It Turns Out Ferdinand Magellan Might Not Have Actually Circumnavigated the World

In 1519, Ferdinand Magellan and his crew of 270 on 5 ships left Spain in search of fame and fortune. Many would not return.
Christopher McFadden

On September 20, 1519, Ferdinand Magellan set sail from southern Spain with five ships on a transoceanic trek to find a Western route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. The entire expedition would take around three years and would result in the surviving crew accidentally circumnavigating the globe.

While Magellan is usually credited as being the first man to do so, it turns out he didn't quite manage it. He was killed in battle before this amazing feat could be completed. 

So, you could say, your entire life might be a lie! Well, just this little historical tidbit. 


What is Ferdinand Magellan famous for?

Ferdinand Magellan was a highly accomplished Portuguese explorer who, famously, led the very first European Expedition to circumnavigate the globe. But that was not actually the team's intended goal - - they were looking for a Western sea route to the Spice Islands of Indonesia.

Magellan is also the first European considered to have crossed the Pacific Ocean. 

Quite an unexpected result for an otherwise commercial enterprise. This serendipitous outcome from his journey would catapult him into the history books for all time.  

"From Spain he sailed around South America, discovering the Strait of Magellan, and across the Pacific. Though he was killed in the Philippines, his ship the Victoria continued westward to Spain, accomplishing the first circumnavigation of the globe. But in some cases, his journey was filled with more than he would bargain for. Magellan’s story is filled with war, storms, mutiny, and hostile native encounters." - 

For this reason, some have claimed that Magellan should not be recognized as the first European to complete this amazing feat of navigation. After all, he didn't live long enough to complete the voyage. 

"While he successfully led his crew across the Atlantic, through a strait in southern South America and over the vast expanse of the Pacific, he was killed only halfway through the circuit in a skirmish with natives on the Philippine island of Mactan. Magellan’s death meant that he personally failed to circle the world, but his expedition continued on without him." -

But, it should be noted, he did technically complete a round-the-world trip. As he had already made a trip eastward from Europe to the Spice Islands, via the Indian Ocean, and then made his famous westward trip in a separate voyage, it can be claimed that he did cover the entire terrain. 

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It's just he did so in two trips, in two separate directions, rather than a single Point A to Point A expedition. 

Magellan's route
Source: MesserWoland and Petr Dlouhý/Wikimedia Commons

Whatever the case, he was certainly an incredible navigator and worthy of remembrance in the history books. Even if some of the details about him are not, technically speaking, accurate.

Interestingly enough, his slave, Enrique may well have managed the feat after Magellan's death. 

"His slave, Enrique, however, was born in either Cebu or Mallaca and came to Europe with Magellan by ship. Ten years later, he then returned to both Cebu (with Magellan) and Mallaca (after Magellan died) by ship on the armada’s westward route. So Enrique was the first person to circumnavigate the world in one direction, from point A to point A." - 

Who did Ferdinand Magellan sail with?

The late, great, Ferdinand Magellan set sail from Spain in 1519 in search of fame of fortune. But he was not alone in his endeavors. 

Magellan led a fleet of 5 ships, all fully crewed and stocked, to find a much needed Western trade route to the spice rich islands of IndonesiaMagellan would command the lead ship the Trinidad with the four other ships, the San Antonio, the Conception, the Victoria, and the Santiago. completing the fleet.

All told Magellan was accompanied by no less than 270 crew when they set out on their ambitious quest.

But the voyage, like many of the time, would prove dangerous and arduous. Of the five ships that originally set sail, only one, the Victoria, would ever return to Spain to tell their story.

Of the original complement of men, only 18 would survive the rigors of global circumnavigation. But Magellan was not amongst them. 

"Magellan himself was killed in battle on the voyage, but his ambitious expedition proved that the globe could be circled by sea and that the world was much larger than had previously been imagined." -

Who financed Magellan's expedition?

Throughout the 15th Century, spices had become one of the most valuable resources in the world. They were valued for their seasoning and preservative properties for food. 

For this reason, spices like cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and black pepper could fetch a pretty penny on the open market. Many exotic ones could not be cultivated in Europe and so, if someone could open up a direct trade route to the West, they would become very rich indeed.

Countries like Portugal and Spain would lead the charge to find these routes. Around the time of Magellan's famous voyage, Europeans had reached the Spice Islands by sailing east.

magellan's ships
Replica of the type of vessels Magellan and his crew sailed on. Source: Juanmatassi/Wikimedia Commons

But none, at the time, had ever attempted to sail west from Europe to reach the other side of the globe. Magellan was absolutely determined to be the first. 

But he had a small problem - - he needed funds, a lot of them. 

"Magellan approached King Manuel of Portugal to seek his support for a westward voyage to the Spice Islands. The king refused his petition repeatedly. In 1517 a frustrated Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality and relocated to Spain to seek royal support for his venture." - 

Magellan arrived in Seville, Spain in October of 1517 and had no connections there. He also knew very little, if any, Spanish.

He soon met another Portuguese man called Duarte Barbosa. Within the year Magellan had married Barbosa's sister Beatriz and had their first, and only, as it would turn out, child. 

The Barbosa family, it turned out, were very well connected and Magellan soon secured himself an appointment with the King of Spain. 

King Charles V of Spain (the grandchild of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella who funded Columbus' expedition in 1492), looked fondly on Magellan and his proposal. With the promises of enormous wealth for Spain if successful, the 18-year-old King quickly granted Magellan the funds he so desperately needed. 

How did Magellan's crew die?

As we have already seen, Magellan's ambitious expedition would prove very costly in men and materials. The crew would die in various ways over the three-year journey.

Some notable events include: -

- Some crew was probably killed during an attempted mutiny on Easter Day of 1520. 

- Others were lost at sea when the Santiago was shipwrecked while reconnoitering ahead of the main fleet. 

- One ship, the Sant Antonio, was forced to return to Spain when her crew forced the Captain to desert Magellan. This event left only three ships from the original five that left Spain only the year before.

- Magellan and other crew were killed during an ill-advised battle against the Mactan tribe on behalf of another tribe, the Cebu in the Philippine archipelago. He was reportedly hit with a poison dart and died soon afterward.

- After Magellan's death yet another ship was lost at sea leaving only two to reach the Moluccas in November of 1521. Of these two, only 18 crewmembers aboard the Victoria would return to Seville Spain in September of 1522. 

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