Magellan’s Not-so-excellent Adventure


You have been waiting, now here it is, Episode 13!  In this episode, a second European nation, Spain, gets involved in Southeast Asia by discovering the Philippines, a part of Southeast Asia that had not gotten much attention previously.  Then we will see Spain’s attempts to take Indonesia and its valuable spice trade from


And here is a map that explains the Portuguese-Spanish dispute in Southeast Asia.  It shows three ideas on where to put the “Tordesillas antimeridian,” the line between the Portuguese and Spanish claims.  Only the line on the right is in the correct place.  The dotted line is where Ferdinand Magellan thought the Southeast Asian mainland was.  Source:  Stalemate at Bajadoz.

(Transcript, added 01/14/2020.)

Episode 13: Magellan’s Not-so-excellent Adventure

Greetings, dear listeners! Or perhaps I should say “Mabuhay!”, which is Tagalog for “Hello!”, since we are going to concentrate on the Philippines for at least two episodes.


Yes, the title you just heard was inspired by “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure,” a movie comedy with a history theme. Well, the science fiction writer Poul Anderson once defined an adventure as a hardship happening to someone else, and there sure was a lot of hardship on the expeditions we will hear about today. Along that line, I could have used a parody of another movie title, “Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events,” and it would have been just as relevant.


In the last episode, we met Portugal, the first European nation to send ships to the Far East in the Age of Exploration. Now we are going to meet Portugal’s neighbor and rival, Spain. In the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, Europeans couldn’t get enough of spices, and Portugal and Spain were in a race to get to the source of those spices, a part of Indonesia that we now call the Moluccas, but were called the Spice Islands in those days. For a few years it looked like Spain had won, because in fourteen hundred and ninety-two, Columbus sailed the ocean blue. On the west side of the Atlantic, Christopher Columbus found some islands that he thought just had to be the East Indies, the islands ancient and medieval maps showed on the east side of India. Wrong-o! They were the islands of the Caribbean, which we now call the West Indies so that nobody else will confuse them with the real East Indies. Then when Columbus reached Cuba, he thought it was Japan, and wondered why he did not see scholars wearing silk robes, and samurai castles, like the ones Marco Polo had written about! It took Amerigo Vespucci, another Italian sailor hired by Spain, to straighten out the matter. Vespucci correctly guessed that Columbus had not visited any places Europeans had heard about previously; instead, he had discovered a “New World.” Then in 1513, Vasco Nunez de Balboa hiked across Panama and discovered the Pacific Ocean on the other side. That explained everything; if you sailed west from Europe, you had to get past America, and cross two oceans, not one, to reach Asia.


Meanwhile, as we saw last time, Portugal won the race, by sending an expedition from Malacca to explore eastern Indonesia in 1512. To the Indonesians the Portuguese must have been the strangest-looking people they had ever seen, what with their big Caucasian noses, pale skin, unslanted eyes that came in more than one color, and hair that came in several colors as well. Upon arrival at the Spice Islands, the Portuguese took on a valuable cargo of nutmeg, cloves and other spices, and returned to Malacca with physical proof that they had reached the goal.


It had taken nearly a hundred years for Portugal to find out where the Spice Islands were, and because the trip was so long, many people paid more attention to the hazards on the way, than they did to the rewards at the end of the journey. This is how Columbus got the idea that if he sailed west from Europe instead of east, he would find a “fast track” to the Orient. Another who felt that way was a Portuguese adventurer we met in the last episode, Fernão de Magalhães, better known to us by his Anglicized name, Ferdinand Magellan.


Born in 1480 as the son of a rural squire, Magellan got his start as a page at the court of Portugal’s Queen Leonora. No doubt he was inspired by the stories of Portuguese explorers like Vasco da Gama, because he studied mathematics and navigation, two useful skills to have when you are a member of a ship’s crew. In 1505 he got the lucky break to get started in a career on the seas, when he sailed to India in a squadron commanded by Francisco de Almeida, the first Portuguese viceroy of India. In the last episode we saw he played his part in the Portuguese adventure, by taking part in the expeditions to Malacca in 1509 and 1511, and then he was on the expedition that went to the Spice Islands in 1512. After that he returned to Portugal, was promoted to the minor nobility for his previous actions, sent on a military mission to Morocco, and got wounded in the leg, which caused him to walk with a limp for the rest of his life.


Upon his return from Morocco, Magellan was given a safer assignment, where all he had to do was supervise the loot that had been brought back to Portugal. With this job there was naturally a temptation to steal something, and Magellan was soon accused of doing this. Although he was cleared of the charges, he had become annoying at the court in the meantime, for frequently demanding that he should have been rewarded better for his services, so King Manuel I decided that in the future, he would use Magellan as little as possible.


Because of his experiences, Magellan had come to believe that Columbus had the right idea; if a passage could be found through or around the lands Columbus had discovered, it would be possible to sail west to Asia, and that would be quicker than the path Portugal had blazed around Africa and across the Indian Ocean. Of course he first proposed this to his king, but with Portugal fully committed to extending and defending the eastbound trade route it already had, King Manuel wasn’t interested. However, Spain had a new king, Charles V, and he was more receptive; his grandmother had sponsored the first expedition of Columbus, and Spain was starting to earn tremendous profits as a result. So when Magellan got five ships in 1519, to look for a westward passage to the Orient, he was now an employee of Spain.


I won’t be giving a detailed account of Magellan’s entire expedition, for two reasons. First, we are mainly interested in the Pacific phase of the voyage, so that is what we will concentrate on; most of what happened in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans is filler material. Second, the whole Magellan story was covered in early 2016 by another podcaster, Sebastian Major. For his version of the story, check out his attention-grabbing podcast, Our Fake History. Though I now have six months of experience at podcasting, I still don’t want to be compared with other podcasters while I am a beginner in this business.


