Friday, April 20, 2018

Na'haspok na Estoria

For those interested in listening to Chamoru stories in the Chamoru language, please come join the Chamorro Studies Majors and Minors at UOG for this special event: "Na'haspok na Estoria" on April 28 from 12-3 pm at SBPA 131 at UOG.

The name "Na'haspok na Estoria" means "stories that fill you up" as the word "håspok" means sated or filled up as in your stomach being full.

The event should be very interesting as most of the presenters are around the age of 40 or less, but still fluent in the Chamoru language. Alot of events that I am organizing or participating in lately seem to have this sort of theme, where those of us who are younger learners of Chamoru and often times second-language learners, nai ti mandångkolo' gi halom i mismo fino'-ta, are nonetheless attempting to take up the kulo' for language vitality.

Saturday, April 07, 2018

Circumnavigations #9: The Death of Magellan

Below is an account of the death of Ferdinand Magellan, on the island of Mactan in 1521.

I've been reading different historians and their interpretation of the events and where they situate his death in the context of his personality and his behavior. At the conference that I was at in Madrid last month, there was quite a bit of myth-making around Magellan. Some of it is deserved, as he did guide a voyage that was into water unknown to Europeans. But the success of his mission has a tendency to lead historians to make generalizations of greatness.

Many historians take the flaws in Magellan's character and then argue that they were actually strengths because of the time that he lived in and because of the obstacles, both geographic and human that he faced. For example, Magellan's tactics in dealing with the concerns or the fears of his men, is argued to be a strength since he was dealing with medieval and pre-modern superstitions about the world that he refused to let ruin his mission. While we can give Magellan some credit, we shouldn't imagine him to be the spear of enlightenment, or like the Immanuel Kant of the sea.

This is a tic that historians have long struggled with and continue to contend with today. This notion that if something happened, then it was supposed to happen, and most factors involved, contributed to and must have aligned in a variety of ways to make it possible. This sounds very reasonable, but the problem though is that it can infuse a sense of destiny into history, that when it is written, that which contributed to an emergence and that which did not, are both tied together by a similar logic.

So even Magellan's flaws, some of which made his voyage more difficult and dangerous, become in a historian's review things that made him that much greater and that much more heroic, and then actually became things that helped in some indirect way, contribute to his success. At the conference in Valladolid last month, there was one presentation that looked into this argument, and it was a rare one. The scholar noted that in the period of Magellan, he wouldn't have been considered to be a "good" captain because of his lack of rapport with his sailors and his unwillingness to hear them or listen to them. The scholar noted that this was a key skill for captains since the men weren't paid that great and weren't in the military and national identities as we known them today didn't really exist. This meant that a good captain had to be a good listener, not a loud and brash tyrant of the sea. A good captain for the time worked with his men to ease their fears and take advantage of their knowledge, and also find a way to still respect them, even while dismissing various superstitions that they held about sea monsters. Magellan did not have these skills and that is why the first phase of his journey was filled with talk of mutiny and actually mutiny.

The death of Magellan is another such moment, where historians struggle with how to situate it. One of the most fascinating things about reading history of this sort, is that there are only a limited number of accounts. Some people are discovering more possible accounts hidden in dusty archives, but a thousand scholars are basically dealing with the same handful of pages about what happened. It is interesting to see the shades of truth and destiny they bring to bear in order to differentiate their telling, their interpretation from another.


"On Friday, April twenty-six, Zula, a chief of the island of Matan, sent one of his sons to present two goats to the captain-general, and to say that he would send him all that he had promised, but that he had not been able to send it to him because of the other chief Cilapulapu, who refused to obey the king of Spagnia. He requested the captain to send him only one boatload of men on the next night, so that they might help him and fight against the other chief. The captain-general decided to go thither with three boatloads. We begged him repeatedly not to go, 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 Christian king, the prince, some of the chief men, and twenty or thirty balanguais.

