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.

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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.

Magellan believed he could reach the east much quicker by sailing west, round South America and across the Pacific

Victory in Malacca had given the Portuguese a commanding position in the southeast Asian spice trade. Now Magellan came up with a bold plan to monopolise control of the region further still. European merchants and adventurers had traditionally journeyed to south-east Asia by travelling east, via a route that took them round the Cape of Good Hope on Africa’s southern tip. Yet, after examining contemporary charts and globes, Magellan came to a surprising conclusion. He believed that he could reach the region much quicker by travelling in the opposite direction – round the tip of South America, through the newly discovered Pacific Ocean, and on to the spice-producing islands of the Moluccas in the Indonesian archipelago.

This meant sailing west to reach the east – a concept that was too counterintuitive for the cautious Portuguese king Manuel I, who rejected Magellan’s idea. It was this rebuff that prompted the disgruntled explorer to switch sides and offer his services to Manuel’s great rival Charles I, the ruler of Castile and Aragon in modern-day Spain – soon to become Charles V, holy Roman emperor.

Clash of empires

As Europe’s two pre-eminent imperial powers, Castile and Portugal had long been jostling for control of the world’s trade routes. Following Christopher Columbus’s first landfall in the Americas in 1492, the two nations had agreed on a line of demarcation between their imperial interests that, on a map, ran north to south through the western Atlantic, 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands, bisecting modern-day Brazil. Everything to the west, including the Americas, was Spain’s; everything to the east, taking in southern Africa and the Indian Ocean, was Portuguese.

What nobody knew is where the line would fall in south-east Asia if drawn on a terrestrial globe. By becoming the first European to use global mapmaking in his calculations – as opposed to the two-dimensional maps employed by his contemporaries – Magellan believed he had alighted on a solution.

Magellan travelled to Seville with maps and globes to pitch this solution to Charles. He argued that “it was not yet clearly ascertained whether Malacca was within the boundaries of the Portuguese or the Castilians, because hitherto its longitude had not been definitely known”. He also claimed he “was absolutely certain that the islands called the Moluccas, in which all sorts of spices grow, and from which they were brought to Malacca, were contained in the western, or Castilian division, and that it would be possible to sail to them and to bring the spices at less trouble and expense from their native soil to Castile”. If he could indeed prove that the Moluccas fell within the Spanish half of the globe, it would have a significant impact on European and global geopolitics.

A portrait of Ferdinand Magellan
A portrait of Ferdinand Magellan. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Charles accepted the proposal, and a truly European consortium of Portuguese, Spanish and Germans began their preparations. Magellan proposed to sail round Cape Horn, across to the Moluccas, load a cargo of spices and return the way he came, claiming the islands for Spain. But like many ambitious pan-European projects, rivalries and conflicts quickly emerged. The Spanish nobles were suspicious of approving an expedition under a Portuguese commander, and squabbles broke out over the exact route and the supplies required. Portuguese spies tried to derail the expedition, and by the time the fleet of four carracks (large merchant ships) and one faster, smaller caravel – with a crew of Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, German, Greek, French and even English sailors – finally departed in September 1519 tensions were already high.

A land of giants

While the first stage of Magellan’s route was tried and tested in terms of navigation, it was plagued by political doubledealing. The fleet sailed first to the Canary Islands, outrunning Portuguese vessels sent to arrest the renegade commander. It then sailed on to the Cape Verde Islands before crossing the Atlantic and travelling down the South American coast, reaching modern-day Rio de Janeiro Bay in December 1519. Next it coasted down the Patagonian coast where the fleet’s Venetian chronicler, Antonio Pigafetta, described the local inhabitants as giants, a myth that would endure for decades.

They 'ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms. It stank of the urine of rats'

It was now that conditions began to deteriorate. As Magellan sailed into unknown southerly waters, the weather worsened, rations were cut, and in April 1520 an almost inevitable mutiny broke out among the crew. Magellan survived. But after a murderous fight, the gruesome execution of two of the conspirators, and others left marooned on the coast to die, his authority was seriously weakened. The odds of finding the hazardous route into the Pacific now appeared low indeed.

The mood blackened further still when one of the ships was wrecked in worsening weather, and the fleet’s search for Magellan’s promised strait to the Pacific extended to weeks, then months. Finally, in October 1520, Magellan picked up a strong current with high tides taking him west. Passing through what is still known as ‘Magellan’s Strait’, he named the surrounding area Tierra del Fuego, or ‘Land of Fire’, seeing what he believed were fires from human settlements.