Anyway, Magellan’s five ships were named the Trinidad, the San Antonio, the Concepcion, the Victoria, and the Santiago, and he started with 270 crewmen on them. It took a year and a half for Magellan to go from Spain to Southeast Asia. First, he had to find a “Southwest Passage” through the western hemisphere’s continents, and he did it by sailing down the South American coast to the strait that now bears his name. But it was by no means an easy cruise, like the one Columbus had from Spain to the Caribbean. Twice Magellan had to put down mutinies, because Spanish crewmen did not like serving under a foreigner, and before the expedition started Magellan was ordered to leave behind most of the Portuguese crewmen he had recruited. And the weather at the bottom of South America is notoriously bad most of the time; just ask any sailor. One ship, the Santiago, was wrecked in a storm before it could enter the Strait of Magellan. though fortunately the other four ships managed to rescue its crew. Then after entering the strait, some crew members on the San Antonio were spooked by the local conditions, mutinied, and took their ship back to Spain. This was especially bad for the expedition, because supplies were low to begin with, and most of what they had was on the largest ship, the San Antonio. When Magellan learned this, he called the officers to a meeting, made them swear to keep the food shortage secret, and declared the voyage would go on, even if they had to “eat the cowhide off the yard-arms.”


The three remaining ships reached the other side of the strait after seven weeks of fighting the weather and trying to find the right path through the strait’s many waterways. The ocean they now entered was a lot more peaceful than the South Atlantic, and Magellan optimistically named it the Pacific. He thought the Pacific was about the same size as the Atlantic, and that they would be able to cross it in a month. But while the tradewinds blew them westward at a good speed, the Pacific turned out to be much larger than any other ocean. What’s more, their course through the eastern and central Pacific did not take them near any land larger than a coral atoll; they missed the islands that would have been suitable places for rest and resupply, like Tahiti, Hawaii and Fiji. The result was that the next three months would be a time of perfect weather and perfect misery. By the third month the crew was chewing sawdust and eating the leather on the rigging — remember what Magellan said about that! They were also catching the rats in the cargo hold, which they sold to the hungriest among them for half a ducat each. We saw a couple episodes ago that a ducat was a gold coin from Venice, worth about $150 in today’s American dollars. Think about it, the next time you complain about food prices; Magellan’s crew paid 75 bucks for a stewing rat. I’m sure the rats sold in pet stores to feed snakes don’t cost that much!


The men were so sick from scurvy that it took six of them to do the work of one, and between rainstorms the water in their barrels became so foul that they had to hold their noses to get a drink.


At last, after 98 days at sea they came to Guam, where they resupplied. There was some trouble because the people of Guam, the Chamorros, didn’t have the Western concept of private property. When they saw the Spaniards taking food and water, they thought it was all right to board the ships and take whatever interested them, even a lifeboat on the Trinidad. Disgusted, Magellan drove them off, called Guam and the nearby islands the Islas de Ladrones, the Islands of Thieves, and continued on west.


A week later, in March 1521, the expedition sighted Leyte, the easternmost island of the Philippines, and Magellan felt like he had been raised from the dead, so he named the archipelago “San Lazaro,” the St. Lazarus Islands. No European had seen these islands before, but because both Indonesians and Filipinos are ethnic Malays, and speak closely related languages, Magellan’s personal Indonesian slave, Enrique, could understand some of the words spoken by the natives. This told Magellan that Indonesia must be nearby.




We need to interrupt the narrative at this point. Up until now, this podcast hasn’t had much to say about the Philippines. Though my wife is from there, she hasn’t offered to say anything in this podcast yet, because she doesn’t like talking about events that happened long before she was born. In Episode 1 I mentioned the Negritos settling in the Philippines during the ice age, and the controversy concerning the Tasaday, a tribe that wasn’t as primitive as it looked. Then in Episode 2 we talked about the Philippines when the great Malay migration passed through the islands, and in Episode 11 we talked about the introduction of Islam to Filipino communities in the southwest corner of the archipelago. In that episode I didn’t give the details on how Islam got a foothold here, so I’ll do it now; we hear that the first Islamic missionary to the Philippines was Makdum Karim, a merchant from Johore, Malaya, and he built a mosque in Tawi-Tawi province in 1380.


And that’s it — until now. No great empire arose in the Philippines, and the greatest achievement of the ancient Filipinos has already been mentioned, the Banawe rice terraces. And when it came to trade, the Philippines was too far off the beaten path for any merchants following the India-China trade route, so civilization came here later than it did in other parts of Southeast Asia. However, the Philippines does have some useful resources — rice, pearls, resins for lacquer, shells, rattan, and hemp — and eventually all surrounding lands, including China and Japan, became customers of these goods. And while the Indian merchants and missionaries mentioned in previous episodes did not come here, some aspects of Indian culture were brought here by the Indonesians.


In Episode 4 we learned that a prehistoric culture, the Sa Huynh culture, existed in South Vietnam between 1000 B.C. and 200 A.D., and the people behind that culture were probably the direct ancestors of the Chams, the southern rivals of the Vietnamese. Well, quite a few Sa Huynh artifacts, like pottery, have been found in the Philippines, especially on Palawan, the island farthest to the west. This means that either the founders of the Sa Huynh culture came from the Philippines, or more likely, that they did a lot of trading with the Filipinos, and they may have even colonized Palawan.


I said a minute ago that no empires got started in the Philippines. Before Magellan arrived, the most common political unit in the lowlands of the archipelago was a community called a barangay, which had a population of a few hundred at most, and was led by a chief called a datu. Below the datu, the people were divided into three social classes: nobles, freemen, and dependents; the dependents were mostly slaves and farmers who did not own the land they worked on. However, because marriage between the classes was permitted, and the manumission of slaves was commonplace, a person didn’t have to spend his whole life stuck in one class. Above the barangays were a handful of kingdoms that ruled some of the smaller islands completely, or parts of the two big islands, Luzon and Mindanao.


At least two kingdoms, Pangasinan in northern Luzon and Ma-i on the island of Mindoro, got most of their culture from China, to the point that Buddhism was their main religion. Most of the other kingdoms founded before 1400 resembled minor Indonesian states, because they copied Indonesian civilization for their own use. At some point in the 1400s, the Japanese established a trading post at Aparri, on the northern shore of Luzon. Because this fell within Pangasinan’s sphere of influence, the Spaniards would call Pangasinan the “Port of Japan” when they arrived on Luzon.


We now believe that Filipinos sailed across the South China Sea as early as 300 A.D., to trade the products of their homeland for the manufactured goods of other nations, especially China. Likewise, the first reported visit to the Philippines by Chinese merchants took place in 982, and after that the Chinese made fairly regular trips to Luzon and to Cebu, a medium-sized island in the middle of the archipelago. Luzon also happened to have Manila Bay, the best harbor in the whole Far East, and Manila was founded there to make the Chinese-Philippine trade easier. A kingdom called Tondo existed at Manila Bay from at least the years 900 to 1500.


