Ferdinand Magellan & The First Voyage Around the World

During the Age of Exploration, one task was particularly noteworthy: the circumnavigation of Earth. Discover the life of Ferdinand Magellan and the first voyage around the world.

Mar 27, 2024By Francisco Perpuli, BA History (in progress)
ferdinand magellan voyage


The Age of Exploration saw the achievement of incredible feats with the voyages of European expeditions. Perhaps the most famous of them all is the arrival of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, but many other expeditions are equally groundbreaking. Besides making contact with a “new continent,” the circumnavigation of the Earth was seen as an enormous feat. With Columbus’ travels and following expeditions by other explorers, the circumnavigation of the world was believed possible, but who would be first? Europe’s major powers put their efforts into completing the task, but one expedition, led by Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer serving the Spanish crown, would ultimately be successful: the Magellan expedition.


Magellan’s Early Life & First Travels

magellan ship victoria
Theatro del’orbe de la terra by Abraham Ortelius, 1612. Source: Encyclopedia Britannica


Magellan was born in the north of Portugal in 1480. His family was of noble origin and enjoyed a minor presence yet sufficient status among the higher classes of the Kingdom of Portugal. His father, Rui Magellan, was the mayor of a small town. Ferdinand served as a page to Queen Eleanor, consort of John II of the Portuguese crown. After the death of John, Magellan served under Manuel I. When Magellan was 25, he joined a Portuguese expedition to India, where they would establish Francisco de Almeida as the first viceroy of Portuguese India. Magellan stayed in India for almost a decade; then, he traveled to Malacca, where, in 1511, the Portuguese conquered the city under the governor Alfonso de Albuquerque.


Magellan received great riches and promotions from his participation in the conquest of Malacca. He received a slave, baptized under the name Enrique of Malacca, who would join Magellan through many of his travels and endeavors. Magellan’s behavior became increasingly rebellious and not in tune with the Portuguese authorities’ expectations. He took leave without permission, was accused of illegally trading in Morocco, and even quarreled with the Portuguese King Manuel I.


Magellan dedicated himself to studying the most recent nautical charts available to him. He investigated, alongside cosmographer Rui Faleiro, the possibility of reaching the Moluccas through a gateway from the Atlantic to the South Pacific in the Americas. While in Malacca, Magellan befriended the navigator Francisco Serrao, who reached and stayed in the Spice Islands (the Moluccas). His letters to Magellan would prove very useful for his consequent travels to the Islands.


Magellan the Spanish Explorer: Pledging Loyalty to the Opposing Crown

cantino planisphere portugal
Cantino Planisphere by Unknown, 1502. Source: Biblioteca Estense Universitaria

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When Magellan fell out of favor with the Portuguese King, he turned to the Spanish crown. Magellan had been refused time and time again an expedition made possible by the Portuguese crown. King Manuel I disapproved of Magellan’s planned expedition. Thus, Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality and proposed his travel expedition to King Charles I of Spain (Charles V as Holy Roman Emperor).


At the time of Magellan’s proposed expedition, Spain was at the start of its expansion into other continents, mainly the Americas, which would be decisive for the Spanish to consolidate their empire.


Portugal had a similar situation. The Portuguese Empire had explored most of the coasts of Africa, reached the Indies through said passage, and established colonies all throughout Africa and Asia.


However, both Iberian empires had become rivals whose differences were often solved only through external intervention. The Treaty of Tordesillas of 1494 established a division of lands outside of Europe between Spain and Portugal. The treaty was largely left unsettled, but in 1529, the Treaty of Zaragoza clarified and formalized the divisions. Before its formalization, however, Magellan and his fleet would achieve the first circumnavigation of the Earth, arguably abusing the agreement set in the Tordesillas treaty.


Magellan convinced the Spanish king that his expedition would not be opposed to the agreement between Spain and Portugal; thus, he was allowed to sail. King Manuel I was greatly insulted by Magellan’s expedition and work under the Spanish crown. The preparations of the Spanish fleet were disrupted by the Portuguese, and a fleet was sent after Magellan, though it failed to capture him.


Expedition through the Atlantic & Reaching the Americas

mapamundi diego ribero
Mapamundi by Diego Ribero, 1529. Source: Bibliothèque nationale de France (BnF)


Magellan and his fleet left Spain from the port of Seville in 1519. The fleet traveled through the Guadalquivir River until they reached the Atlantic through the port of Sanlucar de Barrameda. The fleet remained in place for weeks, going back and forth from Seville to solve unforeseen difficulties. More than a month later, they departed. The fleet reached the Canary Islands, then passed next to Cape Verde and the coasts of Sierra Leone. Four months went by before the fleet reached the coasts of the Americas.


