Magellan – And The Mystery Of Three Islands

Magellan – And The Mystery Of Three Islands

Magellan has been in the news lately and I have been thinking about that “fella.” As a historical cartographer I have wondered if Magellan could have seen the islands north of Guam prior to his landing. An abstract question at best, but perhaps of interest to some mapmakers and geographers as well as others interested in triviality. Daniel Boorstin stated in his book,The Discoverers, that Ferdinand Magellan (1480? – 1521), “found the extent of the Pacific Ocean an excruciating surprise and learned he had only one-third of the necessary provisions for a trip three times longer than expected.”

However, he and his 110 ton vessel, the Trinidad, had luck with the weather. During the three months and twenty days since his passage from the Atlantic north of what is now Tierra Del Fuego to the Pacific Ocean, he sailed 12,000 miles through open ocean and did not encounter a single storm. Misled by this one experience he named the ocean the Pacific. Nor did he sight any other island of the hundreds situated between Cape Horn and the Marianas except for two uninhabited desert islets. Both were atolls, Puka Puka, (Dog Island), in the Tuamotu Archipelago, (IIes du Desappointement) and the other in the Marquesas which he named the Unfortunate Island. A crew must have been sent ashore at both as it is recorded that no fruits or vegetables were found to ward off scurvy, nor was fresh water available on the islands.

Crossing the Equator, he sailed through the seas around the Eastern Carolines not seeing a single island until reaching the Marianas presumably on March 6, 1521. How this date was determined I do not know since he had crossed what later became the 180th meridian which, several centuries later, generally came to coincide with what is now known as the International Date Line. He thus passed from one day to another or from his yesterday into today. Had he turned around he would have sailed from what was then his “today” into “yesterday” since he was already in his “tomorrow” – or something like that.

Magellan first christened the archipelago Las Isles de las Velas Latinas (The Islands of the Latine Sails), because the triangular shape of the sails used on native canoes were similar to those used on Mediterranean vessels. Seven days after departing the Marianas, Magellan was killed at Mactan on Samar Island in the Philippines. Of the five ships in the original convoy and the compliment of 250 people, only a single vessel along with Pigafetta and seventeen others completed the around the world voyage.

Magellan's chronicler, Antonoio Pigafetta, (1491 – 1534?) mentions in his Primo Viaggio Intorno al Mondo as having sighted three islands.Did Magellan also see the Northern Marianas? Considering the limited height of the mast of a 16th century vessel, (a lookout 40 feet above sea level would only be able see a distance of 7.75 miles to the horizon), one would have to be north of Guam and in the vicinity of the Northern Mariana islands where the only three islands that could be viewed simultaneously are the islands of Saipan, Tinian and the small island of Aguijan. Certainly if Pigafetta stated he saw three islands he must have discerned that there were indeed three islands by also sighting the beach areas of each since he must have known very well that an island with a series of high peaks visible over the horizon could well appear as a series of islands from a distant vantage point which obviously results from the earth’s curvature.

Incidentally, it is interesting that so many believed little more than fifty years earlier in the 15th century that the earth was flat when all one had to do was stand at a port and look out to sea where one could observe an inbound vessel appear over the horizon and first see the top of billowing sails, then the full sail and finally the entire vessel. By this observation, simple logic would lead one to realize that this could only be a result of curvature and therefore the earth must be round – but more on this later. Granted an extremely large bay area could also deceive one as to whether a particular land mass was contiguous or not, but there are no large bay areas on Guam that would permit this possible miscalculation.

Could one of the islands sighted been Rota, 47 nautical miles north of Guam’s Ritidian Point which is approximately 24 nautical miles north of Umatac Bay, the point on Guam where it is believed by some that Magellan went ashore? The total distance from Umatac to the southern tip of Rota is approximately 71 nautical miles. Rota’s highest point is Mt. Sabana with an elevation of 496 meters, (1,488 feet ). While one could see the tip of Rota’s highest point from a distance of 55 statute miles from a height of 40 feet on a clear day with good eyesight, an observer would have to also possess the ability to distinguish the difference between a dark cloud and an island on the horizon. Would Pigafetta have classified Cocos, which is little more than a sand bar, as an island? If so, this would be the fourth island. A vessel would have to be quite near it to see it. Being in proximity to this low island precludes viewing Rota.

Approaching Guam from the east and rounding the island’s southern tip turning north to anchor at Umatac, Cocos Island would have been sighted but Rota could not have been seen as it would be blocked from the line of sight by the Orote Peninsula and portions of northern Guam. If Magellan passed Guam’s northern tip he could have possibly seen Rota but not Cocos. By passing Guam to the north and turning south to sail down Guam’s western shore seeking an anchorage, Magellan must have sighted what is now Apra Harbor. He could have put in there. Considering that he and the crew had been aboard ship for almost four months after entering the Pacific and perhaps longer, they were so low on water and food that they were forced to eat rats, saw dust , leather and ground up maggots.

For this reason alone one would think that Magellan would want to go ashore to change his diet when the first opportunity presented itself at what is now known as Apra Harbor. Were the islets in the Marquesas and the Tuamotu Archipelago together with Guam the three islands Pigafetta mentioned in his chronicle or did he sight islands in the Northern Marianas where three islands can be viewed simultaneously? At what point during the voyage does Pigafetta refer to three islands? Prior to arrival in the Marianas or afterward?

Certainly not after completion of the around the world voyage for he surely saw more than three islands as Samar Island was seen, (and incidentally the last one he would ever see). No doubt his crew saw many more in the Philippines as well as those that must have been sighted throughout the remaining adventure. The reference to the three islands was obviously made well before the island of Samar was sighted. It was at Samar where Magellan completed his circumnavigation of the globe as he had reached this meridian years earlier when he sailed in the opposite direction from Spain. Pigafetta made a map on which the accompanying 1522 woodcut is based. Note that three islands appear to be in proximity, however, since the map has no scale nor are latitude and longitude indicated it is not known if they could have been viewed simultaneously.

The possibility for calculating longitude could not have been possible in 1521 since a crucial discovery by Galileo for making this determination was not made until 1583 and indeed still had not been perfected by 1714 when the British Parliament passed an act “For Providing a Publick Reward For The Discovery Of Longitude At Sea.” Note also that the islands on the map appear to have mountains depicted. Atolls have no appreciable height indicating that the islands shown were not those in the Tuamotu Archipelago . Had Magellan lived to complete the voyage he might have muttered, “the earth is not flat and it’s not round – it’s crooked.” Sources: Men, Ships and the Sea, 1962, National Geographic Society, Washington; Seas, Maps and Men, 1962, Doubleday and Company, London; Landmarks of Mapmaking, 1976, R. V. Tooley, Dorset Press, New York; The Discovers, 1983, Daniel J. Boorstin,Random House, New York. Appreciation and thanks to Mr. Richie Johnson, Vero Beach, Florida, for a helpful critique on viewing distances at sea.