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500 Years Later, Remembering World Explorer Ferdinand Magellan

Half a millennium ago, on April 27, 1521, the Portuguese explorer who made the first tour of the world in human history was killed in the Philippines during an unexpected skirmish on the small island of Mactan: Ferdinand Magellan (Fernão de Magalhães, in Portoguese; Fernando de Magallanes, in Spanish).

Born to a noble family in 1480 in Sabrosa, north-eastern Portugal, he was orphaned in 1490 and was welcomed in Lisbon as a page at the court of King John II, where he participated in naval expeditions to the Far East. He wanted to discover a sea route through which to cross the continent where Christopher Columbus had just landed and reach Asia. He found it in the far south, under Tierra del Fuego, through what will be called the Strait of Magellan. His project, rejected by the Portuguese, was financed by Charles V, Holy Roman emperor and king of Spain. We know from the Italian chronicler of the expedition, Antonio Pigafetta, “Patrician of Vicenza and Knight of Rhodes” (The First Voyage around the World, 1519–1522: an Account of Magellan’s Expedition, ed. T. Cachey, Toronto 2007, pp. 3-4), that, “for the purpose of going to discover the spicery in the islands of Molucca,” in command of five vessels and 237 men, the “Captain-General Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese gentleman,” set sail from Spain in 1519. Only the ship Victoria and 18 men, led by the new captain, the Spanish Juan Sebastián Elcano, would return to Europe after almost three years of voyage.

Approaching the great Portuguese navigator in the way we are used to, that of a passion for music, is anything but easy this time. Musical works composed by Francesco Morlacchi (1828), Gaetano Donizetti (1845), Giovanni Bottesini (1847), Alberto Franchetti (1892), Darius Milhaud (1928) are entitled to “that great figure of navigator par excellence that was Christopher Columbus” (John Paul II, Greetings to the people gathered in Genoa, September 21, 1985). To “that prince of Portuguese explorers, Vasco Da Gama” (Pius XII, Sæculo exeunte octavo, June 13, 1940, n. 7) refers L’africaine, a grand opera in five acts by Giacomo Meyerbeer (1865). However, an opera inspired by Magellan is missing, and here are the three acts of Magallanes. No hay rosa sin espinas. Marco Reghezza, one of the two composers, goes on to say:

“On the occasion of the 500th anniversary of the first circumnavigation of the earth carried out by Ferdinand Magellan, the Royal Foundation Atarazanas of Seville, in the person of the director José Manuel De La Fuente, requested in 2012 my willingness to write an opera that celebrates the feat of the famous explorer. The text, in Spanish, was written by the same anthropologist from Seville, unanimously recognized as the greatest expert on the Magellanic journey. The realization of the music was therefore entrusted to myself and to Giovanni Scapecchi, an expert in orchestration and former author of ‘serious’ music for national broadcasters”.

The opera opens with Magellan who, despised by Manuel I, king of Portugal, and his court, leaves Lisbon for Seville in Castile. Here he is the guest of the rich Diego Barbosa, his compatriot, and marries his daughter, Beatrice. His benefactor immediately becomes passionate about his ambitious project to reach the Spice Islands from the West and helps him talk about it with the young King Charles I. Magellan is appointed admiral of a fleet of five sailing ships and, at the end of the first act, takes leave of Beatrice on a full moon night.

The second act presents the journey of Magellan, who from the first moment is threatened by Spanish emissaries, such as the inspector general Juan de Cartagena. They happily cross the Atlantic and make a brief stop in Rio de Janeiro. The admiral ruthlessly quells a mutiny at Port St. Julian. Reaching the much desired strait, between Patagonia and Tierra del Fuego, he weeps with joy and, amid new seditions and unspeakable suffering, faces the Pacific Ocean, which was named after him.

The third act represents the arrival of the expedition to the archipelago of St. Lazarus, today the Philippines. Rajah Humabon, ruler of the Island of Cebu, makes great friends with Magellan, becomes a subject of Charles V and, together with more than 500 natives, receives baptism (April 14, 1521, Third Sunday of Easter). His rival, Lapu Lapu, does not submit and kills Magellan. The scene moves to Seville in Beatrice’s room, who, after suffering the death of her children, mourns that of her husband and then abandons herself dying dreaming of the return of the husband with whom she joins in the firmament. The finale of Magallanes allows the audience to quietly spy on the constellations of the Magellanic Clouds — the two galaxies discovered by the navigator in 1519 — and of the Southern Cross.

Here you can listen to some passages from the opera: the duet of the meeting between Magellan (baritone) and Beatrice (soprano); Magellan’s aria Oh infeliz de mi and Elcano’s aria (tenor) Qué triste sino el mio:

To Magellan, who landed on Easter Sunday of 1521 (March 31) on the small island of Limasawa, place of the first Mass on Philippine soil, and died in Cebu, “this important city known as the cradle of Christianity in the Philippines” (John Paul II, Homily at Cebu City, February 19, 1981), is linked the evangelization of that vast archipelago, as John Paul II recalled in Manila during his apostolic journey in 1981:

“The Philippine nation is deserving of particular honor since, from the beginning of its Christianization, from the moment that Magellan planted the Cross in Cebu four hundred and sixty years ago, on April 15, 1521, all through the centuries, its people have remained true to the Christian faith. In an achievement that remains unparalleled in history, the message of Christ took root in the hearts of the people within a very brief span of time, and the Church was thus strongly implanted in this nation of seven thousand islands and numerous tribal and ethnic communities” (John Paul II, Message to the President and to the people of the Philippines, February 17, 1981).

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