Unlikely Commander of Magellan’s Fleet: Gómez de Espinosa

For Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, the first circumnavigation was far longer than it was for the others in Magellan’s fleet, both in distance and time. Espinosa’s circle included a side trip from the Spice Islands to North Pacific waters well east of Hokkaido—and back—and later along the coasts of India and East Africa as a Portuguese prisoner. Espinosa did not return to Spain until 1527, four and a half years after Juan Sebastián Elcano led the Victoria back for the first circumnavigation and eight years after the fleet departed in 1519.

Gómez de Espinosa played several key roles in the expedition. During the Easter mutiny, Espinosa was at the center of Magellan’s offensive to recover the Victoria (he stabbed its captain in the throat), and it was Espinosa who led the Trinidad back into the Pacific on a cartographic gamble that if successful might have brought Ferdinand Magellan’s flagship Trinidad to Canada or the US West Coast.

Espinosa also journeyed far in rank, going from master-at-arms (basically a shipboard police officer) to captain general of the fleet and captain of the flagship Trinidad.

The Atlantic and Brazil

What Espinosa had to offer was loyalty, to his duty and to Ferdinand Magellan. From the start Magellan was facing a conspiracy among his Castilian officers, and he built a close relationship with Espinosa knowing he was going to need some law enforcement on his side.

That conspiracy became a problem early on. During the Atlantic crossing Magellan personally arrested Juan de Cartagena for insubordination, causing the Castilian officer to openly call for mutiny. Cartagena was captain of the San Antonio, the armada’s largest ship, and inspector general of the fleet—an assignment made by Spanish trade officials as a check on Magellan’s power. Cartagena wound up briefly in chains and for the next six months in custody.

Once across the Atlantic Ocean, the fleet stopped over in Brazil, a visit that quickly degenerated into an orgy with the local women, both onshore and aboard ship. After several days, Magellan gave Espinoisa the unpopular task of rounding up the crew onshore and clearing the ships of women, so the fleet could prepare to depart. Magellan also sent a squad of marines to arrest Duarte Barbosa, his own brother-in-law, who had gone AWOL.

The Easter Mutiny

When the fleet wintered in Patagonia, Magellan cut rations severely, sinking morale to rock bottom. This made conditions ripe for what became known as the Easter Mutiny, which Espinosa helped end.

On April 1,1520, Cartagena joined the Concepción's Captain Gaspar de Quesada and 30 armed men in a nighttime raid to seize control of the San Antonio, Cartagena’s former ship. They captured then-captain Álvaro de Mesquita and informed the crew they had new commanders who would give them better rations and not mistreat them. The ship’s master, Juan de Elorriaga, demanded the release of their captain only to have Quesada draw a dagger and stab him repeatedly—and fatally.

With the San Antonio, the mutineers pitted three ships—the San Antonio, the Concepción, and the Victoria—against two, Magellan’s Trinidad and the Santiago. However, the Castilian officers underestimated their Portuguese opponent—Magellan had served the Portuguese king as a soldier in naval and land battles in East Africa, India, and Malacca over seven years, along with a later amphibious attack in Morocco.

Magellan focused first on the Victoria; this is where Espinosa came in. Magellan sent his master-at-arms to hand-deliver a message to the Victoria’s Captain Luis Mendoza. Along with a marine and two sailors rowing, their skiff came alongside the ship, where Mendoza refused to let them aboard. Espinosa taunted him, asking if he was afraid. 

Pride apparently wounded, Mendoza let Espinosa and his marine escort climb aboard. He then led the two to his cabin to read Magellan’s message. Mendoza wore armor but no helmet. After reading the message he handed it back with scornful laughter. Espinosa responded by thrusting a hidden dagger into Mendoza’s throat; the marine followed with a dagger blow to the skull, killing Mendoza instantly.

Meanwhile, Duarte Barbosa had led a boarding party of 15 men, unseen, to the Victoria, and on a signal from Espinosa they climbed aboard and disarmed the men on deck. Barbosa also had combat experience in Asia. The rest of the crew offered no further resistance—of the three ships that mutinied, the Victoria had the most Portuguese and non-Castilian crew members. Magellan likely chose his target with that in mind.

Massacre at Cebu

A year later, Easter again became an ominous holiday for the expedition, with Magellan holding the first-ever mass in the Philippines on March 31, 1521, at Limasawa. A week later, Magellan made an alliance with the ruler at Cebu, Rajah Humabon, whom he baptized along with hundreds of others as Christians. The alliance proved fatal for Magellan; he was killed in combat in the Battle of Mactan on April 27 while fighting a Humabon rival, Lapulapu, a datu (ruler) on the island of Mactan.