We know Tondo was around in 900 because the oldest written inscription in the Philippines is on a thin copper plate that came from this kingdom, and the inscription has a date that works out to 900 on our calendar. Discovered in 1989, we call this the Laguna Copperplate Inscription; it is written in a Philippine language, but with an alphabet invented on Java, and it is a decree from the ruler of Tondo, cancelling a debt owed by two of his subjects. What a nice guy! Unfortunately we only have a few examples of Philippine writing from the pre-Spanish era, for two reasons:


1. If they wrote on wood, leaves or paper, it easily rotted in the tropical environment.

2. (Spoiler alert!) When the Spaniards took over, they burned most of the written records they found, because they thought these writings were useless pagan literature. They would; they did the same thing with Aztec and Mayan books in Mexico.


The trade with China made Tondo the richest early Philippine state, but ironically, today Tondo is the name of Manila’s largest slum. Around 1500, a naval expedition from Brunei, the Moslem state on Borneo, conquered Tondo, and after that from 1500 to 1571, the kingdom on the shores of Manila Bay was a vassal of Brunei, called either Kota Seludong or Maynila. Brunei also dominated Mindoro, the western tip of Mindanao, the Sulu Islands, and Palawan.


I just have a few words for the other early Filipino states. Around 1200, ten leaders from the declining Indonesian empire of Srivijaya fled to the island of Panay and formed a confederation, the Kedatuan of Madja-as. Another Indianized state that got started at the same time was the Rajahnate of Cebu. Local tradition asserts the Cebu state was founded by a descendant of the Chola dynasty, the south Indian rulers who devasted Srivijaya in the eleventh century. We will be coming back to Cebu very soon, because Magellan will make contact with this state. The Rajahnate of Butuan, an Indianized state on the northeast coast of Mindanao, was founded no later than the year 1001, practiced Hinduism and Buddhism, and made a good living from mining gold and trading with places as far away as China, Japan and Persia. Finally, the arrival of Islam led to the establishment of Moslem states: the Sultanate of Sulu in the islands by that name, the Sultanate of Maguindanao on southern Mindanao, and the four Sultanates of Lanao, also on Mindanao. On that note, we will end the time-out, and resume the narrative.


The Fate of Magellan


Magellan did not stay on Leyte for long, and after a quick look at Samar to the north and Mindanao to the south, the expedition continued into the archipelago. Their next stop was at Cebu, which we just saw was home to one of the more advanced Philippine states. At this point Magellan should have recruited some native guides to direct him to the Spice Islands, using Enrique as a translator. Instead, it seems he forgot the original goal of the expedition. Now he suddenly got the urge to convert some Filipinos to Christianity. He felt that if he succeeded as a missionary, the new Christians would willingly become subjects of the Spanish crown, and Spain would have its first outpost in Asia. At Cebu he put on a show of Spain’s superior technology and fighting ability, by firing the cannons on the ships; then when he offered to baptize the natives, the local ruler, Humabon, accepted baptism, and so did two thousand of his followers.


The price of Humabon’s conversion was aid in fighting an enemy chief, Lapu-Lapu of Mactan Island. I visited Cebu and Mactan in 1985; Mactan is a small island, separated from Cebu by one mile of water. Today the airport of Cebu City is on Mactan, and a bridge connects the two islands. Anyway, Magellan went to fight on the morning of April 27, 1521. He was so confident of victory that he only took sixty men to Mactan. Humabon brought 600 warriors to help, but Magellan told him to stay behind and watch. His crew could do the job by themselves.


Lapu-Lapu heard they were coming and assembled 1,500 warriors of his own to meet them, armed mainly with bamboo spears and poisoned arrows. The resulting battle was one-sided, and fought entirely in the water; the Spaniards never got to Mactan’s shore. Moreover, they were hopelessly outnumbered, to the point that even having cannon, muskets, crossbows, steel swords and steel armor could not win the battle for them. Only eight of Magellan’s sixty men survived; Magellan was not among them. Our sources disagree on exactly how Magellan was killed; one account says that several native warriors ganged up on him, while another account, the one today’s Filipinos prefer, asserts that Lapu-Lapu cut him down in a one-on-one fight. Nowadays both Magellan and Lapu-Lapu are venerated in the Philippines, Magellan for discovering their islands, and Lapu-Lapu because he was the first Filipino to resist colonialism.


Magellan’s death gave Humabon second thoughts about the alliance. Maybe it would be better to get along with Lapu-Lapu. Humabon invited 24 Spanish officers to a farewell banquet, gave the officers palm wine and women, and then attacked them, killing all but two or three. And that wasn’t the only loss, for the crew’s translator now jumped ship. Enrique had seen Magellan’s last will & testament, which called for Enrique to be set free when Magellan died, so legally he was now a free man. Instead of continuing with the expedition, Enrique chose to join the Cebu community, and stay here with Humabon. He wasn’t born in the Philippines, but it looked a lot like home, so what the heck! For that reason, modern-day Filipinos consider Enrique to be one of themselves, and they call him Enrique of Malacca or Henry the Black. We don’t hear any more from Enrique after this, so we don’t know how long he lived, or if he ever saw his Indonesian homeland again; if he did, this ex-slave would have been the first person to go all the way around the world.


After the battle of Mactan and Humabon’s treachery, only 120 of the original 270 crewmen were left to the expedition. This was not enough to man all three ships, so they burned the ship in worst shape, the Concepcion, and divided her crew and provisions between the other two, the Trinidad and the Victoria. The Philippines and the Moluccas are a thousand miles apart, as the monkey-eating eagle flies, so it does not take too many days to sail between them, and because there are plenty of islands along the way, you don’t even have to travel out of sight of land for long. However, the crew had no idea where to go, so they wandered aimlessly around Palawan, Borneo and the Sulu Sea for six months. Finally they reached the Spice Islands. Because the Portuguese had a base on Ternate, they went to the rival island of Tidore, and loaded a cargo of cloves. In fact, they overloaded, for the Trinidad sprang a leak and could go no farther.


