This Week in History recalls memorable and decisive events and personalities of the past.

20th September 1519 – Ferdinand Magellan sets sail on his expedition to circumnavigate the globe

Ferdinand Magellan

In 1519, in the name of the Spanish crown, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan set out from the port of Seville in Spain to find a maritime route through the Americas to Asia across the Pacific Ocean.

Universalis Cosmographia, the Waldseemüller wall map dated 1507, by the Italian Amerigo Vespucci

Magellan was a seasoned explorer who had been to India and the Spice Islands on several occasions on various earlier expeditions. He had sailed to Goa with the first Portuguese Viceroy of India in 1505, and in 1511 had been part of the Portuguese expedition to conquer the Malaysian sultanate of Malacca.

After taking leave without permission and being falsely accused of trading with the Muslims of Morocco, he became estranged from the Portuguese royal court in 1514 and, in 1517, he left Portugal for Spain.  

Once there, Magellen worked on a plan to get the Spanish king to sponsor an expedition to the Spice Islands, under his captaincy. At this time, he married one of his business partner’s daughters, Maria Caldera Beatriz Barbosa. She bore two children, both of whom died young. Maria herself would die in 1521.

Magellan proceeded apace with plans for his voyage. After some negotiation, he was given a fleet of five ships, with supplies for two years and a combined crew of about 270 men. The fleet of 20-metre three-masted Carracks set out in September 1519. 

Victoria, the only ship of Magellan’s fleet to complete the circumnavigation. Detail from a map by Ortelius, 1590

Heading into the Atlantic from Seville, the expedition set a course for South America, arriving in the bay of Rio de Janeiro on 13 December 1519. From there, they travelled south to begin looking for a western passage that would give them access to the Pacific Ocean.

This phase of the expedition took three months, and included a false start when they believed erroneously that they had found a way west, only to discover they were in fact in the estuary of the Río de la Plata.

At the beginning of April 1520, while wintering in the bay of Puerto San Julián, the crews of three of the ships mutinied in a bid to replace their Portuguese captains with Spanish ones. Magellan ultimately regained control, however, executing or marooning some of the mutineers.

At the end of April, one of the five ships sent out to resume the search for a western passage was caught in a storm and wrecked. Some survivors managed to make their way back to the fleet.

The whole fleet set out again in October 1520, and, after some days, discovered what is now known as the Straits of Magellan at the southern tip of South America. All but one ship began sailing west at last.

A 19th century depiction of Magellan crossing the Straits

The exception was a vessel whose crew had had a change of heart, deserting the expedition and making their way back to Spain, which they reached safely in 1521.

The remaining three ships would finally reach the Pacific Ocean in November of 1520. Magellan – and European cartographers of the time – were still somewhat unsure of the exact size of the world [despite an ancient Greek scientist having worked it out 1 700 years earlier] and, as such, greatly underestimated the distance to Asia. The voyage across the Pacific, which they had anticipated would take at best three or four days instead took almost four months. One consequence was that about 30 of the crew died during this phase of the expedition, with most succumbing to scurvy due to a lack of fresh vegetables and fruit.

The monument to Magellan at Umatac on Guam

On 6 March 1521, the expedition finally arrived at the island of Guam in the western Pacific. A misunderstanding between the explorers and the local Chamorro people led to accusations of theft, and a punitive raid by Magellan in which some locals were killed and their homes burned.

Ten days later, the expedition reached the Philippines, where Magellan befriended local leaders on the island of Limasawa. The expedition rested there for the next 45 days.

Magellan’s Monument at Intramuros, Manila, in the Philippines, photographed c.1900-1902

On 31 March 1521, the expedition held the first Catholic mass in the Philippines and tried to convert the local people to Catholicism. Many reportedly accepted the new faith enthusiastically, perhaps seeing it as a means of forging stronger relations with their new strange allies from across the sea.

This wooden cross, in a chapel in Cebu City, next to Basilica Minore del Santo Niño, encases the original cross planted by the Magellan party [Picture: Klienneeco,]

But the people of the island of Mactan resisted, as they were enemies of Magellan’s allies. The Spaniards’ attempt to subdue them with force as a means of winning favour with their new local allies resulted in a battle that would cost Magellan his life.

Statue of Lapu-Lapu, leader of the Mactan resistance, with the Magellan Monument in the background, on Mactan Island, Cebu [Picture: Wng,]

Though heavily outnumbered, the Spanish troops tried to land on the island of Mactan, but were attacked in the shallow waters near their ships. Despite the protection of their advanced steel armour, the Spanish took some casualties and, as they fought their way up to the Mactan settlement, they weakened. Magellan tried to demoralise his opponents by setting fire to their village, but this enraged them and they launched a fresh attack. Magellan was hit by a poisoned arrow in the right leg; he fell and was stabbed to death with a spear.

A 19th century depiction of Magellan’s death at the hands of Mactan warriors

At this, the remaining troops fled back to their ships, having lost around half of their force. Leadership of Magellan’s ship would soon pass to the Basque captain, Juan Sebastián Elcano.

Upon returning to the territory of their local allies, some of the survivors would be poisoned at a banquet, prompting the Spaniards to flee to their ships. As their numbers were so reduced, they resolved to burn their least seaworthy vessel, and set sail with the two remaining.

On 8 November 1521, the remnants of the expedition reached the Indonesian island of Tidore, which was allied to Spain. One of the ships remained there for repairs, when, on 21 December, the last vessel, Victoria, set out on the homeward voyage, via the Cape of Good Hope.

On 22 May 1522, Victoria passed the Cape of Good Hope and entered the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, on 8 September 1522, Victoria arrived in Seville, having made history as the first ship to circumnavigate the world.  

A 1561 map of the Americas showing Magellan’s name for the Pacific, Mare pacificum, and the Strait of Magellan, labelled Frenum Magaliani

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Nicholas Lorimer, a politician-turned-think tank thinker, is the IRR's Geopolitics Researcher and is host of the Daily Friend Show. His interests include geopolitics, and history (particularly medieval and ancient history). He is an unashamed Americaphile, whether it be food, culture or film. His other pursuits include video games and armchair critique of action films from the 1980s.