A voyage from hell: how Magellan’s circumnavigation of the world changed history

The first circumnavigation of the globe, which began 500 years ago this month, was blighted by disease, starvation and the brutal death of the expedition’s commander, Ferdinand Magellan. Historian Jerry Brotton salutes an epic feat of human endurance that helped usher in the modern age

A 16th-century map showing Magellan's ship

On 20 September 1519 a fleet of five ships with a crew of 270 men left Sanlúcar on the southern coast of Spain, heading westwards into the Atlantic. At the helm of the flagship, Trinidad, was the fleet’s Portuguese commander, Fernão de Magalhães, better known in the English-speaking world as Ferdinand Magellan.

Though he didn’t know it at the time, Magellan’s tiny fleet was embarking upon a three-year, 43,000-mile odyssey that would end in the first circumnavigation of the world. What Magellan also couldn’t have known as the Trinidad headed for open water was that his epic voyage would put his crew through unimaginable suffering and result in his own death in a pointless skirmish in the Philippines. This truly was a voyage from hell – but also one of the most significant in history.

Magellan, aged around 40, was hardly a stranger to adventure. He had sailed and fought for the Portuguese empire since at least 1505 in locations as diverse as Morocco and Goa. But it was his participation in a battle for the south-east Asian port of Malacca (in modern-day Malaysia) that gave Magellan the idea to embark on his historic voyage.

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