Wednesday, March 6, 2013


Taipingot, or the Wedding Cake, in Luta (Rota)

Where did Ferdinand Magellan land on March 6, 1521?

How could we know for sure, since Magellan did not have a map of the Pacific nor of the islands he could have come across as he sailed west?

We have this eye witness account from Antonio Pigafetta, an Italian member of Magellan's expedition.  Pigafetta says that on March 6 they saw "a small island to the northwest" and "two others towards the southwest."  That makes three islands.  Then he says one of the two islands to the south was larger and higher than the other two.

Now, if one looks at a map of the Marianas, one would be tempted to think Magellan saw Saipan, Tinian and Aguiguan - three islands neatly in a row, separated by merely several miles.

The problem with this explanation is that Pigafetta says that the largest and highest of the three was to the southwest, that is, south of Saipan.  Unfortunately, neither Tinian nor Aguiguan fit this description.  Tinian is just slightly smaller than Saipan but definitely flatter.  And Aguiguan is tiny compared to the other two.  If one were approaching from the east, as Magellan was, Saipan would definitely appear to be the highest and biggest, which is at odds with Pigafetta's account.

That leaves only two more islands in the southern Marianas, Guam and Luta (Rota).  The problem is that makes for only two islands, and Pigafetta says they saw three.

Ah, but maybe what they saw looked like three islands, but were in fact only two islands.  In Luta, there is a high point to the south called Taipingot, or the Wedding Cake, that is connected to the island proper by a shallow and narrow strip of land (an isthmus) that would not be seen from a distance.  The little strip of land connecting Taipingot and Luta would be invisible from afar, and would make one believe he was looking at two islands instead of one.

Taipingot is connected to Luta proper by a narrow and shallow strip of land, unseen from afar.

This seems like a good explanation.  The "three" islands were really Luta and its southern high point Taipingot, mistaken as a separate island, and then Guam.

As Pigafetta says, Magellan decided to stop by the largest island to get food for his starving crew.  They headed for the western side of that island, as that side would be less windy.

Again, Pigafetta cannot tell us what beach or bay they landed at.  They had no maps; knew no names.  It could have been Tumon Bay, or Agaña Bay.  Pigafetta lacks sufficient detail to give us better clues.  But to sail all the way down to Humåtak (Umatac), some believe, would put him there at nightfall, an unlikely and more dangerous time to make contact with the islanders.  It also means Magellan would have by-passed Apra Harbor, another unlikely occurence.

Still, tradition has it that Magellan landed at Humåtak.  This idea possibly comes from Legazpi's later landing at Humåtak in 1565.


Magellan Monument in Humåtak

We have no real evidence that Magellan landed at Humåtak in 1521, and compelling reasons to think he actually landed more to the north of Guam.  But I say let's keep the tradition that Magellan landed in Humåtak.

Since we'll never know for sure where he landed, any place will do to serve as a focal point for the historical fact that Magellan stopped at Guam in 1521.  We have no evidence what month and day Christ was born, but if any day of the year is as good as another to mark His birth, why not December 25th, which conveniently (for Christians) supplants a pagan feast and injects it with new meaning.

Tumon and Hagåtña, if Magellan in fact landed at either place, already has enough busy activity which we frequently see anyway, while having Discovery Day in Humåtak gives us a reason to visit that beautiful bay. 

The people of Humåtak certainly don't want it any other way.  Even when the narrator of the Magellan landing re-enactment talks about how those bad Spaniards killed Chamorros and burned down our huts, the narrator ends it all with a "Biba Magellan!  Biba Discovery Day!"

The Spaniards.  We attack them.  But we wouldn't be who we are today had they never come.

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