Ferdinand Magellan

2007 Schools Wikipedia Selection. Related subjects: Geographers and explorers

Ferdinand Magellan
Portuguese maritime explorer
Born Spring 1480
Sabrosa, Portugal
Died April 27, 1521
Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines

Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese: Fernão de Magalhães, IPA pronunciation: /fɨɾ'nɐ̃ũ dɨ mɐɣɐ'ʎɐ̃ĩʃ/; Spanish: Fernando or Hernando de Magallanes; Spring 1480– April 27, 1521) was a Portuguese maritime explorer who, at the service of Spain, led the first successful attempt to sail around the entire Earth. He did not complete his final, westward voyage; he was killed during the Battle of Mactan in the Philippines. He did, however, die farther west than the Spice Islands of Indonesia, which he had visited from the west on earlier voyages, making him one of the first individuals to cross all the meridians of the globe. He became the first person to lead an expedition sailing westward from Europe to Asia and to cross the Pacific Ocean.

Of the 237 or 270 crew members who set out with Magellan to circumnavigate the globe, only 17 managed to return to Spain and thereby complete the circumnavigation. They were led by Spaniard Juan Sebastián el Cano, who took over command of the expedition after Magellan's death.

First voyages

Magellan went on his first voyage on the sea at the age of 25 in 1505, when he was sent to India to install Francisco de Almeida as the Portuguese viceroy. The voyage gave Magellan his first experience of battle when a local king, who had paid tribute to Vasco da Gama three years earlier, refused to pay tribute to Almeida. Almeida's party attacked and conquered the capital of Kilwa in present-day Tanzania.

In 1506, Magellan traveled to the East Indies and joined expeditions to the Spice Islands. In February 1509, he took part in the naval Battle of Diu, which marked the decline of Ottoman influence in the area. In 1510, he was made a captain. Within a year, however, he had lost his commission after sailing a ship eastward without permission. He was forced to return to Portugal in 1512.

In 1513, Magellan was sent to Morocco, where he fought in the Battle of Azamor. In the midst of the battle, he received a severe knee wound. After taking leave without permission, he fell out of favour with Almeida, and was also accused of trading illegally with the Moors. Several of the accusations were subsequently dropped, but Magellan fell into disfavor at the court of the new king, Manuel I. He refused to increase Magellan's pension and told him that there would be no further offers of employment after May 15, 1514. Magellan therefore decided to offer his services to the court of Spain.

The Spanish Search of the Spice Islands

The aim of Columbus' voyage to the West was to reach the coasts of the Spice Islands and to establish commercial relations between Spain and the several Asian Kingdoms. The voyage was also sent to establish contact with the kingdom of Priest John.

But the Spanish soon realized after Columbus' voyages, that the lands of America were not a part of Asia, but a new continent. Once Vasco da Gama and the Portuguese arrived at India in 1498, it became urgent for Spain to find a new commercial route to Asia. The Treaty of Tordesillas reserved for Portugal the routes that went around Africa. So the Spanish Crown decided to send out exploration voyages in order to find a way to Asia by traveling westwards. Vasco Núñez de Balboa discovered the Pacific Ocean in 1512, and Juan Díaz de Solís died in Río de la Plata some years later trying to find a passage in South America.

When Magellan arrived at the Court of Spain, he presented King Charles V with a plan which would bring the ships of the Crown of Castile a full access to the lands of the Spice Islands. The Spanish king gave his assent, so the preparations for the expedition started.


The arrow points to the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the delta of the Guadalquivir River, in Andalusia
The arrow points to the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the delta of the Guadalquivir River, in Andalusia

On August 10, 1519, five ships [Trinidad (major ship), San Antonio, Concepcion, Victoria, and Santiago] under Magellan's command left Seville and traveled from the Guadalquivir River to Sanlúcar 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, and switched his crew of mostly Portuguese men with men of Spain, but on September 20, Magellan set sail from Sanlúcar de Barrameda with about 270 men.

King Manuel ordered a naval detachment to pursue Ferdinand Magellan, but Magellan avoided the Portuguese. After stopping at the Canary Islands, Ferdinand Magellan arrived at the Cape Verde Islands, where they set course for Cape St. Augustine in Brazil. On November 27, they crossed the equator; on December 6, the crew sighted Brazil.

Since Brazil was Portuguese territory, Magellan avoided it, and on December 13 anchored near present-day Rio de Janeiro. There the crew was resupplied, but bad 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 Río de la Plata on January 10, 1520.

On March 30, the crew established a settlement that they called Puerto San Julian. A mutiny involving two of the five ship captains broke out. It was unsuccessful because the crew remained loyal. Sebastian del Cano was one of those who were forgiven. Gaspar Quesada, the captain of Concepcion, was executed; Juan de Cartagena and a priest named Padre Sanchez dela Reina were marooned on the coast.

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

The journey resumed. 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°S latitude on August 24, 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, ("All Saints' Channel"), because the fleet traveled through it on November 1– All Saints' Day. The strait is now 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 20, 1520. 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.


