The Trinidad’s attempt to return
Why the Trinidad and the Victoria decided to separate
The Trinidad, captain ship of the expedition, initially left the Moluccas under the command of Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa on December 18, 1521, together with the Victoria of Elcano. However, as soon as they left Tidore, water broke into the Trinidad. Despite the help of Moluccan divers, they had no other option but to unload it completely to find where the damage was. Once it was localised, they realised the hull needed important repairs.
Detail of the world map of the chief cosmographer of the Casa de Contratación de Seville, Diego Ribero, from the year 1529. In it we see the ship Trinidad in the North Pacific, and under it written "I return to Moluccas". The text above says: "This is the ship Trinidad that wanted to come to the Southern Seas went up to 42 degrees to find contrary weather and from there returned to Moluccas again because had been at sea for 6 months and it was running out of water and suffered lack of maintenance. "
Ribero was able to meet Captain Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa in Seville after his return to Spain, and to have first-hand notice of his odyssey.
They knew they would need several months before they could leave again, which was double the problem. First, the natives had said that it was the moment to leave, as they would find favourable winds, but in addition, the Portuguese Pedro Alfonso de Lorosa arrived during those days and announced that his people would arrive any moment, and that they would certainly prevent the Spanish from succeeding with the use of force.
With the prospect of this situation, the Victoria left, initiating their return to Spain, leaving the Trinidad in Tidore, with 59 or 60 people. Let’s read what the protagonists of the events said about this moment:
As we were leaving from the Moluccas islands back to Spain, one of the ships found much water breaking into it, and it could not be repaired without unloading it and considering the time since the other ships (Portuguese) left from Java and Malacca, we determined to die or to serve your High Majesty with great honour leaving with one single ship to deliver the news of this great discovery.
Letter or Juan Sebastián del Cano to the King, on September 6, 1522, in Sanlucar de Barrameda.
And we resolved to send the Victoria ahead, not to waste time and bring the news to the King, as we stayed here, where I prayed to God for the boat to be ready in 50 days, and to go to the Darien, where Andrés Niño made the ships, and from there to dry land to take the news to my King.
Letter from Juan Bautista of Punzorol to an unknown person. Tidore, December 21, 1521.
After the Victoria left from the Moluccas, we had to stay with the other ship. With much work and danger we repaired it, and we spent four months in Tidore repairing it and loading it with clove.
Letter from Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa to the King, January 12, 1525, Cochin.
As the ships were about to leave, the captain discovered water breaking into it, and it had to return to be unloaded. Not to waste time, they decided for the other ship to leave, and so it did.
Narration of Ginés de Mafra of the Trinidad.
The king [of Tidore] seemed unsettled by this setback, to the point that he offered to go to Spain himself and tell the King what had happened; but we told him that, having two ships, we could do the return trip with the Victoria alone, which would leave soon with the easterly winds that were starting to blow; during this time, they would repair the Trinidad, which would profit from the western winds to go to Darien, on the other side of the sea, in the lands of Yucatan. […] Some preferred to stay in the Moluccas islands instead of going back to Spain, whether fearing the ship would not resist such long trip, or because the memories of what they had suffered before reaching the Moluccas frightened them, thinking they would die of hunger in the middle of the Ocean. […] On Saturday 21st of that month [December], St. Thomas day, the King brought us two pilots that we paid beforehand, to take us from the islands. They told us the weather was excellent for the trip and that we had to leave as soon as possible; but we had to wait for our comrades that were staying in the Moluccas to give us the letters they wanted to send to Spain, and we could not weigh anchor until noon. Then, the ships bid farewell with an artillery discharge; they followed us in their shallop for as long as they could, and we parted, finally, crying.
Narration of Pigafetta.
View on Google Earth of the journey that the Trinidad must probably followed in their attempt to return from the Moluccas to Darien, nowadays Panama (white line).
