Dire straits: Ferdinand Magellan’s fatal voyage of discovery

The renegade Portuguese explorer Ferdinand Magellan masterminded a Spanish expedition that completed the first circuit of Earth, although it cost him his life. Writing for BBC History Revealed, Pat Kinsella tells the tale of a triumph beset by mutiny, malnutrition and disaster

Explorer Ferdinand Magellan

If all had gone to plan during Ferdinand Magellan’s lifedefining expedition, almost no one would know his name now. As it happened, everything went disastrously wrong for the Portuguese sea captain, yet he has gone down in history as the first explorer to circumnavigate the planet, even though he died in the middle of the journey.

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Magellan did, however, become the first European to lead a voyage into the Pacific Ocean – although future sailors would regularly raise alarmed eyebrows at the name he bequeathed to it. The expedition he led (or at least one of the five ships that set out from Spain in 1519) performed the first known complete loop of the globe.

Although Magellan could never have predicted the extraordinary events that would follow, perhaps the thought of reputational immortality would have provided the 41-year-old with a crumb of comfort on 27 April 1521, as he floundered in the shallows of a beach on the island of Mactan in the Philippines, mortally injured and weighed down by his armour. He had been identified as the leader of the invading alien force by the enraged warriors of island chief Lapu-Lapu, and was about to suffer a pointless and wholly avoidable death after his ill-advised show of military might spectacularly backfired.

Magellan’s final moments were frenzied and violent. But if he hadn’t made the fateful decision to lead a small force against a defending army of 1,500 battle-ready men, then perhaps he wouldn’t have been remembered as one of the greatest explorers of his era.

Discovery channel

A child of the Great Age of Discovery, when the Iberian powerhouses of Portugal and Spain were sending ships into the great unknown, expanding European knowledge of the globe in pursuit of spices and treasure, Magellan would end his life in the service of his own country’s greatest rival.

Born into an aristocratic Portuguese family in 1480, Magellan was orphaned as a young boy and at the age of 12 he entered the royal court in Lisbon as a page of Eleanor of Viseu, consort of King John II. Thirteen years later, he enlisted in the fleet of the Portuguese viceroy to the Indies and spent seven years learning the ropes of his future career during action-packed voyages in Asia and Africa.

Magellan was part of the invading force that saw Portugal secure control of the region’s most important trading routes when it conquered Malacca on the Malay Peninsula in 1511, and he may have ventured as far east as the Moluccas (Spice Islands) of modern-day Indonesia. During these adventures he bought a Malay-speaking man, Enrique de Malacca, to be his slave, interpreter and companion – and he remained so on all Magellan’s later voyages.

A painting of a mutiny against Magellan
The crew swear their allegiance to Magellan after an unsuccessful mutiny. For many of them, it would be a hollow oath. (Photo by Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis via Getty Images)

By 1512, Magellan was back in Lisbon with a promising-looking career ahead of him. He soon joined the huge expeditionary force of 500 ships and 15,000 soldiers that John II’s successor, King Manuel I, sent to punish the governor of Morocco for failing to pay his tribute to the Portuguese crown in 1513. It was during a skirmish that he sustained an injury that left him with a lifelong limp. But he was then accused of illegal trading with the Moors, which saw him fall from favour.

A dedicated student of maps and charts, consumed with an urge to explore, Magellan had hatched a plan to pioneer a westward route to the Spice Islands, avoiding the perilous route around the Cape of Good Hope. However, the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas and the expeditions and achievements of explorers such as Vasco da Gama had already granted Portugal full control of the eastwards route around southern Africa, and Manuel was disinterested in Magellan’s ideas.

This snub left the ambitious and capable captain dangerously disaffected – a blessing for the Spanish, who were desperately seeking an alternative way of accessing the riches of India and the Far East. In 1517, Magellan decamped to Seville in Spain, where he quickly married the daughter of another Portuguese exile, had two children and began bending the ear of Charles I about a western route to the Spice Islands.

The 18-year-old Spanish king – grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had commissioned the adventures of Columbus – was desperate to make his mark and smash the dominance his Iberian rivals had over the enormously lucrative spice trade. He seized the potential opportunity to bypass Africa, while avoiding breaking the terms of the treaty with the powerful Portuguese, and commissioned Magellan to undertake the expeditionary mission he had been itching to pursue.

Of course, Magellan wasn’t the first European explorer to sail west in search of a backdoor route to the treasures of the Orient. Columbus had ventured that way across the Atlantic looking for the East Indies in 1492, before bumping into the Bahamas instead, while John Cabot (aka Giovanni Caboto), a Venetian captain commissioned by Henry VII of England, had sailed from Bristol to Newfoundland in 1497.

Unlike Columbus – who made a further three journeys across the western ocean, but died in denial that he was actually exploring a totally new continent – the Spanish soon realised this was a different land mass (the Americas). While this revelation would ultimately return riches beyond their wildest dreams in terms of gold, Magellan’s focus was on how to get past this ‘New World’ in order to reach the Spice Islands beyond.

