On Sept. 6, 1522, a small, battered and rotting ship put into the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda in southern Spain. On board was a crew of 18 Europeans and three captives (described as "Indians," although they were probably Filipinos) and 381 sacks of cloves. The vessel's name was Victoria. It was all that remained of a fleet of five ships and some 260 crew that had left the same port three years earlier under the command of Fernao de Magalhaes, known to the English as Magellan, in search of a sea route west to the "Spice Islands." It was also the first vessel to have circumnavigated the globe.
Of all the significant maritime voyages of the 15th and 16th centuries, that of Magellan is among the least well known. The reasons are not hard to find. Unlike Columbus or Vasco da Gama, Amerigo Vespucci or John Cabot, Magellan himself did not survive the journey to boast of his exploits and ensure the survival of his reputation. Unlike Columbus, he had not come across an unknown landmass of any size. True, he had happened upon the Philippines and claimed them for Spain. But the Philippines were not America. Like Da Gama, he had discovered a route that made it possible to reach the East by sailing west, but it was a route that was to be of no practical use until the development of faster, stronger ships more than two centuries later. But for all that, the little Victoria had sailed right across the Pacific Ocean, thus demonstrating that -- if nothing else -- it was a far larger body of water than anyone had believed. Although the journey would not be repeated until Francis Drake completed his circumnavigation in 1580 and the Pacific Ocean would remain largely uncharted until Louis Antoine de Bougainville and James Cook went there in the 18th century, Magellan's voyage remains one of the most remarkable in the annals of navigation.
Like the voyages of Columbus and Da Gama, Magellan's was an outcome of the struggle between Spain and Portugal for control of the trade between Europe and the East -- above all in spices, whose commercial value was immense. In 1518 Magellan persuaded the young Charles I of Spain (a year later he would become the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) that he could reach the Moluccas -- the Spice Islands, an archipelago in the Pacific from which most of the spices (particularly cloves) sold in Europe originated -- by sailing down the east coast of South America and then west through the strait linking the Atlantic and the Pacific. In this way he would avoid the Cape of Good Hope, which was controlled by the Portuguese. The only trouble with this idea was that no one knew whether such a strait actually existed, and most navigators, including Magellan, believed the Pacific Ocean to be a narrow strip of water separating a massive American continent from an equally massive Asian one.
The voyage was fraught with difficulties from the start. In the first place, Magellan was a foreigner. There was nothing unusual in this: Columbus had been Genoese, Vespucci was Florentine, John Cabot was a Venetian. Magellan's crew was made up of North Africans, Basques, French, Flemings, Englishmen, Greeks and Neapolitans. But Magellan was a Portuguese defector who was regarded by his Spanish officers as a potential traitor. For most of the journey he was forced to suppress insubordinations and one full-scale mutiny, which, had it succeeded, would have put an end to the voyage just as it was beginning to achieve its objective. He lost one of his ships in a storm, and the crew of another, the San Antonio, mutinied before reaching the Pacific and returned to Spain.
Despite the conflict with his men and the imprecision of the instruments and maps on which he relied, Magellan did manage to locate a waterway linking the two oceans -- one that now bears his name -- and on Nov. 28, 1520, the fleet sailed out into what was then called the Western Sea. It was a moment of great triumph, and Magellan "wept for joy" and named the final cape he had rounded "Cape Desire, for we had been desiring it for a long time." From there on he expected an easy passage; in fact, however, his journey had only just begun. When the fleet made its next landfall nearly four months later on the island of Guam, its crew decimated by scurvy and reduced to eating the leather off the yardarms, it had traveled more than 7,000 miles, much farther than any previous European vessel. But it was still nowhere near the Spice Islands.
The next significant landfall was the Philippines, and here Magellan indulged in an attempt to cow the natives with a demonstration of the superiority of European technology. Having compelled the inhabitants of the island of Cebu to accept the sovereignty of Charles V and Christianity, he boasted that he could overrun the neighboring island of Mactan with a mere 60 untried sailors in helmets and breastplates and equipped with a handful of muskets. It was his undoing. The people of Mactan were armed only with sharpened bamboo staves, primitive cutlasses and (possibly poisoned) arrows, but they were fierce and numerous. They had also discovered that the Europeans' firearms were useless against rapidly moving targets. After a few hours, the hapless sailors were driven back; Magellan himself was killed, and what remained of his body was tossed into the ocean.
With its "captain general" gone, the "Armada of the Moluccas" began to deteriorate. The Cebuans, having seen what the Mactanese could do, invited the Europeans to a banquet and then massacred as many of them as they could. The rest fled to their ships and hastily put to sea. There were now only 115 men left of the 260 who had started the voyage. Desperately short-handed, the survivors transferred the contents of the most damaged of the ships, the worm-eaten Concepcion, and what was left of its crew to the other two, the Victoria and the Trinidad, and set the empty hulk ablaze. They set a course via Brunei for the still distant Spice Islands.
On Nov. 8, 1521, exhausted but triumphant, the remnants of the armada sailed into the harbor of the island of Tidore. They had reached their intended destination. Here the captains of the two ships bartered everything they carried for a massive quantity of cloves and persuaded the local king to accept Spanish rule. The ships then prepared to set out again, on what was intended to be the final stage of their immense journey. At this point, the Trinidad sprang a leak. Some of the cloves were transferred to the Victoria, which now was in such poor shape and so dangerously overladen that many of the crew refused to board. On Feb. 11, however, still in perilous condition, it set sail for the Cape of Good Hope and home. After four months undergoing repairs, the Trinidad left Tidore on April 6 with 50 tons of spices in its hold, but after a series of navigational errors had taken the ship as far north as Japan, it returned to the Moluccas. There it was seized in October 1522 by a Portuguese fleet, and the crew was imprisoned for trespassing in what Portugal considered its territorial waters.
Although he has nothing new to add and the sources on which he relies are all familiar ones, Laurence Bergreen -- the biographer of Al Capone, Irving Berlin and Louis Armstrong -- tells this story with great verve and not too much oversimplification. He seems, however, to have some curious historical perceptions. He speaks repeatedly of the Age of Discovery, preceded by an Age of Faith and succeeded by an Age of Reason, as if these were recognizably historical periods. He claims, among other things, that the voyage of the Victoria demonstrated that the world was round, something that no informed person had doubted since antiquity. He thinks the fall of Constantinople seriously disrupted the European spice trade. (It did not.) He believes that because the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had been raised in what is now modern Belgium he must have been a beer drinker; he even trots out the old legend of Prince Henry the Navigator's school of navigation at Sagres.
He also fails to make much of the real lesson of the voyage. When they were sold, the cloves in the Victoria's hold covered the expenses of the entire enterprise, including the loss of four ships, and turned a profit for the expedition's principal backer. What this demonstrated was that no matter how agonizing and painful oceanic navigation might be, no matter how costly in terms of lives and material, it would always be more profitable than the older land routes, which had dominated the ancient world. The arrival in Sanlucar de Barrameda of the weather-torn Victoria was the beginning of what Bergreen would surely have called the Age of Globalization, although at the time no one quite realized it. *