Fortunately for the crew, no Portuguese ships were in the Moluccas while they were there; getting captured by the Portuguese would have ended the expedition for sure. Still, Juan Sebastian del Cano, the expedition’s new commander, did not want to press their luck, and decided to reduce the risk by having the ships go home by different paths. He would leave immediately with the Victoria and continue to go west, while the Trinidad, after it was repaired, would head east across the Pacific, going back the way it came. Once the Trinidad got moving again, it reached the Mariana Islands and turned north, but failed to catch the west wind needed for an eastbound course. The Trinidad’s captain claimed he sailed as far as latitude 42o N., which I’m skeptical of, because such a course would have put him near northern Japan. Then the ship limped back to the Moluccas, and this time the Portuguese caught her. Meanwhile the Victoria and eighteen of its crew members, including del Cano, made it to Spain in September 1522, almost three years to the day after they had left. Add to that seventeen men captured and later released by the Portuguese, and you have 35 survivors for the whole expedition. Because the Victoria also brought back 26 tons of cloves, King Charles saw the expedition as a success, despite all the losses.


Who Owns the Islands of Southeast Asia?


When it came to spices, the Philippines only had cinnamon, so at first Spain was more interested in Indonesia. But in the early 1520s it was unclear which country could have either place. Back in 1494 Pope Alexander VI tried to prevent future wars between Spain and Portugal by issuing the Treaty of Tordesillas, which divided the whole non-Christian world between those two nations. Sure, you may think the Pope had no business getting involved in foreign policy, but this was before the Reformation, and the typical medieval Pope thought that because he was God’s agent on earth, he outranked every king, so he could draw the frontiers between nations wherever he liked.


The Pope’s dividing line was drawn from north to south, and declared to be “370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands.” On a map this works out to a longitude of 46 degrees West, give or take a few miles; the most exact figure I could find was 46o 37′ West. According to the 1494 treaty, everything discovered west of that line belonged to Spain, and all new discoveries east of the line belonged to Portugal.


That was good enough while the Iberian nations were restricted to Europe, Africa and the Americas, but when they got to the Pacific, it became necessary to draw a similar property line on the opposite side of the world. It seemed logical to simply continue the Tordesillas line over the North Pole to the other side, where it becomes longitude 134 degrees East or 133o 23′ East, depending on who you are reading. The problem was that nobody knew where this so-called “antimeridian” actually ran. While it was easy for a navigator to determine the latitude of his location, by measuring how high the sun or certain stars were in the sky, before the invention of the chronometer in the 1760s, there was no accurate way to determine longitude. When a navigator was in unfamiliar territory, all he could do was guess how far he traveled each day, and use that to figure how far east or west he was, a process called “dead reckoning.”


As you might expect, with dead reckoning it is dreadfully easy to make a wrong guess, and this meant maps of the Pacific were full of errors, causing explorers to discover the same islands more than once. That was the case here. Look at the map on the page hosting this episode, to see for yourself the errors I will describe. Because a ship had sailed around the world, Spanish cartographers now knew how big the world was, but they overestimated the size of Asia, and underestimated the size of the recently discovered Pacific. Thus, they drew maps that put the antimeridian west of its correct position, usually running through the Malay peninsula. The vertical line in the middle of the map shows this, and the dotted line shows where Magellan placed the Southeast Asian mainland. This led Europeans to believe that both the Philippines and the Spice Islands were east of the line, in the Spanish half of the world. One Spanish navigator, Martín Fernández de Enciso, drew the crucial line so far west that it intersected with the mouth of the Ganges River. If this was true, it would have meant that everything east of India, including all of Southeast Asia, belonged to Spain. Actually, both the Philippines and the Spice Islands are on the Portuguese side of the line; the antimeridian really runs through Japan and New Guinea.


On this evidence, Spain sent two naval expeditions to conquer the Moluccas. The first expedition had seven ships and two captains, García Jofre de Loaísa and the previously mentioned Juan Sebastian del Cano, since he had been there before. This expedition left in 1525, and initially they looked for the Trinidad in the Atlantic, since Spain did not know the fate of Magellan’s flagship at that time. Then when they didn’t find the Trinidad, they retraced Magellan’s route down the South American coast, and the ships suffered very similar fates. Two ships were wrecked before they could enter the Strait of Magellan, while a third deserted and returned to Spain. The other four ships passed through the strait, only to be scattered by a fierce storm soon after entering the Pacific. One ship simply disappeared for the next four hundred years; wreckage from it was found in 1929, on the Amanu atoll in the Tuamotu archipelago of Polynesia. The second ship was carried north instead of west by the winds and currents, all the way to the Pacific coast of Mexico. The third ship was wrecked on Mindanao in the Philippines, and only the flagship, the Santa Maria del Victoria, made it to the Spice Islands, after stopping at Guam and Mindanao. Both de Loaísa and del Cano died of scurvy during the Pacific crossing, so the surviving crew members were leaderless. Still, the crew received a warm welcome from the sultan of Tidore. He had given spices to Magellan’s crew five years earlier, and the Portuguese had punished him for that gift; now he wanted revenge on both the Portuguese and their local ally, the sultan of Ternate. Soon after that, the Portuguese returned and put Tidore under siege; the Spaniards helped in the defense, but the crew of a single ship can only do so much.


By now a Spanish conquistador, Hernando Cortez, had conquered Mexico and renamed it New Spain. In 1527 the Spanish crown ordered Cortez to send a second follow-up expedition across the Pacific, to find out what happened to the first follow-up expedition AND the Trinidad. This time three ships sailed from Mexico’s Pacific coast, commanded by a cousin of Cortez, Álvaro de Saavedra Cerón. While launching ships from Mexico instead of Europe to cross the Pacific meant less hardship, it was still a risky trip. Again, a storm separated the ships, and two of them were never seen again. One of my sources floated a theory that the missing ships were carried to Hawaii, some 250 years before Captain Cook discovered those islands, and the crew chose to spend the rest of their lives there, instead of trying to leave. Who wouldn’t?


As was the case before, one ship made it all the way to its destination. This ship, the La Florida, made landfall on Mindanao, where Saavedra found and rescued a few survivors from the previous expedition; then he continued on to the Spice Islands. Though the Spaniards got only a handful of reinforcements from the ship, their arrival encouraged them greatly. However, Saavedra’s luck ran out when he tried to go back to Mexico with a cargo of spices; like the Trinidad, he could not find winds that would carry him across the Pacific from west to east. On the first two attempts, he managed to explore the northern coast of New Guinea and discovered the Admiralty Islands and the Marshall Islands, but the trade winds kept blowing him back to Indonesia. On the third attempt, the ship was wrecked in a storm, and Saavedra was killed. The survivors of the expedition gave themselves up to the Portuguese, who detained them for years before allowing them to return to Spain.