Heading northwest, the crew reached the equator on February 13, 1521. On March 6, they reached the Marianas and Guam. Magellan called the island of Guam the "Island of Sails" because they saw a lot of sailboats. They renamed it to "Ladrones Island" because a lot of small boats of Trinidad were stolen here. On March 16, Magellan reached 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.

Afterward, Magellan made friends with Datu Zula, and agreed to join forces with him in a battle against Lapu-Lapu. The initial peace with the Philippine natives proved misleading. Magellan was killed in the Battle of Mactan against indigenous forces led by Lapu-Lapu on April 27, 1521. Antonio Pigafetta, a wealthy tourist who paid to be on the Magellan voyage, provided the only extant eyewitness account of the events culminating in Magellan's death, as follows:

Monument in Lapu-Lapu City that marks the site where Magellan was reportedly killed
Monument in Lapu-Lapu City that marks the site where Magellan was reportedly killed
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... A native hurled a bamboo spear into the captain's face, but the latter immediately killed him with his lance, which he left in the native'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.

Circumnavigation and return

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 as Enrique ( Henry the Black) in Malacca in 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 of Cebu, 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.

Magellan's voyage to the Spice Islands led to Limasawa, Cebu, Mactan, Palawan, Brunei, Celebes and finally to the Spice Islands
Magellan's voyage to the Spice Islands led to Limasawa, Cebu, Mactan, Palawan, Brunei, Celebes and finally to the Spice Islands

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 Concepción, 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 (eyeglasses were only just becoming available in Europe).

After reaching the Maluku Islands (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, Trinidad was found to be taking on water. The crew tried to discover and repair the leak, but failed. They concluded that 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, Victoria with some of the crew sailed west for Spain. Several weeks later, 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 Sebastián Elcano, 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 on July 9 in fear of losing his cargo of 26 tons of spices ( cloves and cinnamon). On September 6, 1522, Juan Sebastián 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 was not paid their full wages. Maximilianus Transylvanus interviewed the surviving members of the expedition when they presented themselves to the Spanish court at Valladolid in the fall of 1522, and wrote the first account of the voyage, which was published in 1523. The account written by Pigafetta did not appear until 1525, and was not wholly published until the late eighteenth century.

Four crewmen of the original fifty-five on the Trinidad finally returned to Spain in 1525. Fifty-one of them had died in war or from a disease.


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. Magellan's crew observed several animals that were entirely new to European science. These included the "camel without humps", which could have been the llama, guanaco, vicuña, or alpaca. A black "goose" which had to be skinned instead of plucked was the penguin.

Two of the closest galaxies, the Magellanic Clouds, were discovered by crew members in the Southern Hemisphere. The full extent of the Earth was also realized, since their voyage was 14,460  leagues (69,800  km or 43,400  mi).

Finally, the need for an International date line was established. 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. However, they did not have clocks accurate enough to observe the variation in the length of the day during the journey. This phenomenon caused great excitement at the time, to the extent that a special delegation was sent to the Pope to explain this oddity to him.


18 men returned to Seville aboard Victoria in 1522
Name Rating
Juan Sebastian Elcano, from Getaria Master
Francisco Albo, from Rodas (in Tuy, Galicia) Pilot
Miguel de Rodas (in Tuy, Galicia) Pilot
Juan de Acurio, from Bermeo Pilot
Antonio Lombardo (Pigafetta), from Vicenza Supernumerary
Martín de Judicibus, from Genoa Chief Steward
Hernándo de Bustamante, from Alcántara Mariner
Nicholas the Greek, from Naples Mariner
Miguel Sánchez, from Rodas (in Tuy, Galicia) Mariner
Antonio Hernández Colmenero, from Huelva Mariner
Francisco Rodrigues, Portuguese from Seville Mariner
Juan Rodríguez, from Huelva Mariner
Diego Carmena, from Bayona (Galicia) Mariner
Hans of Aachen Gunner
Juan de Arratia, from Bilbao Able Seaman
Vasco Gómez Gallego, from Bayona (Galicia) Able Seaman
Juan de Santandrés, from Cueto Apprentice Seaman
Juan de Zubileta, from Barakaldo Page
  • Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to reach Tierra del Fuego on South America's southern tip.
  • Magellan did not intend to circumnavigate the world, only to find a secure way through which the Spanish ships could navigate to the Spice Islands. It was Elcano, who, after Magellan's death, decided to push westwards, completing so the first travel around the entire Earth.
  • He was also the first European to land in the Philippines and meet its native people.
  • He had professional scientists on the trip to help determine the species of some of the animals he found on his voyage.
  • About 232 Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, French, English and German sailors died on the expedition around the world with Magellan.
  • The King and Queen of Spain supported the exploration voyage.


  • Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World: Magellan's Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe, HarperCollins Publishers, 2003, hardcover 480 pages, ISBN 0-06-621173-5

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