The reality is that they were all in a compromising situation, because what the Victoria pretended to do was no better option than that of crossing the Pacific. They were going to penetrate into the Portuguese demarcation, and to avoid being captured they would have to stay away from the African coasts at all time until they reached Spain. As a plan, it was clearly audacious, almost implausible. Their only advantage was that, in the case they succeeded, they would be the first to travel around the world, and that excited Elcano and the others that followed him (see Elcano’s thrill). So, for example, Pigafetta chose to go with Elcano instead of staying with Espinosa. He did it to go around the world, without any doubts, not because he was close to Elcano, whom he does not even mention in his extensive narration of the journey.
It took four months for the Trinidad to be repaired, equipped and loaded with clove, although it was not as loaded as the first time, to avoid forcing the hull. However, they decided not to take the same route west as Elcano, but they would attempt to cross the Pacific again sailing towards the only American coast they knew at the time, Darien- now Panama- where Núñez de Balboa had discovered the Southern Sea, in 1513, only 9 years earlier.
Unfortunately, the Trinidad did not reach its goal. They found opposite winds that prevented them from going east, and they were forced to divert their route way north. They reached parallel 42º N, following the Kuro Siwo current, but suffered a tremendous storm that lasted five days, and which almost sunk the ship, leaving it in very bad conditions. In addition, the deaths caused by the cold and the lack of food were decimating the crew, and they had no other option but to arduously return to the Moluccas, this time with favourable winds.
However, during the seven months the journey lasted, the Portuguese returned to the Moluccas and intercept the Trinidad, taking hostage the 17 remaining survivors. It was an extremely harsh journey, followed by more than four years of captivity and forced labour for the expeditionaries.
Graph that shows the accumulated deaths during the Trinidad’s attempt to cross the Pacific, and the return to the Moluccas. Evidently, they were healthy and well supplied when they left, but after the storm the increase in the number of deaths is terrifying.
The methodology followed to determine the journey during the Trinidad’s attempt to return
Determining what route the Trinidad followed is not as easy as in the case of the travel around the world, because there are no written diaries. The Portuguese took all the information the Trinidad carried, including the route and maybe even Magellan’s diary. The documents were too important, and they would now be considered state secret. The references that have survived are from the texts of three of the four crew members that managed to return to Spain- there was a fifth, the Lombard Hans Vargue, who died in Lisbon before being released-. They were Captain Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, the pilot Ginés de Mafra, and the Genovese Leon Pancaldo. The sailor Juan Martínez “The Deaf” was the fourth to return, apparently by himself after obtaining the Portuguese trust. The texts are the following:
-Letter from Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa to the King, in Cochin, January 12, 1525, in which he narrates the journey from Tidore until his return seven months later. Archive of the Indies in Seville, 145-7-7. Published by José Toribio Medina, 1920.
-Declarations of Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, Ginés de Mafra and Leon Pancaldo in Valladolid on the events surrounding the time of the Trinidad in the Moluccas, Archive of the Indies in Seville, leg. Iº, papers of the Moluccas from 1519 to 1547.
-Roteiro, diary or itinerary written by a Genovese pilot. Three copies of the manuscript have been conserved: in the National Library in Paris, in the St. Francis church in Lisbon, and in the Royal Academy of History in Madrid.
-Narration of Ginés de Mafra. From the manuscript Res. 18 at the National Library in Madrid (n. 862 of the Manuscript Catalogue about America, de Paz).
-Relation of the deceased people on the Trinidad, of which was Captain Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, in the year 1522. Archive of the Indies. Published by José Toribio Medina, 1920.
Through these documents we have investigated the route they followed. However, we have had some difficulties, since the documents are not precise, and in some cases the information is not coherent among them. In addition, some of the names used do not correspond to those used nowadays. It would also be very improbable that the survivors had kept any documents written during the voyage, thus all those that have been conserved were written from memory.
The written texts about the trip have provided us with some information:
Piece of information nº1: the beginning of the trip
The Roteiro and Espinosa’s letter provide us with the date of departure from Tidore: April 6, 1522. There is no doubt about this.
