Ferdinand Magellan - Frederick Ober

Death of Magellan


The Queen of Cebu was young and beautiful, one who saw her states, though her lips and teeth were stained deep red from the chewing of betel-nut. Unlike her royal consort, the fat and jovial king, she wore clothing sufficient to drape her figure decently, though her maids of honor "were all naked and barefoot, except for a girdle of palm-leaves, and all with hair flowing free." These maidens accompanied the queen in order to carry her triple crowns made of palm-straw, like a tiara, of which she displayed several, besides the one she wore on her head.

Following the example of the king, she abandoned her idols entirely, but begged Magellan to give her a carved wooden image of Jesus, which he did gladly, telling her to keep it in their place. He then sprayed her with perfumes, and also her women, at which they were exceedingly delighted. That the queen treasured her little wooden image, and after her those who inherited her possessions, may be inferred from the fact that it was found in Cebu more than forty years afterwards, greatly reverenced by the natives, who ascribed many miracles to its presence. Thus the place in which it was found received the name of the "City of Jesus," and a monastery was founded there, in which the image was preserved.

Magellan did not confine himself to the imparting of religious instruction only, but sent a large stock of goods ashore and opened a shop, or market, for barter. Trade was good from the first, and the people were ready to fight for such articles as they were in need of, giving gold for bronze and iron, almost weight for weight. For the less valuable things they gave in barter goats and kids, pigs, fowl, and rice, so that the ships of the fleet once more abounded in plenty. These people were very fair in their dealings, for "they lived in justice, and gave good weights and measures." Their scale was an extremely simple contrivance, consisting of a spear-shaft suspended in the middle by a cord, with a bronze basin hung by three strings to one arm, and a piece of lead, to balance it, on the other. So lavish were they of their gold and precious stones, that Magellan issued an order forbidding promiscuous trading by the sailors, as "there were some who would have given all they had for a small amount of gold, and would soon have spoiled the trade forever."

The pious example of Magellan, in erecting and then humbly worshipping the holy cross; his tenderness and generosity towards the king and the queen, and his restraint in the matter of trade, with his eminent fairness towards everybody in all things, aroused the enthusiasm of the natives to the highest pitch. They brought their idols and laid them at his feet—such as had not been previously destroyed—and the king's nephew who had been restored to health by Magellan's intervention finding an image which had been secreted in his hut by an old woman of his family, became so enraged that he chastised her severely. He then led the way to the shore, where were several temples erected in honor of the idols, which he and his followers tore down and destroyed, shouting at the top of their voices, "Castilia! Castilia!" as the Tlascalans of Mexico had done only a short time before, when they marched into Tezcoco with the timber for Cortes's flotilla.

The man who led this mob was the prince's brother, "the bravest and wisest man in the island," so he must have reflected the universal sentiment; yet only a short time elapsed—a few days, in fact—before he was seen conducting the chaplain of the fleet to his house, with intent to slay him! These natives of Cebu were either the most susceptible, or the most treacherous, of any people on earth, judging them by what soon after took place, for while they were wrought upon by the visit of the Spaniards to offer them the warmest of welcomes, to accept and adopt their religion—falling at their feet in worship, from the highest to the lowest—they revolted, recanted, and accomplished their downfall as quickly as they had raised them to the dizzy heights of adulation.

It was the captain-general's religious enthusiasm that tempted him to court disaster, by mingling in the affairs of the natives. He felt, indeed, that it was his duty to bring all the tribes of the great archipelago under the influence of his church and religion. He had accomplished the conversion and apparent subjugation of Cebu's people so quickly, and had, to all appearances so firmly established Spanish rule and the Catholic faith, that he anticipated no more trouble in dealing with other islands and natives of the Philippines. When, therefore, he received a message from a sub-chief in the island of Mactan, named Zula, informing him that the rajah, Chilapulapu, was oppressing him severely and breathing defiance against the King of Spain, Magellan considered it his duty to proceed at once to Mactan. There was situated, it is thought, the village he had destroyed by fire, and Chilapulapu may have been the ruler whose rights he had infringed in so doing, for he could not understand, he said, "why he should do homage to the potentate of Cebu, whom he had so long held under his thumb." Zula had sent a small gift to Magellan, accompanied by a message stating that, owing to the oppressions of the rajah, he could do no better, and requesting the assistance of a boat-load of soldiers. With only a boat-load, he said, combined with his own gallant warriors, he could overcome the rajah and conquer the island for Magellan. In listening to the request of this sub-chief, Fernan Magellan allowed his reason to be subjected to religious fanaticism; his desire to promote the general welfare of the islanders to be overcome by a stronger desire for conquest. He submitted the proposition to his officers, and they, without dissent, were decidedly opposed, especially stubborn being Juan Serrao, veteran of many fights in the East, and a man of tried courage. As usual, however, the captain-general had determined upon his course before calling a council, and, though all were opposed, he had resolved to push matters to a conclusion.

The little island of Mactan lies off the harbor of Cebu, only a few miles distant, and its invasion was not a matter of difficulty—provided no opposition were offered. Shortly before midnight of April 26th, Magellan's expedition against Mactan set forth: sixty Spaniards, and about a thousand natives, commanded by the King of Cebu. With this expedition went also the chief historian of Magellan's voyage, Antonio Pigafetta, to whom we are already indebted for many details; and as a description of events by an eye-witness should be more vivid than one by a narrator nearly four hundred years removed from the time of their occurrence, we will let him tell the story.

"The captain-general decided to go thither with three boat-loads of soldiers. We begged him repeatedly not to go himself, but he, like a good shepherd, refused to abandon his flock. At midnight, sixty men of us set out, armed with corselets and helmets, together with the Christianized king, the prince, and some of the chief men, in twenty or thirty balanguais.

