Today in History: Ferdinand Magellan Dies (1521)

History.com

Ferdinand Magellan was a sixteenth century Portuguese noble who fought for Portugal in wars against Muslims in the Indian Ocean region and Morocco. After a falling out with King Manuel of Portugal, Magellan relocated to Spain, where he gained commission from King Charles I (later Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire) to find passage through the Americas to the western ocean.

At the time, no ship had successfully found such a passage. In fact the ‘western oceans’ had not even been named. It would be Magellan’s crew that would name the Pacific Ocean when they reached it in early 1521.

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Magellan’s Fleet after Leaving Spain. Encyclopedia Britannica

In 1517, Magellan offered his services to King Charles I. He proposed that he would sail west, in hopes of finding a strait through the newly founded (to the Europeans anyways) Americas. He then hoped to arrive at the Moluccas, now known as the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. In 1494, the Pope arbitrated a feud between Portugal and Spain by proclaiming that everything east of the line of demarcation belonged to Portugal and everything west belonged to Spain.

Magellan’s trip was done in hopes that the Spice Islands were west, hence in Spain’s sphere of influence. Magellan severely underestimated the size of the Earth however, and when he set out on September 20, 1519 with five ships and 270 men, he had no idea how long and hard his journey would be.

Magellan did find what he was looking for. He discovered what is now known as the Strait of Magellan in October of 1520. It would be a hard-fought journey, as the crew would attempt at least one mutiny in 1520 that would leave one captain dead at Magellan’s hands and another marooned. Once into the newly found strait, it took 38 days for his ships (of which there were only three remaining) to pass through the strait into the Pacific Ocean.

By the time Magellan and his crew reached the Pacific, they were out of food and were eating leather on their uniforms and equipment for sustenance. In March of 1521, Magellan and crew reached Guam, and a few days later landed in the Philippines. The Philippines are only 400 miles from the Spice Islands.

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The Victoria returning to Spain. ArtValue

On April 27, 1521, Magellan was killed in the Philippines after agreeing to help a local chief with a rival tribe on the island of Cebu. Magellan was hit with a poisoned arrow during the fighting, and was abandoned by his former crew and left to die. With only two of the five ships remaining, the crew split up and decided to take spices back to Spain.

The crew achieved Magellan’s goal of finding the Spice Islands in the west. One of the ships would then try to return across the Pacific, while the other would continue west, around Africa and north to Spain. The first was unsuccessful. The second ship, named the Victoria, arrived back in Spain in September 1522, and was the first ship to ever circumnavigate the Earth.

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