Magellan Reaches Guam: Chamorro Outriggers Take On Spanish Carracks

Reception of the Manila galleon by the Chamorro in the "Ladrones" Islands, c. 1590.

March 6, 1521: Ferdinand Magellan's fleet reached Guam after a harrowing three-month crossing of the Pacific Ocean. Retelling the encounter, biographers typically highlight the sensational story of larcenous natives the fleet met and how the Spanish thereby chose the name Ladroni Islands (Thieves' Islands) for Guam and Rota.[1] Stories like that sell books. But the two eye-witness reports of the experience tell a second story, of the Chamorro's amazing boating skills, and it's also worth examining the visit from the Chamorro's perspective.

Magellan's Pacific Crossing

Magellan's fleet left the strait on November 28, 1520. Confident that Asia lay not far beyond, Magellan decided against stopping to replenish supplies, despite the desertion of the San Antonio, which headed back to Spain with much of the fleet's provisions. The decision proved to be a deadly one. It would be not weeks but three months before an island large enough to stop at was sighted.

Twenty men died of starvation and scurvy along the way and more lay seriously ill on deck. Among the dead were an “Indian” taken from Guanabara (Rio) and one of the two “Patagonian giants” the fleet captured farther south.

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. "Rats were sold for one-half ducado apiece, and even then we could not get them," chronicler Antonio Pigafetta wrote.

So when the crew spotted the island of Rota, its high peak visible from farther out, and then the larger Guam, they must have been ecstatic. As for location, Magellan was likely looking for just such an island, safely north of the Moluccas, where the fleet could recover and recondition the remaining three ships before possibly facing the Portuguese.

Magellan was likely seeking a safe spot north of the
Moluccas where the fleet could recover. (Source.)

As wary as the crew were about encountering natives around the strait—possible cannibals?—they must have welcomed the sudden appearance of men in canoes as the fleet approached Guam—native Chamorros. For Magellan's men, it meant they had found food and fresh water and possibly an end to the impossibly gigantic ocean sea.

For Magellan, the suspense must have been high. He and his slave-interpreter Enrique of Malacca would have seen that the Tupi people who met them at Guanabara were very different from Southeast Asians in Malacca. Finding a people here who looked closer would be a sign that they had in fact reached Asia, had in fact shown the world could be circled.

But for Magellan and his crew, the feeling of reaching the finish line was suddenly cut short by the Chamorro's less-then-ideal welcome.

Video: Modern-day replica of the Nao Victoria.

Magellan's Fleet in the Chamorro's Eyes

Seen from shore on Guam that day, the fleet's tall tar-black ships would have been a marvel from a far distance. Guam was isolated enough that the island probably got few if any visitors. The sudden appearance of other-worldly Spanish carracks standing high above the water unlike boats were supposed to should have been terrifying, but on Guam it sparked not fear but wonder. By the time Magellan's ships neared, locals had flocked into outrigger canoes and rowed out to greet the strange ships.

It was a clash of two worlds, the medieval Europeans with armor, swords, arquebuses, and cannon, and the wealth and maritime technology needed to send small armies across (now around) the world to invade whole cities; and the Chamorro, who with just their simple outrigger canoes still commanded the area waters, running circles around the clumsy carracks.

The Chamorro did not hesitate to climb aboard the strange vessels, and once there, they clearly liked the metal tools and other wonders these strange visitors brought. In fact, the Chamorro couldn't get enough of them, literally. They began basically looting Magellan's ships, stealing whatever they could, all moving faster than the ailing crew could come to grips with. Wrote Pigafetta:

The Captain-General wished to stop at the large island and get some fresh food, but he was unable to do so because the inhabitants of that island entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on, so that we could not protect ourselves. The men were about to strike the sails so that we could go ashore, but the natives very deftly stole from us the small boat that was fastened to the poop of the flagship. 

Not surprisingly, Magellan responded with force. After crew cleared the welcome party from their ships, Magellan led forty armed men ashore where they "burned forty or fifty houses together with many boats, and killed seven men."

Chamorro Outriggers Take On Spanish Carracks

The Europeans' superior weapons and armor had won out, but the Chamorro were not finished, and when they struck back it was on their own turf, so to speak—on the water, where they had the advantage. Wrote Pigafetta:

Those people seeing us departing followed us with more than one hundred boats for more than one legua. 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 [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.

