Ferdinand Magellan

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Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan.

Ferdinand Magellan (Portuguese name Fernão de Magalhães, 1480- 27 April 1521) was a Portuguese explorer who led the Spanish-commissioned expedition to the islands of Southeast Asia or “East Indies” with the fleet known as the Armada de Molucca , resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth that was completed by one of his crews, Juan Sebastian Elcano.

Early Life

Magellan was born in Portugal in 1480 to parents of minor Portuguese nobility. After their deaths, he became a page to Queen Leonor, consort of King John II of Portugal, at age 10. He studied at Queen Leonora’s School of Pages in Lisbon. Among his favorite subjects were cartography, astronomy, and celestial navigation1.

While at the court, he was exposed to stories of Portuguese and Spanish rivalry for sea exploration and spice trade2. He was intrigued and developed and interest in maritime discovery.

As an Explorer and Navigator

In early 1505, Magellan enlisted in the first viceroy of Portuguese India—the fleet of Francisco de Almeida. It was sent by King Manuel, King John II's successor, to check Muslim sea power along the African and Indian coasts and to establish a Portuguese presence in the Indian Ocean. He participated in several expeditions in India and Africa for seven years and became wounded in several battles.

In November 1506, Magellan sailed with Nuno Vaz Pereira to Sofala on the Mozambique coast, where the Portuguese had established a fort.3 Magellan was back in India in 1507. On 2 to 3 February 1509, he was part of the Portuguese fleet who defeated a Muslim fleet in the great Battle of Diu. The former gained supremacy over most of the Indian Ocean.

He reached Cochin (Kochi, India) in the fleet of Diogo Lopes de Sequeira and left for the Malacca (Melaka, Malaysia). He was sent to warn the commander of the Portuguese ships in Malacca of the impending attack by Malays. He saved his close friend, Portuguese explorer Francisco Serrão. His attempt to return to Portugal afterward was unsuccessful.

On 10 October 1510, in a council to decide on plans for retaking Goa, Magellan advised against taking large ships at that season. However, Portuguese governor in India Afonso de Albuquerque did so and the city fell to the Portuguese on 24 November.

In 1511, Magellan and his friend Francisco Serrao joined Albuquerque's fleet of 18 ships to leave Goa to conquer Malacca. After four months, the Malacca sultanate fell in their hands. This was considered the crowning Portuguese victory in the Orient as they were able to hold the key to the seas and ports of Malaysia.

In early December 1511, they sailed and reached Banda and returned with spice in 1512. By mid-1513, Magellan was back in Lisbon, Portugal with a Malay—Enrique of Malacca—whom he had indentured and baptized. He then joined the forces sent against the Moroccan stronghold of Azamor. He was seriously wounded in a skirmish which left him with a limp for the rest of his life.

He returned to Lisbon in November 1514 and asked King Manuel for a token increase in his pension as a reward. However, reports of Magellan’s irregular conduct reached the King, such as accusations that he had sold a portion of the war spoils back to the enemy. The king refused Magellan’s request and ordered him back to Morocco. In early 1516, Magellan renewed his request but the King refused and told him to offer his services elsewhere.

Service and Allegiance to Spain

On 20 October 1517, he went to Spain and reached Sevilla (Seville). In December, Portuguese cosmographer Rui Faleiro joined him. Together, they journeyed to the court at Valladolid and offered their services to King Charles I (Holy Roman emperor Charles V). Bearing the Portuguese name Fernão de Magalhães, he became known by the Spanish version of his name—Fernando de Magallanes.

By the Treaty of Tordesillas in 1494, all newly discovered and undiscovered territories east of a line of demarcation were assigned to Portugal and all that lay west belonged to Spain. Magellan and Faleiro proposed to sail west to prove that the Spice Islands lay west of the line of demarcation. Magellan was convinced that he would lead his ships to the “Sea of the South” through Tierra Firme, thus avoiding the African Cape of Good Hope, which was controlled by the Portuguese.

On 22 March 1518, Magellan and Faleiro’s proposal received royal assent and they were appointed joint captains general of an expedition directed to seek an all-Spanish route to the Moluccas. Any lands discovered were to be vested and governed by them and their heirs. They were also to receive one-twentieth share of the net profits from the venture. The two were also invested with a Spanish military-religious knighthood, the Order of Santiago.

