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Ferdinand Magellan — the explorer whose daring sea voyage gave the Pacific Ocean its name

Magellan’s controversial journey contributed immensely to geographical studies and helped shape what we know of our world today.

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New Delhi: On 20 September 1519, when a fleet of five ships and crew of 270, under the leadership of Ferdinand Magellan, set sail from Spain on a mission to find a western route to the Moluccas, no one knew that this voyage would change the world.

But today, we know this journey as the one that completed the first circumnavigation of the globe. Today, exactly 500 years after Magellan and his fleet sailed into the pages of history, ThePrint looks back at the man, the journey and their legacy that lives till today.

Who was Ferdinand Magellan?

Fernão de Magalhães, known in English as Ferdinand Magellan, was born in Portugal in 1480 to a family of minor nobility. As a child, he was sent to Lisbon to be a page to Queen Leonor.

During his time in Lisbon, he became acquainted with tales of the rivalry between Portugal and Spain to control the seas and spice trade with the East Indies, which fuelled his interest in naval exploration.

In 1505, he joined the fleet of Portuguese India’s first Viceroy. The aim of this expedition was to reduce Muslim naval strength along the African and Indian coasts, and strengthen Portugal’s presence in the Indian Ocean. Magellan went on to be part of a number of naval missions along the eastern coast of Africa and the western coast of India.

These included Cannanore, now Kannur, on the Malabar Coast, Sofala, off Mozambique, and the Battle of Diu in 1509, in which the Portuguese wrested control of much of the Indian Ocean from the Muslims. Magellan also sustained injuries during many of these battles, such as the siege of Morocco, which left him with a lifelong limp.

Within a few years, Magellan made a name for himself as an experienced and skilled sailor and naval officer. But he had also, according to reports, gained a reputation for misconduct, including taking leave without permission, so his repeated requests for rewards and a higher pension were rejected by King Manuel I. He was also keen to explore a Western route to the Moluccas, another request that was repeatedly denied by the king.

Angry and frustrated that his ambitions kept getting thwarted, Magellan gave up his Portuguese nationality in 1517 and decided to try his luck with Spain.

Also read: How a salt brand named after a British explorer took on the ‘desh ka namak’

What were the Moluccas anyway?

The Moluccas or Malaku Islands were a group of islands in what is today eastern Indonesia. They were  also called the Spice Islands, thanks to the nutmeg, clove and mace that grew on their fertile land.

The presence of these spices had already established a race for control of the region among European colonisers, with Spain and Portugal at the head. Back in 1494, the two countries had signed the Treaty of Tordesillas. According to this treaty, all newly discovered and undiscovered lands east of the line of demarcation (which was about 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands) belonged to Portugal, and everything west of the line belonged to Spain. This meant that to access the Spice Islands, a ship would have to go via the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, and Portugal controlled much of that route.

Magellan, who had, in the meanwhile, become a husband and father, was determined to find a way to the Spice Islands that didn’t involve entering Portuguese territory, and to prove that the islands lay west of the demarcation. This meant a westward journey. The aim was to go via the Atlantic to the Sea of the South via a strait, which Magellan was sure he could find, through South America.

It was something others before him had also suggested, but it hadn’t actually been done. Magellan’s wife, Beatriz Barbosa, belonged to a fairly important family in Seville. They introduced him to a number of naval officers, and soon, he managed to present himself at the king’s court.

He teamed up with Portuguese cosmographer Rui Faleiro and in 1518, their proposal was accepted by the Spanish king, with Magellan and Faleiro appointed co-captains.

But it wasn’t, if you’ll excuse the pun, all smooth sailing. Spanish naval officers objected vehemently to the expedition being led by two Portuguese, and many Portuguese agents, angered by what they saw as Magellan and Faleiro’s disloyalty to their crown, tried to sabotage the expedition before it even set off. Ultimately, the number of Portuguese crew members was limited, Faleiro was removed from the project thanks to the discovery of his mental instability and a Spanish commander was appointed. More infighting was in store, though.

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The journey that changed the world

Finally, after two years of prep, delay and controversy, on 20 September 1519, Magellan and his crew of 270 set sail in a fleet of five — the lead ship, the Trinidad, and four others — the Santiago, the Concepcion, the Victoria and the San Antonio.

Three months later, in December, they arrived in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, and then sailed further south, but did not manage to locate the strait. In March 1520, in Port Saint Julian, Argentina, the Spanish crew rebelled against their Portuguese leader. Magellan managed to control it by executing one of the captains and leaving one on the shore when they left in August.

Two months later, having suffered the wrecking of the Santiago and the desertion of the San Antonio, the remaining fleet finally passed through the elusive strait and sighted the ocean. It had been more than a year since they had begun their voyage.

Thirsty, scurvy-riddled and by now reduced to eating the leather off the ships’ yardarms, the crew crossed the great ocean, and on 6 March 1921, they made their first stop on land, at Guam in the Mariana Islands. This was also where they managed to eat fresh food for the first time in more than three months.

Instead of sailing directly to the Moluccas, Magellan decided to make a detour at what we now call the Philippines. The idea was to acquire more rations for his crew and to forge an alliance for Spain. He was successful, but the decision was to prove fatal for him. In April 1521, a fight broke out with the locals of Mactan Island, and Magellan was killed.

Seven months later, in November, the Trinidad and the Victoria finally managed to reach the Spice Islands. The remaining crew loaded their ships with spices, but the Trinidad, battered and bruised after such a long and hard journey, was found incapable of sailing anymore.

In the end, only the Victoria, led by Juan Sebastian Elcano and with a crew now reduced to less than 20 of its original 270, returned to Spain in September 1522, almost exactly three years after the fleet had left. The king presented Elcano with an addition to his coat of arms — a globe inscribed with the words ‘primus circumdedisti me’ — you were the first to encircle me.

If he didn’t finish the journey, why do we remember him?

In the years immediately after the expedition, Magellan was not celebrated by either the Portuguese or the Spanish. The former, for his perceived disloyalty (although he only did what all explorers of his time did — express allegiance to a king, not a country). And the latter, for wanting to celebrate their own, Elcano, and for reports from survivors of Magellan having been ruthless and harsh, partial to his own family and disloyal to the king.

Many also argue that this journey was not in itself a complete point A to point A circumnavigation — Magellan had already made eastward journeys to the east and now he had made a westward one, and the two combined completed the circumnavigation.

But technicalities aside, his is the name most indelibly linked to the first circumnavigation of the globe, what has been called the most important maritime voyage ever taken and the greatest sea voyage in the Age of Discovery.

His determination, ambition, relentless pursuit of glory and burning desire for knowledge also contributed immensely to geographical studies and helped shape what we know of our world today. This journey also proved to any remaining naysayers that Earth is, in fact, round.

He is responsible for naming the Pacific Ocean — the great ocean that was discovered when the fleet crossed that crucial strait. He named it for the peaceful crossing it gave them. And the strait? We know it as the Strait of Magellan.

In fact, there are many things named after the explorer — a NASA spacecraft, two clouds, a Martian crater, a lunar crater, a bay on Mactan Island and an asteroid are just some of them.

During the course of his expedition, Magellan and his crew also set about the task of conversion to Christianity — in the Philippines, they converted more than 2,000 locals. And finally, by expanding Europe’s knowledge of the Asian world and how to get to it, Magellan and his spirit of exploration also contributed to the rise of European colonialism, the impact of which is still being felt today.

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  1. magellan did not ‘decide’ on a detour onto the philippine islands. prevailing easterlies make it quite difficult to sail directly for the moluccas from the west. these prevailing easterlies, do however head straight for the Philippines.

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