But Magellan’s problems were far from over. The challenge of navigating for over a month through unknown waters led to another rebellion and the loss of a further ship, which slipped away back to Spain. Finally, however, on 28 November 1520, Magellan’s three remaining vessels entered an ocean he named ‘Mare Pacificum’, or ‘peaceful sea’.

That sea would provide a larger obstacle to Magellan’s ambitions of reaching south-east Asia’s spice islands than he could ever have imagined – thanks to an error committed by a Greek geographer 14 centuries earlier. Back in the second century AD, Ptolemy had underestimated the Earth’s circumference by over 15 per cent, while also _over_estimating the breadth of south-east Asia. When Renaissance mapmakers projected Ptolemy’s estimates onto their maps and globes, they also had to take into account the more recent discoveries in the Americas. This left little space for the still undiscovered Pacific Ocean. Magellan had consulted a terrestrial globe that showed the space between Portugal and China sailing westwards was 130 degrees, when the actual distance was 230 degrees. He had no idea he was entering an ocean that covered nearly half of the Earth’s total water surface and a third of the total surface area of the entire globe.

And so the next three months were spent crossing the Pacific in search of land. Conditions were horrific, and scurvy began to ravage the crew. Pigafetta recounted that they “ate biscuit, which was no longer biscuit, but powder of biscuits swarming with worms, for they had eaten the good. It stank strongly of the urine of rats. We drank yellow water that had been putrid for many days. We also ate some ox hides that covered the top of the mainyard.”

It is hard to imagine the deprivations of the crossing and the desperation that must have filled the crew, as well as Magellan, as they somehow managed to avoid the ocean’s thousands of islands. When the fleet did finally make landfall – after sighting land on 6 March 1521 – it was in Guam in Micronesia. Here, we’re told, the locals travelled out to meet and trade with the travellers, but according to Pigafetta they then “entered the ships and stole whatever they could lay their hands on”. As a result, he named the islands the ‘Ladrones’, or ‘Islands of Thieves’.

If Magellan’s relations with the locals were strained in Guam, by the time his fleet reached the Philippine archipelago they had turned murderous – with terrible consequences.

In April 1521 – having already attempted to convert local communities to Christianity – Magellan sailed to the island of Mactan with the aim of subduing and converting its inhabitants too. It was a fatal overreach. The people of Mactan were violently resistant to his overtures and so, while wading ashore, Magellan and his sailors were confronted with hundreds of local warriors, who “rushed upon him with lances of iron and of bamboo and with these javelins, so that they slew our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide”. Magellan was killed – his body never to be recovered – his dream of returning to Spain at the head of a fleet laden with spices dead in the water. But the voyage he had planned and led would have to continue.

The surviving crew nominated Spanish captain Juan Sebastián Elcano as their new commander. A third ship was abandoned as being unseaworthy and the two remaining vessels sailed on to their ultimate destination of Tidor in the Moluccas, which they reached in November 1521. The local chieftain had no love for the marauding Portuguese and agreed to allow the Spanish Elcano to load both ships with spices.

Survivors limp home

Two years into the odyssey, Elcano now decided to head home. But how would the remnants of his battered fleet get there? Elcano’s solution was to send the two ships in opposite directions. One headed back across the Pacific but was captured by Portuguese ships still on the lookout for Magellan. As for Elcano, he took the fateful decision to sail back to Spain across the Indian Ocean and via the Cape of Good Hope. Playing hit and run with the patrolling Portuguese, his one surviving ship, with just 18 crew (of the fleet’s original 270), arrived back in Sanlúcar on 6 September 1522.

The first known circumnavigation of the globe was complete, but at a terrible personal cost. More than 200 of the crew had died – many in awful circumstances. And while you might expect Magellan’s epic feat to have been celebrated by a grateful Spanish nation, anti-Portuguese sentiment and the inability of the dead to defend their achievements meant that his family was denied the rewards and preferment they’d been promised.

What’s more, in enabling Charles to claim the Moluccas for Spain, Magellan’s voyage exacerbated political and commercial tensions in Europe and the Indian Ocean. For the next seven years, Spain and Portugal were locked in a diplomatic war over how to divide the globe between them.

That war was partially waged in the studios of a new breed of mapmakers who – inspired by Magellan’s voyage – were creating terrestrial globes to reflect the emerging global consciousness. In 1529, the Treaty of Saragossa agreed to cede the Moluccas to Spain only after Charles paid a team of “cunning cosmographers” to manipulate the islands’ position so that they lay in the Spanish half of the globe, on a series of what one observer called “maliciously contrived” maps. (As it turned out, Charles relinquished his claim, after concluding that establishing a commercial route between Spain and the Moluccas would be too costly.)

