Ferdinand Magellan

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Ferdinand Magellan (Spring 1480April 27, 1521; was a Portuguese sea explorer who sailed for Spain. He was the first to sail from Europe westwards to Asia, the first European to sail the Pacific Ocean, and the first to lead an expedition for the purpose of circumnavigating the globe. Though Magellan himself died in the Philippines and never returned to Europe, 18 members of the crew and one ship of the fleet returned to Spain in 1522, having circumnavigated the globe.


Birth and early years

Magellan was born in Sabrosa (near Vila Real, in the province of Tr᳭dos-Montes of north Portugal) or in Porto. The son of Pedro Rui de Magalh㥳, the mayor of the town, and Alda de Mesquita, Magellan had two siblings: his brother Diogo de Sousa, named after his grandmother, and his sister Isabel.

Magellan's parents died when he was ten. At 12, Magellan became a page to King John II and Queen Eleonora at the royal court at the capital of Lisbon, where his brother had gone two years before. Here, with his cousin Francisco Serrano, Magellan continued his education, becoming interested in geography and astronomy. Some speculate that he may even have been taught by Martin Behaim. In 1496, Magellan became a squire.

At age 20, Magellan first went to sea. In 1505 he was sent to India to install Francisco de Almeida as a Portuguese viceroy there and establish military and naval bases along the way. It was here that Magellan would also first experience battle: when a local king refused to pay tribute, Almeida's party attacked, conquering the Muslim city of Kilwa in present-day Tanzania.

Magellan next journeyed to the East Indies in 1506, taking part in expeditions to the Spice Islands. In 1510, Magellan was promoted to the rank of captain. However, after secretly sailing a ship east without permission, he lost his command and was forced to return to Portugal.

In 1511, Magellan was sent to Morocco where he fought in the Battle of Azamor (August 28 and 29, 1513) and received a severe knee wound while fighting against the Moorish-Moroccan stronghold. Although wounded and the recipient of several medals, Magellan was accused of illegal trade with the Islamic Moors. He had also been involved in conflict with Almeida: after Magellan took a leave of the army without permission, Almeida gave a poor report of the sailor to the Portuguese court. Several of the accusations were subsequently dropped, but Magellan fell into disfavor with King Manuel I, who refused to raise Magellan's pension.

The King also told Magellan that he would have no further employment in his country's service after May 15, 1514. Magellan formally renounced his nationality and went to offer his services to the court of Spain, changing his name from "Fern㯠de Magalh㥳" to "Fernando de Magallanes."

Plans for circumnavigation

Magellan reached Seville, the main port of Spain, on October 20, 1517, and from there went to Valladolid to see the teenaged king, Charles I (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V).

With the help of Juan de Aranda, one of the three chief officials of Seville's India House, and of other friends, especially Diogo Barbosa, a Portuguese, Magellan became naturalized as a Spaniard. Acquiring great influence in Seville, he gained the ear of Charles and the powerful Juan Rodriguez de Fonseca, bishop of Burgos and the persistent enemy of Christopher Columbus.

Having brought the Portuguese cartographical knowledge to the Spanish court, Magellan pointed out that there would exist a passage from South America, which he thought to be the Rio de la Plata, to the Pacific Ocean, forming a large bay-like river delta. He decided to pioneer this route to reach the Moluccas (Spice Islands), the key to the strategic and tremendously lucrative spice trade. He allegedly declared himself ready to sail southwards to 75? to realize his project.

Ruy Faleiro, an astronomer and Portuguese exile, aided him in his plan, and he found an invaluable financial ally in Christopher de Haro, a member of a great Antwerp firm who had a grudge against the king of Portugal. On March 22, 1518, King Charles approved Magellan's plan and granted him generous funds. Under the contract, Magellan and Faleiro, as joint captains-general, would receive one-twentieth of all profits and they and their heirs would gain the government of any lands discovered, with the title of Adelantados.

Magellan took an oath of allegiance in the church of Santa Mar�de la Victoria de Triana, giving money to the monks of the monastery so they would pray for his success.

With the money that Magellan and Faleiro had received from the king, the pair obtained five ships: the Trinidad (tonnage 110, crew 55), the San Antonio (tonnage 120, crew 60), the Concepcion (tonnage 90, crew 45), the Victoria (tonnage 85, crew 42), and the Santiago (tonnage 75, crew 32). The Trinidad was Magellan's flagship, and besides Faleiro the captains for the other four were Juan de Cartegena, Gomez, Gaspar de Quesada and Luis de Mendoza, respectively.

The journey

Missing image
The arrow points to the city of Sanl?de Barrameda on the delta of the Guadalquivir River, in Andalusia.

On August 10, 1519, the fleet of five ships under Magellan's command left Seville and traveled south from the Guadalquivir River to San Lucar de Barrameda at the mouth of the rivers, where they remained more than five weeks. Spanish authorities were wary of the Portuguese admiral and almost prevented Magellan from sailing, but on September 20, Magellan set sail from Sanl?de Barrameda with 270 men.

