In 1519, Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) set sail in search of a westward route to the Maluku Islands of modern Indonesia, which brimmed with nutmeg, cloves, and mace. His trip to these “Spice Islands” would lead to the first successful round-the-world voyage and turn Magellan into a larger-than-life figure. Get reacquainted with the world’s most famous (almost) circumnavigator.
1. BEFORE HE WAS A SEA CAPTAIN, HE FOUGHT IN THE MILITARY.
Magellan got his first taste of sea life when he joined a Portuguese military fleet headed for India at the age of 25. At the time, Portugal was hungry to control global trade, and that meant taking strategic points along the Indian Ocean. Magellan fought in a number of pivotal naval conflicts and learned the ropes of navigation. (He also fought in Morocco, where he suffered a leg injury that caused a permanent limp.)
2. PORTUGAL REGARDED HIM AS A TRAITOR.
Magellan’s military stint in Morocco was unsuccessful: Not only was he wounded, he was later accused of illegally trading with the Moors, a charge that tarnished his reputation in his home country of Portugal. Afterwards, he had trouble landing a job. He bickered with the king. In 1517, Magellan became so fed up that he left Portugal and soon pledged allegiance to his country’s most bitter rival—Spain. Portugal considered it an act of treason.
3. PORTUGAL TRIED TO STOP HIS VOYAGE TO THE SPICE ISLANDS.
By 1517, Portugal controlled access to the Spice Routes, the trade routes from Europe eastward to what is now Indonesia around Africa's Cape of Good Hope. (This was a big deal: Spices at the time were worth their weight in gold.) Magellan told Spain’s king, Charles I, that he knew a possible workaround: Sail west. Charles approved, and Portuguese officials were livid. When Magellan left Spain in 1519 with a fleet of five ships, destined for the Spice Islands via the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, the Portuguese tried—and failed—to chase him down.
4. MAGELLAN WAS GUARANTEED HIS OWN ISLAND AS PART OF THE DEAL.
When Spain’s king approved Magellan’s plan, he reportedly offered the explorer a number of perks: Magellan, along with his partner Rui Faleiro, would automatically become governor of the lands they found. They would gain the right to levy fees for any upcoming trips. And, most interestingly, they would get their very own islands.
5. HIS VOYAGE WOULD NOT HAVE BEEN APPROVED WERE IT NOT FOR HIS INTERPRETER—AND SLAVE—ENRIQUE.
Years earlier, in 1511, Magellan helped invade the port city of Malacca and came home with a Malay-speaking man known now as Enrique de Malacca. Enrique would become Magellan’s most vital resource. Not only did he join Magellan on his 1519 voyage, but his fluency in the Malay language—and his skills as an interpreter—were a major reason why Spain’s king agreed to fund Magellan’s search for a westward spice route.
6. HIS SHIPS WERE STUFFED WITH BOOZE ...
Magellan traveled with large amounts of sherry on board—more than 253 butts and 417 wineskins—and reportedly spent more money supplying his ship with booze than he did on weapons. As we'll see, this might not have been his greatest idea.
7. ... AND CRIMINALS.
The Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Santiago, and Victoria set sail in September 1519 with a crew of about 270 sailors. Few of them had extensive seafaring experience. In fact, many of them were criminals loaned from prisons. Others joined because they were avoiding creditors. (Many experienced Spanish sailors refused to join Magellan, possibly because he was Portuguese.)
8. WHEN HIS CAPTAINS STARTED A MUTINY, MAGELLAN SHOWED NO MERCY.
In March 1520, Magellan’s ships reached what is now Port San Julián in southern Argentina. Here, three of his captains—all Spaniards who were reportedly jealous that the position of commander had been bestowed to a Portuguese man—vowed to kill Magellan. Long story short, Magellan killed them instead. To show he wasn’t to be messed with, Magellan had their bodies drawn, quartered, and impaled on stakes on shore.
9. HE CLAIMED PATAGONIA WAS THE HOME OF 10-FOOT-TALL GIANTS.
According to Antonio Pigafetta, a member of Magellan’s voyage who recounted his adventure in a book, Magellan discovered giants in South America “so tall that the tallest of us only came up to his waist.” (They were most likely Tehuelche people who, while tall by 16th century European standards, were definitely not giants.) Regardless, Magellan kidnapped two of them and named them Patagons. To this day, we still call their home Patagonia.
10. HE NAMED THE PACIFIC—BUT HE WASN’T THE FIRST EUROPEAN TO REACH IT.
In October 1520, Magellan reached Cape Virgenes at the southeastern tip of present-day Argentina and concluded that he had found a passage that could cut across South America. His ships traveled 373 miles and reached the other side in late November, and Magellan named the new ocean Mar Pacifico for its peacefulness. (He wasn’t the first European to set eyes on it, though. That accolade belonged to Vasco Núñez de Balboa, who crossed the Isthmus of Panama seven years earlier. He had called it the “South Sea.”) Today, the passage across the continent is called the Strait of Magellan.
11. HE DIED A PRETTY GORY DEATH.
The subsequent events in the Pacific were, to say the least, not peaceful. In March 1521, Magellan reached the Philippines and gently converted some of the chieftains to Christianity. Magellan then moved to convert the ruler of Mactan, Datu Lapu-Lapu. When Lapu-Lapu refused, Magellan decided to kill him. Magellan’s men rushed the shore. Mactan soldiers attacked and quickly recognized Magellan as their leader. They charged him. A Mactan warrior thrust a spear into Magellan’s face. Magellan thrust a lance into his attacker’s body. Magellan then tried pulling his sword, but the spear prevented him from extracting it. At this moment, the Mactan soldiers jumped him.
12. ENRIQUE, NOT MAGELLAN, MAY HAVE BEEN THE FIRST PERSON TO CIRCUMNAVIGATE THE GLOBE.
A lot of history books say that Magellan was the first person to lead a circumnavigation around the globe. The words to lead do a lot of heavy lifting: Magellan, of course, died before the voyage was complete. His slave, however, might have completed an around-the-world circuit. Shortly after Magellan’s death, Enrique escaped. If he succeeded in returning home (and it’s unclear if he did or not), that would mean that the first human to accomplish the feat was not some European explorer, but a Southeast Asian ex-slave sailing to freedom.
13. DESPITE EVERYTHING THAT WENT WRONG, MAGELLAN’S VOYAGE WAS STILL PROFITABLE.
After Magellan died, the voyage was led by Juan Sebastian Elcano. In the coming months, much of the remaining crew starved, and only one ship managed to make the full trip back to Spain. But that was OK: When Elcano had visited the Spice Islands, he had secured 381 sacks of cloves. Those spices were worth more than all five ships combined.