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Magellan’s Circumnavigation: Why the Explorer Gets Too Much Credit

The Age of Exploration ran from the 15th to 18th centuries. During those years, Europeans sailed the world’s oceans in search of new lands, trade routes, spices, slaves, religious converts, gold, and glory. Many explorers did dastardly deeds, but there’s no questioning that their journeys can be counted among the most impactful events in human history. Among the most critical and exciting is Magellan’s voyage to circumnavigate the globe.

In 1518, when the famed Portuguese sailor pushed off from southern Spain, nobody knew for sure whether it was possible to sail around the world. After all, some people still believed the earth was flat. Despite the odds, several years later, Magellan’s ship returned to the land it set sail from, completing the first circumnavigation in human history. 

For most people, that’s where the story ends. But that story is incomplete and, in some ways, incorrect. Magellan was not the first person to circumnavigate the globe. Instead, that title belongs to one of his companions. Yet, historians disagree over which companion it actually was. This confusion is indicative of so much of Magellan’s voyage, so full of contradictions and questions. Magellan was an impressive commander, but his country and his crew hated him—betrayal ran rampant throughout the trip. Magellan was Portuguese, but he sailed under a Spanish flag. His journey was to sail around the world and find new trade routes, but he often prioritized religious and military glory. At times his crew suffered from starvation; at others, they indulged in Saturnalian feasts.

Despite these contradictions, Magellan’s voyage impacted the world in ways that are still being felt today. The story of his mission is full of enough intrigue to fill a Hollywood blockbuster. So, like Magellan,

let’s explore.

Ferdinand Magellan was born Fernão de Magalhães (fer-now je ma-gal-yaes) in Sabrosa, Portugal, to a family of minor Portuguese nobility. Magellan arrived in the early days of the Age of Exploration in 1480. Christopher Columbus’s voyage to the Americas was based on the assumption that there was a westward route to the East Indies, the spice-rich islands mainly comprising Indonesia and Malaysia. 

In 1494, Spain and Portugal signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. This treaty gave Spain the right to westward expansion and exploration, but, the Portuguese thus held exclusive rights to eastward trade routes to India, China, and the so-called Spice Islands. This was because, at the time, the countries believed the Americas to be part of Asia. The spice trade was lucrative in that era, and the Spanish needed a new way into it. So, once they realized that the Americas were not a part of Asia, the Spanish continued to seek a new westward route to the Spice Islands.

Of course, Magellan was Portuguese—the eastward routes were available to him. In his twenties, he sailed on several voyages to India, Indonesia, and Malaysia. Around 1511, he took part in the Portuguese conquest of Malacca, a Malaysian city on the southwestern edge of the Malay Peninsula. This adventure was crucial for Magellan’s future. He earned a promotion and great wealth. With that wealth, he purchased a slave called Enrique of Malacca, and the two returned to Portugal in 1512 or 1513. Enrique would go on to play a vital role in Magellan’s future travels.

Around this time, Magellan, with his newfound power and confidence, began pressing the Portuguese King Manuel to fund a new expedition to Malacca. Manuel rebuffed Magellan’s solicitations and eventually gave him permission to seek funding from other nations. Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality and, in 1517, petitioned King Charles of Spain to fund a westward journey to the Spice Islands. Charles must have been intrigued because he did more than fund the excursion. He incentivized Magellan and his partners with a large chunk of the potentially huge profits from their expedition and the established trade routes. 

By 1918, the Armada de Molucca was ready. The fleet consisted of five ships. The flagship, The Trinidad, was a large, four-masted carrack. In preparation for his passage, Magellan assembled a crew of 270 Portuguese sailors. But, his financiers pushed back. They demanded that he sail with a mostly Spanish crew, only allowing 40 Portuguese to participate. This crew was joined by Enrique of Malacca and an Italian historian named Antonio Pigafetta, whose records inform vast portions of our modern knowledge of the expedition. The fleet carried two years’ worth of food and wine, among other supplies.

They pushed off from the southern tip of Spain on September 20th, 1519. Immediately, the problems began. Suddenly regretting allowing Magellan to sail under the Spanish flag, the Portuguese government sent two light, fast caravels to arrest the commander. Meanwhile, the Spanish crew distrusted their Portuguese leader. They disliked his decision to sail south along Africa’s coast before crossing the Atlantic.

