Explorers - Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan by unknown author, photo in public domain
Ferdinand Magellan by unknown author, photo in public domain

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese: Fernão de Magalhães, Spanish: Fernando de Magallanes), (c. 1480 - 27 April 1521) was a Portuguese explorer who organised the Spanish expedition to the East Indies from 1519 to 1522, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth, completed by Juan Sebastián Elcano.

Born into a family of minor Portuguese nobility in around 1480, Magellan became a skilled sailor and naval officer and was in service of the Portuguese crown in Asia. He was selected by King Charles I of Spain to search for a westward route to the Maluku Islands in modern day Indonesia The islands were known as the Spice Islands because of the nutmeg, mace and cloves that were exclusively found there.

Commanding a fleet of five vessels, he headed south through the Atlantic Ocean to Patagonia, passing through the Strait of Magellan into a body of water he named the "peaceful sea" (the modern Pacific Ocean). Despite a series of storms and mutinies, the expedition reached the Spice Islands in 1521 and returned home via the Indian Ocean to complete the first circuit of the globe. Magellan did not complete the entire voyage, as he was killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippine islands in 1521.

Magellan had already reached the Malay Archipelago in Southeast Asia on previous voyages traveling east (from 1505 to 1511-1512). By visiting this area again but now travelling west, Magellan achieved a nearly complete personal circumnavigation of the globe for the first time in history.

Voyage of circumnavigation

After having his proposed expeditions to the Spice Islands repeatedly rejected by King Manuel of Portugal, Magellan turned to Charles I, the young King of Spain (and future Holy Roman Emperor). Under the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, Portugal controlled the eastern routes to Asia that went around Africa. Magellan instead proposed reaching the Spice Islands by a western route, a feat which had never been accomplished, the so-called route to the west that Christopher Columbus had sought. The important was a route that always traveling Castilian seas (according to the Treaty of Tordesillas).

Magellan's fleet consisted of five ships, carrying supplies for two years of travel. The crew consisted of about 270 men. Most were Spanish, but around 40 were Portuguese.

Seville and Sanlúcar de Barrameda

On August 10, 1519 the fleet of five ships departed from Seville, captained by Ferdinand Magellan, and sailed down the Guadalquivir, reaching Sanlúcar de Barrameda (Cádiz). During the following weeks the fleet took on supplies and prepared for the voyage. Magellan must have returned to Seville, as on August 24 he wrote his will there, naming his son Rodrigo and the unborn child or children caried by his pregnant wife.

On September 20, the expedition sailed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda, stopping at the Canarias on September 26, passing between Cabo Verde islands and the coast of Sierra Leona, then sailing west across the south Atlantic toward South America.

South America

In December, they made landfall at Rio de Janeiro. From there, they sailed south along the coast, searching for a way through or around the continent. After three months of searching (including a false start in the estuary of Río de la Plata), weather conditions forced the fleet to stop their search to wait out the winter. They found a sheltered natural harbor at the port of Saint Julian, and remained there for five months.

Shortly after landing at St. Julian, there was a mutiny attempt led by the Spanish captains Juan de Cartagena, Gaspar de Quesada and Luiz Mendoza. Magellan barely managed to quell the mutiny, despite at one point losing control of three of his five ships to the mutineers. Mendoza was killed during the conflict, and Magellan sentenced Quesada and Cartagena to being beheaded and marooned, respectively. Lower-level conspirators were made to do hard labor in chains over the winter, but later freed.

During the winter, one of the fleet's ships, the Santiago, was lost in a storm while surveying nearby waters, though no men were killed.

Victoria in a 1589 map by Abraham Ortelius ©Public domain photo.
Victoria in a 1589 map by Abraham Ortelius

Pacific

Following the winter, the fleet resumed their search for a passage to the Pacific in October 1520. Three days later, they found a bay which eventually led them to a strait, now known as the Strait of Magellan, which allowed them passage through to the Pacific. While exploring the strait, one of the remaining four ships, the San Antonio, deserted the fleet, returning east to Spain.

