Ferdinand Magellan

(c. 1480—1521) Portuguese explorer

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Portuguese navigator. He was born at Villa de Sabrosa in Trás-os-Montes and was the inspirer and commander of the first known expedition to circumnavigate the globe. After passing his early years as a page and attendant at the Portuguese court of John II, he sailed to India in 1505 with Francisco d'Almeida, first Portuguese viceroy of the East. Four years later he joined Diogo Lopes de Sequeira for his voyage from Cochin to the Spice Islands (Moluccas), and was then employed on an expedition to explore them which produced apparently limitless amounts of spices.

In 1512 Magellan returned to Portugal where he was raised to the noble rank of fidalgo escudeiro. He was lamed for life in 1513 during the attack on a Moroccan town, and was then accused of trading with the enemy, and fell into disfavour. Renouncing his nationality, he proceeded to Spain in October 1517 and was granted permission by the king, Charles I, to try and reach the Spice Islands by steering westwards, then sailing south of the New World into the South Seas discovered four years earlier.

With his flag in the Trinidad, Magellan led his squadron of five ships across the Atlantic in September 1519, making a landfall near Pernambuco. He then coasted south to the River Plate estuary, which he searched in the hope of finding a strait, before sailing on to reach Port St Julian on 31 March 1520. There, after crushing a dangerous mutiny, he settled down to pass the winter. He named the natives of the place Patagonians (big feet) because of their great size.

Starting out again in August 1520, on 21 October 1520 he discovered the long and tortuous strait that today bears his name. Thirty-eight days later his squadron, with the exception of one ship which had deserted, emerged into the ocean which, from the gentle weather with which it received him, Magellan named the Pacific. Ninety-eight days of appalling hardship from starvation and scurvy followed before an island, probably Guam, was reached. After three days of rest and refreshment there, the ships sailed on to reach Cebu in the Philippines on 9 March 1521.

Here Magellan made friends with the native ruler who, in order to endear himself to his Spanish visitors, embraced the Catholic faith. On the pretext of wishing to conquer the island of Mactan for Catholicism, he persuaded Magellan to lead an expedition against it. On 27 April 1521 Magellan was killed in the fight against the islanders and the ruler of Cebu then proceeded to murder many of the remaining leaders of the expedition. Two ships, the Trinidad and the caravel, Vittoria, got away, but the Trinidad, being leaky and undermanned, was forced to remain in Borneo. However, the Vittoria, under Juan Sebastián del Cano (c.1476–1526), a pilot whom Magellan had embarked for the circumnavigation, made her way home by way of the Cape of Good Hope. She eventually reached Seville in July 1522, with only 31 of the 270 men who had set out aboard her. Del Cano, especially, was lucky to be alive as he had only narrowly escaped execution for mutiny at Port St Julian.


Subjects: Maritime History.

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