Because of the poor quality of the maps, King Charles V thought Spain had the legal advantage in Southeast Asia, but by now it was clear that Portugal had the logistical advantage; the Spanish route from Europe to the Spice Islands was 5,500 miles longer than the Portuguese one around Africa. What’s more, Portugal now had outposts on the African coast and in the Indian Ocean, where its ships could stop on the way. For these reasons, Portugal was losing just one ship out of every ten that it sent to Southeast Asia, while Spain was losing two out of every three ships. In 1529 Portugal’s King John III made this proposal: if Spain would drop its claim to the Spice Islands, Portugal would pay 350,000 ducats — that’s about $52 and a half million in today’s American dollars — and Portugal give free passage back to Europe for any Spaniards left in Indonesia. Charles accepted, and this agreement was put down in writing as the Treaty of Sarragosa.


Spain may have abandoned Indonesia, but it wasn’t done with the Philippines yet. The Spaniards felt they still had a claim here, because they had gotten to the Philippines first. And for the rest of the sixteenth century, Spain would publish maps that showed the Philippines a few hundred miles east of their correct position, as if the Spaniards were trying to make sure the archipelago was east of the Tordesillas antimeridian, so that nobody could dispute their claim. On that note, we will end today’s episode here, but this isn’t the end of our story about the Spanish Empire. On the contrary, we are only done with the first act. Next time we will see what happened when the Spaniards came back to the Philippines, this time with plans to stay.


Like I have said before, if you enjoyed this episode, consider making a donation to support the podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s page. If you listen on iTunes, consider writing a review. Or even if you don’t listen on iTunes, feel free to come over to the iTunes page and write a review. Thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!



The Portuguese Trailblazers


Happy New Year, and with a new year comes a new episode to the podcast.  Since the last episode finished our look at Southeast Asia during the Middle Ages, now we will meet the Portuguese, the first Europeans to reach Southeast Asia in the modern era.  For the nations of the Far East, life is about to get much more complicated!

(Transcript, added 01/07/2020.)

This episode is dedicated to two friends of the podcast on Facebook. The first friend is Ben Jacobs. As of January 2017, the podcast is six months old, it has gotten 8,000 downloads, and I estimate it has around 470 listeners. That’s not bad for a beginner like me, and I did choose to tackle a difficult subject; you know there are history podcasts with topics that are more fun. So far, most of the downloads and listeners have come from a successful Facebook promotion; only for the past couple of months has it become easy to find the podcast with a Google search. Still, the podcast wouldn’t have gotten as far as it did if I was the only one promoting it, though I have said more than once that it is curently a one-person show. Recently I found out that Ben Jacobs is the podcast’s most enthusiastic promoter, aside from myself, so Ben, thank you for the kind words. You gave the podcast a try before listening to it was cool. With your help, the podcast has reached what I call a critical mass; from this point on, it will continue to attract new listeners as long as new content is added. May you have a great day as you listen to this episode.


The other friend is James T, who made a generous donation on the day the previous episode went online. This will keep the lights on, supporting the hosting of this podcast for the time being, because I have learned from past experience not to trust websites that will host sound files for free. This also convinced my wife that all the time and work put into researching and recording the podcast is worth it. James, I hope you don’t mind me using this name for you, rather than the other one I know. And I hope your holiday season was a great one for you and your family, too. To both Ben and James, in the words of the Bartles & Jaymes commercials from thirty years ago:


<Bartles clip>


And now, on with today’s show!


Episode 12: The Portuguese Trailblazers


or, How Portugal Served Both God and Mammon


Well, at least they tried to do that. Greetings, dear listeners! I uploaded this episode on the first day of 2017, so if you are listening near that date, Happy New Year! My oh my, is it just me, or is every year getting more crazy than the years before it? For 2016 we had the zika virus, Brexit, creepy clown sightings, terrorist shooting sprees, a presidential election in the United States that we can’t stop talking about, and all too many celebrity deaths, from David Bowie to John Glenn to Carrie Fisher to Debbie Reynolds. And in a related news story, I just heard that Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones has been found alive. I’m sure a lot of folks would like to forget 2016, but as an historian, I can’t do that. Besides, my second grandchild was born in November, so for me 2016 wasn’t all bad. Still, we can get our minds off the recently passed year by concentrating on other times, and this podcast is good for that..


The first episode of the new year also marks the beginning of what historians call the modern era, and likewise, we are beginning a new era in Southeast Asian history. Therefore I will now give a quick recap of the past episodes, before we get into the new content for this one. The recap will give new listeners an idea of where we are, and let longtime listeners know how far we have come.


For those who like to see history as a series of ages, you can divide the time before 1500 A.D. into three ages. First, there is the prehistoric age; for this I assign all the years before 250 B.C. This includes the time of the various cavemen I mentioned in Episode 1. Since nobody in Southeast Asia could read or write during this time, the written records that make up “history” simply aren’t available; all that we have to go on comes from the sciences, especially archaeology and anthropology. On a positive note, all the achievements made by Southeast Asians during this era — from the Ban Chiang bronzework to the Malay mastery of sailing to the construction of the Banawe rice terraces — these were all things that Southeast Asians did by themselves, without any help from outsiders. Also, this was the time of the Malay and Mon-Khmer migrations, the oldest of several movements that brought the ancestors of today’s Southeast Asians into the region.


The second age is what we commonly call ancient times; for Southeast Asia I have it begin around 250 B.C., and end around 775 A.D. 250 B.C. is our best guess for when contact with India began, and we saw in Episodes 2 through 5 how important trade with India was, for it also brought Indian civilization to the region. The only parts of Southeast Asia that weren’t fully Indianized were north Vietnam, which was civilized by the Chinese instead, and the Philippines, which were beyond the reach of Indian traders and missionaries. Writing is now available; the Vietnamese learned to write in Chinese characters, most other Southeast Asians learned the Sanskrit alphabet, and in one clever move, the Tibeto-Burmans invented the Burmese alphabet to avoid ripping up the palm leaves they wrote on. Two of the earliest Southeast Asian states, Funan and Srivijaya, were impressive in their own right, while the other states were more or less in a formative stage; you wouldn’t call most of their natives fully civilized if you could travel back in time and visit them.


