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Ferdinand Magellan

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Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480 - 27 April 1521) was a Portuguese navigator and explorer who at the service of Spain commanded the first expedition to circumnavigate the world.

Life in Portugal

A member of a family of the minor nobility, Ferdinand Magellan was the son of Rui de Magalhães and Alda de Mesquita. His exact birthplace is unknown: among the hypotheses are Sabrosa, Oporto or Ponte da Barca, all located in northern Portugal. At the age of 12 Magellan became a page at the court of Queen Leonor, wife to King John II of Portugal.

In 1505, at the age of twenty-five, Magellan became a member of Francisco de Almeida's expedition whose goal was to break Muslim control of trade in the Indian Ocean and established the Portuguese viceroyalty of India. In November of the following year he took part in an expedition to Sofala and Kilwa, on the east coast of Africa, commanded by Nuno Vaz Pereira. In 1509 Magellan joined Diogo Lopes de Sequeira's effort to reconnoiter the city of Malacca, at the southwest of the Malay Peninsula, the point where goods from India, China and Indonesia came together. During the expedtion he saved the life of his friend Francisco Serrão from a surprise attack by the forces of the sultan.

Two years later, Magellan participated in Afonso de Albuquerque’s capture of Malacca. On that same year, he may have joined a fleet sent by Albuquerque from Malacca to investigate the route to the Moluccas that was commanded by António de Abreu. At that time the Moluccas occupied a central role in the spice trade as the rich soil of the islands produced large quantities of cloves, nutmeg and pepper and were for these reasons known as the “Spice Islands”. Magellan’s friend Francisco Serrão was the commander of one of the ships of the fleet and established a Portuguese trading post in one of the Spice Islands, Ternate.

Back at Portugal in 1513, Magellan enlisted in the military campaign that captured Azamor in Morocco, where he was wounded, becoming lame for the rest of his life. He returned to Lisbon in November 1514 and asked King Manuel I to reward him for his services to the crown in India and Morocco. However, because of slanderous reports of Magellan's misconduct in Morocco, the king sent him back to Azamor. After he proved the accusations to be false, he returned to Portugal and renewed his request. Once again the king refused. Disgruntled, Magellan left the court and went to live in Oporto, before moving to Spain.


The project

Ferdinand Magellan arrived at Seville on 20 October 1517. On that city he received the help of another Portuguese, Diogo Barbosa, warden of the castle of the city, whose daughter, Beatriz Barbosa, he married. In December of the same year, one of Magellan’s associates, the cosmographer Rui Faleiro, arrived from Portugal and then they left for Valladolid to present to King Charles I (later Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) their project of reaching the Moluccas by the west.

The political context of the epoch was marked by the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas, which established that all new lands discovered east of a demarcation line (370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands) were allocated to Portugal and all west of that line to Spain. At that time it was not known at which side the Moluccas were located, but Magellan and Faleiro believed that it was on the Spanish hemisphere, based on the letters Magellan received from Francisco Serrão. They also believed that the Moluccas were not that far from the american continent. Based on these premisses, Magellan wanted to prove that he could reach the Moluccas sailing westwards, passing through a strait believed to exist in South America, thus avoiding navigating in waters controlled by the Portuguese. This would allow Spain to gain acess to the Moluccas and its lucrative spice trade.

Royal consent to the project was given on 22 March 1518. Under the agreement, the king granted to Magellan and Faleiro, nominated as captains of the expedition, five vessels with provisions for two years. Magellan and Faleiro were also nominated governors of any new lands found during the voyage and were to received one-twentieth of the profits.

Preparations for the expedition took more than a year and were marked by the discharge of Rui Faleiro on July 1519, judge by the king to have an irascible temperament not suitable for the expedition. There were also attempts from Portuguese agents to turn the mostly Spanish members of the crew against Magellan, resorting to the fact that he was from Portugal, Spain’s enemy.

The five ships of the fleet were bought at Cadiz and taken to Seville, where they were prepared for their long voyage under the supervision of Magellan. They were the flagship Trinidad (100 tons), the San Antonio (120 tons) , the Concepción (90 tons), the Victoria (85 tons) and the Santiago (75 tons), commanded by Magellan, Juan de Cartagena, Gaspar de Quesada, Luis de Mendonza and João Serrano, respectively.