Days later on May 1, Humabon himself turned against the Spanish fleet. He invited the fleet’s officers ashore for a banquet and murdered nearly 30 men in an ambush. Espinosa was among the landing party, but he and another officer, João de Lopes Carvalho, became suspicious at the last minute and escaped back to the Spanish ships. 

Among those killed was Barbosa, who along with Juan Serrano, captain of the Santiago and later the Concepción, had been chosen to replace Magellan as commanders. Serrano was last seen bound and bleeding on a beach on Cebu.

Promotion to Captain General

Espinosa and Carvalho were elected as the fleet’s new commanders, Espinosa as captain of the Victoria and Carvalho as captain of the Trinidad and captain general of the fleet. For Espinosa it was a jump in rank from the equivalent of a modern marine warrant officer to ship’s captain.

Then on September 21, Carvalho was deposed as captain general and Espinosa was elected to replace him. Espinosa, now the fleet’s ranking officer, took the helm of the Trinidad, while the Concepción’s original master, Juan Sebastián Elcano, became captain of that ship.

With only two of the fleet’s five ships remaining, they pushed on, finally reaching Tidore in the Moluccas on November 8. Magellan’s fleet (or part of it) had arrived at its destination, the Spice Islands, after more than two years.

By mid-December the two ships were loaded with spices and ready to return home. On departure, however, the Trinidad’s hull was severely damaged. The ship would have to be emptied and repaired, which would take time.

They faced two threats: One, they learned the Portuguese were headed their way, which would mean certain capture, and two, the monsoon winds were about to shift; if they didn’t leave immediately, sailing northwest or west would have been impossible for another season.

Thus they made the decision for the Victoria to leave first, ahead of the shift in winds. Captained by Elcano, the Victoria departed on December 21, 1522, and after passing Timor headed straight across the Indian Ocean through uncharted waters. The traditional trade routes along the Indian and East African coasts were controlled by the Portuguese.

It was fear of the Portuguese that prompted the first circumnavigation—by no means the original plan. The Victoria arrived back in Spain, at  Sanlúcar de Barrameda, on September 8.


Hokkaido is not a location that normally comes to mind when talking about Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition, but Espinosa led the Trinidad deep into the North Pacific well to the east of Japan’s northernmost island.

Back in the Spice Islands, it took four months to repair the Trinidad’s hull. Espinosa finally departed on April 6, with the plan of returning eastward across the Pacific. But instead of retracing the fleet’s original crossing from the south, they headed northward, hoping to catch westerly winds like those in the North Atlantic.

By the time the Trinidad was east of southern Japan, the crew began to run out of provisions and were left with only rice to eat. Cold temperatures and scurvy began to take a toll on the crew, as well. The Trinidad sailed to a point in the North Pacific roughly 43° N and 165° E of Greenwich where it was hit by a severe storm. The resulting damage was severe enough that Espinosa and his officers made the decision to turn around and head back to the Moluccas.

By the time they arrived, the crew was so weak and ill that Espinosa asked the Portuguese for help. The Portuguese arrested the crew and confiscated the Trinidad’s papers, books, and charts—it was no doubt with wonder that they studied the fleet’s route through the strait and across the Pacific.

Portuguese Asia

In 1505, Portuguese King Manuel I sent a giant fleet to Asia to exploit “discoveries” made by Vasco da Gama and others. It was not just a war fleet but an empire-building enterprise. The fleet was made up of 1,500 men, among them carpenters, caulkers, shoemakers, administrators, merchants, physicians, priests, and judges. Historian Roger Crowley likened it to the Mayflower, departing not just to explore but to settle and set up colonies. One of those who left Lisbon with that fleet was Ferdinand Magellan. 

Over the next decade, Portugal built a series of forts at key points on the Malabar Coast, taking Malacca in 1511. They gained control of all shipping and trade in the Indian Ocean. Magellan returned to Lisbon in 1512, taking with him the slave-interpreter who became known as Enrique of Malacca

As a prisoner a decade later, Espinosa became one of the few men from Magellan’s fleet to see the extensive maritime empire Portugal had secured. His amazement at the forts in Cochin and elsewhere would have been greater than that of the Portuguese when examining the charts of Magellan’s strait and the Pacific crossing. Espinosa’s return itinerary as a Portuguese prisoner included Ternate, Banda, Java, Malacca, Cochin, and Lisbon, a route that would have followed both coasts of Africa. 

After returning to Spain in 1527, Espinosa became one of several survivors of Magellan’s expedition who had to fight for monies owed them. In 1529, Charles V finally awarded Espinosa with a life pension that he would live comfortably on. 

As late as 1543, Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa was still alive and well in Seville, at the age of 60, likely telling tall tales that required little exaggeration to thrill listeners.

By John Sailors

Enrique's Voyage

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

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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.

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Learn more about Enrique at EnriqueOfMalacca.com.

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