Patagonia: a word that transports the reader to a magic, fascinating territory. As vast as it is unknown, it is conjured up in our imagination in many different ways. It has always been a land of conquest and colonization, ever since Fernando de Magallanes discovered the Patagonian coast and the Strait that bears his name.
These desolate shores were host to famous navigators who suffered the savage force of its characteristic, unceasing wind. That, plus the doubtful hospitality of barren lands where nothing grows and no water can be found. Getting there was a notable feat. But settling down was practically impossible.
Magallanes discovered these lands by chance. His aim was to reach the “Islas de la Especiería” (Molucas) and return to Spain with his vessels laden with spices, silk, porcelain and all sorts of valuable goods he could find on the way. Like Columbus, he believed it was possible to get to the East through the West. And this trip was supposed to be the proof of his hypothesis.
The expedition consisted of five ships, (San Antonio, Trinidad, Concepción, Victoria and Santiago) Magallanes commanding this enterprise. Although each ship had its own captain, it was he who had the responsibility of the final decisions. In fact, shortly after leaving port he decided to change the pre-established route, and, coasting Africa up to Guinea, gave orders to veer towards Brazil.
Juan de Cartagena, general overseer and captain of the San Antonio, demanded an explanation. Magallanes, who was obviously not used to answering for his decisions, considered this as a sort of insult and promptly relieved Juan de Cartagena of his duties as overseer replacing him with Antonio de Coca (accountant of the expedition). After this incident Magallanes became rather paranoid and, suspicious of his captains’ intentions, he finally replaced Antonio de Coca by a cousin, Alvaro de Mezquita.
The voyage continued with these conflicts until they reached Brazil. They stayed there for two weeks in the company of friendly natives, and maybe this relaxing fortnight helped to ease the tension.
Nevertheless, after a month and a half sailing, Magallanes realized that the calculations of the map he was using (drawn by Martín Behaim) were wrong. He kept this secret from the other captains and refused to follow their suggestions to find a secure port where they could take shelter, get supplies and maintenance for the ships.
Magallanes, very self-assured, managed to impose his authority. On the 31 st. of March 1520 they reached a bay which he named Bahía San Julián, where they disembarked in order to spend the winter. Food and wine were rationed and the men were both discouraged and resentful.
The captains considered it was the perfect moment to encourage mutiny, and that marked the beginning of an episode where treachery, cruelty and murder haunted the days and nights of these tough, fierce sailors.
The leaders of the insurrection were Quesada, Mendoza and Cartagena who, together with a group of men, boarded the San Antonio. They took Alvaro de Mezquita prisoner, and stabbed Juan Elgorriaga because he confronted them, thus making it quite clear that from that moment they gave the orders. Juan Sebastián Elcano was appointed captain.
Next morning one of the ships, the Trinidad, sent a boat with some of the crew to the mutineer ship to ask for someone to accompany them to land in search of wood and water. But nobody moved, and a voice informed them that they took orders only from Gaspar de Quesada. The men returned to inform Magallanes about the situation. On the other hand the mutineers, scared because of the possible –and very severe- consequences of their rebellion, asked to be received by the admiral to begin conversations.
Magallanes took the messengers prisoner and, in turn, sent a boat with Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa with a written reply. Luis Mendoza, captain of the Victoria, received Espinosa who in cold blood stuck a dagger right in the captain’s throat while he was reading the note. The crew looked on, paralyzed with shock, and that was when another fifteen armed men sent by Magallanes took command of the ship, and named Duarte de Barbosa (Magallanes’ father-in-law) captain of the Victoria. He led this ship alongside the Trinidad, which was controlling the entry to the bay.
Mendoza and Quesada were tried and sentenced to death. Both were beheaded and their bodies, ripped to pieces, were stuck on poles, displayed for everyone to see. Such was the way treachery was punished in those days.
There were other men killed, and presumably some were pardoned because their work on board was necessary, but pardon was shown as an act of mercy.
Magallanes had to face another problem, he had to soften the terrible impact of these dramatic events and keep his crew busy and active. He decided to build a workshop with a forge and have everybody’s attention focused on repairing the ships.
Two months went by before they made their first contact with the natives. These were described as being “big as giants, very well built, their wide faces dyed red except for the eyes which were surrounded by yellow circles, and two heart-shaped traces on their cheeks”.
Magallanes was believed to have called these natives Patagones on account of their enormous feet.
The natives were quite friendly at first, but the newcomers –in a style that was typical of the conquistadores- thought they could take come of them back to Spain in bondage. As they couldn’t take them on board by force, they thought of a way to trick them. They showed the natives some iron chains to attract their attention, and then, pretending it was a present, they put the chains round their ankles. When the natives realized they were prisoners they got furious and started to fight. A sailor was wounded with a poisoned arrow and died instantly. The Spaniards retaliated with firearms but the natives managed to get away. Not only were they very fast runners, they also ran in a sort of zigzag so in the end they fooled their would-be captors, who, spitefully, burnt down their huts.
One month later Magallanes decided it was time to leave this region although his mission was far from completed.
In October a fearful storm pushed the ships southward until they reached a headland that they christened Cabo de las Once Mil Vírgenes. Further on, seeing what looked like an estuary, Magallanes sent the Concepción and San Antonio to explore. They had five days to carry out this reconnaissance, and meanwhile the remaining ships waited nearby, in a place called “Bahía de la Posesión”.
A few days went by and suddenly the ships were seen coming back, cannons saluting, flags waving, sailors enthusiastically jumping, embracing one another… Victory was theirs!
The passage to the Pacific had finally been discovered.
Magallanes had triumphed.
In those hard days, celebrations didn’t last long. Future actions must be decided, new decisions must be taken. Due to the lack of supplies, the weariness of the crew and the bad condition of the ships, the general opinion among the captains favored returning to Spain. But Magallanes refused and gave orders to sail towards the Molucas, his original destination.
He met his death on the island of Mactan, fighting with the natives, on the 27th of April 1521. He was forty-one.
The itinerary was continued by Elcano, who reached Spain on board the Victoria, on the 8th of September 1522, thus completing the first circumnavigation of the globe as had been planned by Magallanes. This was undoubtedly the biggest nautical feat of the times.