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Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan and his ship Trinidad on postage stamp

500 Years Ago Today Magellan and Elcano Set Sail to Conquer the World


On August 10, 1519, King Charles of Spain watched naval officers Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano set sail to the ‘Spice Islands’, now the Maluku Islands in Indonesia. 239 brave men boarded five ships, and to evade the Portuguese fleet, Magellan first sailed south and west from Seville. Almost exactly three years after their departure, on September 6, 1522, Elcano and just 18 men returned to Spain in one ship having navigated the entire planet.

To celebrate this monumental achievement Seville is holding over 70 events during 2019-2022 which, according to Lonely Planet, range from “history and biodiversity conferences, shipbuilding events, expositions on spices and maps, film screenings, and musical performances.” The main attraction will be staged at the ‘Archivo de Indias’ between September 2019 and February 2020 and is called “El Viaje Mas Largo: La Primera Vuelta al Mundo” (The Longest Journey: The First Round the World Voyage).

According to the event website, this major exhibition will “promote the human aspect and the challenges faced by 16th century sailors on their long ocean voyage.”

Video Link:

Magellan: A Wind in His Sails and an Arrow in the Heart

Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480 – 1521) sailed under the flags of both Portugal (1505–13) and Spain (1519–21) and, like Columbus before him, Magellan's primary goal was to open up a western trade route between Spain and Asia. An Encyclopedia Britannica entry informs that Spanish ships had been barred from using the route around Africa by a treaty with Portugal, and Magellan was challenged with finding a safe passage through Columbus’s new world to the Southeast Asian kingdoms - the Spice Islands.

After first touching land in modern-day Brazil, Magellan’s fleet turned south, and after quelling a mutiny onboard one of his five ships, he sailed the entire length of South America until finding the 373-mile-long (600.29 km) deep-water strait at the tip of the continent in southern Chile, which now bears his name. As the first European to enter the Pacific Ocean from the east, it was Magellan himself who named it “Mar Pacifico” because of its relative calm compared with the vicious Atlantic.


Magellan. (Public Domain)

After re-crossing the equator and stopping at the Marianas Islands and Guam, Magellan became the first European to make landfall in the Archipelago of San Lazaro, now the Philippine Islands. It was here that he joined forces with the tribal chieftain of Cebu, and while attacking natives on the island of Mactan on April 27, 1521, Magellan was killed in what the voyage chronicler Antonio Pigafetta described as “a gruesome death at the hands of natives” involving poison-tipped arrows.

Completing the ‘Great Circle’

After the disastrous battle of Mactan, the surviving Spanish squadron regrouped on the Spice Islands, stocked up their one remaining ship, and boldly crossed the Indian Ocean and navigated around the Cape of Good Hope on the southern tip of Africa. Of the 239 men who set sail with Magellan, only 18 successfully circumnavigated the Earth and returned to Seville on Sept. 8, 1522 aboard the ship Victoria.

Detail from a map of Ortelius: Magellan's ship Victoria

Detail from a map of Ortelius: Magellan's ship Victoria. (Public Domain)

Because explorers Juan Sebastian Elcano and Ferdinand Magellan didn’t fall off the edge of the Earth, after their voyage the spherical nature of our planet was generally accepted. And within six years of this achievement Nicolaus Copernicus published his theory that the Earth and all the other planets in our solar system revolved around the Sun.

‘Astronomer Copernicus, conversation with God’ (1872) by Jan Matejko

‘Astronomer Copernicus, conversation with God(1872) by Jan Matejko. (Public Domain)

By the 1560s, Spain had named a new region, the ‘Philippines’, after King Charles’s successor, Philip II, and the Manila Galleon began trading Chinese silks and porcelain between Manila and Mexico, returning with Mexican silver - resulting in the enrichment of much of Europe.

A History article about Magellan’s achievement says his “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.”

This great voyage single-handedly fired up the engines on the race for globalization and we have Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Sebastián Elcano to thank for all the opportunities and risks that this presents to us today.

Top Image: Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan and his ship Trinidad on postage stamp. Credit: Vic / Adobe Stock

By Ashley Cowie

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Ashley is a Scottish historian, author, and documentary filmmaker presenting original perspectives on historical problems in accessible and exciting ways.

He was raised in Wick, a small fishing village in the county of Caithness on the north east coast of... Read More

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