Magellan Killed in Battle at Mactan

(Profiles: Ferdinand Magellan, Part 4.)

April 27, 1521: Ferdinand Magellan was killed in hand-to-hand combat at the Battle of Mactan (Philippines) halfway through that first circumnavigation. How Magellan went from explorer to front-line soldier in just six weeks after arriving in the Philippines is a question worth asking. Magellan’s death reminds us about his motives and the motives of other explorers, Spanish, Portuguese, and later other European powers.

People debate the labels: explorer, navigator, adventurer, discoverer and of course from the opposite perspective, colonizer. But a better term for Magellan and Christopher Columbus is explorer-conqueror. The same goes for Henry the Navigator, Vasco da Gama, and later the likes of James Cook. An ample quote from the historian Yuval Harari (Sapiens): “…early modern Europeans caught a fever that drove them to sail to distant and completely unknown lands full of alien cultures, take one step on to their beaches, and immediately declare, ‘I claim all these territories for my king!’”

Magellan: Explorer-Conqueror

As for Magellan, he succeeded in the explorer part of his job: He found a strait that led to Balboa’s South Sea, managed to cross the unexpectedly gigantic “sea,” and named things along the way including the “Pacific” sea itself.

But immediately after arriving in the Philippines, Magellan got started on the conquering part of the job title, and that part didn’t go so well.

At Cebu Magellan made an alliance with a local ruler, Rajah Humabon, whom he baptized along with hundreds of others as Christians. (Religion has often been used in history to subjugate populations—and control trade—including in Southeast Asia before the arrival of Europeans.)

Magellan also sided with Humabon against a neighboring chief, Lapulapu on Mactan, a strategy the Portuguese employed successfully in India: siding with one state against another.

For Magellan, the alliance turned out to be a fatal one.

Magellan ordered Lapulapu to pay a tribute to Humabon. When Lapulapu refused, Magellan turned to the Portuguese tactics of Vasco da Gama and Francisco de Almeida in East Africa and India—he responded immediately with force.

Magellan boasted to Humabon that a single armored soldier of his could take on a hundred of the rajah’s warriors, and then put on fighting demonstrations to prove the assertion. Looking back on seven years’ experience in Asia and on his Morocco campaign, Magellan reckoned a small force from his fleet could quickly beat a small island village into submission. 

Battle of Mactan (Antonio Pigfetta)

At daybreak on April 27, 1521, Magellan led a force of just 60 well-armed volunteers in three shallops from Cebu to Mactan. Leaving boat crews behind, he and 48 men waded (waddled?) ashore to attack.

Cebu and Mactan today.

We have more than one account of the events that day. Here is the most detailed (and colorful/dramatic) version written by Antonio Pigafetta, chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition.

The musketeers and crossbowmen shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly; for the shots only passed through the shields which were made of thin wood and the arms … When our muskets were discharged, the natives would never stand still, but leaped hither and thither, covering themselves… 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 …

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.

Among those last to retreat were Pigafetta and Magellan’s slave-interpreter Enrique of Malacca, both wounded in the fight. Also killed in the battle was Cristóbal Rabelo, possibly an illegitimate son of Magellan's.

Massacre at Cebu

Four days later on May 1, 1521, most of the fleet’s officers and pilots were slaughtered in an ambush at Cebu—among them the two officers elected to replace Magellan: Duarte Barbosa, Magellan's brother-in-law, and Juan Serrano. The fleet would be forced to scuttle one of the three remaining ships, but it continued on, eventually reaching their destination, the Spice Islands. After that, Juan Sebastián Elcano, then captain of the Victoria, decided to sail straight across the Indian Ocean without stopping, to avoid the Portuguese and return to Spain around the southern tip of Africa.[1]

Magellan’s death held off Spanish colonization of the Philippines for forty years.