By the time they landed on the Brazilian coast, the crew’s loathing had turned into a mutiny. Led by Juan de Cartagena, a minority of the Spanish sailors attempted to overthrow Magellan. But the attempt was disorganized, and Magellan consolidated his power, doing his best to calm tensions by refusing to execute Cartagena, instead relieving him of his authority over one of the ships.

Despite this stress within the fleet, their stop in Brazil proved to be the highlight of the voyage. Brazil was technically Portuguese territory, but the European nation held no permanent settlements there. Magellan had safely evaded King Manuel’s reach. Meanwhile, the local Guarani people welcomed the sailors with open arms, readily converting to Catholicism. According to the historian Pigafetta, the crew partook in a Bacchanalia of feasting and lovemaking.

The men enjoyed their time there, but the lighthearted pleasures wouldn’t last long. The fleet needed to round the southern tip of South America before winter set in. Though he had no clue how far that point was, Magellan had heard rumors of a strait that connected the Atlantic to the mysterious western ocean. Finding that strait proved a difficult task. The ships cruised along the Argentinian coast, sailing up anything that looked at all like a strait. After a series of diversions, winter was upon them. On March 31st, 1520, they set up camp at Port St. Julian, near the southern end of Argentina. 

The sailors waited for five months for conditions to improve. By all accounts, tensions were high. Cartagena attempted a second mutiny, which almost succeeded. However, Magellan outmaneuvered his Spanish rival, and, this time, he wasn’t merciful. Cartagena and his key collaborators were marooned on a desert island, marking the start of a gradual decline in the crew’s numbers. The rest of the mutineers were forced into hard labor. 

On October 18th of 1520, more than a year since leaving Spain, the fleet again pushed off from solid ground. Over the next month, the armada would accomplish their first monumental task—locating and traversing the strait that led them into the Pacific Ocean. After a month of searching, they discovered the body of water that now holds their commander’s name—the Strait of Magellan. 

The fleet lost an entire ship while crossing the strait, but, on November 28th, they exited the mouth of the narrow channel and entered the vast, mysterious western Ocean. Inspired by its peaceful waters, Magellan named it the Mar Pacifico, the Pacific Ocean.

But, while locating the ocean was one thing, crossing it was an even more formidable ordeal. Nobody knew just how vast this Pacific Ocean was. Magellan believed he could traverse it in a matter of days. Of course, that was not the case. The Armada de Molucca would spend more than three months at sea before finding another speck of land. 

Had the fleet’s course aimed just a few more degrees south, they would have traveled through a series of lush, paradisical isles where they would have found food and water. Instead, the crew suffered from thirst, scurvy, and starvation. For many, the only meat was rotted seal flesh. Of the 166 sailors that entered the Pacific, 19 died.

Finally, on March 6th of 1521, the fleet landed on the isle of Guam. The locals, justifiably confused by this armada of white men coming from the east, came aboard and began taking items from the ships. A physical confrontation followed. The next day, Magellan sent a raiding party ashore to burn down a village and steal food and water. The stopover gave Magellan hope that he was close to reaching his goal.

A few days west of Guam, the fleet came to the Philippines, the most eventful stop on their voyage. It was the first European contact with the archipelago’s people. Magellan and his crew found beautiful lands filled with food, water, and generally hospitable locals. Critically, Enrique of Malacca found that he could speak with the people in Malay, the region’s lingua franca. By this time, Enrique was no longer a slave—he had become a well-paid indentured servant, earning almost twice as much as Pigafetta. Upon arrival in the Philippines, Enrique became perhaps the most important person on the crew, serving as a translator and diplomat.

Magellan declared that the Philippines now belonged to Spain. He was, without a doubt, encouraged by the vast quantities of gold throughout the island chain. Yet, at the same time, Magellan also became an overzealous missionary. Many of the native peoples willingly converted to Catholicism, even joining the crew for an Easter Mass on the island of Limasawa.

By that time, many of the armada’s officers sought to continue westward in search of the Spice Islands. They correctly reasoned that the fleet was close to its destination. Yet, Magellan wasn’t done with his religious duty. On the island Mactan, the chieftain, named Lapu-Lapu, refused to convert to Christianity. Magellan burnt down a Mactan village, threatening all-out assault on the island if they further resisted conversion. Lapu-Lapu did not back down. 

