Ferdinand Magellan


Age of Discovery

Quick Facts:

Led the first expedition to circumnavigate the globe; considered the first European to cross the Pacific Ocean.

Name: Fernão de Magalhães (Portuguese)

Birth/Death: 1480 CE - 1521 CE

Nationality: Portuguese

Birthplace: Portugal

Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan

Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan

An anonymous portrait of Ferdinand Magellan, 16th or 17th century (The Mariner's Museum Collection, Newport News, VA) Translation: "Ferdinan[dus] Magellanus superatis antarctici freti angustiis clariss." (Fedinand Magellan, you overcame the famous, narrow, southern straits.)

Early Life

Ferdinand Magellan was born in 1480 in Saborosa, a province of Portugal, to Mayor Pedro Ruy de Magalhaes and Alda de Mezquita, both of whom were nobles. Due to his family connections, Magellan served the Portuguese Court as a young boy, most likely as a page to the Queen, although his exact position at court is unknown.


As a young man, Ferdinand Magellan set off for his first sea venture in 1505. He served under the command of Francisco d’Almeida and sailed to India. By this time, Portugal was securing control of trade with India, getting exotic spices and a large profit. The expedition secured the area of Malacca, which guaranteed Portuguese dominance in the area throughout the Age of Discovery. Along the way, Magellan visited the Spice Islands.

In 1512, Magellan sailed to Morocco under a Portuguese commander. Unfortunately, Magellan quarreled with the commander, ignored his orders and left the service. While in Morocco, Magellan was wounded, leaving him with a limp for the rest of his life. After his return from Morocco, he petitioned the King of Portugal, Manuel I, three times to support a voyage to the Spice Islands. But arguing with his previous commander had hurt Magellan’s reputation; he was turned away. He finally asked permission of the king to seek support from another country. Permission was granted, and Magellan went to Portugal’s greatest rival – Spain. He moved to Spain in 1517, and worked to gain Spanish citizenship and find a royal patron. Magellan hoped to work with Charles I of Spain, soon to become Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire.

Magellan created a plan to sail west around South America in an attempt to reach the Spice Islands. He won Charles’ favor, and the king made him captain of the voyage. in return for his financial support, the King would have control for 10 years over any trade routes Magellan established, as well as a fifth of the treasures found by Magellan’s crew.

Ferdinand Magellan’s fleet consisted of five ships and roughly 265 men. The small fleet was called the Armada de Molucca, and Magellan was its Captain-General. The voyage left Seville on August 10, 1519, and reached the Atlantic on September 20. The fleet crossed the ocean and reached Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, on December 13, 1519. However, the stop was not smooth sailing; Magellan began to create bad relationships with his men that would lead to mutiny later in his journey.

Magellan’s early problems may not have been entirely his fault. Spain and Portugal had been exploration rivals for a very long time. Each country was desperate to make money by trading items, especially spices. In fact, by signing the Treaty of Tordesillas, the two nations had divided the world in half, right down the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. Portugal was given the territory east of the line and Spain was given the territory to the west. The only exception was Brazil, which became the territory of the Portuguese. The fact that these two nations were such rivals gave Magellan a major problem: his crew was mostly Spanish, and many of them did not trust their Portuguese Captain-General. Very early in the journey, while the fleet was at the Canary Islands, Magellan received a letter from his father-in-law. The letter warned that Juan de Cartagena, captain of the San Antonio, was plotting to mutiny. As the fleet sailed southwards along the coast of Africa, it became clear that the warning had merit. Cartagena at first openly disagreed with Magellan’s orders, then refused to obey them entirely. Magellan arrested Cartagena, had him locked up and the ships continued on their mission.

The fleet sailed across the Atlantic. While in South America, the crew met a group of people that Magellan called “Patagonian giants.” They fascinated Magellan so much that he decided to kidnap some of them and take them on the voyage. How, exactly, did he manage to kidnap giants? It was a “cunning trick.” Antonio Pigafetta, who kept a journal during the voyage, wrote this about Magellan’s trick:

The means by which he kept them was that he gave them many knives, scissors, mirrors, bells, and glass, all which things they held in their hands. And meanwhile the captain sent for large iron fetters, such as are put on the feet of malefactors. Whereat these giants took great pleasure in seeing these fetters, and did not know where they had to be put, and were grieved that they could not take them in their hands, because they were prevented by the other things aforesaid. The two giants who were there wished to help these two. But the captain refused, and made signs to the two whom he wished to keep that the fetters would be put on their feet, and then they would go away. Whereat they made a sign with their heads that they were content with this. Forthwith the captain had the fetters put on the feet of both of them. And when they saw the bolt across the fetters being struck with a hammer to rivet it and prevent them from being opened, these giants were afraid. But the captain made signs to them that they should suspect nothing. Nevertheless, perceiving the trick that had been played on them, they began to blow and foam at the mouth like bulls, loudly calling on Setebos (that is, the great devil) to help them. And the hands of the other two were tied, but with great difficulty.

