The Magellan Effect (cont.)
By Doug Fisher
A Tale of Two Islands
November of 1520 found Magellan crying tears of joy as he finally eyed the Pacific Ocean and acknowledged his discovery of the elusive western passage to the orient. In order to reach this historic point, he had barely evaded a Portuguese naval detachment dispatched to seize him and his ships, survived a mutiny aboard two of his five ships, lost one ship, the Santiago, to grounding in a storm, and he was soon to learn that another ship the San Antonio, commanded by his nephew Alvarus Meschito, was also missing. Magellan had overcome the extreme rigors and trials involved in commanding an overly ambitious 16th century expedition into the unknown and the discovery seemed a fitting reward for his valiant effort, but time for jubilation would prove short-lived. In fact a harrowing journey still lie ahead of Magellan and crew as they exited the strait on the 28th of November and continued on their last leg of the journey across the Pacific with the three remaining ships, the Trinidad, Victoria and Concepción.
It was the simplest of plans: Sail northward several hundred miles then proceed westward toward the Moluccus Islands where they would load the ships with valuable spices and supplies and return home via a well-known, well-traveled route where they would report their grand discovery. There was only one problem with this plan, the route from the newfound strait to the Moluccus Islands was new and unfamiliar and Magellan had grossly underestimated its distance and the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, imagining that the Moluccus Islands lay just the other side of the New World. The consequences of this assumption would prove disastrous.
Magellan was so certain of the short distance remaining that he chose not to go ashore and replenish supplies before setting out across the Pacific. Nearly two grueling months after exiting the strait the crew had not sighted any sign of land and food supplies were seriously diminished. On January 24, 1521 they finally discovered land in the form of a small island, but any excitement over the find quickly faded as the island proved to be barren, devoid of human life and food. Only trees and birds populated the small island. They took soundings, but finding no bottom on which to set anchor they continued on their voyage. They named this island San Pablo since it was discovered on the day of Saint Paul's conversion.
Sailing with a northwest heading, they traveled another 600 to 800 punishing miles before sighting more land, but again it proved to be an island similarly desolate and having no place to drop anchor. They did manage to catch many sharks there and therefore named the island Isle of Tiburones after this particular fish and again continued on their way.
The extent of the crew's suffering was horrific. Outside of a few days dining on shark meat, the overextended voyage found the crews reduced to eating sawdust and stale biscuit crumbs soiled by rat feces and urine. Ox hide strapping stripped from the rigging was softened in seawater for several days so that the crew could chew and eat this as well. Meanwhile due to a lack of citrus in the diet, most of the crew was suffering from scurvy and their gums swelled to such a painful extent that they were not able to eat. This eventually led to the death of nineteen crewmembers. Dietary deficiencies also lead to twenty-five to thirty cases of rickets, with men's arms and legs becoming severely disfigured. According to Pigafetta it would not be until the 16th of March, 1521, three months and 16 days since entering the Pacific, before they would find relief, arriving in the Philippines where they were able to replenish their supplies of wood, food and freshwater.
The truly unfortunate circumstance of Magellan's miscalculation is that it forced him to set a course across the Pacific that swept above and past the hundreds of habitable islands composing Polynesia. Had he known the true size of the Pacific, of course he would have gone ashore and stockpiled supplies before setting out across it, but more importantly there would not have been the need to navigate northward so quickly to reach a latitude near that of the Moluccus Islands. A slower more westerly ascent from the onset would have led him directly through Polynesia where he might have laid claim to a bevy of new habitable islands teeming with food, water and other supplies, instead Magellan chose a course that skimmed just above and in the process discovered only two solitary uninhabitable islands in the whole of the vast Pacific Ocean. Fittingly, the two barren islands having nothing to offer the intrepid sailors but bitter disappointment were unceremoniously dubbed the Unfortunate Islands.