The Portuguese-born Ferdinand Magellan richly deserves credit for a number of exploration “firsts”: leading the expedition that first circumnavigated the globe, discovering the strait in South America that bears his name, and pioneering a traverse of the Pacific Ocean.
These accomplishments were celebrated in early chronicles, such as Antonio Galvano’s 1555 Discoveries of the World…, and have long been part of the historical record.
Magellan’s discovery of two islands in Polynesia, by contrast, has received relatively little recognition. Galvano knew nothing about Polynesia, but his book includes an enigmatic reference to islands named “Los Jardines” (Plantations) sighted by Magellan in latitude 13 degrees south in a “mightee sea called Pacificum.” Galvano’s “Los Jardines” no doubt refers to one or both of the islands described in several contemporary accounts as “Las Islas Infortunatas” (Unfortunate Islands) and portrayed on a number of early Pacific and world maps. However, these sources provide few clues other than to indicate that the islands are located in Oceania.
Because geographical details are sparse in the known narratives and latitude figures differ considerably between reports, the scholarly controversy over the identification of these two islands has waxed hot over many years. Could it be that they were “discovered” by Magellan — only to recede again into the great Pacific sea?
After naturalizing himself as a Spanish subject, Magellan persuaded King Charles I of Spain to dispatch an expedition to seize and occupy the Moluccas, or “Spice Islands,” in the East Indies. Given the title captain-general in the style of the time and appointed commander of the enterprise, Magellan decided to follow the suggestion of the great Italian writer Peter Martyr d’Anghiera that the East could be reached by sailing west.
In his De Orbo Novo, published in 1516, Martyr declared that the “Spice islands” lay in the “Great South Sea,” discovered when Vasco Nuñes de Balboa looked south at the Isthmus of Darien in 1513. Magellan’s fleet of five vessels, including the Victoria, set sail from Sanlúcar on 20 September 1519 and steered southwest.
After searching for and traversing a passage at the southern tip of South America, Magellan sailed into the “Great South Sea.” According to the account of expedition pilot Francisco Albo, the fleet, now reduced to three vessels, steered northwest, north, and north-northeast for two days and three nights.
The expedition then sailed up the coast of Chile to reach warmer climes in latitude 32 degrees or 34 degrees south before striking out westward across the placid sea.
The fleet headed toward an area that includes the group of islands now known as the Tuamotu Archipelago — sometimes called the “Low Archipelago.” This chain of seventy-six atolls and countless reefs and islets stretches over hundreds of square miles in the central Pacific and today is part of French Polynesia.
On 24 January 1521, after the ships had dropped slightly south because of a two-day headwind, Magellan sighted his first island. According to Albo’s record of the discovery, the uninhabited island was fringed with trees. The men took soundings, but, finding no bottom and unable to anchor, sailed on. Magellan named the island “San Pablo,” since he discovered it on the day of Paul’s conversion. Albo gives the latitude as approximately 16 degrees 20 minutes south. Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian gentleman-traveler who accompanied the explorers, says unequivocally in his narrative that the latitude was 15 degrees south.
After leaving San Pablo, Magellan sailed northwest, west-northwest, and west by north. On February 4 he found a second uninhabited island, where, according to Albo, the men caught a large number of sharks, which they called “Tiburoni.” They named the island “Isla de los Tiburones” (Island of the Sharks). Albo claims it lay at latitude 10 degrees 40 minutes south; Pigafetta says 9 degrees south.
Pigafetta’s review of the discoveries provides little extra information about these two uninhabited islands, which were about two hundred leagues apart. He remarks that the men saw no other land and were unable to anchor at either island. They called them, he says, “Las Islas Infortunatas.”
Three islands in the northeastern sector of the Tuamotu Archipelago have previously been nominated as candidates for Magellan’s “San Pablo”: Fakahina, Fangetau, and Pukapuka.
And the candidates for “Isla de los Tiburones” have traditionally been three islands in the southern sector of the Line Islands: Caroline Island, Vostok Island, and Flint Island. All six islands lie within the Polynesia triangle and are roughly within range of the coordinates given by Albo and Pigafetta.
Pukapuka rides out far ahead of the main group of islands in the Tuamotu Archipelago and is the most northeastern atoll in the group. It is almost certainly the first island that caught Magellan’s eye in 1521. Thor Heyerdahl reported that Pukapuka was the first land he encountered during his famous voyage across the Pacific on the raft Kon-Tiki in 1947.
This wooded atoll, about 3.5 miles long in a northwesterly and southeasterly direction, is slightly above sea level and lies in latitude 14 degrees 48 minutes south, which is only about eleven miles north of Pigafetta’s estimate. Its lagoon is connected to the sea at high tide by non-navigable openings in the reef.