By John Sailors

Enrique's Voyage


[1] It’s important to note Magellan never planned a circumnavigation. He might have mused at the possibility, but after seven years’ service in India and Southeast Asia, he knew how thoroughly the Portuguese controlled the waters and ports along all of India and both coasts of Africa. The Spanish fleet would not survive even halfway. Magellan’s original goal was likely to turn around and return with a huge cargo of spices, or possibly remain, himself. After the invasion of Malacca a decade earlier, Magellan’s friend Francisco Serrão sailed with a small fleet that reached the Moluccas, the first in Portugal’s drive into Southeast Asia. Ignoring orders to return to Malacca, Serrão married and settled down, more or less, ignoring orders to return to Malacca. In letters to Magellan, Serrão described a tropical paradise rich in spices. Magellan replied to Serrão: "God willing, I will soon be seeing you, whether by way of Portugal or Castile, for that is how my affairs have been leaning …"

Enrique's Voyage Profile: Ferdinand Magellan

(C) 2022, by John Sailors.

Enrique's Voyage Profiles

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. Read more.

Pigafetta went far beyond chronicling the progress of Magellan’s fleet; his passion for learning about cultures and languages made him an early anthropologist of sorts. Antonio Pigafetta (c. 1491 – c. 1531) was the principal chronicler of the Magellan-Elcano expedition that became the first to circumnavigate the globe in 1519–1522. An Italian scholar-turned explorer, Pigafetta was among the 18 crew members who survived the journey and returned to Spain aboard the nao Victoria …  Read more.

Magellan's Real Circumnavigation, Enrique of Malacca Taken as Slave (Magellan, Part 1)

Schoolchildren around the world are taught the name Ferdinand Magellan[1]—“the first person to circumnavigate the globe”—many in grade school and again high school. But few people know Magellan's story, that he was killed in the Philippines halfway through that circumnavigation, and moreover, that he still came within 2,600 kilometers of fully circling the earth. Read more.

For Ferdinand Magellan, life moved swiftly from tropical amphibious combat in Southeast Asia to land war on horseback in North Africa. Magellan returned to Lisbon in 1512 or 1513, bringing with him Enrique, the slave he claimed at Malacca. Unfortunately, the Malay teenager was about all the fortune Magellan collected in seven years’ service in India. Magellan invested the riches he collected in a trade deal that went sour, a slap in the face he learned of on return to Lisbon … Read more.

Spain's King Charles named Magellan captain-general of the Armada de Molucca, but from the start he had to enforce his authority with an iron hand. In Asia a decade earlier Magellan had been more soldier than sailor. Now as commander of a naval fleet, Magellan relied on his military fleet background to maintain control of his own armada. Read more.

Holy Roman Emperor Charles V Backs Magellan's Armada

Ferdinand Magellan’s Armada de Molucca was financed by Carlos I (1500–1558), the newly crowned king of a unified Castile and Aragon. Carlos was an eighteen-year-old Habsburg from Flanders who barely spoke Spanish. Between the time he agreed to back Magellan's expedition and its departure, he became Charles V, Holy Roman emperor, and archduke of Austria.   Read More.

Juan de Cartagena Leads Mutiny Against Magellan

Juan de Cartagena, a native of Burgos, was the original captain of the San Antonio and one of the human obstacles Ferdinand Magellan had to overcome on the expedition. History labels Magellan and Columbus and other ship captains as “explorers” and “navigators.” Cartagena is identified as “an accountant and a ship captain” [1], not quite the swashbuckling image that inspires fifth graders in history class.   Read more.

What Was Enrique of Malacca's Nationality?
Enrique of Malacca's origin is a subject of debate. Three places are considered possible: Malacca, then a major trade hub on the Malay Peninsula; Sumatra, the large island adjacent to Malacca (modern-day Indonesia); and the Visayan Islands in the (modern-day) Philippines. The following article examines the three possibilities and the evidence available. Read more.

Find us:

Learn more about Enrique at EnriqueOfMalacca.com.

(C) 2022 by John Sailors. All rights reserved.