The fleet reached the Pacific by the end of November 1520. Based on the incomplete understanding of world geography at the time, Magellan expected a short journey to Asia, perhaps taking as little as three or four days. In fact, the Pacific crossing took three months and twenty days. The long journey exhausted their supply of food and water, and around 30 men died, mostly of scurvy. Magellan himself remained healthy, perhaps because of his personal supply of preserved quince.

On 6 March 1521, the exhausted fleet made landfall at the island of Guam and were met by native Chamorro people who came aboard the ships and took items such as rigging, knives, and a ship's boat. Magellan sent a raiding party ashore to retaliate, killing several Chammoro men, burning their houses, and recovering the stolen goods.

Philippines

On 16 March, the fleet reached the Philippines, where they would remain for a month and a half. Magellan befriended local leaders on the island of Limasawa, and on March 31, held the first Mass in the Philippines, planting a cross on the island's highest hill. Magellan set about converting the locals to Christianity. Most accepted the new religion readily, but the island of Mactan resisted. On 21 April, Magellan and members of his crew attempted to subdue the Mactan natives by force, but in the ensuing battle, the Europeans were overpowered and Magellan was killed.

Following his death, Magellan was initially succeeded by co-commanders Juan Serrano and Duarte Barbosa (with a series of other officers later leading). The fleet left the Philippines (following a bloody betrayal by former ally Rajah Humabon) and eventually made their way to the Moluccas in November 1521. Laden with spices, they attempted to set sail for Spain in December, but found that only one of their remaining two ships, the Victoria, was seaworthy. The Victoria, captained by Juan Sebastián Elcano, finally returned to Sanlucar de Barrameda, Spain on 6 September 1522, and Seville on 8 Septemeber 1522 completing the circumnavigation. Of the 270 men who left with the expedition, only 18 or 19 survivors returned.

Reputation following circumnavigation

In the immediate aftermath of the circumnavigation, few celebrated Magellan for his accomplishments, and he was widely discredited and reviled in Spain and his native Portugal. The Portuguese regarded Magellan as a traitor for having sailed for Spain. In Spain, Magellan's reputation suffered due to the largely unflattering accounts of his actions given by the survivors of the expedition.

The first news of the expedition came from the crew of the San Antonio, led by Estêvão Gomes, which deserted the fleet back in the Strait of Magellan and returned to Seville May 6, 1521. The deserters were put on trial, but eventually exonerated after producing a distorted version of the mutiny at Saint Julian, and depicting Magellan as disloyal to the king. The expedition was assumed to have perished. The Casa de Contratación withheld Magellan's salary from his wife, Beatriz "considering the outcome of the voyage", and she was placed under house arrest with their young son on the orders of Archbishop Fonseca.

The 18 survivors who eventually returned aboard the Victoria in September 1522 were also largely unfavourable to Magellan. Many, including the captain, Juan Sebastián Elcano, had participated in the mutiny at Saint Julian. On the ship's return, Charles summoned Elcano to Valladolid, inviting him to bring two guests. He brought sailors Francisco Albo and Hernándo de Bustamante. Under questioning by Valladolid's mayor, the men claimed that Magellan refused to follow the King's orders (and gave this as the cause for the mutiny at Saint Julian), and that he unfairly favoured his relatives among the crew, and disfavoured the Spanish captains.

One of the few survivors loyal to Magellan was Antonio Pigafetta, the expedition's chronicler.. Though not invited to testify with Elcano, Pigafetta made his own way to Valladolid and presented Charles with a hand-written copy of his notes from the journey. He would later travel through Europe giving copies to other royals including John III of Portugal, Francis I of France, and Philippe Villiers de L'Isle-Adam. After returning to his home of Venice, Pigafetta published his diary around 1524. Scholars have come to view Pigafetta's diary as the most thorough and reliable account of the circumnavigation, and its publication helped to eventually counter the misinformation spread by Elcano and the other surviving mutineers. 

Magellan's main virtues were courage and perseverance, in even the most difficult situations; for example he bore hunger and fatigue better than all the rest of us. He was a magnificent practical seaman, who understood navigation better than all his pilots. The best proof of his genius is that he circumnavigated the world, none having preceded him.

This page created by Chis Chaplow and uses material from the Wikipedia article "Ferdinand Magellan", and "Fernando de Magallanes" which is released under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share-Alike License 3.0.

 

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