Magellan's Voyage Around the World
By Shani Asokan Ceylon Today Features
Did you know that that explorer Ferdinand Magellan’s voyage around the world started out with 240 men and ended with just 18 of them? Well, let me tell you all about it. Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan set out on his ambitious quest to travel around the world from Seville, Spain in the summer of 1519. He had a crew of 240, manning five ships. This voyage was anything but easy, and as the first Europeans to enter the eastern Pacific, these men were heralded as heroes of their time. Magellan’s voyage was not driven by geographic curiosity. His mission was one of trade, and part of Spain’s struggle to beat Portugal in the race to explore further than any European had gone before. Christopher Columbus’s voyages of the 1490s and the discovery of the Americas to the west had the two naval powers Spain and Portugal competing to control any lands they could find first.
Born in 1480 in Northern Portugal, Fernao de Magalhaes (Ferdinand Magellan) grew up in a noble family. At the age of 10, he was sent to Lisbon to train as a page in the court of Queen Leonora. Some sources suggest that he became fascinated with maps and charts around the age of 13, when news broke across Europe of the Spanish expedition under Columbus had made landfall in the Americas. Eastward expansion by the Portuguese began to pick up speed after Vasco de Gama rounded the Cape of Good Hope (South Africa) in 1497. By the age of 25, Magellan was with the Portuguese fleet, heading around the cape and up the other side, to East Africa. The aim of the King of Portugal at the time was to control the entire Indian Ocean and thereby control trade with India.
Learning on the job
Magellan took part in the battle that won the Portuguese power over the Indian Ocean. He took part in several other battles and voyages and honed his navigational skills during Portugal’s Eastern Victories. However, when he returned to Portugal in 1514, he entered into a bitter dispute with the King of Portugal, when the King refused to reward him for his accomplishments. Having used up all his appeals, Magellan rejected his home country and travelled to Spain, taking up a position in the fleet that served the Spanish King Charles I. Magellan’s decision to serve the Spanish King was not anything scandalous or traitorous; seafarers often operated across national boundaries. While working in the Spanish fleet, Magellan devised the plan for his most famous exploration. He planned to take a fleet of ships across the narrow strait between the Americas to access the eastern sea, giving Spain a sort of ‘back door’ access to the Asia-Pacific.
Magellan’s journey was anything but simple. The 240 strong crew was faced with a series of challenges along the way, including starvation, illness, mutiny, executions and the most serious of all, the death of their leader. That’s right, Magellan didn’t survive the entirety of the journey he had so carefully planned out. He died while trying to claim what is now the Philippines in the name Spain. Despite Spanish firepower, they were unable to take the island. Whoever was not killed, departed the island in the remaining ships. Magellan is said to have dealt with mutineers by marooning them on deserted islands, or executing them as examples to the rest of the crew. The mutineers who weren’t the ones in charge were pardoned and allowed to remain on board. The weather on the high seas was unpredictable, and Magellan lost one of his ships in a storm early into the voyage. Now four in total, the ships ventured down the strait that would later be named after Magellan, only to have another ship disappear a short while later. Hunger and disease also found the remaining crew members. They ran out of rations and had nowhere to dock or stock up. Some developed what could have been Scurvy, a common illness among seafarers.
The final leg
Magellan’s crew successfully completed the continuous circumnavigation of the world. It took three years, and surprisingly, turned a profit. Unfortunately, the leader of the voyage did not live to see it to completion, but his plan had been made a reality. In September of 1522, 18 men stepped off the Victoria, all that remained of the 5 ships and 240 men who left those very shores in 1519.