The voyage

Upon hearing of his departure, King Manuel ordered a naval detachment to pursue him, but Magellan eluded the Portuguese. After a brief stop at the Canary Islands, Magellan arrived at the Cape Verde Islands, where they set course for Cape St. Augustine in Brazil. On November 20, the equator was crossed; on December 6, the crew sighted Brazil.

Since Brazil was Portuguese territory at the time, Magellan avoided it, and on December 13 anchored near present-day Rio de Janeiro, where the weather and the natives were generally friendly. There the fleet was resupplied, but these good conditions caused them to delay. Afterwards, they continued to sail south along South America's east coast, looking for the strait that Magellan believed would lead to the Spice Islands. The fleet reached R�de la Plata on January 10, 1520. It was already late in the season, however, and the southern winter struck while they were still on the Argentinian coast.

Magellan decided to spend the winter in Patagonia. On March 31, the crew established a settlement that they called Puerto San Julian. A mutiny involving three of the five ship captains broke out. It was unsuccessful, mainly because the crew remained loyal. Quesada and Mendoza were executed, and Cartagena and a priest were marooned on the coast.

The Straits of Magellan cut through the southern tip of  connecting the  and .
The Straits of Magellan cut through the southern tip of South America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific.

On August 24, the journey resumed. Magellan, behind schedule, was impatient to make up for lost time, and set out again while the weather still posed problems. The Santiago, sent down the coast on a scouting expedition, was wrecked in a sudden storm. All of its crewmembers survived and made it safely to shore. Two of them returned, overland, to inform Magellan of what had happened, and bring rescue to their comrades. After this experience, Magellan decided to wait for a few weeks more before again resuming the voyage.

At 52? South latitude on October 21, 1520, the fleet reached Cape Virgenes and concluded they had found the passage, because the waters were brine and deep inland. Four ships began an arduous passage through the 373-mile long passage that Magellan called the Estreito (Canal) de Todos los Santos, or "All Saints' Channel," because All Saint's Day, November 1, occurred while the fleet traveled through it. Now, the strait is named the Strait of Magellan.

Magellan first assigned Concepcion and San Antonio to explore the strait, but the latter, commanded by Gomez, deserted and returned to Spain. On November 28, the three remaining ships entered the South Pacific. Magellan named the waters the Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean) because of its apparent stillness.

Death of Magellan

Heading northwest, the crew reached the equator on February 13, 1521. On March 6, they reached the Marianas and on March 16, the island of Homonhon in the Philippines, with 150 crewmen left. Magellan was able to communicate with the native peoples because his Malay interpreter could understand their language. They traded gifts with Rajah Kolambu of Limasawa, who guided them to Cebu, on April 7. Rajah Humabon of Cebu was friendly to them, and even agreed to accept Christianity. Magellan died in the Philippines on April 27 in the Battle of Mactan against indigenous forces led by Lapu-Lapu.

Antonio Pigafetta, a wealthy tourist who paid to be on the Magellan voyage, is the only extant eyewitness account of Magellan's death. He writes:

"When morning came, forty-nine of us leaped into the water up to our thighs, and walked through water for more than two cross-bow flights before we could reach the shore. The boats could not approach nearer because of certain rocks in the water. The other eleven men remained behind to guard the boats. When we reached land, [the natives] had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred persons. When they saw us, they charged down upon us with exceeding loud cries... The musketeers and crossbow-men shot from a distance for about a half-hour, but uselessly... Recognizing the captain, so many turned upon him that they knocked his helmet off his head twice... An Indian hurled a bamboo spear into the captain's face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the Indian's body. Then, trying to lay hand on sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because he had been wounded in the arm with a bamboo spear. When the natives saw that, they all hurled themselves upon him. One of them wounded him on the left leg with a large cutlass, which resembles a scimitar, only being larger. That caused the captain to fall face downward, when immediately they rushed upon him with iron and bamboo spears and with their cutlasses, until they killed our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide. When they wounded him, he turned back many times to see whether we were all in the boats. Thereupon, beholding him dead, we, wounded, retreated, as best we could, to the boats, which were already pulling off."

The circumnavigation

One of Magellan's ships circumnavigated the globe, finishing 16 months after the explorer's death.
One of Magellan's ships circumnavigated the globe, finishing 16 months after the explorer's death.

Magellan had provided in his will that his Malay interpreter was to be freed upon his death. His interpreter, who was baptized Enrique (Henry) in Malacca 1511, had been captured by Sumatran slavers from his home islands. Thus Enrique became the first man to circumnavigate the globe (in multiple voyages). Enrique was indentured by Magellan during his earlier voyages to Malacca, and was at his side during the battles in Africa, during Magellan's disgrace at the King's court in Portugal, and during Magellan's successful raising of a fleet. However, after Mactan, the remaining ship's masters refused to free Enrique. Enrique escaped his indenture on May 1, with the aid of Rajah Humabon, amid the deaths of almost 30 crewmen. However, Antonio Pigafetta had been making notes about the language, and was apparently able to continue communications during the rest of the voyage.

