Though today we may not think much of the difficulties of travelling around the world, what with airlines jetting people continent to continent, but only a short time back travel was much more limited. It was the courageous and adventurous explorers of the old world that kickstarted the trend of travelling the world. Though limited migration had been going on for millennia, it was these explorers that set into stone the practice of discovering new lands ripe for the taking.
One such gentleman was a certain Ferdinand Magellan. Without a doubt one of the most important explorers in our history, Ferdinand Magellan is credited with having begun what would eventually be the first circumnavigation of our planet. Magellan had originated from Portugal, and had started this voyage in the 16th Century.
Ferdinand Magellan was born in the Portuguese town of Sabrosa (house pictured above) around the year 1480 to parents Pedro de Magalhães (father) and Alda de Mezquita (mother). Pedro de Magalhães was a minor member of the Portuguese nobility, and thus, young Magellan served as the attendant for Queen Eleanor, and later Manuel I.
At the age of 25, Ferdinand Magellan enlisted himself in a fleet led by Francisco de Almeida, who was to serve as the viceroy of Portuguese India. Magellan remained there for eight years and participated in multiple battles, one of which left him wounded for some time. Ferdinand Magellan would later partake in a heroic act when, after having sailed to Malacca under Diogo Lopes de Sequeira, Magellan risked his life to warn Sequeira and the rest of the Portuguese embassy when he came to know of a plot to assassinate Sequeira.
Ferdinand Magellan’s cousin Francisco Serrão, who had also been present in the expedition to Malacca, joined Magellan in the conquest of Malacca under Alfonso de Albuquerque. After this expedition, the two close friends would part ways forever; with Ferdinand Magellan returning to Portugal and Serrão going on to Moluccas, where he would spend the remainder of his life.
Formative Years For Ferdinand Magellan
Though up till now Magellan had participated in a great many events, he had yet to gain any recognizable personal fame. After Serrão had left, Ferdinand Magellan took a leave without permission. This lone event caused some animosity to be stirred up against Magellan, and he was even later accused of trading with an enemy nation. These accusations were proven false, but he still struggled to find employment, barring the one instance where he refused to become a crew member of a Portuguese ship.
Ferdinand Magellan had also gained a permanent limp after having served in Morocco. In the year 1517, after having had countless expeditions to the Moluccas denied by King Manuel I, he was approved to travel to Spain. The city of Seville in Spain was where Ferdinand Magellan would befriend another Portuguese man named Diogo Barbosa. Magellan would later marry Diogo Barbosa’s second wife’s daughter, though this happy union would not last long. Magellan’s two children would die at a young age, and his wife too passed away shortly after the marriage in the year 1521. After these events, Ferdinand Magellan would devote himself to studying portolan charts in an effort to calculate a gateway from the Atlantic to the South Pacific.
The Proposal Of Ferdinand Magellan’s Voyage
Disappointed by the constant denials from King Manuel I, Magellan turned to Charles I, the king of Spain (pictured above). Magellan proposed a route towards the Spice Islands in the Moluccas through the West instead of going around Africa. Charles I, in the hopes that this might economically benefit Spain should a trade route be established, agreed to fund the voyage. The fleet for this voyage consisted of five ships and around 270 men, most of them of Spanish origin.
Ferdinand Magellan’s Voyage And The Harsh Winter
The ships left Spain on the 20th of September in the year 1519. They sailed West, as had been proposed, towards South America. Their first landfall was at Rio de Janeiro in December. The fleet spent the next three months sailing around the coast trying to find a way through or around the continent. In the end, they were forced to abandon this search as the Winter settled in. The fleet found shelter at a natural harbor at the port of Saint Julian, and spent five long months there. They were well equipped to deal with hurdles like these; as they had left with almost two years’ worth of supplies with them.
