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Magellan in India

Posted by Maddy Labels:

The name Magellan is still very much in the news, but as a GPS device. Many years back, when Hertz first introduced it as ‘never lost’ the Magellan was the only commercial GPS on automobiles. I recalled my friend Hari who was visiting us, saying “Magellan’il kuthede”, while we were lost at times on Florida roads. Then there was the time we went to Spain and Portugal and standing next to the massive statues and tombs of Vasco Da Gama and Magellan and marveling at their ventures. You have so many Indians there, nice Indian restaurants and a huge Jain temple as well in Lisbon. But then, today I was thinking about the very shores and the 1500’s when ships cast off from Lisbon for the rich takings of Malabar….

Many would recall Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) or Magalhaes, the Portuguese sailor who first tried to circumnavigate the globe. While he is credited with the circumnavigation, he never completed the voyage and instead died in the Philippines. His story is interesting, and like many of the early admirals and captains of the invading troops, he was instrumental in the death of so many in Malabar and eventually died by the hands of a native in Philippines (though termed Indian in history).

But what was Magellan’s connection to India? 1488- Barthelomeow Diaz had gone around the Cape of Good Hope by chance and discovered & charted the route to the Indian Ocean. Spain was waiting for Columbus to find the sea route to India. The India House in Lisbon, an organization directing all these activities was where young Magellan found employment. Vasco Da Gama had soon after, changed India in maps which was Terra Incognita, to a known territory of Portugal. Magellan’s wait was not long,

Magellan visited India during the expedition in 1505 at the age of 25, when he was sent to India with Francisco de Almeida who was proceeding to take over as the Portuguese viceroy. During this first voyage, he did well and soon got promoted to the position of ‘most expert navigator’. This was a time when rich trade was transacted between Calicut and Arabian ports and the Zamorin and the kings of Cannanore were controlling the ports and trade even though Gama was establishing Almeida’s authority at Cochin and trying to wrest trade away from the Zamorin. So some of the first objectives of the ‘Parangi’s’ were to take over the southerly Arabian ports and establishing authority and control with Portuguese forts.

The ships reached Cannanore on 22nd Oct1505. The kings of Cannanore and Cochin were at that time against the Zamorin and supporting the Portuguese. Almeida was formally installed as the Viceroy and moved to Cochin.

The Zamorin fearing the increase of Portuguese strength in the region, decided to take charge and teach the Cochi king a lesson. Collecting his supporters and admirals, they decided at attack Cochin. The Portuguese heard of this from Ludvigo Varthema (about whom I will write later) and prepared retaliation through the captaincy of Dom Louremco (who has earlier annihilated Arab resistance without loss of Portuguese life) commanding 11-28 ships against the 84 (plus 118 dhows) led by Kunhali Maraikkar. The massacre that followed ensured that almost all of the 3,600 people who manned the Zamorin’s ships were killed.



The Arthur Sturges Hildebrand book titled Magellan: A General Account of the Life and Times and Remarkable Adventures describes the Cannanore battle thus - But at the end there were no Malabari’s left alive, and the praus drifted idly away across the water, with only here and there a forgotten body hanging limply across a rail…The battle was over, and there was no quarter. The survivors struggled up out of the heaps of dead and were killed; they tried to paddle off in half sunk praus and were shot with their paddles in their hands; they swam despairingly through stained water and were harpooned like porpoises. More than three thousand bodies were dragged out on the beach. The seventy-five Portuguese who died that day were buried at sea, so that their numbers should not be known. Magellan, with two hundred other wounded, was sent ashore to the hospital at Cannanore

Correa the historian who wrote accounts of this fight says that it was habitual for Magellan to get wounded in all the wars he fought. The next year spent by the galleon was around the African shores, building forts and fighting resistance. When they returned to India, things had changed and the Kings of Cannanore and Cochin had allied with the Zamorin. The King of Egypt had decided to support the Zamorin in his fight against the firangi’s.


Lisbon had appointed Albuquerque as Viceroy by then. Almeida who was planning revenge stayed on. Magellan’s small fleet returned to Cochin and during this period (in 1508), Viceroy Almeida’s son Lorenzo was killed. Almeida’s revenge was atrocious; Magellan and his troops sailing with Almeida were instrumental in destroying and killing every person in the city of Dapoli (in today’s Ratnagiri).What followed later (Feb 1509) was the famous battle of Diu where the Magellan forces fought the Christian Marmalukes (Venetian armor clad soldiers), the Nair’s & moors of Malabar aligned to the Zamorin and the Egyptian forces led by Mir Hussein and Mallik Jaz. In the battle, 4,000 Malabaris, Egyptians and close to 800 Marmalukes were killed.


In the attack at Diu during March16th, 1506, Magellan was seriously wounded and spent four months at a Cochin hospital, recovering. Almeida instead of returning placed Albuquerque his successor under arrest. Magellan was apparently one who did not support that move, but soon left Cochin with a Portuguese fleet that was going to trace out the Malaccan islands.


In Jan1510 he was involved in the Albuquerque attack of Calicut and thence the attack on Goa after being elevated to the position of Captain. However he dissented on plans of taking over Goa during a meeting at Cochin. After taking leave without permission, Magellan fell out of favor with Albuquerque but retired to Lisbon.