Most of what we know about the Magellan-Elcano expedition comes from Pigafetta's manuscript, but also taking notes aboard the flagship Trinidad was its pilot, Francisco Albo, who kept a navigational logbook throughout the three-year journey. Most of Albo's logbook is all business, all navigation, but the professional mariner occasionally added in some color. He did so at Guam, and what captured Albo the pilot's interest was not the Chamorro's odd welcome but rather their surprising boating skills. As Albo wrote:

Outrigger with lateen sail.
Outrigger with lateen sail. (Source.)
… we saw a quantity of small sails coming to us, and they ran so, that they seemed to fly, and they had mat sails of a triangular shape, and they went both ways, for they made of the poop the prow, and of the prow the poop, as they wished, and they came many times to us and sought us to steal whatever they could; and so they stole the skiff of the flag-ship, and next day we recovered it; and there I took the sun, and one of these islands is in 12⅔°, and the other in 13° and more (N. latitude) …

Pigafetta also wrote of the Chamorro's boating skills:

Their amusement, men and women, is to plough the seas with those small boats of theirs. Those boats resemble fucelere [small Venetian boats], but are narrower, and some are black, [some] white, and others red. At the side opposite the sail, they have a large piece of wood pointed at the top, with poles laid across it and resting on the water, in order that the boats may sail more safely. The sail is made from palmleaves sewn together and is shaped like a lateen sail. For rudders they use a certain blade resembling a hearth shovel which have a piece of wood at the end. They can change stern and bow at will and those boats resemble the dolphins which leap in the water from wave to wave.  

The Chamorro People

Somehow during their brief and tense visit at Guam, Pigafetta managed to gather fast intelligence about the Chamorro lifestyle and culture, the first recorded description of the Chamoro people.[2] In his account of the expedition, Pigafetta wrote:

The women do not work in the fields but stay in the house, weaving mats, baskets, and other things needed in their houses, from palm leaves. They eat cocoanuts, camotes [batate], birds, figs one palmo in length [i.e., bananas], sugarcane, and flying fish … Their houses are all built of wood covered with planks and thatched with leaves of the fig-tree [i.e., banana-tree] two brazas long; and they have floors and windows. The rooms and the beds are all furnished with the most beautiful palmleaf mats. They sleep on palm straw which is very soft and fine.

Tragically for the Chamorro, the Europeans would return. The Chamorro's isolated tropical paradise had just gotten charted by Europeans—in the Europeans' minds acquired.

NASA image of Guam, 2011. North on right. (Source.)

It's believed the ancestors of the Chamorro migrated from Southeast Asia to the Mariana Islands sometime around 1600 BCE, an island paradise far removed, perhaps. The Marianas were yet another milestone in the explorations and migrations of Austronesian peoples, who had not only crossed but migrated across the Pacific Ocean long before Magellan found his strait. Polynesians reached Easter Island as early as 800 and other Polynesians migrated to Hawaii between the fourth and the tenth centuries.

Estimates show that in the early seventeenth century, the Marianas were home to between 50,000 and 100,000 Chamorro, but disease and violence brought by the Spanish reduced their population to around 1,000 by 1820. By the late twentieth century, there were just over 50,000 Chamorro descendants. 

In 1511, Magellan fought with the Portuguese in the invasion of Malacca, the debut of European colonialism in Southeast Asia. There he took the slave Enrique. A decade later Magellan and Enrique reached Guam, the first colonial sting to hit Southeast Asia from the other direction. Magellan's stay was brief, but for Guam it was paradise lost.


By John Sailors

Enrique's Voyage


1. Given that the Spanish and Portuguese by 1521 were sailing to the farthest reaches of the globe and taking whatever and whomever they wanted, their naming Guam "Islands of the Ladroni" because a few locals nicked the Captain-General's skiff seems a bit extreme and hypocritical; certainly the penalty of seven men killed and forty to fifty houses burned qualifies as on the severe side. Importantly the choice of name shows the mindset of superiority the Europeans sailed with as they "discovered" and invaded spots around Africa, India, Southeast Asia, and the Americas. 

2. Antonio Pigafetta, the main chronicler of Magellan's expedition, collected sometimes deep details of the cultures and languages the fleet encountered—sometimes too deep and too amazingly fast to be credible, given the lack of a shared language with the natives. And throughout his manuscript, his own experiences at times taint his reporting.

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

(C) 2023 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.

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) 2023 by Enrique's Voyage, EnriqueOfMalacca.com. All rights reserved.