Across the Pacific

Magellan, like Columbus, underestimated the size of the world, and the distance involved in crossing the Pacific. He believed that it would take them a month at the most to reach the Spice Islands, but the Pacific was more extensive than he expected, an unexplored expanse of an imprecisely measured globe. 

Using the same navigational instruments as Columbus and Vasco da Gama, they sailed on a west-north-west course into the unknown. Tradewinds pushed them to the north-west for well over 100 days. They saw no land except for two uninhabited islands (which they named, appropriately, the Unfortunate Islands) which offered no new supplies of food. 

Saint Paul’s Island in the Tuamotus provided a breathing space, but they could not obtain fresh food. Magellan and his men departed from the island on 28 January 1521. It would be over a month before they came across an island with food and water.

The expedition’s supplies dwindled quickly. The crew lived on biscuits that had been reduced to a grub-infested powder fouled by rats. They removed strips of ox-hide from the rigging, and because these had dried out in the sun, soaked them for days in the sea, then toasted them over a fire and ate them. They made soup with sawdust from the ship’s planks. Rats were sold for half a crown each and considered a delicacy. They were short of drinking water, and the water that they had was yellow and stinking. They made soup with sawdust. 

Many of them became ill with scurvy and other ailments, and as a result of these privations 19 died, and a further 35 fell sick. Magellan prepared to face mutiny when, on 6 March 1521, they reached Guam in the Marianas, where they were able to gather supplies. They did not stay there long. 

Magellan called the islands Ladrones, or Thieves’ Islands when the local people tried to steal one of the ships’ dinghies. Magellan’s reaction was to murder half a dozen islanders and burn some houses. Other islanders were more agreeable, and the crews were able to recover from the rigours of the voyage before sailing on to the Philippines. 

Magellan Dies

© Ian Hughes 2017