These five months were not without their own set of exciting events. Shortly after having taken shelter at the port of Saint Julian, the Spanish captains Luis de Mendoza, Juan de Cartagena, and Gaspar de Quesada tried to lead a mutiny against Magellan. Though at one point it seemed Magellan would lose, he just managed to stay in control and successfully put an end to the mutiny. Luis de Mendoza was killed in the struggle, and the other two conspiring captains were beheaded and left to rot at shore. Other members of the mutiny were then made to work hard labor in chains for the duration of Winter. Before the Winter came to an end however, Santiago – one of the ships of the fleet – was lost in a storm.
As the Winter died down the fleet resumed its search for passage through to the Pacific, and was successful after discovering a strait three days later that led them to the Pacific. This strait is today named the Strait of Magellan. While the fleet was making its way across the strait, San Antonio – another one of the fleet’s ships – deserted the fleet and returned home to Spain.
After having reached the Pacific, the fleet did not get the short journey to Asia that it expected due to the limited knowledge of the era. After spending months crossing the Pacific, the fleet had lost almost 30 men to food shortages and scurvy. On the 6th of March in the year 1521, the fleet made landfall at Guam. There they met the natives; the Chamorro people, who promptly climbed on to the ships and started stealing the fleets’ belongings. Magellan sent a raiding party in retaliation that killed several of the native men, burned down their houses, and brought back the stolen items.
Magellan’s Untimely Demise At His Own Hands
Ten days after having made landfall at the island of Guam, the fleet reached the Philippines. Magellan set out to befriend the local leaders and succeeded in doing so on the island of Limasawa. Ferdinand Magellan began preaching about Christianity to the locals, and ended up converting around 2,200 people including several leaders. On the 31st of March, Magellan held the first ever mass of the Philippines and planted a cross on the highest hill.
The island of Mactan had resisted the attempts to Christianize the populace. Magellan, wanting to earn the trust of the converted leaders, led a small force on to the island of Mactan to forcibly subdue and baptize them. Underestimating the fighting capabilities of the Mactan warriors, the small force was overwhelmed quickly. Magellan received a bamboo spear and got his arm wounded. After killing the warrior with his lance, he realized he couldn’t pick it back up because his arm had been weakened too much. The warriors, sensing this moment of weakness in the captain of the invading force, converged on Magellan and killed him with multiple different weapons and crude efficiency. Magellan’s body had been destroyed beyond recognition.
The Aftermath And Ferdinand Magellan Today
The chief of the island of Mactan – Lapulapu – refused to return the remaining bits of Magellan’s corpse, even for handsome sums of iron and copper, and kept the body as a war trophy. Juan Serrano and Duarte Barbosa took over the fleet, and had to hurriedly leave the Philippines as the baptized ally Rajah Humabon betrayed them, leading to even more deaths. The fleet finally made its way to the Moluccas in November of 1521, but found out the month after that only one of the remaining two ships could make the journey back to Spain. The Victoria, led by captain Juan Sebastian Elcano, reached Spain on the 6th of September in 1522, with only around 18 members of the original 270 having survived.
Ferdinand Magellan, initially at least, was not popular even in death. The deserters on the ship San Antonio, who had obviously reached Spain long ago, told a made-up story about the mutiny in which Magellan was painted as disloyal to the king. The deserters escaped their trials with their lies and led to Magellan’s wife and young son being put under house arrest and his wife’s salary being withheld. The remaining survivors that came back later told tales about Magellan, leading the Spanish to dislike him while the Portuguese were angry at him for sailing for Spain. Only after some time would Antonio Pigafetta, alone loyal to Magellan, provide his notes from the journey to Charles I. He later travelled Europe, distributing copies of his diary to other royals, and after settling down back home at Venice, he published his diary by which Ferdinand Magellan is remembered today.
Human history has always been complex. Nothing ever just materialized out of thin air; each and every facet of life today has had some rich history behind it that led to its current state today. Keeping this in mind, it is fascinating to read historical accounts and see how something came to be. There is almost always much more to discover about the past than one can imagine. Let us remember Ferdinand Magellan as Antonio Pigafetta described him:
“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.”