We reached Matan three hours before dawn. The captain did not wish to fight then, but sent a message to the natives by the Moro to the effect that if they would obey the king of Spagnia, recognize the Christian king as their sovereign, and pay us our tribute, he would be their friend; but that if they wished otherwise, they should wait to see how our lances wounded. They replied that if we had lances they had lances of bamboo and stakes hardened with fire. [They asked us] not to proceed to attack them at once, but to wait until morning, so that they might have more men. They said that in order to induce us to go in search of them; for they had dug certain pitholes between the houses in order that we might fall into them. 

When morning came forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two crossbow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, those men had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries, two divisions on our flanks and the other on our front. When the captain saw that, he formed us into two divisions, and thus did we begin to fight. The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about a halfhour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms [of the bearers]. The captain cried to them, " Cease firing! cease firing I " but his order was not at all heeded. When the natives saw that we were shooting our muskets to no purpose, crying out they determined to stand firm, but they redoubled their shouts. When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves with their shields. They shot so many arrows at us and hurled so many bamboo spears (some of them tipped with iron) at the captain-general, besides pointed stakes hardened with fire, stones, and mud, that we could scarcely defend ourselves. Seeing that, the captain-general sent some men to burn their houses in order to terrify them. 

When they saw their houses burning, they were roused to greater fury. Two of our men were killed near the houses, while we burned twenty or thirty houses. So many of them charged down upon us that they shot the captain through the right leg with a poisoned arrow. On that account, he ordered us to retire slowly, but the men took to flight, except six or eight of us who remained with the captain. The natives shot only at our legs, for the latter were bare; and so many were the spears and stones that they hurled at us, that we could offer no resistance. The mortars in the boats could not aid us as they were too far away. So we continued to retire for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore always fighting up to our knees in the water. The natives continued to pursue us, and picking up the same spear four or six times, hurled it at us again and again. Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice, but he always stood firmly like a good knight, together with some others. Thus did we fight for more than one hour, refusing to retire farther. 

An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain's face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian's body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. 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. 

The Christian king would have aided us, but the captain charged him before we landed, not to leave his balanghai, but to stay to see how we fought. When the king learned that the captain was dead, he wept. Had it not been for that unfortunate captain, not a single one of us would have been saved in the boats, for while he was fighting the others retired to the boats. I hope through [the efforts of] your most illustrious Lordship that the fame of so noble a captain will not become effaced in our times. Among the other virtues which he possessed, he was more constant than ever any one else in the greatest of adversity. He endured hunger better than all the others, and more accurately than any man in the world did he understand sea charts and navigation. And that this was the truth was seen openly, for no other had had so much natural talent nor the boldness to learn how to circumnavigate the world, as he had almost done. That battle was fought on Saturday, April twenty-seven, 1521.

The captain desired to fight on Saturday, because it was the day especially holy to him. Eight of our men were killed with him in that battle, and four Indians, who had become Christians and who had come afterward to aid usi were killed by the mortars of the boats. Of the enemy, only fifteen were killed, while many of us were wounded.

In the afternoon the Christian king sent a message with our consent to the people of Matan, to the effect that if they would give us the captain and the other men who had been killed, we would give them as much merchandise as they wished. They answered that they would not give up such a man, as we imagined [they would do], and that they would not give him for all the riches in the world, but that they intended to keep him as a memorial."

Circumnavigations #8: The Sometimes Forgotten Captain

It is common to say that Magellan was the first to circumnavigate the globe, but this really isn't true. Magellan lead the expedition. He organized the five ships and crews that left Spain in 1519, and for the most dangerous parts of the journey, meaning the areas that were unknown to Europeans, Magellan was the commander. Magellan had traveled to the Moluccas previously and so he brought a great deal of experience and vision to the expedition. You could even argue that given the fact that Magellan had visited the Western edge of the Pacific years prior, his reaching the Philippines in 1521 would mean that he had traveled around the world, albeit in different pieces. 