In the Roteiro we find a quite detailed description of the routes followed around Halmahera Island, the biggest in the Moluccan archipelago, named Betachina, until their arrival to Quimor harbour, where they stop for “8 or 9 days”. It describes with surprising exactitude the route followed until they reach an island in front of Betachina, the island he names Doyz, which is easily recognisable, since it is nowadays called Doi: “They then navigated 10 or 11 leagues northwest along the island of Betachina, and then run around 20 leagues northeast, and so arrived to an island called Doyz”.
However, the latitude is puzzling, since Doi is 2º20’N while he says “it is at three degrees and a half”. It must obviously be a mistake, since the description of the route followed is very good, and would be inconsistent with the latitude reached.
He also then follows the narration, again with detail: “From here (Doi) they navigated east 3 or 4 leagues, sighting two islands, a large one called Chaol, and a small one called Pyliam, and passing between the largest and the Batechina (he indistinctively names them Batechina and Betachina), that was on the side of the starboard”. He was describing exactly the way east from the northern side of the Halmahera Island. He adds: “They arrived to a cape, which they named Ramos, because they sighted in on the eve of Ramos (Palm Sunday in Spanish). This cape is at two degrees and a half”.
Actually, the cape north of Halmahera is 2º11’, and there is no other at higher latitude. This time, it was a good approximation considering it was done with a quadrant from the 16th Century.
Up to here, the degree of uncertainty to determine their position was low. However, it becomes more difficult to identify the route when the Roteiro says that from this point they continue south to a harbour called Quimor, which is at a degree and a quarter, where they obtain supplies and they stay “eight or nine days”. Adding some margin of error on the “degree and a quarter” measurement, this harbour could be in very different places. However, we found that in the area there is a large city called Tobelo, which is actually the capital of the island, and that we should consider to be Quimor. This is how the text from the Roteiro follows:
“They left from this harbour on Aril 20, going east 17 leagues, exiting through the canal of the Batechina and the Charam islands, and once they left the canal, they found that the Charam Island continued southeast for more or less eighteen or twenty leagues and was out of route, because the real one was west and a quarter northwest, and so, following this route, they navigated for several days, finding always very favourable winds”.
From this paragraph we can conclude that, if once they left Quimor they navigated 17 leagues east, it is because this city was not in the canal that we can see in the map, because to exit the canal they should have navigated N-NW.
But anyways, while trying to obtain the possible location of Quimor, of which neither Mafra nor Espinosa talk, we find a text that holds an important clue. It is the Derrotero of the Loaysa expedition to the Moluccas, the next expedition the Emperor sent to those lands, and in which Elcano died. In it we read that the only surviving ship, named Santa María de la Victoria, docked in the east coast of the Batechina (which they called Gilolo) and found an important city named Zamafo. They establish the latitude in a degree and a third, which is exactly the same as the city of Tobelo. They also describe the multiple islands that are in front, just the same as from Tobelo.
In conclusion, and without the intention of exasperating anyone, Quimor and Zamafo are probably just different place names to a same city in the east coast of Halmahera Island, also called Batechina or Gilolo, which is the city of Tobelo.
In Quimor they stayed “…eight or nine days, and they took pigs and goats and chickens and coconuts and hava [a local drink]. They left this harbour on April 20”. Finally our sailors were leaving the Moluccas behind and entering open waters.
Pieces of information nº 2, 3 and 4: The islands they visited
Piece of information nº 2: Two islets in the Sonsorol Archipelago
The Roteiro continues as follows: “And on May 3rd, they found two small islands that could have been at 5 degrees”. This vague quote forces us to explore with great detail that area of the Ocean to locate all possible islets. Luckily, after researching, there is no doubt that the two small islands are southeast from Palau, in the small archipelago of Sonsorol. They are the two only islands that are together in the vast region, and its latitude coincides with the reference, since they are 5º20’N.
We can also conclude that, from the Moluccas, they went northeast, which means they already started to encounter opposite winds that made them deviate from the straightest route to Panama.
The two islets in the Sonsorol Archipelago the Trinidad found on May 3, 1522, located 5º20’N, southeast from Palau.
