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Umatac Beach, where the first encounter with Europeans may have taken place.


“The first contact is with Magellan, and it doesn’t end well,” Anne states, recounting the first European arrival on Guam. “The story is only maybe three paragraphs long in the whole account by Antonio Pigafetta. In the account, Magellan arrives at the Marianas, he comes to Guam and the account really doesn’t say a lot. It says he entered looking for food because his men were dying. They had started out in Spain with five ships. By the time they got to the Marianas they were down to three ships and they had lost probably close to half their crew, because one ship had gone down in a ship wreck, and after seeing that ship go down, another ship had a mutiny and they took off. So two of the five ships and all those men were lost by the time they got to the Marianas."



“It had been three months since they had last been on any land so they didn’t have water. The accounts say they were eating leather, they were soaking their boots, soaking any leather in the ocean and then barbecuing it and eating it. They’re eating sawdust, they’re eating rats, anything. So they are really in poor health so you know I imagine by the time they got to the Marianas they were not in a good mood at all and a lot of the men were already asking, ‘Where are we going and when are we going to get there?’ They were very unhappy."

Magellan’s view of the world, as a Portuguese Catholic in the early 1500s, did not help the encounter. “On seeing the Chamorros, he did not view them as his equals,” Anne explains. “He definitely viewed them as pagans, as savages. So I think in their initial encounter, Magellan was not interested in any sort of trade."


Magellan Portrait

Ferdinand Magellan.

Dutch illustration

This fragment of an early Dutch account shows their interpretation of Chamorro canoes trading with Western ships. The text refers to the islands as "Insulas Ladrones." Photo courtesy of the Guam Museum.


“What happens, however, is there’s a big misunderstanding and Chamorros take things. I assume that the Chamorros are giving them food, but the accounts from Magellan’s voyage don’t say anything about that. They only say that the Chamorros took things. And then because of that, Magellan calls the islands the ‘Islands of Thieves’.

"One of the things they take is a little boat called a skiff. Magellan sends some of his men back to land on Guam to retrieve it, and in that encounter, Magellan’s men end up killing six or seven Chamorro men, and burning down 30 to 40 houses and canoes—which is basically a village.

"According to the account, they were also taking the entrails of the men that they killed. They’re killing men and gutting them because they believe that the intestines have magical curing abilities. So I always joke that the first account of cannibalism is really the Spanish, it’s not really the Pacific Islanders. It’s the Spanish who were the first cannibals!"



"But one of the ironies of history is that in this very short encounter, what is remembered in world history is Chamorros are thieves, ‘bad Chamorros.’ This is how kids on Guam learn the story. The Spanish are the victims in the story. They don’t know that Spanish killed people and burned down the village and took the Chamorros’ intestines. It's not at all about Spanish murders—no, it's about poor, victimized heroic Spaniards.

"What they learn is 'bad Chamorros, poor victimized Spaniards.' So it’s a real problem the whole way history is told."




Chamorros trading food to the Spanish using ropes.
Image borrowed from Destiny's Landfall, by Robert F. Rogers.


“In the 150 years after Magellan, there were over 100 different ships that landed here. In some of the encounters there was violence, and in many of them they were peaceful. Because Magellan had labeled the Chamorros 'thieves,' a lot of the succeeding voyagers were very reluctant to get close to the Chamorros.

"So one of the things they did was they wouldn’t allow people on board to bring food. Instead, they had baskets tied to rope and they threw the baskets down and they would trade that way, rather than trading person to person. In a lot of the paintings, you see these ropes between the Chamorro canoes and the Spanish ships, and it’s because they didn’t want to get that close."



Our view of ancient Chamorro culture is shaped by the writings of these early visitors. Anne points out, “Most of the accounts written by people who are really here for like a week at the most, which is one of the big drawbacks. A lot of them were here just two or three days, just long enough to get water and food and then they’d move on. There were a couple of shipwrecks and there were some Spaniards living in the islands.

"The most detailed account is by Juan Pobre, who jumped ship in the early 1600s and was here for less than a year. When he went back to Spain, he wrote an account of day-to-day life. His account has some problems with bias, but in general, he’s pretty much telling it like he sees it. He wasn’t out to prove anything."


Cast Iron Pot

An early Spanish artefact. Photo courtesy of the Guam Museum.



“From this type of observer you get much better accounts of day-to-day life rather than just the peak events and big conflicts. You get more of an everyday account, so that’s the account I make my students read for the ancient period."

But a very different account will emerge 150 years after Magellan, with the arrival of Father San Vitores and the Jesuit missionaries.



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