The easternmost of the Line Islands, Caroline Island, which lies in latitude 10 degrees south, closely fits a description of Magellan’s “Isla de los Tiburones.” A narrow, slightly crescent-shaped atoll, it comprises three main islets and twenty smaller ones standing on a reef that encircles a shallow lagoon.
No other nearby island that might qualify contains a lagoon, and it is well known in that Pacific lagoons to attract sharks.
Remarks made by Frederick Bennett, who visited the island in 1834 while on a whaling voyage, tie in with Pigafetta’s observations. “Sharks were exceedingly numerous” and there were “myriads of birds,” wrote Bennett in his narrative. Caroline Island has no anchorage. And Pukapuka and Caroline Island are 780 miles apart.
Magellan’s fleet proceeded across the center of Polynesia and reached Guam, at the eastern edge of the Philippine Sea, in early March. Remarkably, out of the thousands of islands, islets, and reefs scattered over the ocean between America and Asia, Magellan encountered only two small islands during his traverse of the Pacific.
He may well have sailed close to a number of low-lying atolls without seeing them, but his oversight merely emphasizes the characteristic Polynesian geography and the vast extent of the world’s largest ocean.
Not long after theVictoria, the sole surviving ship in Magellan’s fleet, returned to Seville, cartographers and map publishers began adding Magellan’s discoveries to their maps.
One of the earliest was by the noted Portuguese cartographer Diogo Ribeiro, who had been in Seville at the time of Magellan’s departure in 1519 and was authorized by royal decree in 1526 to be granted access to all material for a world chart portraying recent discoveries.
Ribeiro’s original world chart has been lost, but two copies are known today; one is dated 1527 and the other, preserved in Rome, is signed and dated 1529. Both show Magellan’s “y de los Tiburones” and what most likely is “San Pablo.”
One of the earliest printed maps to include the islands is Oronce Finé’s cordiform world map of circa 1534, an updated and enlarged version of his earlier world map of 1531.
Sebastian Münster included the islands on his Novae Insulae, first published in the 1540 Basle edition of Ptolemy’s Geographia. Münster applied the name “Islas Infortunatus” to the two islands and positioned them below a ship being buffeted by heavy swells.
A double-page world map from Battista Agnese’s 1544 portolan atlas delineates the route of Magellan’s circumnavigation, with the two Polynesian islands placed just north of the expedition’s track. On his decorative world map of 1565, Paolo Forlani named the two islands individually. And Gerard Mercator included one of the best early representations of the two islands, with an extensive legend, on his influential world map of 1569.
Le Maire and Schouten rediscovered Pukapuka on 10 April 1616 during their crossing of the Pacific from Le Maire Strait to the Dutch East Indies. A landing party sighted three dogs but no people. In 1839 a United States expedition visited the island and found birds “as tame as barnyard fowls” in incredible numbers. Pukapuka today has a population of approximately two hundred people.
Pedro Fernández de Quirós rediscovered Caroline Island on 21 February 1606. A landing party found it to be uninhabited, but spotted an old canoe lying on its side. The visitors also noticed the island’s rich marine and bird life.
The island was given its present name, after the eldest daughter of the first lord of the British Admiralty, in 1795 by Captain W.R. Broughton of HMS Providence. Broughton found the island thinly populated by Polynesians. Caroline Island today is part of the Republic of Kiribati. The islets are covered with coconut palms, pandanus, and similar plants.
Had Magellan sailed a few degrees farther north on his western bearing, he would have discovered the peaks of the Marquesas Islands. Had he sailed a few degrees farther south, he would have discovered some of the hundreds of islands in the central or lower part of French Polynesia, perhaps even the luscious Tahiti, in the Society Islands.
For a long time, however, the world’s knowledge of Polynesia was limited to two lonely islands. Today we can be reasonably certain of their identity and location, but on the maps following Magellan’s historic voyage, “Las Islas Infortunatus” — indeed, almost the whole of Polynesia — remain lost in the “mightee sea called Pacificum.”
Brian Hooker, a New Zealander who lives in Red Beach, Orewa, has had a lifelong interest in cartography and early
exploration, particularly in relation to the Pacific region.
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Bennett, F.D. Narrative of a Whaling Voyage…. London: Bentley, 1840.
Crone, G.R. Maps and Their Makers. London: Hutchinson, 1968.
Morison, S.E. The European Discovery of America: The Southern Voyages, 1492–1616. New York: Oxford, 1974.
Shirley, R.W. The Mapping of the World: Early Printed Maps 1472–1700.London: Holland Press, 1984.
Skelton, R.A., ed. Antonio Pigafetta’s Account of Magellan’s Voyage.London: Folio Society, 1975.