13 Things You Should Know About Ferdinand Magellan

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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.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

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.

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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.

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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.

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Anti-Pasta: When Italian Futurists Tried to Ban Pasta in Italy

A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
A pasta vendor in Naples during the late 19th or early 20th century.
Carlo Brogi, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

While speaking at a multi-course banquet in Milan on November 15, 1930, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti presented his fellow Italians with an incendiary call to action. Pasta, he said, was a “passéist food” that “[deluded people] into thinking it [was] nutritious” and made them “heavy, brutish,” “skeptical, slow, [and] pessimistic.” As such, it should be abolished and replaced with rice.

So began an outrageous crusade against the country’s most beloved carbohydrate. Not only did Marinetti's movement elicit passionate reactions on both sides, but it also had some less-than-tenuous ties to Benito Mussolini's fascist regime.

Mr. Rice Guy

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti (center) and his fellow Italian Futurists in Paris in 1912.Proa, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Marinetti’s initial statement spread so widely because he himself loomed large over society at the time. His 1909 “Manifesto of Futurism” launched the Futurist movement, which championed a shift away from the slow, outmoded processes of the past and toward the sleek technologies of the future. Though originally specific to art, Futurism was a nationalist cause at heart—a way for the newly unified country to catch up to other world powers—and it aligned with Mussolini’s fledgling political campaign. In fact, the two men collaborated closely while establishing their respective political parties (Marinetti’s Fasci Politici Futuristi and Mussolini’s Fasci di Combattimento) as World War I came to a close. Marinetti had distanced himself from Mussolini by the early 1920s, but he still invoked Il Duce’s policies when they served his goals.

For the pasta prohibition, they did. To make Italy less reliant on imported wheat, Mussolini’s administration had started promoting rice—which was much easier to produce domestically—over pasta. In the late 1920s, he established the “National Rice Board” and even declared November 1 to be “National Rice Day.” As Philip McCouat writes for the Journal of Art History, the dictator never went so far as to ban macaroni, but citizens were already familiar with anti-pasta sentiment by the time Marinetti began his smear campaign.

On December 28, 1930, the Futurist followed up his dinner speech with the “Manifesto of Futurist Cooking,” co-written with the artist Luigi Colombo (known as “Fillìa”) and published in Turin’s Gazzetta del popolo. In it, they described pasta itself as an “absurd Italian gastronomic religion” and pasta lovers as being “shackled by its ball and chain like convicted lifers or [carrying] its ruins in their stomachs like archaeologists.”

In short, they believed that pasta weighed Italians down and prevented them from achieving any kind of greatness. The ultimate solution was for the government to replace all food with nutritional pills, powders, and other artificial substitutes, but until the chemists could create such innovations, the Futurists would settle for swapping out pasta with rice. “And remember too,” they wrote, “that the abolition of pasta will free Italy from expensive foreign wheat and promote the Italian rice industry.”

Starch Enemies and Allies

While Marinetti’s initial speech had incited a small uprising among Italians, his written manifesto gave the issue a global audience. “Fascist Writer, All Wound Up in Health Subject, Begs Countrymen to Swallow New Theory,” the Chicago Tribune summarized in an article titled “Italy May Down Spaghetti,” which hit newsstands just two days after Marinetti’s manifesto.

Smaller presses covered the bombshell, too. “No, signor. We beseech you, call off your holy war,” Ernest L. Meyer pontificated in Madison, Wisconsin’s The Capital Times. “Would you abolish macaroni and all its tunefully christened cousins—macaroncelli, foratini, maglietti, ditalini, vermicelli—and reduce Italians to the ugly dissonances of beans, cabbage, chops, chard, and chewing gum? Fie, signor, there is no poetry in your soul, and your palate lacks wit.”

Pasta drying in the streets of Naples in 1897.J.F. Jarvis, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

People living everywhere from France to Australia commented on the matter, but nowhere was the response more impassioned than in Italy. Women in the city of L’Aquila sent Marinetti a protest letter, and the mayor of Naples went so far as to proclaim that “the Angels in Paradise eat nothing but vermicelli with tomato sauce.” (Marinetti later retorted that this was simply proof of “the unappetizing monotony of Paradise and of the life of the Angels.”) But Futurism wasn’t unpopular, and the pasta ban had ardent advocates of its own. Italian writer Marco Ramperti, for example, lambasted the beloved repast in a highly imaginative op-ed.

“[Pasta] puffs out our cheeks like grotesque masks on a fountain, it stuffs our gullets as if we were Christmas turkeys, it ties up our insides with its flabby strings; it nails us to the chair, gorged and stupefied, apoplectic and gasping, with [a] sensation of uselessness …” he wrote. “Our thoughts wind round each other, get mixed up and tangled like the vermicelli we’ve taken in.”

The Movement Loses Steam

Marinetti collected the best testimonies from scientists, chefs, and literary firebrands like Ramperti and reproduced them in 1932’s La Cucina Futurista (“The Futurist Cookbook”), which also contained Futurist recipes and instructions for hosting various kinds of Futurist dinner parties. But the 1930s were an exceptionally tumultuous decade for the country—which faced the Great Depression, Adolf Hitler’s growing influence, a war with Ethiopia, the Spanish Civil War, and eventually World War II—and Italian citizens were focused less on what they were eating and more on simply eating.

Two Neapolitan boys eating plates of pasta, date unknown.Bain News Service, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division // No Known Restrictions on Publication

Furthermore, Futurism soon ran afoul of fascism. In 1937, Hitler decried modern art as “degenerate,” anti-nationalist, and somehow inherently Jewish. Though Marinetti spoke out against these associations, anti-Semitism had already infected Italy, and fascists started condemning the Futurist movement. Since Mussolini was courting Hitler as an ally, his regime’s ties to Futurism could easily have become a political liability. In 1939, when Marinetti published a fiery denial of Hitler’s accusations in a Futurist journal called Artecrazia, the government forced it to shutter.

So, by the 1940s, Marinetti was no longer spewing consistent vitriol against pasta, Il Duce was no longer supporting the Futurist movement, and the world at large was consumed with much greater threats than linguini-induced languor. And if Marinetti ever entertained fantasies about resurrecting the cause after the war, he never got the chance—he died of a heart attack in December 1944, just months before the deaths of both Mussolini and Hitler the following April.