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Away All Boats, Part 1: The Magellan Voyage To Cape Cod, 1530 by Chris Oakley

Ferdinand Magellan was one of the most important seafarers of the 16th century; his historic round-the-world sailing expedition, which began in the Spanish port of Sanlucar in 1519 and ended with Magellan returning in triumph to that same port three years later marked the first successful circumnavigation of the globe in human history and in the process gave Europeans one of their earliest comprehensive views of the Pacific region. But it wouldn’t be until eight years later that he made the voyage which would seal his reputation as an explorer for all time. His 1530 expedition to New England’s Cape Cod peninsula shed new light on a previously little-known corner of North America-- and in the process reinforced Portugal’s claim to bona fide European power status as it competed with France, Spain, and England for the top rung on the geopolitical ladder.

It was a voyage Magellan nearly didn’t live to make. During the final year of his trans-global expedition, Magellan’s fleet visited the Marianas Islands just as a local dispute between rival tribes on one of the islands was starting to heat up; many of Magellan’s men were killed in the course of that dispute, and Magellan himself barely managed to escape with his life. When he returned home and told his sponsors what had happened, they marveled at the cat’s-whisker quality of his getaway; some of his listeners regarded it as a sign from God that Magellan was destined for even greater accomplishments than those he’d already made. And that was saying a great deal, considering one of those accomplishments was circumnavigating the globe.

According to available records from that time, the groundwork for the Magellan Cape Cod expedition was first laid in August of 1527 when Magellan visited the Portuguese capital Lisbon to meet with Portugal’s King João III for a discussion on what the monarch stated was a matter of the utmost importance to the future of Portugal. When Magellan got to the king’s palace he learned that João III wanted him to head up a trans-Atlantic voyage to the North American continent for the purpose of surveying what was then known as Cape St. James(having been dubbed so two years earlier by Magellan’s fellow countryman Estêvão Gomes). A successful expedition to that region, the king told Magellan, would be valuable in enhancing Portugal’s standing among her European peers and serving notice to her principal continental rival Spain that it didn’t have a monopoly on the capacity for mounting voyages of discovery to the New World.

But that was far from the only motivation which Magellan had for making the journey to Cape Cod-- Magellan’s wife and only child had died during his round-the-world voyage, and he urgently needed some kind of intensive project to take his mind off the grief he still felt over their passing. A trans-Atlantic mission to survey Cape St. James might be just the thing to re-focus his mind and save his soul. So it hardly took much time for him to agree to King João’s request that he head up the Cape St. James expedition.

The next two years were divided between raising additional capital for the expedition and finding experienced crewmen to man the vessels that would carry it to the New World. This would reunite Magellan with some of his former colleagues from his round-the-world expedition; the first men to enlist in the Cape St. James voyage company were mariners who’d sailed with him on his trans-global journey. And as word spread of the great impending adventure, multitudes of other would-be sailors flocked to Magellan’s banner, and not all of them were Portuguese: by the time he finally set sail for North America fully one-fifth of the men under his command were English or French expatriates, and a recent archeological dig in central Europe has turned up intriguing evidence he may have even had Germans or Austrians in his ranks.

The expedition had originally been scheduled to leave for the New World in early October of 1529, but bad weather forced Magellan to postpone his departure-- which was very fortunate for him and his company, as it turned out, because a storm was passing through the North Atlantic at that time which would have ripped Magellan’s fleet to shreds had they attempted to pass through it. Magellan and the men under his command used the enforced delay time to further familiarize themselves with the route they would use to cross the Atlantic.

Magellan’s Cape St. James expedition finally set sail on April 16th, 1530 amid what Magellan’s second-in-command described in his personal logbook as “a day made glorious by God himself in salute to our great undertaking”. And indeed, it was a perfect day at least in weather terms to start a trans-Atlantic voyage. The sun was at its zenith and a 30-knot tailwind helped accelerate the Magellan fleet’s departure from the Portuguese coast.

By 16th century standards the first half of the voyage to North America passed by rapidly; it took Magellan’s flagship just over two weeks to make it one-third of the way across the North Atlantic and another four days after that to reach the halfway mark. The records of the voyage are not as complete as one would like since some parts of Magellan’s log were accidentally destroyed by a fire in 1752, but from the accounts that have survived morale among Magellan’s crews was high as they made their way to North America; there are no known cases of mutiny and few if any chronicled instances of discontent among the men of the Cape St. James expeditionary company.

The expedition reached the southern edge of Cape St. James on June 7th a few miles east of what is today the Massachusetts town of Mashpee. Magellan and three of his most trusted lieutenants were the first to set foot on the beach and were immediately struck by just how vast the shoreline really was. “It seemed to swallow up half the earth.” Magellan’s second-in-command wrote in his logbook entry for that day. “Marco Polo himself never saw the likes of this.” And to be sure, few Europeans up to that time had even come close to having a first-hand look at a seashore as vast as the one on which Magellan and his men were now standing. Indeed the great seafarer was so taken by its majesty that he spent much of his first day on shore making a series of sketches of the local coastline; these sketches would later function as the starting point for more extensive maps of the Cape St. James area.


Remembering his brush with death in the Marianas, Magellan gave his men two directives: (1)to arm themselves for self-defense before going ashore and (2)to avoid unnecessary confrontations with whatever indigenous societies might exist in the Cape St. James area. In nearly half a century of European exploration of the Americas starting with Christopher Columbus’ historic 1492 expedition to the West Indies much had been learned about the geography of the New World but its people were still something of an enigma. So Magellan and his men had little if any idea what to expect if they should encounter any human beings during the course of their mission and had decided to err on the side of caution.

But that didn’t stop the Native American cultures who called the Cape home from being wary of the newcomers-- especially when they first heard the ear-splitting reports from the muskets Magellan’s men used to shoot some of the local game for food as a way of augmenting the supplies they’d brought with them. The concept of firearms was at that time unknown to most indigenous North American societies, making them doubly terrifying to the Cape peoples when they got their first experience of these weapons. Then again, Magellan’s men were almost every bit as nervous about what might happen to them if they were to come face to face with the pre-Iron Age cultures living in the woods just beyond the Cape shoreline. Even Magellan himself, not a shrinking violet by any means, would confess in his private logbook to thinking at times that the countryside might become “a graveyard” for him and his men at the slightest miscalculation.

On June 11th, four days after landing at the Cape, Magellan was unexpectedly confronted with a major crisis when a thunderstorm sank two of his supply ships, depriving his expedition of much of the food, firewood, and munitions they had been counting on to sustain them over the next few months. Now the veteran explorer had a difficult choice to make: pull up stakes and head for home in defeat, or stay and try to get along with the supplies he had left....

To Be Continued


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