"We reached Mactan three hours before dawn. The captain did not wish to fight then, but sent a message to the natives by the converted Moro, to the effect that if they would obey the King of Spain, recognize the sovereignty of Cebu, and pay us tribute, he would be their friend; but that if they wished otherwise, they should wait to see what our lances could do!

"They replied that while we had lances, they also had them, made of bamboo, with points hardened in the fire. They requested us not to attack them then, but to wait till after daylight, as they expected reinforcements, with which they could meet us on more nearly equal terms. This was a ruse, intended to decoy us at once to the attack, for they had dug a long, deep ditch, faced with sharp stakes, and our destruction would have been sure.

"The coral reefs, by which Mactan was surrounded, prevented the approach of the boats near shore, and when morning came forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through it for more than two crossbow-flights before we could reach dry land. Eleven men remained behind to guard the boats and serve the lombards." Magellan himself led the way, with naked sword in hand, and regardless of the missiles of the foe, which soon filled the air around him. The dawn of that morning, Saturday, April 27, 1521, was the last which Magellan was to witness on earth; but no premonition of disaster oppressed him then. He and his men struggled through the water to shore, and formed upon the sands. Opposed to them were thousands of islanders, who, forming in three divisions, so as to attack the Spaniards front and flank, charged down upon them furiously, brandishing their spears, and yelling like mad.

"When our captain saw that, he formed us into two divisions, and thus did we begin the fight. The musketeers and cross-bow-men shot from a distance for about half an hour, but uselessly, as their shots either fell short, or passed merely through the shields with which the natives were armed. Seeing this, our captain cried to them: 'Cease, cease firing!' but his order was not heeded. When, therefore, the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, they redoubled their shouts and their efforts to break into our ranks. They leaped hither and thither, to defeat the aim of the musketeers, at the same time covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us, and hurled so many bamboo spears tipped with iron at our captain-general, besides fire-hardened stakes, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves.

"Seeing that, our captain-general sent some men to burn their houses, in order to terrify them; but when they saw them burning, they were only roused to greater fury. Twenty or thirty houses were burned; but two of our men were killed, of the party that made the attempt. So many of them now charged upon us that they pressed us close, and shot our captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men, being unaccustomed to defeat, were terrified at such an order, and most of them took to flight immediately—all except six or eight of us, who remained by our captain. Seeing that our vulnerable spots were the legs, as they were exposed, the natives shot only at them, and so many were the spears and stones they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance.

"The mortars in the boats could not aid us, being too far away; thus we were in a terrible plight. So we continued to retire, for more than a good cross-bow flight from the shore, always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spears, hurled them at us again and again. Recognizing our captain, so many turned upon him that they succeeded in knocking off his helmet twice; but he ever withstood them, like the good knight he was, and at last we made a stand for more than an hour, refusing to go any farther.

"Finally, an Indian cast a bamboo spear into our captain's face; but he set upon and killed him instantly with his lance, which he left in his body. Then, attempting to draw his sword, he was unable to do so, because of a wound in the arm by a bamboo spear. This act was the sealing of his fate, because, when the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them gashed his leg with a huge scimitar, which caused him to fall forward upon his face, when they all rushed upon him with their iron-tipped bamboo spears and their scimitars, and thus they ran him through—our mirror of chivalry, our light, our comforter, and true guide—and killed him. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated as best we could to the boats, which were already pulling off. Had it not been for our gallant captain, not a single one of us would have been saved, for while he was so desperately fighting, the others had time to retire to the boats. While the savages were most closely pressing him, in sooth, he several times turned round towards us, to see if we were all in safety, as if his protracted resistance was to cover our retreat."

Thus fell Fernan Magellan, with his face to the foe, sacrificing himself for the safety of his comrades. That he threw away his life for no good cause, having gone to his death through his own stubbornness, does not detract from the heroism of his latest hours, which was nothing less than sublime. He was brave and unselfish to the very last, as we might have expected of the Fernan Magellan who rescued his friend Serrao from the Malays; who remained with his men on that wreck in the Indian Ocean whence all his brother officers had fled.

"Among other virtues which he possessed," says Pigafetta, he was more constant than ever any one else, in the greatest of adversities; he endured hunger better than all others; and more accurately than any other man in the world did he understand sea-charts and navigation. And that this is the truth was seen openly, for who else had so much natural talent, or the boldness, to learn how to circumnavigate the world, as he attempted, and had almost accomplished?"

When the King of Cebu heard of Magellan's death, he is said to have shed tears, and lamented that he could not have saved him by going to his rescue. He had been expressly forbidden to mingle in the fight, as the captain-general wished to show him what Spaniards could do, thus he and his thousand men remained idle spectators of the battle, though by participation they might have turned the scale in favor of their allies. With all the fighting, only twelve of the allies were killed, and fifteen of the enemy, so it appears that the hero of the Indian Seas, of the great strait, and the Pacific, perished in an avoidable skirmish with barbarians whom he had no reason whatever to notice.

Monument to Magellan


The Spaniards, many years ago, raised a monument on or near the spot where Magellan fell—or, at least, on the site of the village he attacked and burned in the island of Mactan; but more lasting memorials exist, in the strait that bears his name, and those celestial nebulm—the Magellanic clouds—that illumine at night the sky of the southern hemisphere. As to monuments and memorials, or posthumous fame, Fernan Magellan seems to have concerned himself but little, if at all, thus presenting quite a contrast to the great Genoese, Columbus, with whom, having achieved a similar success, we naturally compare him. He was nobler and more generous than Columbus, less fanatical, quite as persistent, and in nautical knowledge probably surpassed him. Whether or not we subscribe to the assertion of a learned writer, that he "is undoubtedly the greatest of navigators, either ancient or modern," we cannot but admit that the world owes him a mighty debt of gratitude.