Magellan Expedition Returns to Spain


Fewer than three decades after Christopher Columbus (1451-1506) made his voyage to the New World, Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480-1521) set sail in 1519 with nearly 600 men and five ships on a voyage to the Spice Islands (East Indies) via a westward route from Spain. Magellan, undervalued by the Portuguese crown, made the trip under the Spanish flag. They crossed the Atlantic, sailed down the eastern coast of South America, rounded the southern tip of the continent through the shortcut now called the Strait of Magellan and named thePacific Ocean before reaching the eastern shores of Asia. Although Magellan died partway through the trip, one of the five ships in the fleet completed what became the first circumnavigation of the globe in 1522.

Magellan approached the King of Spain with a proposal for a voyage to the Spice Islands by way of the southern tip of South America. Although he was Portuguese and had sailed under the Portuguese crown for more than a decade, Magellan was under-appreciated in his home country. Denied promotion and falsely accused of corruption, Magellan turned to his country’s rival to fund the expedition. The king of Spain agreed. Magellan spent a year preparing, then began the trip on September 8, 1519, with a 560-man crew aboard five ships. The excursion from Spain to South America took three months. Magellan then led the fleet down the east coast, exploring inlets and bays along the way in search of a shortcut across the continent. Finding none, he continued down toward the tip of the continent.

The fleet encountered difficulties almost as soon as it reached South America. In addition to harsh weather conditions that forced the men to overwinter in the southern reaches of the continent, the voyage was fraught with internal bickering, plotting and attempted mutinies. One unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Magellan’s command ended with the marooning of numerous crewmembers on the eastern coast of what is now Venezuela along with the beheading of the ship captains behind the plot. The winter season also claimed one of the five ships in the fleet.

When spring came, the fleet started out again. Magellan continued to take the ships in and out of the bays dotting the coast in his quest to find a shortcut across the continent. When his crew became tired of the lost time with these side trips, Magellan fabricated a story about a map describing a shortcut and convinced the crew to try one last time. It was on this exploratory trip that they discovered what is now known as the Strait of Magellan, a channel that, it was later learned, shaved several hundred miles from their voyage around the tip of the continent. While exploring the strait, the crew of one of the four remaining ships mutinied, turned the ship around and set off for home.

The now-three-ship fleet pressed on, entering the Pacific Ocean on November 20. Magellan and his crew dubbed the watery expanse the Pacific, because it was so calm and peaceful in comparison with the Atlantic they had just left.

Magellan wrongly assumed that the Pacific was a small ocean and that they would be in the Spice Islands in a matter of days. Days turned to weeks and to months. Rations dwindled, and sickness followed. Before they struck land on Guam more than three months after they had entered the waters of the Pacific, 19 of the men had died from scurvy.

Their troubles didn’t end there. After landing in Guam, some of the native people took one of the ship’s boats. It was only after a bloody battle that Magellan was able to take back the boat and set off again. Their next stop was Cebu in the Philippines. Here, Magellan formed what was to become a fatal relationship with the king of the island. The explorer agreed to take part in the king’s attack on a nearby island, and died after sustaining wounds from a poisoned arrow, two spears, and at least one lance.

The crew continued without him, making the decision to return home by continuing their westward route into Portuguese waters. Apparently, their desire to return to Spain overrode their fear of the Portuguese. The crew abandoned one of the three ships. Of the two remaining ships, the Trinidad tried to return across the Pacific against prevailing winds, but was forced back. The Portuguese captured it and jailed its crew. In 1525, after being released from the Portuguese jail, four members of the ill-fated Trinidad crew found their way back to Spain.

Juan Sebasti├ín de Elcano took command of the other ship, the Victoria. He rounded the Cape of Good Hope and successfully brought the ship back to Spain on September 8, 1522, three years to the day since the voyage set out. The final crew numbered only 18 men. De Elcano received numerous accolades, including honors from the king and a monument in his hometown. The monument consists of a globe with the inscription: “The first one to circle me.”

“The First Maritime Circumnavigation of the Globe.” Science and Its Times. Ed. Neil Schlager and Josh Lauer. Vol. 3. Detroit: Gale, 2001. World History in Context. Web.

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