After leaving Rio de Janeiro, the fleet searched for a strait to continue to the Spice Islands, but one could not be found. This forced Magellan to take alternative measures. ships hit a terrible storm that lasted two months. Magellan decided to set up a camp for the winter, and they called the camp Port St. Julian.The atmosphere quickly got worse as hardship after hardship befell the expedition.

Magellan’s crew began to grow angry and restless; their rations had been cut, and although they were enduring horrible conditions, Magellan still insisted on continuing his search for the passage. This gave Cartagena another opportunity to strike against Magellan, now with more allies on board the ships. It didn’t help matters that the three captains of the San Antonio, the Concepción, and the Victoria  were on Cartagena’s side. However, Magellan intercepted messages passing between the mutineers, and was prepared for them, managing to recapture the Victoria and the San Antonio. The Concepción surrendered to Magellan after the other two ships had succumbed and returned to his control. The mutineers were punished in a variety of ways: some were marooned, some were executed, some were tortured, and some were sentenced to hard labor.

The Santiago, the smallest ship in the Armada, was given a special mission: its crew was to go ahead and look for the elusive passage through South America. It was shipwrecked while on its mission, and although Magellan sent a rescue party and saved the crew, the Santiago was destroyed.

Finally, in October, the mouth of the passage was seen. The Concepción and the San Antonio were ordered to sail ahead and begin the search for a navigable route. Although the Concepción continued on this path, the San Antonio, the largest ship in the fleet, set a course back to Spain, taking most of the fleet’s supplies with it. Magellan now had only three ships with which to continue his mission to the Spice Islands.

The passage we now know as the Strait of Magellan is a narrow, navigable channel of water that runs between mainland South America and the islands of Tierra del Fuego, near the very southern tip of South America. When Magellan and his crew first found this passage, they called it Estrecho de Todos los Santos (“All Saints’ Channel”). Later in history, this passage would be an extremely important route for countless ships, but on this first trip it took 38 days to get through. When he completed the passage, Magellan faced another great ocean. He called it Mar Pacifico. Today we still use this name; in English, the Pacific Ocean.

Magellan had no idea what he was about to endure. He, like Columbus before him, believed the earth was much smaller than it actually is. He believed that it would not take long to pass through this new body of water to the Moluccas. Instead, it took 98 days. The crew was not prepared for this journey, and many died of disease or starvation. Again, we hear from Antonio Pigafetta who recorded the conditions on the ships:

On Wednesday the twenty-eighth of November, one thousand five hundred and twenty, we issued forth from the said strait and entered the Pacific Sea, where we remained three months and twenty days without taking on board provisions or any other refreshments, and we ate only old biscuit turned to powder, all full of worms and stinking of the urine which the rats had made on it, having eaten the good. And we drank water impure and yellow. We ate also ox hides, which were very hard because of the sun, rain, and wind. And we left them four or five days in the sea, then laid them for a short time on embers, and so we ate them. And of the rats, which were sold for half an ecu apiece, some of us could not get enough…beside the aforesaid troubles, this malady was the worst, namely that the gums of most part of our men swelled above and below so that they could not eat. And in this way they died, inasmuch as twenty-nine of us died, and the other giant died, and an Indian of the said country of Verzin. But besides those who died, twenty-five or thirty fell sick of divers maladies, whether of the arms or of the legs and other parts of the body, so that there remained very few healthy men. Yet by the grace of our Lord I had no illness.

Pigafetta goes on to state that he does not believe the Pacific Ocean will be a useful sea route in the future:

…if our Lord and the Virgin Mother had not aided us by giving good weather to refresh ourselves with provisions and other things we had died in this very great sea. And I believe that nevermore will any man undertake to make such a voyage.

