Ferdinand Magellan

Magellan, Ferdinand (Fernão Magalhães; c. 1480–1521), was born into a Portuguese noble family of French origin, possibly at Ponte da Barca in northern Portugal. In March 1505 Magellan and his brother enlisted in the fleet of Francisco de Almeida, bound for India down the Atlantic coast of Africa to the Cape Verdes Islands and around the Cape of Good Hope. Almeida sailed in East African waters for more than two years, sacked Mombassa, and established a string of Portuguese forts to serve as trading centers and to guard the sea lanes to India, where Magellan arrived from Mozambique in October 1507.

By the time of his arrival he had served first on a brigantine, then on a caravel in combat in the Arabian Sea. Under the command of Nuno Vaz Pereira on the caravel Santo Espirito, he participated in the Portuguese defeat, at the hands of a huge Egyptian Mamluk fleet fortified by Venetian gunships, which broke the Portuguese blockade of the Red Sea. Soon afterward he was dispatched, underPereira‘s command, to the Maldive Islands, but made instead for the port city of Colombo, having been blown by a storm to the coast of Ceylon (present-day Sri Lanka). Magellan participated in the great sea battle of 2 February 1509, in which Almeida’s fleet defeated the Mamluk-Venetian coalition at Diu (which became a Portuguese colony), a battle in which Pereira was killed and Magellan seriously wounded. Magellan was involved in intelligence on the Malabar coast, along with his cousin Francisco Serrão, to assess both the strength of local navies and the organization of local trade, which they found to be in the control of Arab merchants. Each of them was given the command of a caravel and promoted to the rank of captain. Magellan was again wounded in the botched attempt, under the command of Affonso de Albuquerque, architect of Portugal’s Asian empire, to take Calicut.

Magellan was present at the capture of Malacca in August 1511. Serrão subsequently became director of the Portuguese factory at Ternate, a small town on the island of the same name that the Portuguese fortified and held 1522–1574, and which was used most importantly as a base for the clove trade, and invited Magellan to join him there. Instead, Magellan is thought to have made an illicitvoyage, most likely northeast from Malacca to Amboyna, possibly coasting the Philippines. He was relieved of his command and, after eight years in the East, returned to Portugal. He served in a Moroccan campaign under the duke of Braganza in 1514, as a result of which he became embroiled in a corruption scandal which landed him in the bad graces of King Manuel I (ruled 1495–1521).

Like Columbus before him, Magellan thought he might have better success in Spain. He arrived in Seville in October 1517 and, working through the merchant community, eventually secured royal approval for a voyage westward to the Indies. He thought the Moluccas (Spice Islands) were close to South America and thus within the Spanish sphere of influence. His idea was to follow up on Amerigo Vespucci’s (1454–1512) third voyage and seek a passage to the Indies around the tip of South America. Magellan had interviewed survivors of Juan de Solis’s ill-fated voyage to the Río de la Plata in 1515 and deduced that the continental tip of South America lay within the area assigned to Spain.

The primary motive for the voyage was economic. Spain wanted to trade in the East Indies, but Charles V did not know (as Magellan surely did) that the Moluccas were already in Portuguese hands. Perhaps Magellan thought there were other islands as potentially lucrative but as yet unclaimed. His fleet skirted Brazil to avoid any clash with the Portuguese and, at the mouth of the strait now called by his name, two of his five ships were lost, one by shipwreck, the other by mutiny. The remaining ships navigated the straits in thirty-eight days. Magellan reached Sebu in the Philippines in April 1521, where he became involved in a local war and was killed, along with forty of his men. He was succeeded by his second-in-command, the Spaniard Juan Sebastián del Cano (or Juan de Elcano), who continued on to the Moluccas and became the first captain to have sailed around the world.

The geographical impact of the circumnavigation was enormous, not only because of the new geographical data that it produced, but also because it demonstrated irrefutable proof of the spherical shape of the Earth as well as the preponderance of water over continental masses on the Earth’s surface, in contrast to what many geographers and explorers of Columbus’s generation had believed.


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