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Ferdinand Magellan
1480 - 1521

While in the service of Spain, the Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan led the first European voyage of discovery to circumnavigate the globe.


Ferdinand Magellan was born in Oporto of noble parentage. Having served as a page to the Queen, Magellan entered the Portuguese service in the East in 1505. He went to East Africa and later was at the battle of Diu, in which the Portuguese destroyed Egyptian naval hegemony in the Arabian Sea. He went twice to Malacca, the Malayan spice port, participating in its conquest by the Portuguese. He may also have gone on an exploratory mission to the Molucca Islands (Spice Islands), the original source of some of the most valuable spices.

In 1513 Magellan was wounded in one of the many frustrating battles against the Moors in North Africa. But all of his services brought him little favor from the Crown, and in 1517, accompanied by his friend the cosmographer Ruy Faleiro, he went to Seville, where he offered his services to the Spanish court.

The famous Treaty of Tordesillas (1494) had divided the overseas world of the "discoveries" between the two powers. Portugal acquired everything from Brazil eastward to the East Indies; the Spanish hemisphere of discovery and conquest ran westward from Brazil to 134°E meridian. This eastern area had not yet been explored by the Spaniards, and they assumed that some of the Spice Islands might lie within their half of the globe. They were wrong, but Magellan's scheme was to test that assumption.

In addition it must be recalled that Columbus had made a terrible mistake, brought home by his "discovery" of America. Accepting the academic errors of learned geographers, ancient and modern, he had grossly underestimated the distance between Europe and the East (sailing westward from the former). Balboa's march across the Panamanian Isthmus had subsequently revealed the existence of a "South Sea" (the Pacific) on the other side of Columbus's "mainlands in the Ocean Sea." Thereafter, explorers eagerly sought northern and southern all-water passages across the stumbling block of the Americas; Magellan, too, sought such a passage.

Major Voyage

King Charles V of Spain (the emperor Charles V) endorsed the design of Magellan and Faleiro, and on Sept. 20, 1519, after a year's preparation, Magellan led a fleet of five ships out into the Atlantic. Unfortunately the ships - the San Antonio, Trinidad, Concepción, Victoria, and Santiago - were barely seaworthy, and the crews, including some officers, were of international composition and of dubious loyalty to their leader. With Magellan went his brother-in-law, Duarte Barbosa, and the loyal and able commander of the Santiago, João Serrão. Arriving at Brazil, the fleet sailed down the South American coast to the Patagonian bay of San Julián, where it wintered from March to August 1520. There an attempted mutiny was squelched, with only the top leaders being punished. Thereafter, however, the Santiago was wrecked, and its crew had to be taken aboard the other vessels.

Leaving San Julián, the fleet sailed southward; on Oct. 21, 1520, it entered the Strait of Magellan. It proceeded cautiously, taking over a month to pass through the strait. During this time the master of the San Antonio deserted and sailed back to Spain, and so only three of the original five ships entered the Pacific on November 28. There followed a long, monotonous voyage northward through the Pacific, and it was only on March 6, 1521, that the fleet finally anchored at Guam.

Magellan then passed eastward to Cebu in the Philippines, where, in an effort to gain the favour of a local ruler, he became embroiled in a local war and was slain in battle on April 27, 1521; Barbosa and Serrão were killed shortly thereafter. With the crew wasted from sickness, the survivors were forced to destroy the Concepción, and the great circumnavigation was completed by a courageous former mutineer, the Basque Juan Sebastián del Cano. Commanding the Victoria, he picked up a small cargo of spices in the Moluccas, crossed the Indian Ocean, and travelled around the Cape of Good Hope from the east. With a greatly reduced crew he finally reached Seville on Sept. 8, 1522. In the meantime the Trinidad, considered unfit to make the long voyage home, had tried to beat its way against contrary winds back across the Pacific to Panama. The voyage revealed the vast extent of the northern Pacific, but the attempt failed, and the Trinidad was forced back to the Moluccas. There its crew was jailed by the Portuguese, and only four men returned after 3 years to Spain.

