Journey of Joãozito Lopes Carvalho, Part II: San Julian, the Strait, and the Pacific

Fleet in the Strait of Magellan.
Fleet in the Strait of Magellan.

Seven-year-old Joãozito Lopes Carvalho traveled the strait and survived the Pacific crossing with Ferdinand Magellan’s Armada de Molucca, making him the first native Brazilian to sail the world’s largest ocean. Along the way he experienced both the wonders of exploration and its extreme cruelties over a nineteen-month journey.

All of seven or eight years old, Joãozito was well out of his element. He was living in the tight confines of a Spanish carrack, the Concepción, as opposed to the paradise of his native Guanabara (Rio). He was speaking new languages, eating new foods, and wearing clothes for the first time—life on board ship would have been too cold for him not to.

And Joãozito had to deal with all this while at sea, with the ship ever pitching and rolling on the waves.

Ferdinand Magellan's fleet sailing at night.

For introduction, the fleet sailed into several months of increasingly bad weather. At one point a midnight gale stretched into a three-day storm so severe that it blew away the forecastles of all five ships and damaged their sterncastles. During that storm Joãozito witnessed the religious side of the Europeans’ culture, as terrified sailors all around him fervently shouted prayers and pledged to make future pilgrimages—as chronicler Antonio Pigafetta noted.

The people at Guanabara reasoned the Europeans might be gods. “It had been about two months since it had rained in that land,” Pigafetta wrote, “and when we reached that port, it happened to rain, whereupon they said that we came from the sky and that we had brought the rain with us.” He added that their “simplicity” would make them easy Christian converts, which on reflection was not necessarily a compliment for his religion or mission.

A short way out to sea, Joãozito saw these strangers calling to their own gods for salvation.

Map, Joãozito Lopes Carvalho, Coast and Strait.

With winter coming on, the fleet found refuge from the weather at the bay Magellan named Puerto San Julian, but things were far from calm. This was the first place where young Joãozito spent enough time to build a lasting impression, and a strong one it would be.

Once the ships were anchored, Magellan cut all rations, causing outrage among crew and officers alike, and crushing what morale remained. At this point Joãozito saw the angry side of this new culture and probably learned some of its nastier language as well. 

Joãozito was aboard the Concepción, one of three ships that joined the Easter mutiny that followed. No fighting took place on the Concepción, but its captain, Gaspar de Quesada, was one of the main conspirators. This was a man Joãozito would have seen often on deck, the man all crew kept an eye out for. 

A week after the mutiny and a court martial, Quesada was beheaded by his own squire. His body and the body of Luis de Mendoza’s, Victoria’s captain, were quartered, their dismembered parts displayed on poles as a warning—one all crew would have viewed at least from a distance, Joãozito included. 

That was followed by weeks of grueling work as the crew retrofitted the ships, which involved moving all cargo ashore. In the process they discovered the fleet was carrying only half the two-year supply of provisions that were supposedly loaded in Seville. The suppliers had robbed them.

Dwindling provisions prompted Magellan to get underway as soon as possible, so it was with continued tight rations and bad weather that the armada explored beyond the end of the map.

When they finally found what seemed to be a strait, the Concepción and the San Antonio were sent in to explore, and almost immediately a severe storm hit. The two ships were separated and seemingly lost, young Joãozito with them. 

“We thought that they had been wrecked, first, by reason of the violent storm, and second, because two days had passed and they had not appeared …” Pigafetta wrote.

Then came a dramatic reunion. The Concepción and San Antonio appeared with pennants flying, crews cheering, and gunners firing salutes. They returned with news: they had found the strait.

But with victory just in their grasp, the San Antonio, carrying a large portion of their remaining provisions, deserted and high-tailed it back to Spain. Still, Magellan pressed on.

Strait of Magellan

Joãozito witnessed that first trip through the strait’s magical landscape, its dense forests, strange plants, and sharp white peaks creating a “deathlike scene of desolation,” as Charles Dawrwin later wrote. Joãozito again saw the crew overcome with a new collective emotion, this time wonder.

On November 28, 1520, the remaining three ships of the fleet entered the Pacific, an event that had the crew as elated as terrified. This was the unknown South Sea that Balboa had found. It’s unlikely Joãozito understood the gravity of the moment, but he would have picked up on the excitement around him. They had sailed south well off the map and were now sailing north into the unknown ocean sea.

For two weeks the ships skirted the coast, making a first-ever tour along the southwestern shore of Chile. On December 15, they veered northwest, leaving behind the continent they had just charted.

The three months that followed certainly had the biggest impression on Joãozito. Magellan expected Asia to be a short way out, and strong winds on a “pacifico” sea quickly put a return out of reach. The fleet could only push on, day after day, wondering why no land was sighted.

The fleet spent over three months at sea. At least nineteen men died of scurvy and starvation, and another thirty fell ill.

“We ate … powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days,” Pigafetta wrote. They also chewed on oxhide and ate any rats they could catch.

“But above all the other misfortunes the following was the worst. The gums of both the lower and upper teeth of some of our men swelled, so that they could not eat under any circumstances and therefore died.”

Joãozito would have witnessed the mighty strangers sick and dying on deck around him—he may have been put to work caring for some.

Among the dead were two other South American natives—another Indian from Brazil and one of the two Patagonian giants the fleet had captured as a weird sort of souvenir. Of the two captured Patagonians, one died crossing the Pacific, the other died crossing the Atlantic on the San Antonio.

Map, Joãozito Lopes Carvalho, Pacific crossing.
Joãozito, however, survived. Possibly his father, the Concepción’s pilot, possessed or was able to get extra provisions.

In any case, Joãozito Lopes Carvalho became the first native of Brazil to cross the Pacific and to visit East Asia. He was with the fleet as it stopped at Guam, Limasawa, Cebu, and eventually Brunei, where the journey for him ended.


Image 1, Magellan's fleet in the strait" Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

Image 2, Fleet at night: From Butterworth, Hezekiah, The Story of Magellan and the Discovery of the Philippines, 1899.

Image 4, Strait of Magellan: Various, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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