In September of 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan departed from Spain with a crew of 270 men and five of the most advanced ships that Europe had ever seen. Under the direction of King Charles of Spain, Magellan was tasked with discovering a western route to the Spice Islands, an archipelago in Indonesia.

Three years later a single ship carrying 18 emaciated sailors was spotted near the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda. Upon returning home the men were forced to explain what had happened to the other ships, to the rest of the crew, and to Magellan himself.

The shocking story that they told would forever change the trajectory of history and the understanding of Earth itself.

Ferdinand Magellan

The Age of Exploration

Ferdinand Magellan was born in Sabrosa, Portugal on February 3rd, 1480. In 1517 he had a falling out with the King of Portugal, whom Magellan had petitioned to approve an expedition in search of a new route to the Spice Islands. Frustrated by the rejection, Magellan left Portugal for Spain that same year.

Magellan eventually received the support he needed when King Charles of Spain granted his request in 1518 and named him captain of the expedition.

It should be noted that expeditions in these times were colossal undertakings; many Portuguese and Spanish men dedicated their entire adult lives to exploration and conquest. A successful journey could yield enormous amounts of money while failure often resulted in death or financial ruin.

For many, it was a gamble worth taking.  

Vila Real Portugal

Vila Real, Portugal. Magellan is believed to have been born 12 miles east of the city.

In the 16th century, Europeans thought that the Earth was much smaller than it really is. It was common belief that there were only three continents: Europe, Africa, and Asia.

Christopher Columbus completed four journeys to the Americas from 1492 to 1502 and he died thinking that he had reached India!

Further, many sailors believed that it was possible to literally sail over the edge of the world if they ventured too far in the wrong direction.

This was the understanding of Earth at the time of the expedition and the mindset in which Magellan's crew entered into history's first circumnavigation of the globe.

Magellan Circumnavigation Globe

Setting Sail

On September 20th, 1519, Magellan's five ships departed from Sanlucar de Barrameda and entered the Atlantic Ocean.

By the 13th of December, the fleet anchored in present day Rio de Janeiro and rested for two weeks before continuing south. The understanding was that the expedition would sail along the coast until a passage to the Spice Islands was found.

On March 20th, 1520, the crew found it necessary to establish a settlement along the coast as it had become too dangerous to sail during winter months (due to storms). During this period various members of the crew plotted to mutiny against Magellan, whom they regarded with disdain for being a Portuguese captain among an expedition largely comprised of Spaniards.

This mutiny came to fruition on Easter Day when three of the five ship captains joined together to overthrow their Portuguese leader. Magellan acted swiftly and had two of the captains executed while a third was later marooned in the Patagonian wilderness as punishment for his betrayal.

Discovering The Strait Of Magellan

On October 21st, 1520, the expedition was challenged with rounding the tip of South America. This treacherous part of the journey required either finding a passageway through the maze of fjords and waterways or forging through incredibly difficult opposing currents around the cape of South America (today known as Drakes Passage). After 39 days and 373 miles of navigation, the expedition succeeded in finding a passageway, which later became known as the Strait of Magellan.  
On November 28th, the crew made the epic discovery of a new ocean. Upon entering, Magellan gave it the name "Mar Pacifico" in reference to its calm water. Little did he realize how vast and treacherous the Pacific Ocean actually was.

The crew sailed northwest for over three months without once spotting land, which caused many members of the expedition to develop scurvy.

Magellan's fleet eventually made landfall in Guam, much to their excitement, on March 6th, 1521.

A month later the crew anchored at Cebu, an island in the Philippines. Magellan befriended the King of Cebu and converted many of the island's natives to Christianity during an extended layover.

European Exploration

Magellan then turned his attention to converting the natives of neighboring islands. He sent messengers to various tribes and informed them of their duty to convert to Christianity and become subjects of King Charles.  

On the nearby island of Mactan, the native population refused these demands.

Magellan decided that he would wage war with the natives of Mactan in order to highlight the European's military prowess. Many members of the expedition begged Magellan to reconsider this strategy but the Portuguese captain was resolved to show strength at all costs.

The stage was set for a clash of civilizations.

The Battle of Mactan

On April, 27th, 1521, Magellan sailed to and attacked Mactan with a force of 49 men. Antonio Pigafetta, the expedition's chronicler, recalls that when they reached the beach "the natives had formed in three divisions to the number of more than one thousand five hundred people."

European musketeers and crossbowmen were anchored too far from the shore to aid the small infantry fighting on the beach, which included Magellan himself. Pigafetta describes how the natives of Mactan realized that Magellan was their captain (likely because of his armor) and they concentrated their attacks upon him.

After fighting for close to an hour and suffering numerous injuries, Magellan finally fell face down on the beach.

Wrote Pigafetta: "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."

Ferdinand Magellan, the Portuguese explorer who once dreamed of discovering a western route to the Spice Islands, had died on the island of Mactan.

Magellan Circumnavigation

Completing The Voyage

With too few members left to operate all three ships, the crew decided to abandon one of their vessels. They began sailing south in search of the Spice Islands with only two of the original five ships.

The expedition finally reached the Spice Islands (also known as the Maluku Islands) on November 6th, 1521, more than six months after Magellan's untimely death. At this point, the crew had been reduced to 115 men.

Upon arriving at their destination, the expedition traded goods with a local Sultan until both ships were inundated with valuable spices. However, as they started to sail northwest towards Spain, one of the ships began flooding.

It was later decided that the smaller ship, Victoria, would continue forward while the flooded ship, Trinidad, would need to stay behind and undergo major repairs. The remaining crew members were divided between the two vessels.

On May 6th, 1522, Victoria rounded the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) with Juan Sebastian Elcano acting as the ship's captain. They were reduced to eating only scant amounts of rice, which caused further starvation and scurvy among the men.

For all of their suffering, Victoria and her crew were close to accomplishing one of the greatest feats in the history of navigation.

Magellan age of exploration

Circumnavigating The Earth

On the 6th of September, 1522, a single ship carrying 18 emaciated sailors was spotted near the Spanish port of Sanlucar de Barrameda. It had been almost three years since the ship had departed from Spain.

Over the course of these three harrowing years, some 232 sailors perished in various parts of the world. The two ships that abandoned the expedition in 1520 had previously returned to Spain with only a small portion of their original numbers. Of the men who stayed behind with the flooded Trinidad, only four found their way home, the rest having died from starvation and disease.

History of exploration

Various accounts of the expedition were published and translated over the years, the most famous being that of Antonio Pigafetta.

The implications of these accounts were shocking: that one could sail to the west and arrive to the same destination from the east, that an international date line needed to be established to correctly track days, and that the Earth was much larger than originally imagined.

This information greatly advanced the European understanding of the world and naturally influenced all subsequent voyages.

Magellan himself has always been a divisive historical figure; some view him as a brave explorer while others regard him as a ruthless conquistador. For all of his controversies, one thing is certain: Magellan's voyage was one of the greatest accomplishments in the history of exploration.

What do you think of Magellan and his voyage? Let us know in the comments below.

Magellan World Map

Our Magellan World Map is a testament to the possibilities of exploration and to the diversity of our planet. Featuring rich geographical and historical information (including details of Magellan's voyage), this map aims to inspire you to discover the world for yourself.

To quote Magellan himself, "Intrepid (adventurous) spirits seek victory over those things that seem impossible... It is with an iron will that they embark on the most daring of all endeavors... to meet the shadowy future without fear and conquer the unknown."

Further Reading:

Over The Edge of the World by Laurence Bergreen

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Antigua & The Kingdom of Guatemala