January 13, 2023

Juan Serrano and the Santiago Shipwreck and Rescue


After the Santiago's shipwreck near Puerto Santa Cruz, two crewmen hiked over
rough winter terrain for two weeks to return to Puerto San Julián and find help.

Unlikely Profiles

Of the ships’ captains, Juan Rodríguez Serrano was the most valuable to Magellan. Serrano was the only original captain who remained loyal during the mutiny at Puerto San Julián, and his skills as a mariner helped save lives and navigate the strait.

It’s uncertain whether Serrano was Spanish or Portuguese. Some historians believe he was João Rodrigues Serrão, brother of Francisco Serrão, Magellan’s close friend who reached the Spice Islands from Malacca a decade earlier. If so, he may have been a friend in India of Duarte Barbosa’s, Magellan’s relation by marriage, who like Magellan relocated from Portugal to Seville before embarking on the Armada de Molucca.

Whatever his origin, Serrano had sailed aboard Spanish ships since his youth and had crossed the Atlantic twice before, to the coast of Brazil in 1499–1500 and to Darién in 1514. A royal pilot, Serrano joined Magellan’s fleet as captain and pilot of the Santiago, the smallest of the five ships. Sailing with him were his stepson, Francisco, and a black slave named Juan.

At Puerto San Julián, Magellan found himself facing three of the five ships in the Easter mutiny. When he checked on the one remaining ship, the Santiago, he found that Serrano remained loyal. Had Serrano sided with the mutineers, the name Magellan might well be unknown today.

Serrano’s skills as a pilot proved indispensable. After the mutiny, Magellan had the ships emptied and reconditioned. The Santiago was the first ship ready to sail, and anxious to get the expedition moving, Magellan sent it ahead to scout the coast, to seek either a strait or a cape—or at least a better place to replenish supplies.

The Santiago left Puerto San Julián around May 1, and on May 6 found an estuary full of seals and penguins. Serrano named the estuary Santa Cruz. He kept the ship there for two weeks while the crew slaughtered and roasted seals. 

The Santiago Shipwreck and Rescue

Shortly after departing on May 22, the Santiago was hit by a fierce storm. Winds tore away its sails and a large wave washed away its rudder, leaving the Santiago floating helplessly, the storm driving it toward shore.

Here, Serrano’s experience came to the rescue. The royal pilot managed to hoist a spare sail and—with no rudder—steer the ship bow first toward a beach. Hitting rocks would have meant disaster, yet Serrano brought the Santiago to rest close enough to sand that all but one crew member were able to jump to safety. 

Minutes later the Santiago broke up in the waves. Serrano’s slave, Juan, was the only man not to make it.

The ship’s crew found themselves stranded far beyond the end of the map, in winter conditions and with little food. Making matters more uncomfortable, they knew the map ended where it did because a landing party from the previous expedition down the coast was attacked and eaten by cannibals—with fellow crew looking on from offshore. That was the expedition of Juan Díaz de Solís, who reached and named Rio de la Plata, and it was Solís and a landing party who were killed (and eaten), bringing the expedition to an end.

With these bleak thoughts in mind Serrano led the group of thirty men over rough terrain for four days to return to the estuary. There they sent two young crewmen on, for a trek that took them nearly two weeks to reach Puerto San Julián, where the fleet waited.

Magellan sent a rescue party of twenty men on foot—loaded with bread and wine for the Santiago’s shipwrecked crew. It was June 26 when the rescue party arrived at Santa Cruz, some five weeks after the ill-fated Santiago’s shipwreck. Serrano’s crew had been surviving in the open wilderness all that time.

Magellan reassigned Serrano as captain of the Concepción, whose original captain, Gaspar de Quesada, was executed following the mutiny.

Serrano Searches for Strait on the Concepción

Serrano’s seamanship came in handy again just down the coast when Magellan found the inlet that turned out to be his strait. Magellan first sent the Concepción and San Antonio in to explore, when a storm suddenly hit, forcing the other three ships to sail back out of the bay. Inside the strait the Concepción and San Antonio struggled to avoid being driven into shore and were not seen again for two days. Again, Serrano’s skills helped save the fleet.

Serrano and the Massacre at Cebu

After Magellan’s death on April 27, 1521, Serrano and Barbosa were elected to replace him. Their tenure as commanders was to be brief. On May 1, both men were caught in the ambush at Cebu, where their ally Raja Humabon turned against the newcomers. Barbosa was killed along with some twenty others, and Serrano was dragged to the beach, beaten and, according to chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, begging to be rescued for a ransom. Pigafetta wrote: 

He begged us earnestly to redeem him with some of the merchandise; but Johan Carvaio, his boon companion, [and others] would not allow the boat to go ashore so that they might remain masters of the ships. But although Juan Serrano weeping asked us not to set sail so quickly, for they would kill him, and said that he prayed God to ask his soul of Johan Carvaio, his comrade, in the day of judgment, we immediately departed. I do not know whether he is dead or alive.

Juan Serrano was last seen beaten on the beach at Cebu. He may have been killed there, though it’s been suggested he was kept alive and sold as a slave, possibly in China. The armada had lost its most-experienced captain, its co-commanders, and other key officers and did not have enough men to continue sailing three ships. The Concepción, considered to be in the worst condition, was brought a nearby island and scuttled. They burned the ship to the waterline to make sure nothing was left behind.

If Serrano was not killed, he may have been left doubtful as to whether any of the fleet would survive and return to Spain.