The casualties suffered in the Philippines left the expedition with too few men to sail the three remaining ships. Accordingly, on May 2, 1521, they abandoned Concepcion, burning the ship to make sure it could not be used against them. The fleet, now reduced to Trinidad and Victoria, fled westward to Palawan. They left that island on June 21, 1521, and were guided to Brunei, Borneo by Moro pilots, who could navigate the shallow seas. They anchored off the Brunei breakwater for 35 days, where the Venetian Pigafetta mentions the splendor of Rajah Siripada's court (gold, two pearls the size of hens' eggs, etc.). In addition, Brunei boasted tame elephants and armament of 62 cannon, more than 5 times the armament of Magellan's ships. Brunei disdained the cloves which were to prove more valuable than gold, upon the return to Spain. Pigafetta mentions some of the technology of the court, such as porcelain (which was not yet widely available in Europe), and spectacles (eye-glasses were only just becoming available in Europe).

After reaching the Moluccas (the Spice Islands) November 6 1521, 115 crew were left. They managed to trade with the Sultan of Tidore, a rival of the Sultan of Ternate, who was the ally of the Portuguese.

The two remaining ships, laden with valuable spices, attempted to return to Spain by sailing west. As they left the Moluccas, however, the Trinidad was found to be taking on water. The crew tried to discover and repair the leak, but failed. They concluded that the Trinidad would need to spend considerable time being overhauled. The small Victoria was not large enough to accommodate all the surviving crewmembers. As a result, the Victoria with some of the crew sailed west for Spain. Several weeks later, the Trinidad left the Moluccas to attempt to return to Spain via the Pacific route. This attempt failed; the ship was captured by the Portuguese, and was eventually wrecked in a storm while at anchor under Portuguese control.

The Victoria set sail via the Indian Ocean route home on December 21 1521. By May 6, 1522, the Victoria, commanded by Juan SebastiᮠElcano, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, with only rice for rations. Twenty crewmen died of starvation before Elcano put in to the Cape Verde Islands, a Portuguese holding, where he abandoned 13 more crewmen July 9 in fear of losing his cargo of 26 tons of spices (cloves and cinnamon).

The return

On September 6, 1522, Juan Sebastiᮠde Elcano and the remaining crew of Magellan's voyage and the last ship of the fleet, Victoria, arrived in Spain, almost exactly three years after leaving. The expedition actually eked out a small profit, but the crew were not paid their full wages.

\ 18 men returned to Seville with the Victoria in 1522
Name Rating
Juan Sebastian de Elcano, from Getaria Master  
Francisco Albo, from Axio Pilot  
Miguel de Rodas Pilot  
Juan de Acurio, from Bermeo Pilot  
Antonio Lombardo (Pigafetta), from Vicenza Supernumerary  
Mart�de Judicibus, from Genoa Chief Steward  
Hernando de Bustamante, from Alc᮴ara Mariner  
Nicholas the Greek, from Naples Mariner  
Miguel Sᮣhez, from Rhodes Mariner  
Antonio Hernandez Colmenero, from Huelva Mariner  
Francisco Rodrigues, Portuguese from Seville Mariner  
Juan Rodr�ez, from Huelva Mariner  
Diego Carmena Mariner  
Hans of Aachen Gunner  
Juan de Arratia, from Bilbao Able Seaman  
Vasco Gomez Gallego the Portuguese, from Bayona Able Seaman  
Juan de Santandr鳬 from Cueto Apprentice Seaman  
Juan de Zubileta, from Barakaldo Page  

Four crewmen of the original 55 on the Trinidad finally returned to Spain in 1525.

The discoveries

Magellan's expedition was the first to circumnavigate the globe and the first to navigate the strait in South America connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The men among Magellan's expedition were also the first Europeans to observe the following:

  • A 'camel without humps' — which could have been the llama, guanaco, [[vicu񡝝, or alpaca.
  • A black 'goose' which had to be skinned instead of plucked — the penguin.
  • Two of our closest galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, visible from the Southern Hemisphere.
  • The extent of the Earth — their voyage was '14,460 leagues' (or 69,000 km).
  • The need for an International date line — That going round the earth westward was winning one day: upon their return they observed a mismatch of one day between their calendars and those who did not travel, even though they faithfully maintained their ship's log.


  • Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, hardcover 480 pages, ISBN 0066211735

Further reading

  • For student readers
    • W.D.Brownlee, The First Ships around the World, (1977) Lerner Publications Co., Minneapolis ISBN 0-8225-1204-1
    • Richard Humble, The Voyage of Magellan, (1988) Franklin Watts, ISBN 0-531-10638-1

See also

External links


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