Magellan’s dream of establishing a rapid trade route to the spice islands was still unrealised

In the short term, then, Magellan’s circumnavigation achieved little. He had discovered nothing new; diplomatic tensions between Spain and Portugal remained high; his dream of establishing a rapid trade route to the spice islands was still unrealised. Why, then, five centuries later, should we remember – even celebrate – his great odyssey?

The answer lies not in the immediate aftermath of the voyage but in the flourishing of the world’s trade routes in the second half of the 16th century, as the links Magellan had helped establish between Europe and southeast Asia allowed the movement of people and goods via South America into the Pacific and Indian Oceans.

By the 1560s the Spanish had named a new region, the Philippines, after Charles’s successor, Philip II, leaving a Spanish-speaking legacy in the region. The 1560s also saw the establishment of the so-called Manila Galleon, Spanish fleets trading between Manila and Mexico, exchanging Chinese silks and porcelain for Mexican silver – and, as a result, enriching much of Europe.

In short, Magellan’s bloodymindedness, his imagination and his determination to use terrestrial globes, rather than flat maps, to understand the world opened up a profusion of new commercial opportunities. You could say that his great voyage fired the starting gun on the race to globalisation, with all the risks and opportunities that this presents us today.

To boldly go…

Ten landmark moments in Magellan’s voyage into the unknown, as plotted out on a 1544 copy of the Agnese Atlas, produced by the Italian mapmaker Battista Agnese

❶ The fleet sets sail 20 September 1519

Magellan’s fleet of five ships with a crew of 270 leave Sanlúcar de Barrameda in south-west Spain. Supported by the Habsburg emperor Charles V, the voyage is funded by German banking money. The crew is drawn from across Europe and even Africa, and equipped for a voyage of two years.

❷ A supply crisis 26 September 1519

The fleet reaches the Canary Islands, but is already dogged with problems. Magellan realises he has been swindled out of supplies before departure. He also has to outrun Portuguese ships trying to arrest him as a traitor in the pay of Spain.

❸ Tensions rise December 1519

The fleet successfully crosses the Atlantic and arrives in Rio de Janeiro Bay. Tensions are already running high between the Portuguese commander and the Spanish nobles on the voyage, who continue to question his authority. Sailing down the coast of Patagonia they meet ‘giants’, one of whom is taken onboard.

❹ Mutineers strike October 1520

After a gruelling journey south, putting down a mutiny and wrecking a ship, Magellan discovers ‘Magellan’s Strait’, a route through the southern tip of South America to the Pacific. Navigating his way takes over a month through unknown waters in terrible conditions with the loss of another ship.

❺ Into the Pacific November 1520

Magellan finally emerges into open sea. He names it ‘Mare Pacificum’, or ‘peaceful sea’. He is the first European to sail across the Pacific, though having underestimated its size by almost half, the next leg of the voyage is anything but peaceful. Many of the crew die from scurvy.

❻ Land at last March 1521

After more than three months sailing out of sight of land, the ravaged crew land in Guam, Micronesia. Attempting to trade with locals, Magellan and his crew accuse them of theft, naming the islands ‘Ladrones’: the ‘Islands of Thieves’.

❼ Magellan is slain 27 April 1521

Magellan becomes embroiled in conflicts between rival chieftains and attempts to assert his authority by attacking the ruler of Mactan in the Philippine archipelago. Magellan and many of the crew are killed on the beach. His body is never recovered.

❽ A new commander November 1521

The Spanish captain Juan Sebastián Elcano takes command and finally reaches Tidor in the Moluccas Islands. Exploiting local hostility towards the Portuguese, he loads the two remaining ships with a large consignment of spices whose profit recoups nearly twice the voyage’s initial investment.

❾ Elcano heads home December 1521

Elcano makes the decision to send one ship back via the Pacific, but it is caught by patrolling Portuguese vessels. The crew are arrested, and the ship lost at sea. Elcano’s remaining ship heads back to Spain via the Indian Ocean and Cape of Good Hope.

❿ The odyssey ends 6 September 1522

Elcano arrives back in Sanlúcar, nearly three years after the fleet’s departure. Only 18 of the original crew of 270 survive, including the Venetian chronicler Antonio Pigafetta, whose book remains the key eyewitness account of the voyage. News of the voyage spreads throughout Europe and causes a diplomatic conflict over the Moluccas between Spain and Portugal.

Jerry Brotton is professor of Renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London. His books include A History of the World in Twelve Maps (Penguin, 2013)

Read more about the world’s great seafarers

Listen again: You can listen to Bridget Kendall and guests discuss whether Magellan really was the first man around the globe on the BBC World Service programme The Forum

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This article was first published in the September 2019 edition of BBC History Magazine