When Ferdinand Magellan and his ships departed hurriedly from Guam in March of 1521 after just a few days on the island, he was very happy to be leaving but not as happy as the ancient Chamorros were to see him go. When he first arrived on Guam, Magellan and his crew were on the verge of starvation, many of whom were dying from scurvy, the disease most dreaded by sailors. By helping themselves to all the food they wanted, they began to regain their health. In the meantime, the natives were also helping themselves to what they wanted on the ships.
As builders of the swift and elegant proas, the natives were particularly fascinated with the European skiff on the ship and decided to take it with them. An infuriated Magellan, a seasoned fighter while in the service of his native Portugal, decided to the teach the natives a lesson. He led an attack against the ancients, overwhelmed them with his superior weapons, killed some natives, and burned a village -- all in one fell swoop. This was bewildering to the natives whose existence largely depended on their strong tradition of communal living. They generously gave food and water to the starving explorers only to have themselves killed or maimed by the strangers to their shores.
His departure from Guam with his guns firing was not Magellan's final shot. That was to happen later when he changed the name of the Chamorro Islands from Islas de las Velas Latinas (Islands of Lateen Sails), out of fascination with the flying proas of the natives, to Islas de los Ladrones (Islands of Thieves). Although this name was eventually replaced with Islas Marianas (Mariana Islands), Magellan's derogatory designation still appears parenthetically on some maps printed 475 years after his visit to Guam.
After Magellan left, it would be 44 years before Spain sent an expedition to claim Guam for the Crown and it would be another 100 years before Father Diego Luis de San Vitores would start a mission for the Church.
The Philippines was an entirely different story. For many years before Magellan set foot in the Philippines, it had already been engaged in commerce with neighboring island countries and the Chinese mainland. The Spaniards immediately realized the enormous potential for trade of goods between Europe and Asia.
Under their direction and control, an eastward route across the Pacific was sought and ships of their design were built in the Philippines by local and Asian shipbuilders. Thus was born around 1565 the most enterprising commercial venture of the time -- the exchange of goods and commodities between Europe and Asia via the Manila Galleons.
For 250 years, the galleons sailed between Manila and Acapulco, Mexico, which served as a receiving and transfer point for goods to be transported overland to Vera Cruz and loaded on ships headed for Spain. There was an average of one round trip a year with a stop-over on Guam on the return trip from Acapulco.
The precious cargo on the galleons made them targets for pirates. The overloading of the vessels with passengers and goods cause many of them to flounder at sea. Shipments east included silk, spices, porcelain, cotton and ivory. Westward bound galleons included soldiers and missionaries; provisions for the garrison in the Marianas; and shipments of Mexican silver. Incredible hardships were suffered by passengers and crew, particularly during eastward journeys from Manila to Mexico which took some galleons a year to complete. The ships adhered so strictly to the established route going east that they bypassed the Hawaiian Islands for over two centuries before Captain James Cook became the first European to visit them in 1798.
Initially, the galleons did not stop on Guam except to take on fresh provisions. Subsequently, they stopped regularly and their arrival was the highlight of the year which was celebrated with much fanfare and joyful activities. The galleon was Guam's sole contact with the world beyond its reef except for occasional visits by ships of other nations plying the Pacific.
The Manila Galleons had a marked influence on the local population culturally, religiously, and linguistically. They transported in and out of Guam many Mexicans, Spaniards, and Filipinos , many of whom made Guam their home. The Chamorro of today is a descendent of the blending of these bloodlines.
This remarkable chapter in world history in which Guam played a notable role was made possible through the navigational genius of Ferdinand Magellan. Yet, for all his contributions, there are few memorials in his honor. He is included in the Hall of Explorers in Lisbon and there is a memorial in his honor in Chile. In the Philippines, he shares a memorial with other explorers. Ironically, our island, which he disparagingly called the Island of Thieves, has the only other memorial for him in the village of Umatac.
Finally, in the fabled history of the Manila Galleons, the last Galleon that sailed in 1815 which ended the remarkable 250-year saga of the Manila Galleons was named Fernando Magallanes (Ferdinand Magellan). Like its namesake, it stopped on Guam for replenishment before sailing on to the Philippines and into the pages of history.