Magellan led an invasion of the island, confident that his platoon’s advanced weaponry and faith in God would deliver victory. They were outnumbered 1,500 to 50. Magellan was killed in the battle—various accounts say he was either impaled with a spear or hit with a poison arrow before getting hacked to death by the people whose homes he destroyed. Pigafetta venerated Magellan in his eulogy, but the crew left their commander’s body behind, willingly neglecting to grant him a proper burial. 

The crew assembled to choose new leadership, settling on two men: Duarte Barbosa and Juan Serrano. For Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s death meant freedom. The commander’s last will stated that Enrique was to be set free following his master’s death. Yet, the two new commanders refused to fulfill this promise. They needed Enrique’s translation skills. But Enrique was a clever man, and his connections with the locals granted him power. 

So, Enrique organized a celebration to mark Barbosa and Serrano’s rule. The villagers of Cebu, led by Rajah Humabon, hosted 30 crewmen for a decadent feast. At the meal’s end, armed Cebuanos entered the hall and slaughtered all of the sailors. Enrique walked free. 

With barely 100 men and two ships, the crew finally pushed off from the Philippines, led by Juan Sebastian Elcano. Over the next six months, they hopped from island to island, trading with the locals and seeking information on the Moluccas’ location. When they finally arrived at the Spice Islands, the armada was met by friendly leaders who pledged allegiance to the Spanish throne. The sailors traded for cloves and other valuable spices, loading up their last seaworthy ship, the Victoria, for the final portion of their journey—crossing the Indian ocean, rounding Africa, and heading home. 

The Victoria left the Spice Islands on December 21st, 1521. But, instead of a peaceful cruise, the last leg of the trip was marked by starvation. When the Victoria arrived at the Cape Verde Islands on July 9th, 1522, another 20 sailors had died. Others were arrested by the island’s Portuguese authorities. Two months later, on September 6th, almost exactly three years since their departure, the Victoria landed in Spain with 18 crewmen and 26 tons of spices. As the ship’s captain, Juan Sebastian Elcano was hailed as the first man to circumnavigate the globe.

Yet, today, when considering the title of the first to circle the earth, many historians come up with a different name—Enrique of Malacca. Sources differ on where Enrique was originally from, ranging from the Malay Peninsula to Sumatra, Indonesia, or perhaps elsewhere in the Malay Archipelago. According to Pigafetta, Enrique left the Philippines on May 1st, 1521, to return to his homeland, wherever that may have been. If he completed his return, then Enrique—not Magellan nor Elcano—would have become the first person to circumnavigate the globe.

Enrique’s crucial role is often overlooked, but several other aspects of the voyage’s legacy are also misunderstood or forgotten. On a personal level, Magellan was a capable commander, operating admirably given the limited information he was working with. Still, his crew insisted that he placed the men in danger with his strategy of sailing along coastlines, thereby lengthening the voyage, straining food supplies, and increasing the chances of encounters with pirates. Of course, the captain’s biggest mistake was his obsession with converting all the Philippino people to Catholicism. Had he sailed on as his officers insisted, he likely could have completed the voyage himself, earning riches unbeknownst to all but the wealthiest kings in the world. 

Still, the impact of Magellan’s voyage is undeniable. It led to more accurate maps of eastern Asia, the southern Pacific, and South America. It sparked the conversion of Brazil and the Philippines to Catholicism, a religion that still dominates the two countries. Spain’s new territory in the Philippines allowed the Iberian nation to establish new trade routes with the homeland and colonies in the Americas. Over the next century, Spain firmly established itself as the world’s wealthiest and most powerful state. Several of the world’s features, including the Pacific Ocean, still bear names given by Magellan. Elcano and his crew, upon returning to Spain, even proved the necessity of an international dateline. Altogether, Magellan’s voyage is rightfully considered one of the earliest and most important steps towards creating a globalized world.

But what do you think? Is Magellan given too much credit for his leading role in the voyage? Or does his captaining the fleet during the most challenging portions mean that he deserves most of the glory? Do you think Enrique returned home and became the first person to circumnavigate the globe? Or does the fact that he did it on multiple trips make it somehow incomplete, giving the title to Juan Elcano? What other ways has this gargantuan journey impacted the modern world?

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