The Robinson Library

The Robinson Library >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel
Ferdinand Magellan

[muh jehl' uhn] leader of the first voyage around the world

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan was born of a noble family, at Saborosa in Villa Real, Province of Traz os Montes, Portugal, in about 1480. His name in Portuguese was Fernăo de Magalhăes. As a boy, he served as a page to the Queen of Portugal. He was about 17 years old when Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope to India. When he was about 25 years old, he enlisted as a soldier for service in India. He fought in several campaigns, and traveled as far east as Melaka, near present-day Singapore. Later, while fighting against the Moors in Morocco, he received a wound that made him lame for life.

In 1517, believing that King Manuel I of Portugal disliked him and had treated him badly, Magellan decided to offer his services to Spain. Magellan's belief that the Spice Islands (Moluccas) rightly belonged to Spain by virtue of the Treaty of Tordesillas was another factor in his decision to "switch sides." A student of geography, he thought the islands lay not far west of Spanish America and that they could be easily reached by sailing around the southern tip of South America and then going west.

When Magellan offered to discover a western route to the Spice Islands for Spain, King Charles I eagerly accepted his proposal. The king agreed to supply Magellan with a fleet of ships, and to give him one-twentieth of the profits. With five ships -- the Concepción, San Antonio, Santiago, Trinidad, and Victoria -- and about 240 men, Magellan set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda on September 20, 1519. His plan was to sail across the Atlantic, around the southern tip of South America, and on to the Spice Islands; he then intended to return home by his outward-bound route. What he accomplished, however, would be far more significant.

The Voyage

After arriving at the bay of Rio de Janeiro in early December, 1519, Magellan explored the South American coast, looking for a strait that would lead him through the continent.

From March to October, 1520, he stayed in San Julián and Santa Cruz. The sailors called this region Patagonia, or land of the big feet, because they believed that the natives there had big feet. During this period Magellan's men became dissatisfied and started a mutiny, but Magellan suppressed the uprising and put some of the leaders to death.

Resuming the voyage in October, the expedition came upon a passage that took them around the southern end of South America -- what we now know as the Strait of Magellan. As they passed through the strait, the crewmen saw many native campfires at night on the land to their left. For this reason they called it Tierra del Fuego (Fireland), a name it holds to this day.

By the time the expedition reached the western ocean it had been reduced to three ships -- the Santiago had been wrecked in a storm, and the San Antonio had sailed back secretly to Spain. Magellan named the new ocean the Pacific, because it seemed so calm compared with the stormy waters through which he had just sailed. For 98 days he sailed westward and saw no land, except two desert islands. By the time the fleet reached the Mariana Islands hunger and disease had taken the lives of many crewmen and left many others weak. The Spaniards seized food and water from the Micronesians who lived on the islands, which Magellan called Islas de los Ladrones (Islands of Thieves) because he believed the inhabitants were robbers.

Continuing west, the fleet next reached the island of Cebu in the southern Philippines. By now Magellan had come to the conclusion that he had passed the longitude of the East Indies, and that he could return to Spain through the Indian Ocean.

Magellan's Death

After converting the chief of the island of Cebu to Christianity, Magellan offered to help the chief in a war against his enemy, Chief Cilapulapu of nearby Macatan. Magellan was cut down by spears and cutlasses on April 27, 1521, while fighting on the island of Macatan. The chief of Cebu then turned against the Spaniards, murdering some of them and driving the rest from the island.

The End of the Voyage

The remaining ships and crewmen wandered around the East Indies for many months. The Concepción became unseaworthy and was scuttled. The Trinidad and Victoria finally reached the Spice Islands and each took a load of cloves, the spice for which the voyage had been undertaken. The commander of the Trinidad tried to sail east toward the Isthmus of Panama, but the ship was wrecked by unfavorable winds. The Victoria, however, sailed west, through the Indian Ocean and around the Cape of Good Hope. That ship, commanded by Juan Sebastián del Cano, reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda, Spain, on September 6, 1522. Of the five ships and 240 men that began the voyage, only one ship, with Cano and 17 crewmen aboard, returned. Although the losses had been heavy, Cano received credit for becoming the first man to sail around the earth.

Magellan's voyage

Print Source

The World Book Encyclopedia Chicago: World Book-Childcraft International, Inc., 1979.

Web Source

Catholic Encyclopedia

See Also

Vasco da Gama

Questions or comments about this page?

The Robinson Library >> History of Discoveries, Explorations, and Travel

This page was last updated on 08/06/2018.