But in terms of undertaking a full, continuous voyage around the world, Magellan wasn't the first. After crossing the Pacific, passing through (rather violently) the Marianas, he made his way to the Philippines. He was killed there after his hubris compelled him to get involved in a conflict between tribes. After Magellan falls in battle, several of his subordinates emerge to take command to try to finish the voyage. The one who emerges as being most consequential is Juan Sebastian Elcano, who is often times the forgotten captain of the voyage today. 

By the time the expedition reaches the Philippines, the crew was at the edge of European imagination and knowledge of the globe. The Orient was well known to the Occident. I say well known, not in the sense that the information was accurate, but rather trade and other types of exchange had existed for more than a millennia, So in some ways, the remainder of the trip isn't as historic, it traveled routes Europeans, especially the Portuguese were increasingly familiar with. But the second half of the journey had its own difficulties. There were still severe morale problems and dozens of men refused to continue on the journey, wishing to stay in various ports in Africa and Asia and return later. There were still weather dangers, angry indigenous people and imperial conflicts. 

Elcano took command from the Moluccas onward and eventually captained the Victoria, the only remaining ship of the original five, back to Spain on September 6, 1522. As a reward for his leadership in completing the voyage he was given a lifetime pension as well as a coat of arms. The motto was used in the title of this conference in Valladolid “Primus Circumdedisti Me” or “You Were the First to Circumnavigate Me.” 

Elcano is an interesting historical figure, and both the way that he is commemorated and also forgotten can be instructive. Much of Magellan’s circumnavigation story goes largely unremembered or untold because of the way it conflicts with the great hero navigator mythology. Some of these things represent regional or ethnic tensions or divisions, such as Magellan not being “Spanish” yet being celebrated as a Spanish historical figure. For Elcano, he was from a Basque region of what is today Spain, and in another post, I may or may not delve into these sorts of differences and distinctions. 

Elcano’s presence himself on the voyage was due to a deal that he made in order to forgive a debt. During the voyage, he, like most everyone else on the trip, ran afoul of Magellan when he joined a mutiny and was punished. This is not to take anything away from Elcano, but simply show that the ways that Magellan’s conduct is often sanitized, trickles down to other figures, who also end up being paper-thin in their historical glory.

Listed below is a biography of Juan Sebastian Elcano.


Biography of Juan Sebastian Elcano
Updated May 14, 2017 

Juan Sebastián Elcano (1486-1526) was a Spanish (Basque) sailor, navigator, and explorer best remembered for leading the second half of the first round-the-world navigation, having taken over after the death of Ferdinand Magellan. Upon his return to Spain, the King presented him with a coat of arms that contained a globe and the phrase: “You Went Around Me First.”

Soldier and Merchant
In his early years, Elcano was an adventurer, fighting with the Spanish army in Algiers and Italy before settling down as captain/owner of a merchant ship.

 When he was forced to surrender his ship to Italian companies to which he owned money, he found he had broken Spanish law and had to ask the King for a pardon. Young King Charles V agreed, but on the condition that the skilled sailor and navigator serve with an expedition the King was funding: the search for a new route to the Spice Islands, led by Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan.

The Magellan Expedition

Elcano was given the position of ship’s master on board the Concepción, one of five ships making up the fleet. Magellan believed that the globe was smaller than it actually is and that a shortcut to the Spice Islands (now known as the Maluku Islands in present-day Indonesia) was possible by going through the New World. Spices such as cinnamon and cloves were immensely valuable in Europe at the time and a shorter route would be worth a fortune to whoever found it. The fleet set sail in September of 1519 and made its way to Brazil, avoiding Portuguese settlements due to hostilities between the Spanish and Portuguese.


As the fleet made its way south along the coast of South America looking for a passage west, Magellan decided to call a halt in the sheltered bay of San Julián, as he feared continuing in bad weather. Left idle, the men began to talk of mutinying and heading back to Spain. Elcano was a willing participant and had by then assumed command of the ship San Antonio.

