Voyages and Adventures of Magellan - George Towle

A Hero's Death

Magellan, anxious to confirm the friendly relations which now existed between himself and the king of Sebu, made up his mind that he and his valiant soldiers should alone bear the brunt of the coming conflict; that the sole peril and glory should be theirs of subduing the rebel Cilapulapu. He therefore told the king that he himself would command the attack upon Matan; and that while the king might, if he chose, follow him in his boats, he must refrain from taking part in the fray.

Three of the ships' largest boats were got ready in all haste. On the prow of each was placed a cannon, and sixty of Magellan's bravest and most skillful warriors were detailed to go upon the expedition. These were all armed with corslets and helmets, and carried guns and swords. Magellan ordered that during his absence the fleet should remain under the command of Captain Serrano.

It was just at midnight that the three boats set out for Matan. The night was calm, the sea was still, and the heavens were starlit. Magellan himself went in the foremost boat, and issued his commands in a quick, low voice, as the men rowed swiftly along. His object in starting at midnight was to surprise the enemy, if possible, and effect a landing on the coast of the island before the people there saw him. In the rear of the three boats went a number of the native canoes, of one of which the king himself was an occupant.

Three hours before daylight, the Spaniards arrived off the shores of Matan; it was light enough, however, for Magellan to perceive that the alarm of his coming had already been given. Near the shore, on a hillock, was posted a formidable array of barbarians. Magellan could just discern their long wooden shields, and the moving mass of the savage soldiers. Some traitor had, doubtless, escaped from Sebu in time to apprize Cilapulapu of his intended attack; and that cunning chief had lost no time in preparing to receive him. It was a strange and alarming sight, to see the dense ranks of the dusky figures, who it was not difficult to perceive, were quite prepared to defend the island. When the boats came near, they set up a wild shout, and shook their shields and spears in token of their hostile temper.

Magellan had taken the precaution to bring with him a very intelligent Moor, who knew the Malay tongue (which was spoken in all these islands), and who had before been at Matan. This Moor he resolved to send ashore to the warlike host, with a message of peace and pardon if they would even now lay down their arms, and submit to the authority of their lawful monarch. As the water for some distance from the shore was very shallow and rocky, the boats could not approach nearer than the spot where they had stopped; and the Moor was obliged to jump in up to his thighs, and wade to the dry land. As he drew away from the boats, his movements were watched with breathless interest. Would the barbarians attack him, when they saw him coming alone? Would they recognize him as a Moor, or would they take him for a Spaniard? If they allowed him to approach and hold parley with them, how would they receive his message? Would the Moor himself turn traitor, and reveal the numbers and arms of Magellan's men, or would he hold his own counsel, and prove himself a faithful envoy?

These questions rapidly crossed Magellan's mind as, peering through the gloom, he saw the Moor's stalwart form receding and fading as he neared the beachy shore. They were quickly answered by the events which followed. The Moor advanced up the sloping hill; the dusky soldiers made no movement against him. They seemed to be surprised to see him coming, and not at all afraid of him. Presently he seemed to melt into their mass, and was no longer visible.

His stay among them lasted about half an hour, during which the Spaniards watched eagerly for his reappearance. The boats rested quite still on their oars; the silence was profound. At last he emerged from the throng of the islanders, slowly descended the hill again, and waded out to Magellan's boat

Magellan impatiently awaited his report. The Moor said that he had been received in a friendly manner, and had been conducted to the chief Cilapulapu. He had then delivered Magellan's message, that, if he would return to his allegiance, all should be forgiven, and the Spaniards would withdraw; otherwise, the rebels would soon feel the sting of their lances. Cilapulapu had replied:

"I will not submit; if the white strangers have lances, so have we, though ours are only lances of reeds. Moreover, we have wooden shields hardened by fire. Let the strangers beware. I only ask that they will not attack us by night. We expect reinforcements, and wish to meet the enemy on even terms. Let them wait till daylight, and then assail us as soon as they please." Magellan perceived, by this insolent message, that gentle means would not be availing. The rebels must be attacked and conquered. He saw, too, that Cilapulapu's request that he should not attack by night, was a cunning device by which he hoped to induce the Spaniards to do that which he asked them not to do. His real desire was that they should make the assault at night; and the reason of this afterwards came to light. Between the shore and their camp and village, the rebels had dug a long, deep ditch. If Magellan had landed and advanced upon them at once, while it was dark, they would have retreated hastily beyond this ditch, and Magellan and his men would have fallen into it.

Magellan therefore patiently waited till daylight. As soon as the first gray of the morning lit up sea and shore, and enabled him to distinguish objects clearly, he gave the order to his little band of troops to get out of the boats and wade rapidly to the beach. By the light of the dawn the enemy could be more distinctly seen; they appeared less formidable than when enveloped by the shroud of night, but they betrayed numbers by no means to be despised. They seemed, moreover, perfectly confident and resolute; and instead of making good their retreat when they saw the Spaniards preparing to go ashore, stood to their position, and were apparently indifferent to the advance of their assailants.

Forty-nine of the Spaniards were designated to make the attack, the remaining eleven being ordered to stay by the boats. Magellan himself was the first to leap into the water. Drawing his sword, he gave the word of command, and in another instant his little force, their swords in their right hands, and their shields borne on their left arms, had gathered around him. Among them was his friend, and afterwards his historian, the Italian Pigafetta. At first their progress through the water was slow, for it was up to their waists. As Magellan boldly went forward, he looked carefully about for a good landing place; for the beach was interspersed with masses of jagged rock, and it was necessary to avoid the hill on which Cilapulapu was posted, and which sloped to the water's edge. As he advanced, the rebel chief himself, a man of gigantic stature, and decked out with brilliant feathers and paint, appeared at the brow of the hill, making defiant gestures at Magellan, and exhorting his followers to hold fast to their position.

An open strand was soon reached; and now the Spaniards stood, in close, resolute ranks, on the smooth sand. Magellan did not lose a moment in hesitation or delay. Forming his soldiers, he at once marched forward towards the hill.

But Cilapulapu, who had at first evidently intended to await the assault of his foe, changed his mind at the last moment; for no sooner did he see Magellan approaching the hill than, brandishing his spear, and giving a loud, fierce whoop, he rushed down the slope, followed by his forces. They were not less than fifteen hundred, against forty-nine; and as they descended, Magellan perceived that they were divided into three bodies. He had no time to note anything further, for in another moment they were close upon him. As they came on, they made a horrible noise with their shrieking and shouting, and leaped about like so many lunatics. Two of their companies separated to the right and left, with the intent to attack the Spaniards on their flanks; while the third advanced directly in their front. Magellan, dividing his little group into two companies, continued to go forward to meet his savage foes. He knew no fear, and at this critical moment he felt all the wild thrill of conflict. Then halting, he ordered his musketrymen and cross-bowmen to fire.

Unhappily, neither bullets nor arrows seemed to take serious effect. The bullets, for the most part, whizzed harmlessly over the heads of the barbarians; while the arrows struck against the wooden shields, or passing through them, inflicted but slight wounds. At first, when the Spaniards opened fire upon them, the rebels paused in their headlong career, as if stunned by the noise of the volley, and to see what effect it would have. But when they perceived their ranks still unbroken, and but one or two of their comrades lying on the ground, they pressed forward more fiercely, and with more hideous screams than before.

Their arrows, javelins, spears, and stones, now fell like a hailstorm upon the Spaniards; and they found themselves, of a sudden, very hard pressed. With difficulty they avoided the deadly points of the savage weapons; they could scarcely hold their ground long enough to load and fire. It was clear that it must soon come to a hand-to hand fight.

Cilapulapu soon easily distinguished the dauntless leader of his foes. Magellan's finer dress marked him out; his air of command betrayed him; and his intrepid valor, as he fought at the very head of his men, aroused the barbaric chief's wrath to its fiercest pitch. He ordered his men to aim at the Spanish captain their heaviest and deadliest javelins; and it was a miracle that Magellan was not instantly overwhelmed by them.

At this moment Magellan perceived, for the first time, that his men were quite near some of the native huts. He ordered them to set fire to these; and soon ten or twelve of the huts were in a blaze. This redoubled the fury of the barbarians, a number of whom rushed towards the men who had caused the conflagration and frantically assailed them. Two of the Spaniards fell, pierced by the javelins. The others made all haste to rejoin the main body of their comrades.

Cilapulapu, seeing that while the bodies of the Spaniards were effectually protected by their shields, but that their legs were exposed, ordered his troops to aim low. The savages now swarmed on all sides of the Spaniards, and hurled perfect avalanches of arrows and spears upon them. Magellan had hoped to use the cannon which he had brought in the boats; but, besides that the boats were obliged to anchor out of range of the enemy, it would now have been impossible to fire the cannon without endangering his own men, as well as those of the Matan chief.

Magellan and his men were soon at close quarters with the furious host of savages; he himself was still the foremost, fighting with lion-like and desperate valor. Lame as he was, he had herculean strength in his arms; he dealt crushing blows right and left with his long sword, and native after native fell howling and dying beneath them.

It was not long, however, before the overwhelming numbers of the natives began to tell. They fairly crowded the Spaniards back by their very multitude. The Spaniards were forced to retire towards the shore, fighting as they went, and retreating as slowly as possible.

Of a sudden, Magellan fell to the earth with a cry of pain; but before his soldiers could assist him, he was on his feet again. A poisoned arrow had entered his left leg. He stooped and pulled it out, and launched it back at the on-rushing foe; and his sword continued to do as sanguinary service as before. The natives had now come near enough to use the arms they had already hurled, over again. They picked up the spears and arrows that lay strewn on the ground where the Spaniards had stood, and again rained them down upon their adversaries. Twice Magellan's helmet was knocked off his head; but fortunately his head itself was left unscathed. As coolly as if he had been standing on the deck of his flagship, he bent down each time, picked up his helmet, fastened it in its place, and went on fighting.

For more than an hour this terrific battle raged with unabating fury. Once more the Spaniards had made a desperate rally, and grimly resolved to stand to their ground at all hazards. They huddled close together, so as to face the enemy on each side; now and then a Spaniard would fall and writhe in agony, when a poisoned shaft entered and tortured his flesh; but for every Spaniard that fell, at least a half-a-dozen natives were laid low. The contest now raged at the very water's edge; and every moment a splash would be heard, and a dusky warrior would sink beneath the water.

The strength of the Spaniards was, all this while, slowly but surely giving out. It was evident that defeat and death stared them in the face. But their valor knew no shrinking, and even those whose blood streamed over their faces, and from the wounds in their arms and legs, fought doggedly on.

At last, however, a fatal event occurred, which speedily decided the conflict in favor of the barbaric Cilapulapu. As Magellan was standing in front of his men, vigorously cutting and slashing on either side of him, a native rushed up and plunged a lance full in his face. The blood at once gushed from the wound, and covered the heroic Admiral's cheeks; but he rushed forward, seized his assailant's lance, and plunged it through his body, so that the point emerged from the other side. At this moment Magellan received another javelin wound in his right arm. He tried to pull the lance out of his foe's body, but, from the weakness of his arm, failed to do so; he then made an attempt to raise his sword, but found himself too weak. He staggered, and was about to fall, when an enormous savage, raising aloft a large scimitar, brought it with deadly force upon his left leg. Magellan sank down upon his face; and now a multitude of infuriated savages fell upon him. They ran him through and through with their spears and lances, and crushed his head in with stones; and without a word or a groan, the great discoverer and warrior breathed his last.



When the Spanish soldiers saw Magellan stretched upon the ground, all but seven or eight of the most valiant ran into the water, and hastened out towards the boats. The little band that remained continued to struggle desperately, but it was of no avail; and some of them found noble deaths within a few feet of the lifeless form of their brave chief.

Those who escaped into the water succeeded in reaching the boats in safety. The men who had remained in charge of them were overcome with grief to hear of the death of Magellan; they wept bitterly at the news, and vowed vengeance upon the barbarians who had thus deprived them of their commander. The boats drew up in a line alongside of each other, and the victorious savages having now poured down upon the shore, and some of them having even ventured into the water, the cannon were loaded and fired at them. Repeated volleys, issuing from the hoarse throats of the big guns, awoke the echoes; while the lesser volleys of the men's muskets aided them in their havoc. Many of the natives fell shrieking into the water; the rest retreated to the land, and to a secure distance beyond range of the cannon.

It was useless for the boats to remain any longer at Matan. The enemy were in too formidable numbers, even if the boats of the king himself, which had been moored all this time about a mile off, in the rear, had joined those of the Spaniards in a new attack. The latter, therefore, slowly and mournfully pulled back to where the king was, and apprized him of the irreparable loss they had sustained. The sable monarch, on hearing it, threw himself back, raised his hands heavenward, and then, leaning forward on his knees, rocked to and fro, crying and moaning. The Spaniards were soon to learn how sincere this show of sorrow was.

The surprise and grief of the captains and crews of the fleet, at the intelligence brought by the boats, can scarcely be described. It was a dismal, dreary day for every soul on board. The wanderers were now without a guide; they had been deprived of him who had won their absolute trust, upon whose wisdom and courage they had surely counted, who had shared their every hardship, and had won the love of all, since the mutiny, by his kindness, his leniency towards their faults, his cheering words when they had been discouraged, and his fatherly care for the humblest of them.

Thus died the brave-souled, great-hearted, and indomitable Fernan Magellan, on Saturday, April 17th, 1521, at the early age of forty-one. Rarely has a more generous and noble character appeared in the pages of history. Magellan, after having braved mighty tempests, having undergone every danger of the sea, having resolutely pursued his purpose in spite of all obstacles, having with firm and stern hand put down the revolt of Carthagena, and having discovered the world-renowned straits, and crossed and given its name to the Pacific, was not destined to fulfill that other ambition of his, to make the circuit of the globe. He was fated to fall in the midst of his great voyage, a victim to the fury of savages, in defense of a potentate who had been friendly to him, and had consented to become a Christian. But, dying even at his early age, Magellan had done enough to win for his name immortal renown. He had at least shown the way around the world; so that from his time, the ships of all nations might follow in his track, and pass from nation to nation, in both hemispheres, by water.

We have seen how, under every circumstance, he was heroic and valiant in his action and bearing. He knew not fear, either of men or of the elements; was constant to his end in the worst fortunes, and never once despaired of achieving it. He did not falter when death and famine stared him in the face. He was loyal to his adopted sovereign, to his comrades, and himself.

Unlike Pizarro, and many other voyagers of his time, his ambition was a nobler one than that of the greed of gain; nor was it confined to winning fame and honor for himself. He aspired to confer great benefits upon man. He exulted in the thought that he might serve Christianity and civilization. He would find unknown pathways on the seas; he would plant the cross in heathen and idolatrous lands; and these high and unselfish aims he pursued with an ardor and intrepidity not surpassed by any of the world's conquerors and heroes.

Magellan was not wantonly cruel. He was never known to deal harshly with the innocent. To suppress the mutiny of St. Julian, to execute its ring-leaders, were acts of sheer necessity and self-preservation; but the mutiny subdued and its chiefs executed, he was mild and lenient with their misguided followers. Towards his sailors he was indulgent, generous, and considerate. He cheerfully shared their hardships. He tenderly cared for the sick. He overlooked their lighter faults; he was loth to punish even their more serious offences. He even gave the savage Cilapulapu a chance to repent, before attacking him. He was kind and generous to all, high and low, alike. No man was more deeply beloved by his friends and his inferiors.

The achievement by which he is best known, and which has perpetuated his name, was the discovery of the Straits, that labyrinthine, dangerous passage between the southernmost point in South America and Terra del Fuego. Even now, it is not the safest thing in the world for a ship to steer its way through it; how much more difficult, when its outlet was unknown, and when the navigator had only the clumsy nautical contrivances of three centuries ago!

"Forever sacred to the hero's fame,

These foaming straits shall bear his deathless name."