For the third age, I have arbitrarily picked the dates of 775 and 1500 for the beginning and the end. We covered this period in Episodes 6 through 11 of the podcast. In European history this roughly corresponds to the Middle Ages, if you allow for the fact that the European version of this period is three centuries longer, beginning with the fall of the Western Roman Empire. I picked 775 because the Sailendra kings of Java began building the great Borobudur temple around this time, and a generation later, the Khmers got their act together and started building their glorious cities as well. There are two overall themes for this era. One is god-kings who saw themselves as living incarnations of Hindu deities, and the other is monumental architecture, especially in Cambodia, in Burma, and on Java.


Another point to remember is that most Southeast Asian kingdoms were not tightly held together. Instead, a few great kings lorded over many petty kings and chiefs in a realm with poorly defined borders; we called this arrangement a Mandala. Throughout the Middle Ages, the great kings competed to be supreme over everyone, and because these rivalries often got violent, most of the mandalas did not make it to the end of this age. The Khmers and Burmese had to drop out because they exhausted their kingdoms with too many building projects, while the Chams wore themselves out through too many wars with the Khmers and Vietnamese. Back in Episode 3, I shared a map that showed six power centers or mandalas on the Southeast Asian mainland in the year 1360: these were Champa in south Vietnam, Angkor in Cambodia, Lan Xang in Laos, and the Thai states of Chiangmai, Sukhothai and Ayutthaya. If the map had included Java, the Majapahit Empire would have shown up as a seventh power center. However, by the 1540s, Majapahit, Sukhothai and Chiangmai had been eliminated, and Cambodia and Champa had been crippled; only Ayutthayan Siam and Laos were still contenders. After this, I don’t expect to use the term mandala again, because as transportation and communication got better, it became possible to run more centralized states. Indeed, Siam started this trend in the middle of the fifteenth century, when King Trailok put down in writing the rules on who could and could not become king.




Now in this episode we meet the Portuguese, the first Europeans who came to Southeast Asia in force; previously the only Europeans that made it here were individual travelers like Marco Polo, and maybe a merchant or two. Unlike the Indians, Chinese, Arabs and other foreigners who visited here, the Europeans refused to play by the rules, so the game changed with their arrival.


Between 1500 and 1800, only a few Europeans were seen in Southeast Asia, because of the logistics of sea travel; the trip from Europe was so long that many ships and men did not make it, and those that did were in bad shape by the end of their voyages. Once they arrived, the ships usually needed repairs, and those aboard needed time to recuperate, before they could do whatever they came here for. Also, the Europeans who came this early fell into two groups. Some were looking to get rich by acquiring and selling Asian trade goods, especially Indonesian spices, while the others were missionaries looking to convert as many natives as possible to Christianity. Most Europeans did not want to move here, because the climate was too hot and unhealthy for them, so unlike what happened in the Americas, you will not see European settlers form large communities in Southeast Asia. For a long time, European soldiers were few in number, too, and only in the Philippines did they manage to conquer a large area before 1800. Still, in established kingdoms like Siam and Vietnam, a handful of Europeans — and sometimes just one — were able to exert a remarkable amount of influence. The next few episodes will feature stories about what a few Europeans could do in places where the natives were still in charge.


And I would like to point out one other thing about Europeans in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that most historians ignore — the typical European who went overseas in those days was a filthy slob. Two thousand years ago, the Romans were famous for hanging out in public baths, but bathing went out of fashion after the fall of Rome. By the end of the Middle Ages, Europeans tended to see routine bathing as a wasteful luxury, and bad for morals, because if you took a bath in a public place, your clothes and other belongings were likely to get stolen. Thus, during the Age of Exploration, most Europeans bathed as little as possible. Queen Isabella of Spain, for instance, claimed she only had two baths in her life, one when she was born and one when she married King Ferdinand. However, her retainers gave her a third bath when she died. So wherever the white man went, whether to Africa, Asia or America, he literally came on strong!


In the Americas and in the South Pacific, the white man was a plague carrier, too. A cabin boy named Juan Nepomucen was sick with smallpox when he went to Mexico in 1520, and has been credited with killing more Native Americans than the conquistadors did. Fortunately, Southeast Asians already had some immunity to the diseases that came with the white man, so they didn’t drop like flies after the white man arrived..


Finally, because the Europeans did not take over right away, you will meet some more outstanding Southeast Asian rulers. Here are some of the figures you can look forward to hearing about in the episodes covering the years between 1500 and 1800:


Lapu-Lapu, the first national hero of the Philippines.

Bayinnaung, a Burmese king who got so many things done that he has been compared with a force of nature.

Naresuan, a Siamese king so badass that present-day Thailand has made six action-packed movies about him.

Sultan Agung, who gave the Dutch a run for their money on Java.

And Nguyen Anh, who did such a good job of putting Vietnam back together that 40 percent of today’s Vietnamese are named after him.


All right, this recap and introduction has gone on long enough, so let’s resume the narrative!




The Age of Exploration began in 1418, when Prince Henry the Navigator, the third son of the king of Portugal, started sending out ships to explore the Atlantic Ocean and the coast of Africa. At first, the only goal was to get gold, ivory, and other valuable African products directly from their sources, without dealing with Moslem middlemen. As time went on, two other important objectives were added; the Portuguese would try to convert those peoples they met who weren’t Christians already, and when it looked like they might be able to sail around Africa, they decided they would try to get Asian goods from their sources, too.


Though these were supposed to be voyages of exploration, for sixteen years Prince Henry’s captains refused to go any farther than Morocco, because they were too afraid of the unknown. It wasn’t because they thought the earth was flat. By the end of the Middle Ages, many people believed the earth was round. Remember that stuff you learned in school about fifteenth-century sailors fearing their ships would fall off the edge of the earth? Forget it; that’s just a heap of crapola. Still, they had plenty of other fears to hinder them. For a start, they feared that the winds of the tropics, which tend to blow toward the equator, would keep any ships entering the tropics from returning to Europe. Then they feared that around the equator, the heat would burn their ships or boil the sea, or that they would find a land that was home to monsters instead of men. Finally, some believed that Africa was joined to another continent at the bottom of the world, a landmass they called Terra Australis Incognita, the Unknown Southern Land; if this was true, it would not be possible to sail around Africa.