At one point, Magellan ordered his flagship to fire on the San Antonio. In the end, Magellan put down the mutiny and had many of the leaders killed or marooned. Elcano and others were pardoned, but not until after a period of forced labor on the mainland.

To the Pacific

Around this time, Magellan lost two ships: the San Antonio returned to Spain (without permission) and the Santiago sank, although all of the sailors were rescued. By this time, Elcano was captain of the Concepción, a decision of Magellan’s that probably had much to do with the fact that the other experienced ships captains were executed or marooned after the mutiny or had gone back to Spain with the San Antonio. In October-November of 1520, the fleet explored the islands and waterways at the southern tip of South America, eventually finding a passage through that to this day is known as the Strait of Magellan.

Across the Pacific

According to Magellan’s calculations, the Spice Islands should only be a few days’ sail away. He was badly mistaken: his ships took four months to cross the South Pacific. Conditions were miserable on board and several men died before the fleet reached Guam and the Marianas Islands and were able to resupply.

Continuing westward, they reached the present-day Philippines in early 1521. Magellan found he could communicate with the natives through one of his men, who spoke Malay: they had reached the eastern edge of the world known to Europe.

Death of Magellan

In the Philippines, Magellan befriended the King of Zzubu, who was eventually baptized with the name of “Don Carlos.” Unfortunately, Don Carlos convinced Magellan to attack a rival chieftain for him, and Magellan was one of several Europeans killed in the ensuing battle. Magellan was succeeded by Duarte Barbosa and Juan Serrao, but both were treacherously killed by “Don Carlos” within a few days. Elcano was now second in command of the Victoria, under Juan Carvalho. Low on men, they decided to scuttle the Concepción and head back to Spain in the two remaining ships: the Trinidad and the Victoria.

Return to Spain

Heading across the Indian Ocean, the two ships made a stop in Borneo before finding themselves at the Spice Islands, their original goal. Packed with valuable spices, the ships set out again. About this time, Elcano replaced Carvalho as captain of the Victoria. The Trinidad soon had to return to the Spice Islands, however, as it was leaking badly and eventually sank. Many of the Trinidad’s sailors were captured by the Portuguese, although a handful managed to find their way to India and from there back to Spain. The Victoria sailed on cautiously, as they had gotten word that a Portuguese fleet was looking for them.

Reception in Spain

Miraculously evading the Portuguese, Elcano sailed the Victoria back into Spain on September 6, 1522. The ship was crewed by only 22 men: 18 European survivors of the voyage and four Asians they had picked up en route. The rest had died, deserted or, in some cases, had been left behind as unworthy of sharing in the spoils of the rich cargo of spices. The King of Spain received Elcano and granted him a coat of arms bearing a globe and the Latin phrase Primus circumdedisti me, or “You Went Around Me First.”

Death of Elcano and Legacy

In 1525, Elcano was picked to be chief navigator for a new expedition led by Spanish nobleman García Jofre de Loaísa, who intended to retrace Magellan’s route and establish a permanent colony in the Spice Islands. The expedition was a fiasco: of seven ships, only one made it to the Spice Islands, and most of the leaders, including Elcano, perished of malnutrition during the arduous Pacific crossing.

Because of his elevation to noble status upon his return from the Magellan expedition, Elcano’s descendants continued to hold the title of Marquis for some time after his death. As for Elcano himself, he has unfortunately been mostly forgotten by history, as Magellan still gets all the credit for the first circumnavigation of the globe. Elcano, although well-known to historians of the Age of Discovery, is little more than a trivia question to most, although there is a statue of him in his hometown of Getaria, Spain and the Spanish navy once named a ship after him.

Source: Thomas, Hugh. Rivers of Gold: The Rise of the Spanish Empire, from Columbus to Magellan. New York: Random House, 2005.


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