No European had sailed around Cape Horn – or indeed even laid eyes on it – but a Spanish adventurer named Vasco Núñez de Balboa had discovered the ocean beyond the New World in 1513, by traversing the Isthmus of Panama. Magellan, a visionary who was working with the most advanced cartographers and cosmographers of the era, was convinced there was a way of getting around the Americas.

Westward ho

In September 1519, Magellan led five vessels, manned by a multinational, 270-strong crew, into the Atlantic – his flagship the Trinidad, plus the Santiago, San Antonio, Concepción and Victoria. Word of his mission reached Manuel I, who jealously dispatched a Portuguese naval detachment to follow the expedition, but Magellan outran them.

But he couldn’t escape all his enemies so easily, especially as some were among his own men. Many of the Spanish sailors in the expeditionary party were suspicious of their Portuguese commander. Some of his crew were criminals released from prison in return for undertaking the dangerous voyage. Others joined just because they were avoiding creditors.

Many of the Spanish sailors were suspicious of their commander

The fleet was hit by a storm, which caused a delay and resulted in food rationing. Here, Juan de Cartagena – who had been appointed captain of the largest ship, the San Antonio, because of his good connections, despite being green in the business of exploration and an inexperienced seaman – began openly criticising Magellan’s competence and refusing to salute his captain-general. Magellan had Cartagena arrested, relieved of his command and imprisoned in the brig of the Victoria until they reached South America. The incident was a precursor to the much more dramatic and bloody events to come.

In December, the expedition reached South America and made landfall in Rio de Janeiro. For two weeks they interacted with indigenous people, trading trinkets for food and sexual favours, before the fleet sailed south, scouring the coastline in search of an opening. They spent fruitless weeks exploring the estuary of Río de la Plata for this elusive passage, before freezing conditions forced the party to seek shelter for the winter in Port St Julian in Patagonia.

Morale was already plummeting when, in April 1520, Cartagena made his move. He escaped Victoria, reboarded the San Antonio, and begun fermenting trouble and securing support from the Spanish crew and officers, playing on bad blood about Magellan’s Portuguese nationality.

In the mutiny that followed, the San Antonio was declared independent of Magellan’s command. The captains of the Concepción and the Victoria (Gaspar de Quesada and Luiz Mendoza) joined them, as did the Victoria’s pilot Juan Sebastián Elcano, and many of the officers and crew. A letter was sent to Magellan on the Trinidad, demanding he acknowledge that the fleet was no longer under his command.

Magellan sent his reply in the hands of an assassin

Magellan coolly sent his reply back in the hands of an assassin. After coming alongside the Victoria in a small boat, while pretending to hand over the letter to Mendoza, the man fatally stabbed the errant captain instead. Simultaneously, crew loyal to Magellan stormed aboard the ship and attacked the mutineers, who were overcome.

The rebels maintained control of the San Antonio and Concepción, with Cartagena having boarded the latter prior to the fighting breaking out. Magellan positioned the three ships he had at his disposal across the mouth of the bay, and prepared for combat.

During the night, heavy winds caused San Antonio to drag its anchor and drift towards the Trinidad. Magellan met the oncoming ship with a cannon broadside, causing the mutineers aboard the stricken carrack to surrender. Conceding defeat, Cartagena followed suit and gave up the Concepción without resistance the following morning.

Having quelled the revolt, Magellan immediately sentenced 30 men to death, but then (mindful of his threadbare resources) commuted their punishment to hard labour. The leaders of the mutiny weren’t so lucky. Quesada was beheaded for treason, and both his body and that of Mendoza’s were mutilated and put on sticks. Too fearful of Cartagena’s connections to order him executed, Magellan instead left him marooned with Padre Sánchez de la Reina, a priest who’d supported the mutineers. They were never heard of again.

The real deal

The scientific and cartographic legacy of Magellan’s expedition was huge. To plan his expedition, the explorer partnered with cosmographer Rui Faleiro, a pioneer in determining latitude and longitude, and Portuguese cartographers Jorge Reinel and Diogo Ribeiro, who developed maps for the journey. Yet no one could have prepared Magellan for the crushing magnitude of the previously unexplored Pacific Ocean, which the men thought they would cross in a few days. Instead it took them more than three months, meaning they were woefully undersupplied and suffered terribly with scurvy. Ribeiro used data from Magellan’s expedition to make improvements and updates to the first scientific world map, the Padrón Real.

Back on course

In July, Magellan dispatched the Santiago to scout ahead for the elusive passage. She discovered the Rio de Santa Cruz in what is now Argentina, but sank in a storm while trying to make the return journey. Remarkably, the crew survived, and two men trekked overland for 11 days to alert Magellan, who mounted a rescue mission.