In 1434 Prince Henry persuaded a captain to go past one point on the Moroccan coast, Cape Bojador. Once a ship did it, this proved that it was possible to sail into the tropics and come back, and once that fear was overcome, each expedition traveled a little bit farther than those before it. By 1445 they had reached Cape Verde, Africa’s westernmost point; in 1460, the year of Prince Henry’s death, they reached Sierra Leone. The expedition of 1473 crossed the equator without burning up, thereby clearing another psychological hurdle. Finally in 1488, seventy years after the expeditions started, Bartholomew Dias passed Africa’s southernmost point, the Cape of Good Hope, and entered the Indian Ocean. Nine years later, Vasco da Gama reached the tradeports of East Africa, and from there found his way to India.


Da Gama brought back a rich cargo. However, the spices in the cargo did not come from India, but from a place farther east, and the people who provided da Gama with those spices kept their source a secret. The fleets of Islam had dominated the Indian Ocean for centuries, and their sailors were not happy to learn that Christian Europeans were now in those waters, too. In the past, a single European riding on a local ship had not been seen as a threat, but European ships full of Europeans were another matter. Da Gama expected trouble when he got there, so his ships were some of the first European vessels to carry cannon. This gave him a great advantage, because Portuguese ships had been built strong enough to withstand the stormy seas of the Atlantic. By contrast, their opponents, like the Mamelukes and the Ottoman Turks, had ships designed to sail and do battle on the relatively calm waters of the Indian Ocean or the Mediterranean Sea, so they were thin-skinned, oar-propelled galleys; they could not carry cannon because the recoil of a cannon on one of these vessels would have shaken it apart. On his second expedition to India, in 1502, da Gama commanded a fleet of twenty ships and showed what his guns could do, by destroying an enemy fleet off the Malabar coast, bombarding them at a range the native artillery could not match. This battle is mainly remembered for a Portuguese atrocity, where da Gama set fire to a ship carrying 400 pilgrims home from Mecca, and killed everyone aboard.


Next, the crown of Portugal appointed Francisco de Almeida as the the governor and viceroy of “Portuguese India.” However, the Portuguese Empire would not be a real empire in the sense that the Roman Empire had been one; it could not control large territories and it could not support a vast army. The best Portugal could do was set up a trade network that controlled the coasts; if they tried to conquer the interior of Asia, the huge native population would quickly overwhelm them. Almeida knew this and built a few forts to secure trade, but otherwise ruled against committments ashore. In the Indian Ocean, Portugal’s main opponents were the Mameluke sultans of Egypt, and two Indian rulers: the sultan of Gujarat, and the Zamorin of Calicut. Also, the anti-Portuguese coalition received aid from the Ottoman Turks and the Republic of Venice, who naturally saw the Portuguese as competitors in the spice trade. After all, “the spice must flow!” The big showdown came off the northwest coast of India in 1509, at the battle of Diu; here the Portuguese blew away the Egyptian and Indian fleets completely.


By now, Almeida had also learned about an important port east of India named Malacca, which was a stronghold of Islam and the key to the spice trade. In 1509, the same year as the battle of Diu, he sent four ships to check out Malacca, under the command of Afonso de Albuquerque. If he wanted an incident with the Malays he got one; while the Portuguese were touring the city the sultan ordered his guards to attack them, killing sixty men and destroying one ship before the rest got away. One officer who distinguished himself in this battle was Fernão de Magalhães, better known to English speakers as Ferdinand Magellan; he suffered a wound while holding off the assailants until his comrades had time to get back to the ships. Remember Magellan, we’ll be coming back to him in the next episode.


Almeida died in 1510, and Albuquerque succeeded him as the new viceroy. Because of the victory at Diu, Albuquerque was able to capture small territories in strategic locations, like Hormuz in the Persian Gulf, and Goa in southwest India. Malacca was also on the list of places that he wanted, and in 1511 Albuquerque personally led a second fleet to Malacca, this time nineteen ships carrying more than a thousand men. The Malaccan force outnumbered the Portuguese by a factor of 15 to 1, but the superior technology of Portuguese ships and cannon prevailed again. Albuquerque also correctly guessed that the bridge in the center of Malacca was an important strategic point; once he captured it, the city was split in two, and the two halves could not defend themselves effectively. Six weeks after the Portuguese came to Malacca, the whole city was theirs. Again, Magellan went on this expedition, and played a part in its success. Afterwards, Albuquerque ordered the slaughter of Malacca’s Moslem population, but spared the Hindus and Buddhists; the latter included Indian, Burmese and Chinese merchants in the city.


Capturing Malacca opened the gates to the whole Far East, and Albuquerque followed up well on this triumph. Six months later he sent three ships to explore eastern Indonesia, and in 1512 they found the Moluccas — the Spice Islands — once and for all. Then in 1513 other Portuguese ships reached Canton, and thus made contact with China. However, Albuquerque did not go on either expedition, because his new bases at Goa and Malacca were under attack. In the case of Malacca he beat off an attack from the sultan of Demak, a state on eastern Java, in 1511, and in 1513 he defeated an attack from the sultan of Aceh. If you listened to the previous episode, you will remember that Aceh was a Moslem state based on the northwest tip of Sumatra.


In the last episode we also saw that Siam claimed all of the Malay peninsula, including Malacca. To prevent any trouble with the mainland kingdoms, Albuquerque immediately sent embassies to Ayutthaya, the capital of Siam, and Bago, the Mon capital in the Irrawaddy delta, so diplomatic relations with both the Thais and the Mons got off to a good start. More than thirty years later, in 1543, a Portuguese merchant ship made it to Japan, opening up yet another market to European traders. Finally in 1557, China gave the Macao peninsula to Portgual, as a base where the Portuguese and their ships could stay when it wasn’t trading season in Canton.


