March 05, 2021

Magellan Reaches Guam, First Contact with the Chamorros

Reception of the Manila Galleon by the Chamorro in the Ladrones Islands, ca. 1590.

As Ferdinand Magellan and the remainder of his fleet approached Guam on March 6, 1521, his crew was a wreck after two months at sea. Twenty or more men had died of starvation and scurvy, including an “Indian” taken from Verzin (Rio) and one of the two “Patagonian giants” the fleet had captured. Those remaining had survived on “biscuit turned to powder and stinking of the urine of rats,” along with ox hide, and, when they were lucky enough to catch one, rats.

Crew sighted Rota first, its higher peak visible from farther out, and then Guam beyond as they approached. Guam especially appeared large enough to offer both moorage and badly needed food.

Magellan was likely aiming for a landfall north of the Moluccas, where his crew could recover and recondition the three remaining ships before possibly facing the Portuguese. 

As wary as the crew were about encountering natives—possibly cannibals—as they located and passed through the strait, they must have welcomed the sudden appearance on their approach to Guam of men in canoes, native Chamorros. It meant for certain they had found food and fresh water and possibly an end to this impossibly large ocean sea.

What did Magellan, his captains and pilots, and his crew expect in the way of a reception?

Only a few of them had previously ventured beyond their native Spain, Portugal, or Italy. Magellan himself had spent seven years in East Africa and India. Duarte Barbosa, his brother-in-law and at that time captain of the Victoria, spent fifteen. Magellan had also made it briefly to Southeast Asia, to the city of Malacca on the Malay Peninsula. In addition, one other officer, João Serrão, was a pilot on Vasco Da Gama’s 1502 Portuguese India Armada, and also accompanied Magellan with Francisco de Almeida in the capture of Malacca.

Then there was Magellan’s slave, Enrique of Malacca. He had been taken from Malacca back to Europe before Magellan’s Spanish armada embarked on the journey westward that would put Magellan’s—and Erique’s—name in the history books.

On that journey thus far, the crew had interacted with only two indigenous peoples: the “Indians” at Verzin, who welcomed the Europeans with their mirrors, bells, and other wonders; and the Patagonians, who feared the visitors but had put up a deadly fight when pressed. And all the while fears of dreaded cannibals haunted the decks as the crew slept each night.

And so as they neared Guam, the first circumnavigation took on a twist, the sort of mini adventure that adds to an epic tale. The people meeting Magellan's fleet in canoes were unlike anything the crew could have expected.

Canoes the armada had seen, wooden in Verzin and made with animal hide in Patagonia, but these were different. These canoes seemed suddenly to be “flying” along the water, as navigator Francisco Albo described them. They were outriggers with lateen sails and had maneuverability that astonished the Europeans: “These boats resembled dolphins which can leap in the water from wave to wave,” chronicler wrote Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition.

Then came the larceny. By the time Magellan’s ships had anchored, the natives were climbing aboard and eagerly grabbing everything that wasn’t tied down. That included a skiff, one of the longboats the fleet used to ferry to and from shore, from Magellan’s flagship Trinidad.

In effect, after two months at sea the starving fleet was being fleeced.

In fact, in the Chamorros’ culture, hospitality was expected from hosts, and they clearly had a different view of private property. 

Magellan’s crew managed to chase the natives away, but angered at such treatment from these unruly visitors, the Chamorros returned with a fleet of war canoes. Magellan countered by ordering cannon fired from the Trinidad, which frightened the attackers away. Yet Magellan was forced to return the fleet to a point well offshore for the night, to guard against an attack after dark.

Magellan and his hungry fleet were left floating, to stew overnight, still at sea, still starving.

Top: Boxer Codex (1590) - Unknown Spanish Author/Compiler with Likely Chinese Artist from Spanish Colonial Manila, Philippines, circa 1590 AD.

(C) 2021 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.

See Also:

On March 28, 1521, Enrique of Malacca became the first person to complete a
linguistic circumnavigation of the globe—he traveled so far in one direction that he reached a point where his language was spoken. Enrique’s journey began a decade earlier following the sack of Malacca, when he became a slave of Ferdinand Magellan. A teenager, he accompanied Magellan back to Portugal, then to Spain, and finally on the Armada de Molucca to locate a westward route to the Spice Islands.  Read more:

Ferdinand Magellan’s historic journey swept up several unlikely travelers along the way, among them a seven-year-old boy at Guanabara Bay (Rio de Janeiro). Half-Portuguese, half-Tupi Indian, he is remembered in history as Joãozito Lopes Carvalho. The young boy became the first native of Brazil and likely all of South America to cross the Pacific Ocean—on a year-and-a-half journey that for him ended at Brunei five hundred years ago this summer.

Joãozito was the son of João de Lopes Carvalho and a Tupi Indian woman in what is now Brazil. A Portuguese pilot, João Carvalho had traveled to Guanabara Bay in 1512 on the Bertoa, a commercial vessel sent to pick up dyewood there. A decade earlier a Portuguese fleet had landed at Guanabara Bay and claimed the area for Portugal, naming it Rio de Janeiro for the month they arrived, January 1502. Read more.

Antonio Pigafetta's account of the Magellan-Elcano voyage gives us both first-hand historical detail and color—the human aspects of the journey. The Italian scholar learned all he could about the cultures that Magellan's fleet encountered, even sitting down and recording samples of languages.

An excellent example of Pigafetta's curiosity and fascination is his description of the coconut and the palm tree, which he learned about soon after the fleet's arrival in the Philippines. Like the pineapple Magellan tried in Rio, the coconut was an unknown. "Cocoanuts are the fruit of the palmtree. Just as we have bread, wine, oil, and milk, so those people get everything from that tree. Read more.

A handful of medieval travelogues were the closest thing Ferdinand Magellan had to a travel guide when he sought a westward route to Asia—accounts credited to Marco Polo, John Mandeville, and others, and those all echoed the same monsters and myths repeated since the time of Pliny the Elder, the Roman author whose Naturalis Historiae helped inspire the encyclopedia.

It gets little mention today, but The Travels of Sir John Mandeville was a world atlas of sorts in medieval Europe, essential reading for navigators and explorers. The accounts became circulated widely in Europe in the fourteenth century. They detail travels in North Africa and the Middle East, and in India, China, and even the Malay Peninsula—which would have been of particular interest to Ferdinand Magellan, and also Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s interpreter-slave. Read more.

Reni Roxas and Marc Singer brought the story of Enrique to life for children in 
First Around the Globe: The Story of Enrique. Twenty years on they released this anniversary edition in 2017 from Tahanan Books, Manila. Read more.

On March 16, 1521, Magellan and his crew reached the Philippines, where they would finally be able to recover after three months crossing the Pacific. They were unable to stop long at Guam—their encounter with the Chamorros they met there did not go well, as seen in their sendoff. As they were departing, more than a hundred of the Chamorros’ outrigger canoes followed for more than a league.

As Pigafetta wrote, “They approached the ships showing us fish, feigning that they would give them to us; but then threw stones at us and fled. And although the ships were under full sail, they passed between them and the small boats [longboats fastened astern], very adroitly in those small boats of theirs. We saw some women in their boats who were crying out and tearing their hair, for love, I believe, of those whom we had killed.” Read more.

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(C) 2022 by Enrique's Voyage, All rights reserved.