Subsequently, he was involved in the takeover of Azamor. However he was again injured in a fight with the Moroccans and went slightly lame from it. Magellan and his friend Soarez were then asked to guard the large booty of the war. Later he was accused of allowing some cattle to be taken off the booty and sold (some say he did not allow it and got falsely implicated). Magellan left the African scene without taking leave of his superiors. Several of the accusations were subsequently taken seriously and the sovereign Dom Manuel refused to give him any major employment, such as another voyage to India.

In 1517, Magellan, disgusted with Dom Manual, rescinded his Portuguese citizenship and moved to Spain to serve Charles V. For two years after that he prepared his plans and fleet to find that elusive Pacific route to India. During this period he fell in love with Beatriz de Barbosa, daughter of an influential family in the city and married her. This of course helped him in his quest to establish himself among the gentry of Madrid.

Columbus was the first to try to find a route to India. Spaniards soon found out that Columbus had not reached India; and Vasco D agama had reached Calicut in 1498. It became an urgent requirement to have their own route as the treaty of Tordesillas reserved the Eastern route to India for the Portuguese. Magellan would arrange meetings showing his globe and the locations he would reach with his fleet, but not the route, that was his secret. Thus started the search for a westerly route through the pacific and Magellan provided a plan around 1518 and started off in Aug 1519. (BTW The Pacific Ocean was named so by Magellan owing to their still nature).

Borringa believes that Magellan submitted to death owing to a grievous navigational error - Magellan was under strict orders not to enter Portuguese territory in his search for the Moluccas. He probably believed he was still within the limit after departing from the Ladrones Islands. After all, the determination of longitudes on the ocean remained erratic at that time. But the situation changed for Magellan after their sighting of Samar. San Martin’s calculations for the position of Suluan Island, east of Homonhon, showed that this was located on 9 and 2/3 degrees north latitude, and 189 degrees longitude from the line of demarcation. In a sense, Magellan had known upon his arrival in the islands he called San Lazaro Archipelago that his ships were already sailing on the Portuguese hemisphere, by a margin of 9 degrees longitude. He also knew there was no more turning back. Of course, the actual location of these islands were hidden from the authorities and falsified in the official accounts. For instance, Pigafetta mentioned that Homonhon was located at 161 degrees longitude, well within the Spanish hemisphere. He also systematically indicated the positions of the other islands such that they were located more to the east than they really were. The falsification was attributed to Magellan. After March 16, 1521, the geographical and political basis of the whole voyage had slipped under Magellan’s feet. Hated in his home country for searching the Moluccas under the Spanish flag, Magellan probably knew from then on that he had failed the challenge to reach the Spice Islands by a few degrees of longitude.

Now this does not auger well for the Magellan GPS, does it? But well the reason for Magellan’s assertions were – His royal charter stated that "should you discover more than six new lands you shall keep particular rights to any two of them, your sons and heirs in perpetuity."

A paragraph in explanation from Villamora- This was not without cause: for the irrepressible Magellan had managed to convince the 18-year-old King Carlos I of Spain that the Spice Islands were on Spanish, and not Portuguese, territory. This may sound odd, given that the Spice Islands, or Moluccas, were in fact part of Indonesia, but in 1494 the Treaty of Tordesillas declared that everything east of Rome was Portuguese territory and everything west of Rome, Spanish. Magellan believed that by sailing west he could prove the islands were to be found in Spanish territory (as it panned out, even though they were reached from the west, they still fell into the Portuguese 'half' of the world). The Spice Islands were a considerable asset given the inflated price of spices, and Carlos I was pretty keen to get them in his clutches.

After landing in the Philippines in 1521, he fought the armies of the Philippine Muslim chief Lapu Lapu in an attempt to subjugate and convert them, and was killed on April 17th 1521. Antonio Pigfatta the eyewitness wrote thus - 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…

So was his final fight a plan to die fighting for his lord and country?
Borringa says - He probably did not wish to suffer the humiliation of having to announce to the Emperor, upon his return, that the Moluccas, contrary to what he claimed in his Membranza, were located on Portuguese territory. This was a matter of honor that his noble reputation would not allow to ignore, much less distort, as the changeable Antonio Pigafetta did.”

Finally all the cruelty that he had imposed on the people of Malabar had caught up. It was time to square up the account books of fate and he met a death befitting his deeds…. It also appears that Magellan’s best friend was killed around the same time, of food poisoning in the Moluccas after he had forcefully taken a Javanese wife.

Three years after they started, on 6th Sept 1522, the lone ship ‘Victoria’ from the fleet of Magellan and captained by Juan Elcano (Some say Enrique of Malacca) reached Spain thus completing a circumnavigation of the earth. It was incidentally not Magellan’s plan to do a circumnavigation; he wanted to reach India…. In any case it was after the circumnavigation attempts that people learned you lost or gained a day doing it


Is it not strange – Navigation mistakes by both Columbus and Magellan resulted in huge impacts on their personal lives, one to a life of penury and the other possibly death? Both suffered from the curse of the people and lands they plundered. Today they are revered, as great explorers, navigators…but well, in their cases, historians erred on the side of the discovery hype. However - Compared to Columbus's voyage of 8,000 miles over the relatively quiet Atlantic, Magellan's expedition of 42,000 miles, 22,000 of them over waters no white man had ever seen, was an achievement without parallel in an era of fragile wooden ships.

Acknowledgement - Much of the historical data comes from the book ‘Life of Ferdinand Magellan’ by FHH Guillemard.

Photos – from the web, thanks to the uploaders…