Magellan and the First Circumnavigation

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On 20 September 1519, Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet of five ships, crewed by 270 men, left port with the objective of finding a western route to the Spanish crown’s colonies and trading posts in Indonesia and the Philippines. The fleet returned three years later, on 6 September 1522, decimated by mutiny, war, famine and disease: only 18 men and one ship were still standing. The surviving men had achieved the first circumnavigation of the globe. Though the route they discovered (the Strait of Magellan) was not viable for trade, as the Spanish crown had hoped, their achievement altered European conceptions of the world, and is arguably the greatest accomplishment in the history of seamanship.    

Fernão de Magalhães, a Portuguese sailor, was convinced of the existence of a western route to the Spanish spice islands of the Moluccas (in modern Indonesia). He had repeatedly appealed to King Manuel I of his homeland to finance the expedition, Portugal, but was turned away each time. Dejected, in March 1518 he turned to King Charles I with this same proposal: the Spanish King saw the lucrative potential of establishing such a route and agreed to finance the venture. If he was successful, Magalhães would be appointed governor of all the lands he discovered and would become rich beyond his wildest dreams. On discovering the Spanish sponsorship of the mission, King Manuel was incandescent with rage, and would often act to hamper the progress of the expedition.

Over the next 18 months, the man now known as Fernando de Magellan (the Spanish form of his name) meticulously supervised the renovation of the five ships he was given for the expedition: the Concepcion, the Santiago, the Victoria, the San Antonio (the largest vessel of the fleet), and the Trinidad, captained by Magellan himself. Every possible precaution was taken. As well as logistical issues, Magellan also had to be wary of saboteurs and spies sent by Manuel attempting to end the expedition before it started.

Magellan recruited a crew consisting of 270 mostly Spanish and Portuguese sailors. Some of the notable crew members included: Magellan’s Malay slave, Enrique of Malacca; his son-in-law Duarte Barbosa; and Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who kept a detailed journal which constitutes the foremost primary source of information on the voyage.

On 20 September 1519, the five-strong fleet set sail, with enough provisions for three years at sea. Their voyage across the Atlantic was fairly uneventful, reaching Brazil within two months. Though nominally part of Portugal, Brazil was not colonised by 1519 and was thus a safe haven for the fleet. Once the fleet had left the bay of Rio de Janeiro, they found themselves in uncharted territory, and began searching for the pass to the Pacific, if such a thing existed, which would bring them wealth and fame. They reached Puerto San Julian, in modern Argentina, on 3 February, where they decided to spend the winter.

The bay of Puerto San Julian was an inhospitable, barren wasteland. The crew was constantly cold and hungry. Magellan tried to fill their days with useless tasks to occupy them. Despite this, the crew grew restless.

On Good Friday 1520, a coordinated mutiny was launched, led by Juan de Cartagena and assisted by the captains of the Concepcion and Victoria. Juan had initially been captain of the San Antonio, but had been removed from his post just six days into the journey after Magellan caught wind of his first planned mutiny.

The mutineers captured the San Antonio unimpeded, killing Magellan’s cousin and captain of the ship, Alvaro Mezquita, in the process. The following morning, Magellan launched a counter offensive, sending his men to the Victoria, where they killed the captain and subdued the mutineers. The remaining rebels on the Concepcion and San Antonio surrendered. Several of the rebels were executed. Cartagena, as orchestrator of the plot, was sentenced to be marooned.

While wintering in San Juan, Magellan’s expedition faced a major and unexpected setback when the Santiago, which had been sent out as a lone scout ship to explore the coast further south, was caught in an unexpected storm and sunk. Though all of the crew of the Santiago was subsequently rescued, Magellan now had one less ship, and one less ship’s worth of food and resources (as none of the Santiago’s cargo was recovered). In spite of all Magellan’s planning, this could not have been accounted for.

On 18 October, the crew finally left San Julian and headed south. They soon found a large bay, which continued into a narrow strait. As the fleet sailed through, the water did not lose its salinity, suggesting they were still at sea. The ships split up to explore the different tributaries of the strait. After three days, the captain of the Concepcion returned, having found the end of the strait and the mouth of the Pacific. It is said that Magellan wept with joy.

However, this triumph came at a great cost: while exploring the strait, the sailors of the San Antonio successfully mutinied and deserted, heading for Spain alone. On their return six months later, the crew of the ship was put on trial for desertion: they used their platform to paint a picture of themselves as humble servants of the King and Magellan as a tyrant who had tortured his own men. None were charged aside from the one member of the crew who had remained loyal to Magellan; his reputation was tarnished and his friends and family suffered, as did the few domestic allies who did not desert him.

On reaching the mouth of the Pacific, Magellan expected to cross it in only a few days. No crossing had ever been undertaken; none anticipated the vastness of the ocean. They soon realised they had grossly miscalculated.

Magellan may have brought three years of rations, but only 18 months in, the ships contained far too little food and drink for the crossing. This was mainly due to the loss of the San Antonio, which was the largest ship and which had contained an even larger proportion of the remaining food, and the aforementioned loss of the supplies of the Santiago.

