyner, but Manchester’s fascination with the explorer grew so intense that it became the climax of his own book. Like John F. Kennedy, the subject of Manchester’s bestselling Death of a President, Magellan is a hero who lets nothing stand in the way of his will, leading this dashing leader to his appointment with destiny.
Manchester could write so well about Magellan, I think, because he well understood that constitutional inability to stop while he still could. Nearly 20 years ago, an academic friend told me what had delayed the next volume in Manchester’s biography of Winston Churchill, The Last Lion: The author became so consumed by his research that he worked himself into a state of exhaustion--a pattern that had repeated itself since Death of a President.
Something like this led to A World Lit Only by Fire. Manchester had been advised by doctors to rest while he was still only two-thirds through his epic work on Churchill. He could comply with part of their advice--not interviewing people or visiting archives--but he had to be writing every single day on something, for heaven’s sake. And so, this particular project gripped him.
Not surprisingly, you have to admit. Magellan might have felt himself invincible at the Battle of Mactan because he had already survived the following:
* Even before reaching South America, Magellan had had to relieve from command a leader of a planned mutiny against him.
* Cold weather while heading south led him to decide to winter in present-day Patagonia.
* In Patagonia, Magellan had to put down a second mutiny attempt.
*On a reconnaissance mission, one of Magellan’s ships, Santiago, wrecked.
* While sailing through the strait now named for him in South America, Magellan was faced with the loss of another ship, whose captain turned tail and sailed home.
* While crossing the Pacific, many members of Magellan’s crew were hit with scurvy and forced to subsist on sawdust, leather strips from sails, and rats.
Even after Magellan’s death, the survivors of his fleet weren’t through with hardship. Portugal seized one of the ships, taking with them Magellan’s log (which became lost during the Lisbon earthquake of 1755). When the remnants of his fleet staggered into Spain in September 1522, only 18 of the original 225 who left the country three years before made it home alive.
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