It was fundamental to this work to research all the existing islands in the Pacific, around the Marianas Islands. Only after we can know how certain we are about the islands they visited according to the information of our sources
Piece of information nº 3: Identifying Cyco Island.
As we continue the route described in the Roteiro, the following point of reference is that of the island they name Cyco, which “is at nineteen degrees, and they arrived the eleventh of July”. In five weeks they went from latitude 5ºN to 19ºN. They are obviously still finding winds that prevent them from advancing towards the east. In that latitude we find three possible islands, the most northern of the Marianas Archipelago.
Which of these islets corresponds to the one they called Isla de Cyco, where the Trinity ended? According to this investigation, it was the Farallón de Pájaros (Birds’ Outcrop), while it was in the islets of Maug where the famous Gonzalo de Vigo fled and where he lived with the natives until he was found by the Loaysa Expedition.
The Farallón de Pájaros is the northernmost of the three islands and is at latitude 20º32'. The one in the middle turns out to be a group of three small crater-shaped islands, at exactly 20º, while the island to the south is called Asunción, which is at 19º 41'. The one that comes closest to the 19º described by the Roteiro is the latter, the Asunción Island, but if we keep reading we find a piece of information that tells us that it is not exactly like that.
It turns out that on the island of Cyco "they took a man with them". The trip will continue, but when much later they made the decision to go around the Moluccas they tried to return to this island. And there continues the story of the Roteiro: "... and the man who had been taken before in the said island, told them to return later, as they would find three islands with a good port". Conclusion: advancing from Cyco you will find the three islands of Maug. Therefore, the island of Cyco is known today as Farallón de Pájaros. No doubts.
On these three islands of Maug the man they carried escapes. Perhaps it was also here that Gonzalo de Vigo fled, as we shall see later on.
Piece of information nº4: The discovery of the Mariana Islands.
Let's now analyse an aspect that we have not mentioned yet, and that is that in the letter from Espinosa to the King we find an important fact about the route followed. Textually it says like this:
"Your Sacred Majesty will know how I discovered fourteen islands, which were full of infinite naked people that were the colour of the people of the Indies, where, Lord, I tried to communicate with those people to see what was in those islands, and I did not understand the language, I did not know what there was in these said fourteen islands. Sir, they stretch from twelve degrees to twenty degrees from the northern part of the equinoctial line, so Sir, I departed from these the day of St. Barnabas, following the said trip."
In the first place, it is disconcerting that the Roteiro does not mention these fourteen islands. It is also exasperating, as finding short stories without coherence between them can be discouraging. But let's continue our reasoning, which is the beauty of all this, and see where we end up.
The fourteen islands referred to are undoubtedly the chain of islands of the archipelago of the Marianas, which runs in a North-South direction forming a wide arc, as they range from twelve degrees the southernmost - the Thieves' Island, or Guam- to 20 -Farallón de Pájaros-. There is no other possibility. They are effectively 14 main islands (some more if we add very small islets), and above all, there are no other islands in this area, between latitudes 12º and 20º.
It should be noted that of these 14 islands, the one located further south had already been discovered by the Magellan expedition previously. It was what they had called Thieves’ Island, now Guam. It had been the first land the Trinidad, the Victoria and the Concepción stopped in coming from the Strait of Magellan.
If we read the text of the letter from Espinosa to the King, it seems that the discovery of these islands was made on their way to the Moluccas. This is however only an impression, because it is not expressed clearly, and it could have been on their way back. In fact, if they had discovered them on the way out, it is quite certain that they would also go round them logically, since it is safer to navigate from island to island than to go out to sea, and even more so when the islands are oriented according to the direction and winds they had to follow in that area. That is to say, we contemplate two possibilities: that they travelled them both on the way out and on the way back or just on the way back.
The chain of 14 islands of the Marianas archipelago, which toured and discovered the Trinidad, possibly only during the return trip to the Moluccas.