In October, the entire fleet set off, and Magellan at last sighted the strait that now bears his name, a route between the tip of mainland South America and the Tierra del Fuego archipelago. However, conditions continued to be rough, and when the fleet split to explore either side of an island, the crew of the San Antonio forced their captain to desert and return to Spain (where they spread scurrilous rumours about Magellan’s brutality to avoid punishment).

While the main fleet waited in vain for the San Antonio, Gonzalo de Espinosa led an advance party along the strait, returning after six days with news that made Magellan weep with joy: they’d sighted open ocean. On 28 November, the expedition emerged into an ocean that seemed so relatively benign on the day, Magellan named it Mar Pacifico, or Peaceful Sea.

The true nature and enormity of the Pacific was soon revealed to the explorer, however. !e fleet left the coast of Chile to sail across the new-found ocean, a journey Magellan expected to last four days, but which took almost four months. The fleet was woefully underprepared and the sailors savaged by scurvy and thirst, many dying.

Magellan crossed the equator in February 1521 and reached the Pacific island of Guam in March, where the fleet replenished its exhausted supplies. Not long afterwards they finally arrived at the Philippine archipelago. This, though, was just the beginning of Magellan’s real troubles; his erstwhile planning and leadership came dramatically undone when he needlessly embroiled himself in a dispute between two local chiefs.

In the Philippines, Magellan communicated with local rajahs through his Malay slave, Enrique. At the evangelical explorer’s behest, a number of island chiefs – including Cebu’s Rajah Humabon – converted to Christianity.

In return for his soul, however, Humabon sought Magellan’s support in a disagreement with a neighbour, Lapu- Lapu, a chief on Mactan Island, who had already irked the explorer by declining to convert or bow to the Spanish crown.

On 27 April 1521, 60 heavily armed Europeans accompanied a fleet of Filipino boats to Mactan, where Lapu- Lapu again refused to recognise the authority of Humabon or the Spanish. Facing 1,500 warriors, Magellan – confident in the shock-and-awe capability of his superior weaponry, which included guns, crossbows, swords and axes – instructed Humabon to hang back, while he waded ashore with an attack party of 49 men.

They torched several houses in an attempt to scare the islanders, but this only served to whip Lapu-Lapu’s warriors into a battle rage. In the resulting beachfront mêlée, where the Europeans were weighed down by their armour, Magellan was identified and injured by a bamboo spear thrust. Felled, he was then surrounded and killed, along with several others. With their captain dead, the survivors retreated to the boats.

After the battle, when the Europeans refused to release Enrique (despite Magellan’s orders to do so in the event of his death), Humabon turned against the Spanish. Several were poisoned during a feast, including Duarte Barbosa and João Serrão, who had assumed leadership of the expedition following the demise of Magellan.

Rounding the circle

João Carvalho took command of the fleet and ordered an immediate departure. By this time, however, too few men remained to crew the three ships. The Concepción was burnt, and the two remaining vessels made for Brunei, indulging in a spot of piracy en route, and attacking a junk bound for China. Espinosa then replaced Carvalho as leader, as well as being captain of the Trinidad, while Elcano was made the captain of the Victoria.

In November, the expedition finally reached the Spice Islands and managed to trade with the Sultan of Tidore. Loaded with cloves, they attempted to return home by sailing west across the Indian Ocean – which had never been Magellan’s intention – until the Trinidad started leaking. The wounded ship stopped for repairs, and eventually tried to return via the Pacific, but was captured by the Portuguese and subsequently sank.

Meanwhile, under the captaincy of Elcano, the Victoria continued across the Indian Ocean, eventually limping around the Cape of Good Hope in May. Tragically, 20 men starved on the last leg along the Atlantic coast of Africa, and another 13 were abandoned on Cape Verde – Elcano had put into port to resupply, but the Portuguese there caught on that they were part of a Spanish expedition; fearing for his cargo, Elcano fled.

On 6 September 1522, after three years’ absence, Victoria arrived in Spain, becoming the first ship to have sailed around the planet. Only 18 of Magellan’s original 270-man crew arrived with her. Though ultimately successful in finding a western passage that opened up the Pacific and the west coast of the Americas, the Strait of Magellan proved too far south to be a viable trade route to the Orient, which intensified the search for the elusive Northwest Passage from the mid-16th century.

Although Magellan didn’t make it home, he did complete a full circumnavigation of the globe (Philippines to Philippines, albeit in two chunks separated by several years), a feat probably matched by his Malaysian slave Enrique. But the first European to definitively do so in a single voyage was the man who captained Victoria on her final leg – the mutineer Elcano.

Drake’s fortune

The next European to complete a circumnavigation of the globe was the English sea captain and privateer Francis Drake. During his second expedition (1577–1580), Drake also sailed west, returning into Plymouth with the Golden Hind on 26 September 1580, laden with spices and Spanish bounty, winning himself a knighthood.

Pat Kinsella specialises in adventure journalism as a writer, photographer and editor.

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This article was first published in the September 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed