Surprising Facts About Ferdinand Magellan and His Voyage to the Philippines

Ferdinand Magellan (Source: © G. Dagli Orti—DeA Picture Library/age fotostock)

Ferdinand Magellan (Source: © G. Dagli Orti—DeA Picture Library/age fotostock)

  • Ferdinand Magellan’s family in Porto was of Portuguese minor or secondary level nobility. His father, Rodrigo de Magalhaes, served as a much-respected chamberlain of the king.

  • As a page in the Portuguese King’s court, young Magellan was introduced to Rui de Faleiro, an old famous navigator who sailed with Vasco de Gama. Faleiro brought with him a small globe of the world. Magellan studied that globe very extensively during his future trip.

  • If Magellan was a Portuguese sailor, why and how did Magellan become a Spanish subject? Fernáo de Magalhaés was a Portuguese “escudeiro” (knight). After many years of service, he went to court and asked the King to give him a raise (3/4th increase of his allowance or Moradia). The tightwad King Joao refused Magellan’s frugal request. After getting a royal refusal, Magellan then asked his Sovereign’s permission to offer his navigational services to another monarch. The King haughtily dismissed him saying, “You can damn go serve another ruler. I don’t care!”

At the time King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were holding court in Valladolid. So, Magellan went to Valladolid, Spain where he made his offer to discover realms beyond the known frontiers. His bold plan was accepted. The terms of his agreement with the king were the following:

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (Source: hisorex.com)

King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain (Source: hisorex.com)

He would give to the King the first SIX islands that he will discover. The seventh and henceforth others will be allocated to Magellan and his heirs in perpetuity. In addition, Magellan will be appointed Governor General of the islands for life.

Magellan began counting the islands the moment he discovered lands. There were 13 islands of the Ladrones or modern Guam. Six were properly attributed to the Royal Court. The rest were Magellan’s portion. Thus, the Philippine archipelago all devolved to Magellan’s legal sovereignty.

Interestingly, the Guam islands should have been named Felipinas (after King Felipe), and our “tinubuang bayan” should have been legally “Magallanes or Magellanic Archipelago.”

Maps of the Philippines and Islas de las Ladrones (Source: raremaps.com)

Maps of the Philippines and Islas de las Ladrones (Source: raremaps.com)

  • How did Magellan know of the Philippine archipelago? Earlier, in 1511, Magellan fought in the Portuguese siege of Malacca. In other words, Magellan was already familiar with the Spice Islands. In fact, from Singapore, he captained a ship that reconnoitered within the Sulu seas and actually secretly reached Mindanao! But the Duque de Albuquerque, the Portuguese Admiral in Malacca, duplicitously suppressed this information on their newly discovered portulan charts (within Spanish territory).

  • In this exploratory trip to Malacca captained by the Portuguese de Abreu, Magellan acquired Enrique, his Malayan (Sumatran) slave who served as his interpreter during the voyage to Cebu, Philippines.

Enrique of Malacca (Source: wikipedia)

Enrique of Malacca (Source: wikipedia)

  • Some historians declare that Enrique must have spoken Cebuano and hence was a Filipino. Others believe that at the time, the lingua franca in the whole of Southeast Asia was Malay. People in the Visayas spoke Malay, a language richly cognate with the Visayan dialect.
  • On Magellan’s exploratory trip in 1511, he knew exactly where the Philippine archipelago lies, (he insisted on going 11 degrees north). How did he know? He knew because Enrique, the slave he purchased in Sumatra, was familiar with the Mindanao area, had influenced the trip’s trajectory and became Magellan’s interpreter in Cebu.

  • In addition, Magellan was, in fact, in close communication with Fernando Serrano, a Portuguese pilot friend who was living in Tidore. He supplied Magellan all his sailing charts and information about the Moluccas islands and the surrounding islands in the sea of Mindanao.