Atlantic leg

Magellan’s fleet and its crew of around 270 men left Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 20 September 1519. After a stop on Tenerife (one of the Canary Islands) on 26 September, the voyage headed along the West Coast of Africa. South of the Cape Verde Islands the ships turned west, beginning the crossing of the Atlantic Ocean. During the crossing, Juan de Cartagena turned against Magellan, who ordered his detention. Command of his ship, the San Antonio, was given to António de Coca.

On 13 December the expedition reached the Bay of Guanabara in present-day Rio de Janeiro, where they remained for the next two weeks. Before the journey continued, Magellan nominated Álvaro de Mesquita as new captain of the San António. On 10 January 1520 the fleet explored the estuary of the Plata River, hoping to find the passage through South America.

On 31 March the expedition anchored on the harbour of Saint Julian (southeast coast of the modern nation of Argentina), where Magellan wanted to spend the winter season. On the night of 1 to 2 of April, a mutiny broke: Gaspar de Quesada, Juan de Cartagena and around 30 men invaded the San Antonio, making Álvaro de Mesquita a prisoner. Quesada took the ship while Cartagena gained control of the Concepción. Magellan managed to control the mutiny, attacking Luis de Mendonza who had also joined the rebels. Quesada and Mendonza were executed and Cartagena abandoned on a beach. The voyage resumed on 24 August. Near the mouth of the Santa Cruz, while trying to find the passage trough the continent, the Santiago wrecked.

On 21 October 1520 the fleet sighted a cape and with it the entrance to the strait that today bears his name. Because that day coincided with the feast day of Saint Ursula of the 11, 000 Virgins, the cape was named Cape Virgines. The journey through the strait, named by Magellan as Canal de Todos Los Santos (All Saints Channel) took 38 days; while in the strait the San Antonio deserted the fleet and returned to Spain. The final end of the strait was reached on 28 November 1520, as the ships entered an ocean that Magellan named Pacific for its calmness, sailing along the coast of Chile until 18 December.

Crossing the Pacific

The exact route of the fleet through the Pacific is not known. Done under extreme circunstances due to the shortage of provisions, the mariners were even forced to eat rats, sawdust and leather from the yardarms. Finally, on March 6 1521, the three ships arrived at the island of Guam, in the Marianas, where they obtained fresh provisions. Because the natives were stealing anything they could from their boats, Magellan gave the name “Islands of Thieves” to the archipelago.

Ten days later, the fleet reached the island of Samar in the Archipelago of San Lazaro, today known as the Philippines, and then proceeded to the island of Cebu. Magellan decided to stay on the Philippines for a while, repairing the ships in order to reach the Moluccas located to the south. He managed to convert some of the inhabitants of Cebu to Christianity, including the local ruler, who he decided to join on a military campaign against the neighbouring island of Mactan. He was there killed by the poisoned arrows of the natives on 27 April 1521.

After the death of Magellan, Duarte Barbosa (Magellan’s brother-in-law) and João Serrão (probably a brother of Francisco Serrão) were chosen as new leaders of the expedition, but they soon died in an attack by the natives on the island of Cebu. Without a clear route, the three ships left that island; since more than half of the members of the expedition had died, the Concepción was burned on the nearby island of Bohol. After a stay on Borneo (9 July-27 September), the new commander of the expedition, Juan Sebastián Elcano, managed to take the two remaining ships to Tidore, in the Moluccas, by 6-7 November 1521.

At Tidore they learned that Francisco Serrão had died and that a Portuguese fleet had been looking for them for over a year in order to arrested them. Promptly, Elcano managed to load the ship with spices (mainly clove). However, the ship Trinidad was leaky and needed to be repaired. Led by Elcano 53 men left on the Victoria on 21 December, while the others decided to stay at Tidore to repair the Trinidad. Weeks later, the Trinidad tried to sail eastwards to the Americas, but was forced to return to the Moluccas, where it was captured by the Portuguese. Its men were held as prisoners for several years.

On its return voyage the Victoria sailed the south of the Indian Ocean to avoid contact with Portuguese ships. On early May 1522 the ship rounded, with great difficulty, the Cape of Good Hope. A stopover was made at the island of Santiago (at the Cape Verde archipelago) on 9 July 1522, where the Portuguese authorities arrested 13 mariners. Only 18 men arrived at Sanlúcar de Barrameda on 6 September 1522.