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Ferdinand Magellan

Biography of Ferdinand Magellan

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Ferdinand Magellan
VisionsofAmerica/Joe Sohm/Getty Images

Ferdinand Magellan was born in 1480 in Sabrosa, Portugal to Rui de Magalhaes and Alda de Mesquita. Because his family had ties to the royal family, Magellan became a page to the Portuguese queen after his parents' untimely deaths in 1490. This allowed him the opportunity to become educated and learn about the various Portuguese exploration expeditions- possibly even those conducted by Christopher Columbus.

Magellan took part in his first sea voyage in 1505 when Portugal sent him to India to help install Francisco de Almeida as the Portuguese viceroy. He also experienced his first battle there in 1509 when one of the local kings rejected the practice of paying tribute to the new viceroy.

From here however, Magellan lost the viceroy Almeida's support after he took leave without permission and was accused of illegally trading with the Moors. After some of the accusations were proven to be true, Magellan lost all offers of employment from the Portuguese after 1514.

 

The Spanish and the Spice Islands

Around this same time, the Spanish were engaged in trying to find a new route to the Spice Islands (the East Indies, in present-day Indonesia) after the Treaty of Tordesillas divided the world in half in 1494. The dividing line for this treaty went through the Atlantic Ocean and Spain got the lands west of the line, including the Americas. Brazil however, went to Portugal as did everything east of the line, including India and the eastern half of Africa.

Similar to his predecessor Columbus, Magellan believed that the Spice Islands could be reached by sailing west through the New World. He proposed this idea to Manuel I, the Portuguese king, but was rejected. Looking for support Magellan moved on to share his plan with the Spanish king.

On March 22, 1518, Charles I was persuaded by Magellan and granted him a large sum of money to find a route to the Spice Islands by sailing west, thereby giving Spain control of the area, since it would in effect be "west" of the dividing line through the Atlantic. Using these generous funds, Magellan set sail going west toward the Spice Islands in September 1519 with five ships (the Conception, the San Antonio, the Santiago, the Trinidad, and the Victoria) and 270 men.

 

The Early Portion of the Voyage

Since Magellan was a Portuguese explorer in charge of a Spanish fleet, the early part of the voyage to the west was riddled with problems. Several of the Spanish captains on the ships in the expedition plotted to kill him but their plans were never realized and many of them were held prisoner and/or executed. In addition, Magellan had to avoid Portuguese territory since he was sailing for Spain.

After months of sailing across the Atlantic Ocean, the fleet anchored at what is today Rio de Janeiro to restock its supplies on December 13, 1519. From there, they moved down the coast of South America looking for a way into the Pacific. As they sailed farther south however, the weather got worse so the crew anchored in Patagonia (southern South America) to wait out the winter.

As the weather began to ease in the spring, Magellan sent the Santiago on a mission to look for a way through to the Pacific Ocean. In May, the ship was wrecked and the fleet did not move again until August 1520. Then, after months of exploring the area, the remaining four ships found a strait in October and sailed through it. This portion of the journey took 38 days, cost them the San Antonio (because its crew decided to abandon the expedition) and a large amount of supplies. Nevertheless, in the end of November, the remaining three ships exited what Magellan named the Strait of All Saints and sailed into the Pacific Ocean.

 

Later Voyage and Magellan's Death

From here, Magellan mistakenly thought it would only take a few days to reach the Spice Islands, when it instead took four months, during which time his crew suffered immensely. They began to starve as their food supplies were depleted, their water turned putrid, and many of the men developed scurvy. The crew was able to stop at a nearby island in January 1521 to eat fish and seabirds but their supplies were not adequately restocked until March when they stopped in Guam.

On March 28, they landed in the Philippines and befriended a tribal king, Rajah Humabon of Cebu Island. After spending time with the king, Magellan and his crew were persuaded into helping the tribe kill their enemy Lapu-Lapu on Mactan Island. On April 21, 1521, Magellan took part in the Battle of Mactan and was killed by Lapu-Lapu's army.

After Magellan's death, Sebastian del Cano had the Conception burned (so it could not be used against them by the locals) and took over the two remaining ships and 117 crewmembers. To ensure that one ship would make it back to Spain, one ship, the Trinidad, headed east, and the Victoria continued west. The Trinidad was seized by the Portuguese on its journey, but on September 6, 1522 the Victoria and only 18 surviving crew members returned to Spain, completing the first circumnavigation of the earth.

 

Magellan's Legacy

Though Magellan died before the voyage was completed, he is often credited with the first circumnavigation of the earth as he initially led the voyage. He also discovered what is now called the Strait of Magellan, named the Pacific Ocean, and South America's Tierra del Fuego. Magellanic Clouds in space were also named for him, as his crew was the first to view them while sailing in the Southern Hemisphere. Most important to geography though, was Magellan’s realization of the full extent of the earth- something that significantly aided in the development of later geographic exploration and the resulting knowledge of the world today.

 

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