Piece of information nº5: The departure date from the Marianas chain of islands
Espinosa says that they left these islands on the day of St. Barnabas, June 11. We have even verified that this calendar has not changed its date by analysing previous calendars of saint’s days. And here our opinion is that Espinosa confuses either the date or the festival of the saint, since in the Roteiro we saw that they discovered the Farallón de Pájaros (the last islet north of the archipelago) on July 11, and not June. It would have been easy to confuse the date of the saint between June and July.
In addition, arriving there a month before what the Roteiro says, and having travelled the chain of the 14 islands, seems unlikely if we look at the great distance they should have covered between the last concrete crossing point we have reference to - the two uninhabited islets that they found at 5º latitude on May 3 - and the Farallón de Pájaros. Therefore, with the forgiveness of the good of Espinosa, we will rule out June 11 and continue to maintain that they reached the Farallón de Pájaros on July 11.
Piece of information nº 6: The casualties
Another factor to consider is found in the list of casualties that occurred during the crossing. It turns out that everyone remained alive until August 10, the date on which Juan González died. On August 24 and 29, Marcos de Vayas, barber (that is, the doctor, an important loss), and Alberto, died. But in September the pace of death accelerated terribly, with 12 deaths, and this would continue until October 30, with yet another 15 people. The trip ended in the Moluccas the first days of the month of November.
This is very important, not only to realise how dramatic the situation on that ship was, but also to highlight that since mid-August the supplies were already very scarce. It had been quite some time since they last provisioned on land. This situation was maintained until October 30, coinciding with the end of the trip very soon after.
Piece of information nº7: The escape of Gonzalo de Vigo
This issue is perhaps the least clear of all those dealt with by the sources. We find discrepancies among them. Perhaps the source that gives us more details, and therefore seems more reliable, is the account of the deceased. In it we are given as the date of the escape the "end of August", and we are given the names of the two men who accompanied Gonzalo de Vigo: Alonso González and Martín Genovés.
This date is very important, because it is the only chronological reference to what happened after they had made the difficult decision to turn around and head back towards the Moluccas.
The Roteiro omits this escape. However, it does deal with the escape of an islander that they had taken during the outward journey, about which we have already referred, and concluded that this happened on the island of Maug, without mentioning a date, but making it clear that it was the second time they passed through the nearby Farallón de Pájaros, that is, on the return trip: "on an island that we first discovered and returned to with a storm”.
On the other hand, Ginés de Mafra does refer very succinctly to the escape of Gonzalo de Vigo, but he does so saying that it was during the outward journey, and that it occurred on the island of Guam, or Isla de Los Ladrones, which is in 12ºN. It must also be said that it was precisely here that the Expedition of Loaysa found Gonzalo de Vigo. He would end up being one of the survivors of the expedition, because he integrated into the lives of the indigenous people. We know about him because he presented himself to those of the Loaysa expedition when they arrived on the island of Guam. It was truly an incredible event. He then joined them as a translator, playing an important role in the events that took place later in the Moluccas. He never returned to Spain. He said that his two companions had died of sickness shortly after their escape.
If we take for good the end of August as the date when Gonzalo de Vigo fled -and there is no reason not to- it would have been impossible for it to happen on the island of Guam, as Ginés de Mafra says. Instead, it must have been on the island of Maug, in the northernmost part of the Mariana Islands. For it to have happened in Guam, located much further south, it should have been much later, maybe in the month of September. In addition, Mafra talks about how they fled in the way out, which is ruled out by the chronology obtained through the other sources. It is impossible for Mafra’s version and the account of the deceased to be coherent. We should trust the latter, as it confirms the pieces of information we already have.
Conclusions: Chronology and the route they most probably followed
They left the island of Tidore (Moluccan Islands) on April 6, 1522, with 55 crew members.
They bordered the Halmahera Island towards the North, (they call Halmahera Island Batechina or Gilolo).
They bend the northernmost point of this island, and continue coasting, this time in a southerly direction, until they stop at a town called Quimor. It possibly corresponds to the city that those of the expedition of Loaysa knew as Zamafo, nowadays Tobelo.
