September 20, 1519 – Ferdinand Magellan Set Sail from Spain to Circumnavigate the Globe

On September 20, 1519, Magellan set sail from Spain in an effort to find a western sea route to the rich Spice Islands of Indonesia. He was in command of five ships and 270 men.

In The European Discovery of America, Samuel Elliot Morrison described Ferdinand Magellan as “Tough, Tough, TOUGH.” Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World reinforces that notion, and in addition, gives us a detailed portrait of the remarkable man who planned and led the first circumnavigation of the globe.

It had been 27 years since Columbus had first reached the New World when Magellan set out from Seville in 1519. Spain had reached what it still thought was the “Indies,” by sailing west, but had not turned its discoveries into a paying proposition since the Western hemisphere had few trade goods, and the gold and silver of South America had yet to be developed. Both Spain and Portugal were aware that the South American land mass was very large, and neither had found a route around it or through it to the very profitable Moluccas or Spice Islands. Portugal, in the mean time, had reached the Moluccas by sailing south and then east around Africa. [It still surprises many people to learn that Vasco da Gama did not reach the real Indies until several years after Columbus had reached the Caribbean islands.]

In 1494, Pope Alexander VI issued a papal bull dividing the world for new discovery between Spain and Portugal, ceding to Spain all the undiscovered land west of a line 100 leagues (about 400 miles) west of the Cape Verde Islands. Portugal was given all the undiscovered land east of that line. This compromise raised some very thorny questions. First, because at that time longitude was difficult to determine accurately, there was ample room for dispute about the actual location of the line. Second, the line was far enough west to cede part of what became Brazil to Portugal. (Later negotiation would fix the ultimate boundaries of that country.) Third, the line extended all the way around the globe through the poles, and no one knew where the line extended in the Eastern hemisphere. Thus, no one knew on which side of the line the Spice Islands were located.

Magellan was Portuguese by birth. He first tried to induce the King of Portugal to outfit an expedition to the Spice Islands by sailing west. Possibly because Portugal had already found an attractive route to the east, the king showed little interest in Magellan’s plan. In Charles I of Spain (later the most Catholic Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V), Magellan found a willing patron.

Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan

He obtained five well-provisioned and well-armed ships, but Magellan had a long way to go. For one thing, his efforts to provision the fleet became known in Portugal, and the Portuguese wanted to prevent him from finding an alternate route to the Spice Islands. In order to avoid the Portuguese, he first set sail along the coast of Africa before crossing the Atlantic. The crew might have inferred their destination from the name of the fleet, The Armada de Molucca, but Magellan kept their mission a secret for fear of mutiny. Moreover, the other ship captains disliked and distrusted him, perhaps because of his Portuguese background.

Magellan thwarted two serious mutinies from Juan de Cartegena, one of his captains. He merely demoted Cartegena after the first, but marooned him with no hope of rescue after the second.

Magellan endured horrible weather at various times during the voyages. He had to spend several months at the mouth of the Rio de la Plata before attempting to go farther south in search of the strait or cape leading to the Pacific. He was able to distinguish rivers from straits because they discharged fresh water. Finally, on October 21, 1520, more that 13 months after setting sail, they rounded the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins and entered what later became known as the Strait of Magellan. Navigating the Strait was no mean task — it took 38 days to debouche into the Pacific. On the way, the captain of one of the ships of the armada decided it would safer to return to Spain, and snuck away instead of exploring the water ahead as Magellan had ordered.

No one at the time had any idea of just how immense the Pacific Ocean was. Nor did anyone with Magellan know the location or existence of hospitable islands. Once into the Pacific, Magellan headed west, with favorable winds, but still took 98 days to traverse 7,000 miles of open ocean and reach land (probably Guam) where he could obtain fresh water and food! During that stretch, he lost many of the crew to scurvy and malnutrition.

Magellan’s encounters with indigenous people, either in South America or the Pacific islands, were always fraught with danger and ambiguity. Some resulted in profitable trading and occasional sharing of native women, but several resulted in battles and mutual killing. The Spanish always had more advanced weapons and armor, but the natives were often lethal and always more numerous.

The armada made land fall in the Philippines on March 28, 1521. After impressing the natives with Spanish prowess in the form of guns and armor, Magellan made friends with a local war lord. Until that time he had been sagacious, disciplined, and prudent. But here, driven in part by a desire to convert the locals to Catholicism, he very unwisely offered his services as a military force to destroy the Mactans, who were enemies of his new best friend. The Mactans turned out to be tougher and more numerous that he had anticipated, and he and a few of his crew (mostly part of the Portuguese minority) were slaughtered in the surf while attempting an amphibious landing. Many of the crew watched his demise from the safety of their two remaining ships. Antonio Pigafetta, the chief chronicler of the voyage, implies that more might have been done to save him, but many of the remaining Spanish officers were jealous of Magellan and disliked him.

The surviving crew members still were a long way from home and had not reached the Moluccas. With the help of local traders, they reached the fabled Spice Islands and loaded their ships with the precious cargo. The return trip was nearly as harrowing as the outward voyage. One of the two remaining vessels decided to return by way of the Pacific in order to avoid the Portuguese navy and traders, who were present in the Spice Islands and in several settlements along the Indian and African coasts. They were never heard from again. The other ship, piloted by Sebastian Elcano, luckily slipped through the Portuguese and limped home along the better known route around Africa, arriving in Spain three years after leaving.

The voyage of the armada represented a tremendous exercise in heroic endurance and navigation. It did not pay off for Spain, however, which never developed a thriving trade in spices. Magellan’s route to the Moluccas was simply too long, dangerous, and costly. Spain’s fortunes were made by developing the New World.

Laurence Bergreen’s Over the Edge of the World was published by William Morrow, 2003

One Response

  1. Thank you for this article — Laurence Bergreen’s book is an excellent read that I really enjoyed myself, and the story of Magellan is absolutely gripping. I think that anyone interested in the Age of Exploration should check it out.

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