The Spanish seafaring community was not in favor of the Portuguese-led expedition and hindered its proper organization. Agents of the Portuguese crown also made an unsuccessful attempt to wreck the project. The number of Portuguese sailors assigned to the expedition was strictly limited and conflicts between the Portuguese and Spanish officers on board led to severe discipline problems.

Five ships, prepared in Sevilla, were furnished for the expedition. The Trinidad, Magellan’s flagship, had the San Antonio, the Concepción, the Victoria, and the Santiago as consorts. They were old ones and not in the best condition. Nevertheless, Magellan said farewell to his wife Beatriz Barbosa and infant son Rodrigo before the ships left on 20 September 1519.

Strait of Magellan

The fleet sailed from Sanlúcar de Barrameda and crossed the Atlantic Ocean. A little more than a month later, they reached South America. Their ships sailed southward and stopped at Port San Julian where the crew mutinied on Easter Day in 1520. Magellan stopped the uprising, executed one of the captains, and left another mutinous captain behind.

Magellan sent Santiago to explore the route ahead but was shipwrecked after a terrible storm. The crew members of the ship were rescued and assigned among the remaining ships. When seasonal storms subsided five months later, the fleet left Port San Julian.

On 21 October 1520, Magellan entered the strait that he had been seeking. The voyage through the Strait of Magellan was dangerous and the sailors continued to mistrust their leader. The crew of San Antonio forced its captain to desert and go back to Spain. Only three of the original five ships remained in the fleet.

Circumnavigating the Globe

On 28 November 1520, the Trinidad, Concepción, and Victoria entered the “Sea of the South”. The crew faced thirst and hunger—from feeding on rat-fouled biscuits to eating the leather off the yardarms—but through the determination of Magellan, they crossed the Pacific.

The remaining armada emerged and were the first known Europeans to see the great ocean. Magellan named it Mar Pacifico (the Pacific Ocean) for its apparent peacefulness.

It took three months for the fleet to make its way slowly across Mar Pacifico. The fleet reached the Pacific Island of Guam in March 1521 and replenished their food stores. The fleet sailed on to the Philippine archipelago and landed on an uninhabited island of Homonhon on 17 March 1521. After repleneshing, they came near the island of Limasawa and met some locals whom they befriended. After landing on the island they held the very first Catholic Mass in the Philippines, converting the locals to Christianity. On the island's highest hill, Magellan raised a cross and declared the entire archipelago under the possession of Spain, naming it the Islands of St. Lazarus.

Magellan pushed further and reached the island of Cebu, where he also befriended the locals and converted others, including some chieftains, to Christianity. Magellan learned that a group in the island of Mactan led by Lapulapu resisted the conversion. Confident of a swift victory with his European weapons, he himself led the attack against the Lapulapu's forces in what is known as the Battle of Mactan. The Mactanese fought fiercely and was able to defeat the outnumbered Europeans on 27 April 1521, eventually killing Magellan with a poison arrow.

The surviving men left the archipelago with the remaining two ships, reaching Moluccas on 5 November 1521. However, only the Victoria completed the voyage around the world, arriving in Spain in September 1522. It brought with it a heavy cargo of spices but with only 18 men from the original crew including Antonio Pigafetta. Pigafetta’s journal contained the key record of what the crew encountered on their journey home.


Magellan’s expedition expanded the European geographic knowledge. Other than finding a massive ocean, he discovered that the earth was not flat and that it was much larger than previously thought.

He is credited with the first circumnavigation on the globe. He did so on a technicality and not in a strict point A to point A. He made it in two different directions: Europe to Spice Islands, eastward via the Indian Ocean and westward voyage that brought him to the Philippines.

Although Magellan was undoubtedly one of the most skilled sailors of the great age of European maritime discoveries, Portuguese historians tended not to grant him the credit given to other eminent Portuguese navigators because he sailed in the service of the King of Spain. However, he only did what’s best and possible, that is to look for support elsewhere for lack of support under the sponsorship of their own country.

The account on Magellan’s life and the extreme difficulty of his travels—recorded by Antonio Pigafetta—appeared in the 16th century. Later biographers have portrayed Magellan as a symbol of the human capacity to succeed against all odds and also likened his voyage through unknown waters to the first explorations of space.



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  • “Ferdinand Magellan Biography.” Biography. https://www.biography.com/explorer/ferdinand-magellan Accessed 8 January 2020
  • “Ferdinand Magellan.” History. https://www.history.com/topics/exploration/ferdinand-magellan Accessed 8 January 2020
  • “Ferdinand Magellan.” Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ferdinand-Magellan Accessed 8 January 2020