During the voyage across the Pacific, Magellan and his men found various islands, including Guam. When the expedition stopped at Guam, the crew met local Charmorros Indians and violence broke out. There were some positive interactions once Magellan stopped his men from firing on the natives, but the peace would not last long once one of Magellan’s skiffs, or small boats, was stolen. As a result, the Europeans raided and destroyed the locals’ village.

Their journey continued until they reached the Philippines in March of 1521. By this time, about thirty men had died of scurvy and many others were afflicted. Once again, Magellan’s men interacted with the local populations, at first with great success. Magellan’s servant Enrique was very talented at communicating with the native chiefs, Rajah Siaiu of Mazaua and Rajah Humabon of Cebu.  Rajah Humabon and Magellan got along well, and benefited from the other’s gifts and kind treatment. The natives converted to Christianity and verbally submitted to the rule of Spain, although Magellan had received no orders to secure such control. Magellan believed he could force the other island populations to follow suit, but instead of conversion, Magellan met with violence. When chief Datu Lapu Lapu of Mactan rejected conversion, Magellan took a contingent of men to attack Mactan. Magellan believed that his crew was so superior that he sent only 60 of his men against thousands of Mactan fighters. It was in this battle that Magellan, eight others from Magellan’s crew, and many Cebuans, were killed. What about the rest of the crew who could have helped in the battle? They were so upset at Magellan and the arduous voyage he made them endure that they remained on the ships and did not send reinforcements to save their captain-general or their crewmates.

In Antonio Pigafetta’s dramatic report, we learn what happened:

On Friday the twenty-sixth of April, Zzula, lord of the aforesaid island of Mattan, sent one of his sons to present to the captain-general two goats, saying that he would keep all his promises to him, but because of the lord of Cilapulapu (who refused to obey the King of Spain), he had not been able to send them to him. And he begged that on the following night he would send but one boat with some of his men to fight. The captain-general resolved to go there with three boats. And however strongly we besought him not to come, yet he (as a good shepherd) would not abandon his sheep. But at midnight we set forth, sixty men armed with corselets and helmets, together with the Christian king; and we so managed that we arrived at Mattan three hours before daylight.

The captain would not fight at this hour, but sent by the Moor to tell the lord of the place and his people that, if they agreed to obey the King of Spain, and recognize the Christian king as their lord, and give us tribute, they should all be friends. But if they acted otherwise they should learn by experience how our lances pierced. They replied that they had lances of bamboo hardened in the fire and stakes dried in the fire, and that we were to attack them when we would. Then we waited for day to come, that we might have more men. And that we said in order to find them in due time. For we had made several trenches around the houses to make them fall into them.

When the day came, we leapt into the water, being forty-nine men, and so we went for a distance of two crossbow flights before we could reach the harbor, and the boats could not come further inshore because of the stones and rocks which were in the water. The other eleven men remained to guard the boats.

Having thus reached land we attacked them. Those people had formed three divisions, of more than one thousand and fifty persons. And immediately they perceived us, they came about us with loud voices and cries, two divisions on our flanks, and one around and before us. When the captain saw this he divided us in two, and thus we began to fight. The hackbutmen and crossbowmen fired at long range for nearly half an hour, but in vain, our shafts merely passing through their shields, made of strips of wood unbound, and their arms. Seeing this, the captain cried out, ‘Do not fire, do not fire anymore.’ But that was of no avail. When those people saw this, and that we fired the hackbuts in vain, they shouted and determined to stand fast. But they shouted louder when the hackbuts were discharged, and then they did not stay still from fear, but jumped hither and thither, covered by their shields. And thus defending themselves they fired at us so many arrows, and lances of bamboo tipped with iron, and pointed stakes hardened by fire, and stones, that we could hardly defend ourselves.

Seeing this the captain sent some of his men to burn the houses of those people in order to frighten them. Who, seeing their houses burning, became bolder and more furious, so that two of our men were killed near these houses, and we burned a good thirty of these houses. Then they came so furiously against us that they sent a poisoned arrow through the captain’s leg. Wherefore he ordered us to withdraw slowly, but the men fled while six or eight of us remained with the captain. And these people shot at no other place than our legs, for the latter were bare. Thus for the great number of lances and stones that they threw and discharged at us we could not resist.

