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Friday, 4 March 2016

Ferdinand Magellan


Ferdinand Magellan was born was born in 1580 in a stone farmhouse in Sabrosa, near Vila Real, in the province of Trás-dos-Montes of north Portugal.

He was the son of Rodrigo de Magalhães, Alcaide-Mor (governor) of Aveiro and and Alda de Mesquita,

Magellan had two siblings: his older brother Diogo de Sousa, named after his grandmother, and his sister Isabel.

At 12, Magellan became a page to King John II and Queen Eleonora at the Portuguese royal court in Lisbon after the death of his parents. (His brother had entered royal service there two years previously)

Magellan was educated at the Queen’s School of Pages, Lisbon, and was fortunate to get accustomed to subjects, such as astronomy, cartography, and celestial navigation, which proved useful in his later pursuits.


At the age of 25, Magellan enlisted in the fleet of 22 ships sent to host Dom Francisco de Almeida, who was the first viceroy of Portuguese India. He remained there eight years, residing in Goa, Cochin and Quilon.

Magellan fought in several battles, including the 1506 Battle of Cannanore, where he was wounded and the 1509 Battle of Diu, where the Portuguese destroyed Egyptian ships in the Arabian Sea.

Almeida gave a poor report of Magellan to the Portuguese court, as the young sailor had taken a leave of the army without permission.

Magellan sailed under Diogo Lopes de Sequeira in a Portuguese expedition to Malacca, with the aim of analyzing its trade potential After arriving at the Malaysian location on September 11, 1509, the mission fell victim to a conspiracy ending in retreat. Magellan had a crucial role, warning Sequeira an action that earned him honors and a promotion.

In 1511, under the new governor Afonso de Albuquerque, Magellan participated in the conquest of Malacca.

With a rich plunder and, in the company of a Malay he had indentured and baptized, Enrique of Malacca, Magellan returned to Portugal in 1512.

Magellan was sent to Morocco where he fought in the Battle of Azamor (August 28 and 29, 1513) and received a severe knee wound while fighting against the Moorish-Moroccan stronghold. As a result he walked with a limp for the rest of his life.

Magellan was accused of trading with the Portuguese enemies, the Moors, while fighting against them and was dismissed from the Portuguese armed forces and denied a pension. The accusations were proved false, but he received no more employment offers from the Portuguese.

In 1517 after a quarrel with King Manuel I, who denied his persistent demands to lead an expedition to reach the Spice Islands (now part of Indonesia) by sailing westwards, Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality and traveled to Seville to seek support from the Spanish king.

Along with cosmographer Riu Faleiro, Magellan offered his services to King Charles I (the future Holy Emperor Charles V), grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had funded Columbus’ expedition to the New World in 1492.


Magellan was a small, dark man.

In Seville, Magellan befriended his countryman Diogo Barbosa and married his daughter by his second wife María Caldera Beatriz Barbosa in late 1517.

They had two children: Rodrigo de Magalhães and Carlos de Magalhães, both of whom died at a young age. His wife passed away in Seville around 1521.


After two years of rigorous study of the recent navigation charts and analyzing the mistakes committed by other explorer, Magellan was placed in charge of five ships by King Charles to try to get to the East Indies by sailing westwards. He hoped to find a strait which would lead past North America and end the Portuguese domination of the Spice trade.

Before embarking on his voyage, Magellan made a donation to the monks of the monastery attached to the church of Santa María de la Victoria de Triana in Seville, so they would pray for his success.

When Ferdinand Magellan made his preparations for his voyage, he spent more money on sherry than on weapons.

Ferdinand Magellan and his 270 shipmates set sail on September 20, 1519 from San Lucar, near Seville with the lead ship Trinidad, along with four other vessels – San Antonio, Santiago, Concepcion, and Victoria. On board was enough food to last two years.

Replica of the Victoria, photographed in Nagoya, Japan. By Gnsin -Wikipedia Commons

We know the details of Magellan's voyage from the diaries of his upper class shipmate Antonio Pigafetta. A Venetian scholar and traveller, Pigafetta had asked to be on the voyage, accepting the title of "supernumerary" and a modest salary.

