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Away All Boats, Part 2: The Magellan Voyage To Cape Cod, 1530 by Chris Oakley

Summary: In the first chapter of this series we reviewed the events which led up to Ferdinand Magellan’s 1530 voyage to Cape Cod and someof the events following his arrival there. In this segment we’ll lookback at how Magellan and his crews responded to the loss of two of the expedition’s supply ships.

Ferdinand Magellan’s legacy, if not the future course of all of Western history, was hinging on his decision about whether or not to continue his Cape St. James expedition after two of his supply vessels sank in a heavy storm. It was not a decision to be taken lightly, and few people understood this more clearly than Magellan himself. It took him and his crew half a day after those supply ships went down before they finally reached a consensus on what to do next. But in the end, a determination to finish the job they’d started combined with a burning desire to know more about the terra incognita beyond the Cape seashore motivated Magellan and his men to decide in favor of continuing their exploration of the area. They would make every effort to get along as best they could with the supplies they still had, and once those ran out they would begin to utilize the local resources in order to keep themselves going; in the meantime Magellan sent one of his ships back home bearing a message requesting the Portuguese government dispatch additional provisions at the earliest possible moment.

That done, Magellan and his comrades set to work establishing a base camp from which they could probe the Cape’s interior and still have a rallying point to return to when their work was completed. In the next few weeks this base camp would serve as a de facto temporary colony of Portugal while Magellan’s company sought to determine if a more permanent Portuguese presence could be established on the Cape. TO keep his base camp secure, Magellan organized men from some of the other ships from his expeditionary party into watch details whose duty it would be to patrol the camp’s perimeter in three-hour shifts; the primary objective of these patrols was to keep the local wildlife from getting into the shore party’s food supply, with a secondary goal of guarding the base camp itself against potential human threats to its survival. The native peoples who called the Cape home in those days were still somewhat of an enigma to Europeans, and Magellan’s greatest concern was that these people might attack his expedition if provoked.

But as it turned out, the local cultures-- the Wampanoags in particular --were largely adopting a defensive posture when it came to these newcomers from across the ocean. They were justifiably wary of the firearms Magellan’s men possessed and were reluctant to get into an armed showdown with them until they’d taken the full measure of the strangers’ fighting capabilities. Nearly four weeks would pass before Magellan’s men made first contact with the largest of the Wampanoag encampments; since neither side knew the slightest thing about the other’s language, Magellan had to rely almost entirely on hand signals to communicate with the Wampanoags. It took weeks of trial and error-- mostly error-- before the two sides were finally able to establishment a tentative diplomatic relationship between them. And even then, there was still an outside chance of some kind of misunderstanding leading to an armed conflict between Magellan’s men and the Wampanoags. Both sides would spend the next few weeks walking a diplomatic and cultural tightrope as they sought to feel one another out trying to gauge their respective intentions.

Eventually, though, relations and communications between the Wampanoags and Magellan’s men started to improve as the Europeans began to grasp the basics of the Wampanoag language. From there the expedition sought to tap into the rich storehouse of knowledge the Wampanoags had accumulated over countless generations regarding the land along with the fauna and flora inhabiting it. This in turn led to the opening of trade negotiations. In addition to his roles as an explorer and military commander, Magellan had now also taken on the position of diplomat.

Magellan’s journals described at length a lush environment in the areas north and west of the beachhead his men had established at Cape St. James. They were initially greeted with a certain amount of skepticism by some of his fellow countrymen, but at the royal court they garnered rapt interest from the king and his entourage, and the king’s next dispatch to Magellan encouraged him to delve further into the interior terrain of the Cape St. James region. Magellan was quick to heed his king’s advice....


...and organized a party including his two best mapmakers to make a preliminary exploration of the woodlands north and west of Cape St. James. Many of the men who accompanied Magellan on that expedition-- and perhaps Magellan himself for that matter-- hoped they mind find gold or silver in the woods in the course of their searches; no gold was ever discovered, but the survey did turn up considerable evidence suggesting the land’s potential for farming once suitably sized tracts had been cleared.

This revelation prompted King João to begin giving serious consideration to planning for the establishment of more permanent Portuguese settlements in North America. His kingdom’s power was at its zenith at that time, and if Portugal could achieve even a small foothold in the Cape St. James area it would give João III’s empire a leg up on its British and French rivals. With that in mind he wrote a letter to Magellan, to be taken to the New World by the next supply ship sailing to Magellan’s encampment at Cape St. James, in which the Portuguese monarch directed the seafarer to do further surveys of the regions, this time with the goal of locating possible sites for a future long-term Portuguese settlements. Accordingly, the Magellan expedition set to work constructing a more permanent base of operations for themselves from which they could carry out the kind of surveys the king desired. This turn of events was greeted by the local indigenous societies with surprise-- and a bit of trepidation.

Even some of Magellan’s own men weren’t entirely sure about the wisdom of attempting to establish a permanent base in the New World. Magellan himself, however, had no doubts about the desirability of a long-term Portuguese presence in the Cape St. James region; such an outpost, he felt, would prove a useful insurance policy against any future attempt by Great Britain or France to interfere with Portugal in its efforts to forge a colonial empire in North America...


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To Be Continued


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