Our large pieces of artillery which were in the ships could not help us, because they were firing at too long range, so that we continued to retreat for more than a good crossbow flight from the shore, still fighting, and in water up to our knees. And they followed us, hurling poisoned arrows four or six times; while, recognizing the captain, they turned toward him inasmuch as twice they hurled arrows very close to his head. But as a good captain and a knight he still stood fast with some others, fighting thus for more than an hour. And as he refused to retire further, an Indian threw a bamboo lance in his face, and the captain immediately killed him with his lance, leaving it in his body. Then, trying to lay hand on his sword, he could draw it out but halfway, because of a wound from a bamboo lance that he had in his arm. Which seeing, all those people threw themselves on him, and one of them with a large javelin thrust it into his left leg, whereby he fell face downward. On this all at once rushed upon him with lances of iron and bamboo and with these javelins, so that they slew our mirror, our light, our comfort, and our true guide.

While those people were striking him, he several times turned back to see whether we were all at the ships. Then, seeing him dead, as best we could we rescued the wounded men and put them into the boats which were already leaving.

After the death of Magellan, Sebastian del Cano (sometimes el Cano) took command of the shrinking fleet. Del Cano was one of the mutineers earlier in the voyage; Magellan let him live because he needed good pilots. Because there were no longer enough men alive to crew three ships, del Cano ordered the Concepción to be burned, leaving him the Victoria and theTrinidad. He continued on the original mission of the voyage, which was to find a route to the Spice Islands.

When the crew finally arrived in the Moluccas, they had lost many men and had gone from five ships to two. The ruler of the island of Tadore was a willing trading partner, and the crewmembers were able to get the cloves they were interested in. The trade happened with very little difficulty because the inhabitants of the Spice Islands had been trading with a variety of people for a very long time. The Trinidad and the Victoria prepared to sail for Seville, but theTrinidad had suffered too much damage. It sprung a leak, and they stopped to make repairs. While trying to sail back to Spain after making the repairs, the Trinidad was attacked by a Portuguese ship, and the Portuguese left the Trinidad shipwrecked near Tadore.

The Victoria arrived safely in Seville, the only ship of the five that had begun the journey to finish it. Just 18 out of the original 200 men survived the voyage. However, even with the loss of four out of five ships, the load of spices the Victoria brought back to Spain actually made a profit!

The survivors of the voyage who landed in Seville were:

Juan Sebastian Elcano, captain-general. Miguel de Rodas, boatswain (contramaestre) of the Victoria. Francisco Albo, of Axio, boatswain of the Trinidad. Juan de Acurio, of Bermeo, boatswain of the Concepción. Maartin de Judicibus, of Genoa, superintendent of the Concepción. Hernando de Bustamante, of Alcantara, barber of the Concepción. Juan de Zuvileta, of Baracaldo, page of the Victoria. Miguel Sanchez, of Rodas, skilled seaman (marinero) of the Victoria. Nicholas the Greek, of Naples, marinero of the Victoria. Diego Gallego, of Bayonne, marinero of the Victoria. Juan Rodriguez, of Seville, marinero of the Trinidad. Antonio Rodriguez, of Huelva, marinero of the Trinidad. Francisco Rodriguez, of Seville (a Portuguese), marinero of the Concepción. Juan de Arratia, of Bilbao, common sailor (grumete) of the Victoria. Vasco Gomez Gallego (a Portuguese), grumete of the Trinidad. Juan de Santandres, of Cueto, grumete of the Trinidad. Martin de Isaurraga, of Bermeo, grumete of the Concepción. The Chevalier Antonio Pigafetta, of Vicenza, passenger.

Notable Ships

  • Trinidad (captained by Ferdinand Magellan)

  • Concepción (captained by Gaspar de Quesada)

  • Victoria (captained by Juan Sebastián Elcano)

  • San Antonio (captained by Juan de Cartagena)

  • Santiago (captained by Juan Serrano)

The only ship that would survive the expedition was the Victoria. The ships were called “black ships” because of the tar that covered their hulls.


Magellan’s expedition was the first to sail the whole way around the world. Along the way, the expedition helped to build Europeans’ understanding of the world. The Strait of Magellan, off the southern coast of South America, became an important navigational route. Magellan’s name of “Pacific Ocean” continues to be used today. Many people incorrectly consider Magellan’s expedition to be the first to travel to the Philippines, but there were other, earlier voyages there.

Magellan’s expedition made several important scientific advances as well. Magellan’s crew observed several animals previously unknown to Europeans. The expedition gave Europeans a much better understanding of the extent of the Earth’s size. It also showed a need to establish an International Date Line, as the crew lost one day due to the western circumnavigation of the globe.

Two galaxies, two craters of the moon and one crater of Mars have been named in honor of Magellan.