Magellan’s Journey & His Contribution to History
Today, Portuguese sailor and navigator Ferdinand Magellan is considered to be the first person to circle, or circumnavigate, Earth. At the time, however, the sponsor of his voyage, King Charles I of Spain, was driven more by commerce than by interest in navigation or exploration.
In the fifteenth century, spices were at the center of the world’s economy. They were used for purposes such as flavoring food, making perfume, embalming the dead, preserving meat, and creating medicines. As a result, spices became extremely valuable. Europe’s climate was too cold and dry to grow these spices, thus the only way to get them was through trade.
One of the best sources of spices was a group of islands in what is now Indonesia. Called the Moluccas, or Maluku, they were nicknamed the Spice Islands. The Moluccas were the world’s largest producers of mace, nutmeg, cloves, and pepper. In order to obtain these spices, the rulers of Europe competed to find the quickest sea route to these islands. The two main competitors were the countries of Portugal and Spain.
As a member of the Portuguese nobility, Ferdinand Magellan, who was born in 1480, certainly knew the importance of the spice trade. In 1505, he was part of a mission to check Muslim sea power along the coasts of Africa and India and establish a Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean. The young sailor learned a great deal about the art of navigation on this early mission.
In 1510, Magellan travelled to the city-state of Malacca, which is now part of the modern country of Malaysia. In order to take control of the spice trade in the Indian Ocean, Portugal would need to control Malacca. In 1511, Magellan was part of the fight to take over Malacca. This took six weeks, but Portugal was victorious.
Portugal now dominated trade in the East. However, the country had to continue to use force to maintain control of its empire. In 1513, Magellan was part of a mission sent by Portugal’s king to the African country of Morocco because its governor had refused to pay its yearly tribute to the Portuguese empire.
Based on his service in Morocco, in 1514 Magellan asked King Manuel of Portugal for additional money, called a pension. The king refused his request because Magellan had been accused of selling back to the enemy some of the wealth that was looted in battle. Although this charge was never proved, the king did not want to give him a pension. Magellan repeated his request in 1516. The king said no again. The king then suggested that if Magellan was interested in earning more money, he should consider offering his services elsewhere. The Portuguese king’s response may seem strange now. However, in Magellan’s day, people would pledge their allegiance to a particular ruler, not necessarily to the country in which they were born.
Frustrated with the Portuguese monarch, Magellan traveled to Spain in 1517, where he offered his services to King Charles I. He was able to use the competition between Spain and his native Portugal to his advantage.
In 1494, both countries had signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. This treaty established a boundary, or line of demarcation, by which lands would be divided between Spain and Portugal. According to this treaty, all newly discovered and undiscovered territories east of this line were assigned to Portugal, while those to the west were given to Spain.
Magellan explained to the Spanish monarch that he would sail west, not east, to reach the Spice Islands. If successful, he would prove that the islands lay west of the line of demarcation, meaning that they would belong to Spain, not Portugal.
In 1518, King Charles I gave his approval. However, tensions between Spain and Portugal would delay the voyage. Spanish sailors were very unhappy that Magellan, a Portuguese commander, was given control of an important Spanish mission. Eventually, in order to appease Spanish sailors, the number of Portuguese sailors on the mission was limited, and a Spanish officer was made a co-leader of the fleet.
The fleet of 5 ships and 270 crew members left Spain on September 20, 1519. The ships reached Tenerife in the Canary Islands on September 26. Then, on October 3, the fleet set sail for Brazil. By November 29, Magellan and his fleet had crossed the Atlantic, eventually reaching the Brazilian city of Rio de Janeiro on December 13. From Rio de Janeiro, Magellan headed south, looking for the waterway that would lead him across South America.
As the ships traveled, the crew went many days without fresh food or water. Tired and hungry, some of the sailors wanted Magellan to end the mission and return to Spain. On April 1, 1520, while at Port St. Julian, located in the modern country of Argentina, three Spanish captains called their crews to mutiny against their Portuguese commander. Magellan quickly put an end to the mutiny, executing one of the leaders, while marooning, or stranding, another of the leaders on the coast of South America.
With the mutiny defeated, Magellan continued south. On October 21, 1520, he rounded Cabo Vírgenes, Argentina. From there, Magellan entered the strait he had been seeking, which is still called the Strait of Magellan in his honor. The voyage through this strait was not easy. The seas were rough and the weather harsh. Many of the crew suffered from scurvy, which is a nutritional disease caused by consuming insufficient amounts of vitamin C.
After navigating the stormy and dangerous strait, Magellan entered the fabled “Sea of the South.” Compared to the treacherous waters they left behind, this new ocean seemed calm and peaceful. Magellan named it Mar Pacifico, or the Pacific Ocean, as it is called in English.
Magellan’s fleet next traveled north near the coast of Chile. Then, in December, his ships turned their direction to the northwest. The sailors did not set foot on land again until March 6
when the ships made landfall on the island of Guam. They were then able to obtain their first fresh food and water after 99 days at sea.
As he sailed towards the islands of the Philippines, Magellan, a devout Christian, believed it was part of his mission to convert to Christianity any of the native people he encountered. At first, Magellan was successful. In April, he converted King Humabon of Cebu Island along with his subjects. Magellan was so determined to convert the Pacific islanders to Christianity that he threatened to kill any leaders who refused to convert.
Chief Datu Lapu Lapu of Mactan Island rejected Magellan’s orders to convert. In response, Magellan led a group of 60 men to attack the chief’s forces. Unfortunately for the attackers, the chief’s army of 1,500 men far outnumbered Magellan’s forces. On April 27, 1521, Ferdinand Magellan was killed during the battle on Mactan Island.
What remained of the fleet finally reached the Moluccas, Magellan's goal, without him. In the end, only one of his original five ships, and 18 of the 270 men, returned to Spain.
Even though Magellan died before completing his mission, he is given credit for circumnavigating the globe because his bravery, leadership, and navigational skill were key to the mission’s success. In his day, most people no longer believed that Earth was flat, so his mission simply helped provide more confirmation that this idea was true. However, through his mission, geographers learned that the Earth was larger than they had believed it was.
Keywords: Ferdinand Magellan, Portugal, Spain, Age of Exploration, Spice Islands, Pacific Ocean, Philippines, Guam, Europe, Geography, World History, islands, trade