The crew sighted South America on December 6, 1521 and anchored near present-day Rio de Janeiro a week later. 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. He established a temporary settlement called Puerto San Julian on March 30, 1520. There they came across a race of primitive giants, which Magellan named Patagonian (meaning big feet).

San Julián Bay. By Douglas Fernandes - Wikipedia Commons

At midnight on Easter Day, Magellan was faced by a mutiny led by his Spanish captains, but succeeded in overcoming it, executing mutineers including one captain and leaving another behind.

The Santiago was sent down the coast on a scouting expedition and was wrecked in a sudden storm. Two of the crew returned overland to inform Magellan of what had happened, and to bring rescue to their comrades. After this experience, Magellan decided to wait for a few weeks more before resuming the voyage.

Magellan left Puerto San Julian on August 21, 1520 and on November 1st he found the eastern entrance to the strait that now bears his name. Magellan first assigned Concepcion and San Antonio to explore the passageway, but the latter, commanded by Gómez, deserted and returned to Spain.

On November 28th, the three remaining ships entered the South Pacific, having survived the wild and stormy waters that divided the Latin American mainland from Tierra Del Fuego. Magellan named the waters the Mar Pacifico (Pacific Ocean) because of its apparent stillness.
The Strait of Magellan cuts through the southern tip of South America connecting the Atlantic Ocean and Pacific Ocean.

Magellan run out of food half way across the Pacific having discovered dishonest traders had only supplied half the provisions he'd paid for. Consequently the men were forced to survive on a diet of stewed rat, sawdust and the leather fittings of the ship with an occasional banquet of fresh fish. (His men were selling rats to each other at one ducat each.)

After three months of slow sailing across the vast Pacific Ocean, Magellan's men were growing increasingly concerned as they had sailed 92 days without sighting any land. By this stage, scurvy was running rampant among many of the crew. According to Pigafetta, the destructive effect of the disease was that "gums grew so over their teeth that they died miserably for hunger."

Eventually, on March 6, 1521 Magellan and his three ships reached the Marianas and Guam.

Ten days later, Magellan reached the island of Homonhon in the Philippines, with 150 crew left. The members of his expedition became the first Europeans to reach the Philippine archipelago. They were the first people to reach Asia by sailing westwards across the Atlantic and Pacific.

Magellan relied on Enrique of Malacca, his Malay servant and interpreter, to communicate with the native tribes. After being indentured by Magellan in 1511, Enrique had accompanied him through all his subsequent adventures.

On landing in Cebu, Philippines, Magellan persuaded the local king, Rajah Humabon, to convert to Christianity and the first ever Catholic Mass in the Philippines was held at the spot of Magellan's Cross in Cebu City. Magellan claimed the Philippines for Spain and 500 years later it remains the only official Christian country in South East Asia.

The Magellanic clouds, a group of small galaxies which are visible to the eye in the southern hemisphere became known in Europe through descriptions by Magellan after whom they are named.


Magellan agreed to fight Rajah Humabo’s enemy on the  island of Mactan. Magellan attacked the islanders with a small force on April 27, 1521 but he was struck by a bamboo spear, surrounded and chopped to death by the natives with lances and scimitars.

Monument in Lapu-Lapu City, Cebu in the Philippines. By Carl Frances Morano Diaman -Wikipedia Commons

After Magellan was killed in battle, the command went to a merchant ship captain. Juan Sebastián Elcano (1476 - August 4, 1526), who had signed on as a subordinate officer for the voyage in order to gain the king's pardon for previous misdeeds.

Juan Sebastián Elcano

The casualties suffered in the Philippines left the expedition with too few men to sail all three of the remaining ships. Consequently, they abandoned and burned the Concepción.

When the two remaining ships reached the Spice Islands they traded with the Sultan of Tidore, a rival of the Sultan of Ternate. Elcano decided to avoid the Magellan Straits again, so they took the eastern route risking bumping into Portuguese ships who would have pirated the spices they had on board.

The Trinidad broke off and was no longer seaworthy, leaving only Victoria to continue and return to Seville.

Magellan's 18 surviving companions having sailed 30,700 miles, reached Seville on September 6, 1522, completing the return voyage under Elcano.

Charles V had agreed to give Magellan a twentieth of the profits from his voyage. The spice cargo on board the Victoria more than met the costs of the three year expedition.

Sources Food For Thought by Ed Pearce,

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