In their desperation, sailors were consuming sawdust, maggot infested biscuits and yellow, murky water. The rats which had rendered much of their food inedible now became a prized foodstuff. To compound their suffering, the weather was unbearably hot, leading to the death of several men. Of the 166 men who began the crossing, 19 died and many more fell gravely ill, either due to heatstroke, dehydration, malnutrition, infection or scurvy.

After five months on the open ocean, in March 1521 the fleet finally sighted an inhabited island, now known as Rota. While still 2000 miles east of the Philippines, the crew believed the hardest part of the journey was behind them. At first, the indigenes welcomed the crew warmly and traded with the sailors for food and drink. However, they soon turned on the voyagers, who massacred them in retaliation. It was an inauspicious first contact with the local people.

Magellan led his men onward to the Philippines. There, the crew went from island to island, trading with the inhabitants but also converting them to Christianity. Magellan’s slave Enrique, himself from Malaysia, was able to communicate with some of the locals in his native language—interestingly, in returning to his homeland, it was Enrique who became the first person to circumnavigate the globe.

The conversion efforts of the Europeans were moderately successful. On the island of Limasawa, the leaders appeared sympathetic to Christianity and participated in the first Catholic mass in the Philippines. After the service on 31 March, Magellan declared the entire Philippines a possession of Spain, a status they would hold until 1898. Magellan also appointed himself governor of the islands, as per his agreement with King Charles I. Similar stories of missionary success followed. In total, over 2000 men throughout the Philippines were converted and baptised.

However, Magellan’s religious hubris eventually caught up with him and his companions. The leaders of the island of Mactan had rejected baptism, and in a righteous religious rage Magellan ordered an attack, hoping to convert the locals by force. Though better armed, Magellan’s 60 men were no match for the 1500 Mactan warriors. Magellan himself was killed in the battle on 27 April 1521, never to complete his circumnavigation nor realise the riches that he had sought.

After the death of their commander, the crew decided to appoint Diogo Barbosa (Magellan’s brother-in-law) and Juan Serrano as captains. A few days later on May 1, the ruler of Cebu, Humabon, invited 30 crew members, including most of the officers, for a feast on the island. The Spanish travellers had baptised Humabon and befriended him: the inexperienced leaders, in disarray after Magellan’s death, saw nothing amiss. But Humabon had dealt with foreigners before; he was not easily manipulated, and utterly ruthless. During the meal, armed men burst into the dining room and massacred the guests, killing 27 of them. Enrique, Magellan’s slave, had betrayed them: he was distraught by the new captains ignoring Magellan’s will, which stipulated in the event of his death, Enrique would become a free man. At last, he was.

Seeing their officers had been massacred, the crew hastily fled and left port. They appointed Joao Carvalho, who had begun the journey as the pilot of the Victoria, commander of the fleet. The massacre had left only 115 men alive, far too little to effectively crew three boats. As a result, the Concepcion was emptied and destroyed.

The following six months of the expedition consisted of a frantic search for the Moluccas, the initial goal of the expedition, which the crew finally reached on 8 November 1521 after a series of skirmishes with locals and amongst themselves, which saw Carvalho deposed and Gonzalo de Espinosa and Juan Elcano appointed captains of the Trinidad and Victoria respectively. In the Moluccas, they were treated like royalty by the locals, and traded the few goods they had for enormous quantities of cloves, a precious commodity at the time.

After enjoying a rare month of peace and comfort, the crew prepared to return to Spain. However, the Trinidad had been badly damaged and leaked from several breaches in the hull. The Trinidad and its crew would remain in the Moluccas, while the Victoria would return to Spain. On 21 December, the Victoria began its return journey by the traditional route around the Cape of Good Hope, commanded by Elcano.

As with the journey across the Pacific, disease was rife and supplies were low, and the mortality rate was even higher. By the time the Victoria reached Cape Verde (a Portuguese colony) on 9 July 1522, 20 men had died of thirst. While restocking their supplies, 13 crew members were arrested after cargo from the East Indies was discovered on board, since Portugal wanted exclusive control over the East Indies spices trade. The arrested crew members were imprisoned in Cape Verde for a year. The remainder of the Victoria’s crew escaped with its cargo in August.

Nearly three years after their departure, the Victoria finally docked in Spain on September 6. Elcano, who had been a mutineer during the Easter Mutiny in St. Julian and an enemy of Magellan, now found himself collecting all the spoils of success. Elcano secured pardons for the crew of the San Antonio, implicitly confirming their allegations and further destroying the public image of Magellan. His family became pariahs, and none of the riches promised to Magellan ever went to his descendants.

Further expeditions were sponsored by King Charles I to bring back further riches from the East Indies via Magellan’s route, but these were abandoned as it was far simpler, cheaper (the expedition, according to royal accounts, cost 9 million Maravedis) and much less dangerous to travel round the Cape of Good Hope.

Despite its commercial failure, the circumnavigation achieved by Magellan’s crew was a triumph for knowledge: the voyage discovered the world’s largest ocean for Europe, confirmed beyond all doubt that the earth was round—still a hotly-debated topic in Europe at the time—and informed decades of future cartography. Magellan’s expedition was the culmination of an age of exploration and is the greatest illustration of man’s thirst for knowledge and desire to conquer the unknown.

Bergreen, L., 2003. Over the Edge of the World. William Morrow and Company.

Zweig, S., 1938. Magellan. The Literary Guild of America.