  • Yes, Magellan, for all intents and purposes, was not on a trip of discovery but on a mission of reconnoitering the famed riches of the Spice Islands, which included Mindanao where, he was told, grew the best cinnamon that could be harvested bountifully.

  • Magellan’s idea of sailing from the West to reach the East was an innovative plan. His Moluccas armada was prepared for a long journey. It was stocked with food, items for barter and numerous gifts. He was given five ships: Trinidad, San Antonio, Santiago, Concepcion, and the Victoria, all bearing Spanish flags.

  • The San Antonio deserted the armada when the fleet was harbored in San Paolo, Brazil. The crewmembers mutineed and sailed back to Spain. The Santiago met with severe storms in the south passage, which now bears the name of Magellan’s Strait.

  • Who were the native leaders Magellan met in Samar (Tendaya), Leyte, Cebu, Mactan and Butuan? Tupas, Si Katunaw, Si Awi, Si Miut, Si Dayao, Si Maghalibe. It was known that Magellan participated individually in the Filipino Kasi-Kasi ritual called “San Dugo” or the ritual of bloodletting and drinking their collected blood from a common cup as a sign of brotherhood--the Blood Compact. The natives were friendly and supplied Magellan with fresh food, drink and helped caulk their rotten ship planks.

While in Cebu, Magellan had a run in with a native chieftain from a nearby island called Mactan. The native chief bore the name of Si Pula Pula, after his village rich in red clay. In fact, the village where his mother resided was known as Pula-Pulayon. For doubters, there is a barrio named Pula in Mactan’s ancient map. But perhaps Pigafetta, our original historian erroneously recorded the name as Lapu-lapu. This was how the simple tongue-twisting pronunciation by an Italian first chronicler may have inadvertently altered the historical record.

Lapulapu (Source: gmanetwork.com)

Lapulapu (Source: gmanetwork.com)

The arrogance of a European foreigner to try to lord it over the native population was met with defiance, and on the dawn that Magellan’s men began their attack on Mactan, it was said that a shrieking raven’s cry pierced the shore. Was that a bad omen?

The fight that followed went bad for Magellan. He was killed by the natives led by their leader Pula-pula, who were defending their homeland. They preserved the dignity and freedom of the people of Mactan.

  • What happened in Bohol? Magellan’s men prepared his Armada to return to Spain. They had three ships (Concepcion, Trinidad, Victoria) but not enough crewmen to man them. So, in Baclayon Bay in Bohol, they burned the ship Concepcion, which had become unseaworthy. The ship Trinidad was so loaded with cloves that upon sailing to Mexico it broke in half.

  • What was the importance of Magellan ship’s return trip to Spain? On the Victoria’s circumnavigation of the world westward, captained by the Basque sailor Sebastian de Cano, it was firmly established that the world was indeed round. Proof: It sailed starting from Spain, went west around South America, crossed the Pacific Ocean and sailed back to Spain via the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean. It’s load of cloves cornered the Sevilla market, and the profits paid off the cost of three voyages and made all the crew men very rich.

  • The trip also had given to the world the exact circumference of the Earth. This world was three times definitely larger than the known medieval Ptolemaic maps and accounts. In short, Magellan’s ship Victoria sailed from the east (Mactan, Cebu) and sailing from the east, returned to the west (San Lucar, Spain).

  • Magellan was posthumously declared the first to circumnavigate the world. Actually, the first to circumnavigate the world was Enrique, Magellan’s servant. Magellan acquired Enrique as a slave in Sumatra. First, he was taken to Portugal. Later, he joined Magellan’s voyage back to Malacca and the Philippines. He took the trip captained by Sebastian de Cano on the Victoria, back to Spain. Ergo, the first one to really and physically circumnavigate the world was Enrique, a brown Malay man! But the perfidious historians of the era disregarded this fact and honored the first white man! What an eye opener!


Penelope Flores

Penelope Flores

Dr. Penelope V. Flores, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus, San Francisco State University.


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