Magellan's project brought little in the way of material benefit to Spain. The Portuguese were well entrenched in the East, their trans-African route at that time proving to be the only feasible maritime connection to India and the Spice Islands. Charles V acknowledged the political and economic facts by selling his vague East Indian rights to Portugal, rights that were later in part resumed with the Spanish colonization of the Philippines. Yet though nearly destroying itself in the process, the Magellan fleet for the first time revealed in a practical fashion the full extent of humanity's inheritance upon this globe. And in this, its scientific aspect, it proved to be the greatest of all the "conquests" undertaken by the gold-, slave-, and spice-seeking overseas adventurers of early modern Europe.


Portuguese navigator. Magellan was born into a Portuguese noble family of French origin, possibly at Ponte da Barca in northern Portugal. In 1492, he became a page in the queen's court. In March 1505 Magellan and his brother enlisted in the fleet of Francisco de Almeida, bound for India down the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Cape Verdes Islands and around the Cape of Good Hope. Almeida sailed in East African waters for more than two years, sacked Mombassa, and established a string of Portuguese forts to serve as trading centres and to guard the sea lanes to India, where Magellan arrived from Mozambique in October 1507.

By the time of his arrival he had served first on a brigantine, then on a caravel in combat in the Arabian Sea. Under the command of Nuno Vaz Pereira on the caravel Santo Espirito, he participated in the Portuguese defeat, at the hands of a huge Egyptian Mamluk fleet fortified by Venetian gunships, which broke the Portuguese blockade of the Red Sea. Soon afterward he was dispatched, under Pereira's command, to the Maldive Islands, but made instead for the port city of Colombo, having been blown by a storm to the coast of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Magellan participated in the great sea battle of 2 February 1509, in which Almeida's fleet defeated the Mamluk-Venetian coalition at Diu (which became a Portuguese colony), a battle in which Pereira was killed and Magellan seriously wounded. Magellan was involved in intelligence on the Malabar coast, along with his cousin Francisco Serrão, to assess both the strength of local navies and the organization of local trade, which they found to be in the control of Arab merchants. Each of them was given the command of a caravel and promoted to the rank of captain. Magellan was again wounded in the botched attempt, under the command of Affonso de Albuquerque, architect of Portugal's Asian empire, to take Calicut.

Magellan was present at the capture of Malacca in August 1511. Serrão subsequently became director of the Portuguese factory at Ternate, a small town on the island of the same name that the Portuguese fortified and held 1522–1574, and which was used most importantly as a base for the clove trade, and invited Magellan to join him there. Instead, Magellan is thought to have made an illicit voyage, most likely northeast from Malacca to Amboyna, possibly coasting the Philippines. He was relieved of his command and, after eight years in the East, returned to Portugal. He served in a Moroccan campaign under the duke of Braganza in 1514, as a result of which he became embroiled in a corruption scandal which landed him in the bad graces of King Manuel I (ruled 1495–1521).

Like Columbus before him, Magellan thought he might have better success in Spain. He arrived in Seville in October 1517 and, working through the merchant community, eventually secured royal approval for a voyage westward to the Indies. He thought the Moluccas (Spice Islands) were close to South America and thus within the Spanish sphere of influence. His idea was to follow up on Amerigo Vespucci's (1454–1512) third voyage and seek a passage to the Indies around the tip of South America. Magellan had interviewed survivors of Juan de Solis's ill-fated voyage to the Río de la Plata in 1515 and deduced that the continental tip of South America lay within the area assigned to Spain.

The primary motive for the voyage was economic. Spain wanted to trade in the East Indies, but Charles V did not know (as Magellan surely did) that the Moluccas were already in Portuguese hands. Perhaps Magellan thought there were other islands as potentially lucrative but as yet unclaimed. His fleet skirted Brazil to avoid any clash with the Portuguese and, at the mouth of the strait now called by his name, two of his five ships were lost, one by shipwreck, the other by mutiny. The remaining ships navigated the straits in thirty-eight days. Magellan reached Sebu in the Philippines in April 1521, where he became involved in a local war and was killed, along with forty of his men. He was succeeded by his second-in-command, the Spaniard Juan Sebastián del Cano (or Juan de Elcano), who continued on to the Moluccas and became the first captain to have sailed around the world.

The geographical impact of the circumnavigation was enormous, not only because of the new geographical data that it produced, but also because it demonstrated irrefutable proof of the sphericity of the Earth as well as the preponderance of water over continental masses on the Earth's surface, in contrast to what many geographers and explorers of Columbus's generation had believed.










This web page was last updated on: 20 December, 2008