Portugal ruled Malacca for 130 years, and for much of that time, the city had to defend itself from its Malay neighbors. First there was the ex-sultan of Malacca, who established himself on a small island near Singapore and tried unsuccessfully to regain his lost throne. A more serious threat was Aceh, which defeated all Portuguese attempts to set up a colony on Sumatra. Over the course of the sixteenth century, Acheh attacked Malacca four times; the last time was a siege from 1574 to 1575 that nearly captured the city. There was also trouble with the other Moslem states: the already mentioned Demak, Johore in south Malaya, Brunei on Borneo, Bantam on west Java, Mataram on central Java, and Makassar on southern Sulawesi, to name a few. All of these states had pirates in the local waters, making travel through the Java Sea unsafe for Europeans. To add to the danger, the sultan of Demak sent missionaries to Borneo, Sulawesi, and the Moluccas, converting the natives of those islands to Islam with increasing speed. Even in the Spice Islands, two sultans, those of Ternate and Tidore, converted to Islam, and though they were willing to trade with Europeans, they remained true to their new faith. The Portuguese first attempted to counter this threat by seeking allies among non-Moslems. They thought they found one in 1522 when the Hindu raja of Sunda Kalapa gave them trading concessions and permission to build a fort in his city-state, on the northwest corner of Java, with the expectation that the fort would protect him from Demak. But when an enemy attacked Sunda Kalapa in 1527, it was not Demak, as expected, but Bantam. Bantam captured the city-state, and renamed it Jayakarta, meaning “City of Victory.” Later, that would be shortened to Jakarta, and that is how the capital of present-day Indonesia got its name.


Eventually the Portuguese paid toll to the sultan of Brunei so that they could sail around north Borneo and through the Sulu Sea, to reach the Spice Islands without being molested. Catholic missionaries like St. Francis Xavier tried to stop the spread of Islam by converting non-Moslem Indonesians to Christianity, but time was not on their side; usually they came to an island only to find that the natives had converted to Islam a few years earlier. And once a community converts to Islam, it is very difficult to un-convert it, because the Koran teaches that the penalty for renouncing Islam is death. You can see this in the history of Spain, where it took more than seven hundred years for Christians to take back Spain, after the Moors conquered it, and then some Moors continued to wander around in Spain for more than a century after the official end of the Reconquista in 1492; they did not disappear until the king of Spain expelled them by force. Therefore, the missionaries in Indonesia were only successful on islands like Amboina in the Moluccas, where Islam had not yet established itself. If Islam got to a community first, Catholic missions had no hope of success. For that reason, Portugal’s most successful mission in the islands was Lifao, on Timor. When Dominican friars founded this mission in 1556, the local population was still animist; Timor is so far to the east that Hinduism and Buddhism were never introduced here, even when the Hindu-Buddhist empire of Majapahit ruled all of Indonesia.


The real reason why the Portuguese colony survived was because its enemies could never get along with each other. By supporting the moderate sultanates in their quarrels with the two religious extremists, Aceh and Demak, Malacca was able to keep all of Indonesia from attacking at once. But Portugal’s early victories had given it more empire than it could handle. Portugal itself had a population of just 1.5 million, and that was never enough manpower to manage everything that Portugal claimed in Africa, Asia and Brazil. Often other Europeans like Italians, English and Dutch had to be hired to fill all the crew positions on Portuguese ships. In fact, the African slave trade, the worst feature of the Portuguese empire, was launched in 1448 to solve the problem of a worker shortage in Portugal. It wasn’t until after the discovery of America that the slave trade was extended to the west side of the Atlantic.


The Portuguese had proved themselves excellent sailors. They went forth to explore the world beyond Europe, risking storms, shipwrecks, pirates, hostile natives and disease — you could expect one third of a ship’s crew to die from scurvy alone. Often the only things that kept them going were faith in God and the hope that they would get rich when they reached their destination. But while they had set up for themselves an economic empire, they weren’t very good businessmen, so they could not make much of a profit from what they got. The money made on Far Eastern ventures was spent immediately, either on policing the Indian Ocean or to make payments on the king’s debts. In the long run, the people who made the biggest profit from the Portuguese Empire were the Italian, German and Dutch bankers that the king owed money to.


Sir Thomas Roe, the English ambassador to the Mogul emperor in India, wrote this about Portugal in 1613. Quote: “Look at the Portuguese. In spite of their fine settlements they are beggared by the maintenance of military forces; and even their garrisons are only mediocre.” End quote. And one hundred years ago, the novelist Joseph Conrad had these choice words to describe the Portuguese. Quote: “Where wouldn’t they go for pepper! For a bag of pepper they would cut each other’s throats without hesitation, and would forswear their souls . . . The bizarre obstinacy of that desire made them defy death in a thousand shapes . . . wounds, captivity, hunger, pestilence and despair. It made them great! By heavens! It made them heroic; and it made them pathetic, too, in their craving for trade with the inflexible death levying its toll on the young and old.” End Quote. When other European nations went out to sea, Portugal could not compete, and soon its empire sank into obscurity. And while Portugal managed to hold onto some of its colonies until the second half of the twentieth century — like Goa, East Timor and Macao — those colonies lasted because for most of that time, the rest of the world did not even notice them.


Portugal suffered a blow from which it never recovered in 1578, when King Sebastian was killed in an invasion of Morocco, and left no heir. Sebastian’s sixty-six-year-old great-uncle, Cardinal Henry, promptly took charge, but he died a year and a half later, again without leaving an heir. Now King Philip II of Spain claimed he was the closest living relative to the Portuguese king, so the Portuguese crown went to him. For sixty years, from 1580 to 1640, the king of Spain was also the king of Portugal, but during this time, the Spaniards neglected the Portuguese half of their enormous empire. Ultimately the Iberian Union was harmful to the Portuguese colonies, because Spain’s enemies, England and the Netherlands, now became Portugal’s enemies as well. English and Dutch privateers would soon find the Portuguese colonies to be vulnerable targets.


All right! That does it for Portugal’s involvement in Southeast Asia. Join us next time when we introduce another European player, Spain, which entered the game by discovering the Philippines. So far in this podcast series, I have probably said less about the Philippines than any other large Southeast Asian nation, so with the next episode I will start making up for that, too. Yes, our narrative is about to get more complicated, as the peoples of the Far East realize that Europeans are divided between more than one nation.


Once more as a reminder, if you like what you just heard, consider making a donation to support this podcast, using the Paypal button on this episode’s page. As you heard at the beginning of this show, I plan to dedicate episodes to those who make donations, so if you contribute now, I will gratefully mention your first name in the next episode to be recorded. And if you listen to this podcast on iTunes, consider writing a review. Again as always, thank you for listening, and come back when the monsoon winds are blowing right!