In Quimor they get supplies for 8 or 9 days, setting sail on April 20, 1522.
They follow east until leaving the archipelago of the Moluccas for very few days, until the winds are constantly opposite to them. They had to divert their direction to the Northeast to be able to advance.
On May 3, 1522, they discover two islets in 5ºN, which correspond almost with total certainty to two atolls of the Sonsorol archipelago.
They continue with contrary winds, so they advance NE or NNE direction. Although they would have found Palau in that direction, none of the sources provides any information about the possible sighting of this island.
On July 11, 1522, they arrive at the island of Cyco, which we can identify as the Farallón de Pájaros: the northernmost island of the Marianas archipelago. Here they take with them a native.
They always move in the NNE direction because of the opposite winds. The winds in these latitudes are stronger, and move at a faster pace.
One month later, on August 10, the first death occurred, that of Juan García.
In mid-August there was a strong storm that lasted 12 days, which destroyed the aft castle and caused other serious damage. During the storm it was very difficult to prepare food, which made most of the crew sick. At that time the supplies were limited to rice.
They reached the latitude of 42ºN, at an estimated distance from the Moluccan Islands of 500 leagues -2,750 km- in the East-West direction.
With the storm, they decided to give up moving forward, heading towards the Moluccas. They move towards SSW very quickly.
At the end of August they returned to the island of Cyco (Farallón de Pájaros). The islander they had taken with them on the way tells them that if they advance to the South they would find a group of three islands where they can easily take land. They followed his recommendation, finding thus the three islands that they call Mao, nowadays called Maug. Gonzalo de Vigo, Alonso Gonzalez, Martin Genovés and the islander himself flee.
They continued their journey towards the Moluccas with a tremendous succession of casualties. They crossed the chain of the Marianas’ 14 islands- with doubts about whether they did it during the going or during the return, although we prefer this second option - but it is evident that they do not manage to get supplies and thus improve the health of the crew. On the contrary, it is possible that, due to the weakness of the crew, they did not even risk taking land for a potential confrontation with the natives.
On October 31, 1522, the last death occurred: Jerónimo García. No less than 31 men had died in the sea.
At the beginning of November they saw the island of Halmahera in the Moluccas. They turned its northernmost cape southwards, and they land on the neighbouring island of Doyz, known as Pulau Doi. The Portuguese were already on the island of Ternate, under the command of Antonio de Brito, and they were soon imprisoned. The Trinidad would sink before the clove it transported was unloaded.
Of the 20 men who manage to return to the Moluccas, after being captured by the Portuguese, 10 of them would die. Later on, 3 of them would be freed in Malacca, and one of them would be made a slave. Of two of them we do not know what happened, and the remaining four are those who managed to return to Spain 5 years later: Gonzalo Gómez de Espinosa, Ginés de Mafra, León Pancaldo and Juan Rodríguez "El Sordo" –this one a year earlier.
Comparison of the trip of the Trinidad to the return trip of Urdaneta
Andrés de Urdaneta was the first person to achieve the return trip from Asia to America through the Pacific, the so-called Tornaviaje, making history. He did it in the year 1565, after many unsuccessful attempts. In general, previous attempts did not find favourable winds because they did not sail to the North enough to reach the Kuro-Siwo current, which, similarly to the Gulf Stream in the Atlantic, favours navigation in the East.
I wanted to compare the route followed by Urdaneta with the one we have determined the Trinidad most probably followed, and the result is this.
Comparison of the route of Urdaneta, following day by day its course in Google Maps, with the probable route followed by the Trinidad.
Click on the image to access the route of Urdaneta’s trip on Google Maps.
Views of Urdaneta’s trip on Google Earth. To download the .kmz file, click HERE.
As we can see, Espinosa had the goal in his hands. There is even a good stretch where both routes overlap. But Espinosa did not have the luck of finding winds blowing east where Urdaneta did, and had to continue even more than he did towards the North. With this, far from taking merit from the great Urdaneta, what we intend is to value what Espinosa and his men did with the Trinidad. They also found the way, but they did not find luck.