In December 1519, Magellan and his fleet touched land in what is now Rio de Janeiro. They traveled through the estuary of the Rio de la Plata River, then reached and named the region of Patagonia. In Patagonia, the Spaniards met local Indigenous people for the first time. After making contact and trading with them, the Spanish kidnapped some to bring them back for the king. Unfortunately, the kidnapped Indigenous people didn’t survive.


In March 1520, the fleet found itself in harsh conditions. They took refuge in the port of San Julian, but after considering the expedition had failed, some of the crew attempted to overthrow Magellan as their leader. The insurrection ultimately failed; the leaders of the unsatisfied crew were killed or banished, and Magellan forgave the rest as he needed them to continue. Later, the crew of one of the five ships, San Antonio, once again rose against Magellan and turned back for Spain.


The Strait of Magellan & the Voyage in the Pacific

strait of magellan map
Map of Strait of Magellan by Jodocus Hondius, 1606. Source: Wikimedia Commons


After facing difficulties finding a passage to the Pacific Ocean (known to them as Mar del Sur), the fleet reached the Strait of Magellan. Magellan originally named it the Strait of All Saints (estrecho de Todos los Santos), but the strait gained its name in honor of Magellan and his expedition, having been the first European explorer to find the strait.


Known to be a harsh place, the Strait of Magellan was challenging to pass through. The Spaniards saw bonfires lit by the natives and thus named the territory “Tierra del Fuego” (Land of Fire). Indigenous people lived or had reached as far down as Antarctica. The ocean known to them as Mar del Sur was then baptized the Pacific Ocean for its tranquil waters. For three months, after passing through the strait, the fleet was unable to reach land and disembark. The conditions aboard were challenging, to say the least.


The difficulties during the voyage in the Pacific decreased once the fleet reached the Mariana Islands. The state of the fleet was in tatters, having barely survived over three months without touching land. They then reached the Philippines, becoming the first Europeans to do so. Magellan and his fleet carried out the conversion of the local islanders to Catholicism. Magellan won over the locals by proving his strength and urging them to convert so that they could become like them. Thus, the fleet remained in the region before continuing to the Moluccas.


The Battle of Mactan, Magellan’s Death, & the First Circumnavigation of the World

battle of mactan mural
Lapu-Lapu shrine by Unknown, c. 2008. Source: Wikimedia Commons


In the Philippines, the locals were manipulated into converting to Catholicism, but when attempting to form an alliance with one chieftain, Magellan proposed to battle an opposing leader to win over his potential ally. Magellan and his fleet went to the Island of Mactan to fight, convert, and make the chieftain Lapulapu submit to the Spanish crown. The battle was a decisive defeat for the Spanish, who were unprepared and outnumbered. Magellan himself was killed during combat. After Magellan’s death, the expedition under his command had to choose a new leader.


The expedition chose Magellan’s brother-in-law and Juan Serrano as co-commanders, but their leadership would be short-lived. On the first of May, the Spanish disembarked to join the Cebuanos for a feast, yet once the meal was finished, they were surprised and murdered by the Cebuanos. The Spaniards had been betrayed by Magellan’s slave Enrique, who was supposed to be freed after his master’s death but was forced to continue working as an interpreter for them. Enrique made a deal with the island’s leader, Humabon, in order to regain his freedom.


portrait of ferdinand magellan
Retrato de Fernando de Magellanes Descriptio by Unknown, 1562. Source: Museo Naval de Madrid


With both co-commanders murdered, Juan Lopez de Carvalho was named captain. The fleet chose to continue with just two ships: Trinidad and Victoria. Carvalho was deemed unable to command, and Gonzalo Gomez de Espinosa was chosen as the new captain, leading the ship Trinidad. Meanwhile, Juan Sebastian Elcano was to captain the ship Victoria. When the fleet reached the Moluccas, it was decided that they should leave for Spain at once, yet the Trinidad was in no shape for that sort of travel, so only the Victoria would continue, and the Trinidad would follow later. Elcano and his ship circumnavigated the African continent for their return, and in September 1522, they reached Spain, completing the first circumnavigation of the world.

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By Francisco PerpuliBA History (in progress)Francisco is completing a History degree at the University of Guadalajara. He has a keen interest in the study of culture and the arts. In his spare time, he tries to explore and develop other interests while saving up to travel the world.