Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands

Fernão de Magalhães, d. 1521 (Ferdinand Magellan)

Expedition (1519–1522): Five ships (Trinidad, San Antonio, Concepción, Victoria, Santiago), 237 men
Charge (by King Charles I of Spain): To reach the Spice Islands via South America and to gain exclusive European rights to spices
Accomplishments: First circumnavigation of the world, discovery of the Magellan Strait, Marianas, and Philippine Islands
Legacy of Magellan’s name: Strait of Magellan, Magellanic Clouds (galaxies)

[Click on the images below for high resolution versions.]

Portrait of Ferdinand Magellan. From Isaac Bullart’s Academie des sciences et des arts, contenant les vies, & les eloges historiques des hommes illustres . . . avec leurs pourtraits tirez sur des originaux au naturel . . . (Brussels, 1695). [Rare Books Division]

To register the appropriate incredulity and awe about Ferdinand Magellan’s expedition’s circumnavigation of the world, consider this: Christopher Columbus’s hallowed crossing of the Atlantic Ocean took thirty-six days; Magellan’s transit of the Pacific Ocean required ninety-eight days. Day after day, no land. Stagnant water to drink. Rats, sawdust, and leather to eat. But that is getting ahead of the truly unique voyage that began Europe’s pursuit of the Pacific.
            A Portuguese nobleman and navigator, Magellan sought the support of his king, Manuel I, on three separate occasions for an exploratory expedition to seek a new water route to the Spice Islands. He had acquired experience and demonstrated loyalty, having served the king in a crucial role on an eight-year (1505–1513) expedition attempting to create a permanent Portuguese presence in India and to conquer Malacca (today’s Melaka, Malaysia), followed by military service in Morocco, where he was seriously wounded in hand-to-hand fighting. He had squandered most of his personal fortune in service to the crown. For various reasons, mostly personal, King Manuel rebuffed Magellan but allowed the officer to offer his services elsewhere. It was September 1517.
            By the end of October, Magellan was in Seville, becoming a Spanish citizen. The timing was good, for Charles I, the new Spanish king of Castile, Aragon, and León, was also new to Spain, having arrived from Flanders the year before. The eighteen-year-old monarch was athletic, energetic, and eager for fame and glory, but to become Charles V, emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, he would need vast sums of money to pay the electors. Hence, Magellan’s familiarity with Portugal’s secretive navigational knowledge—nothing was published in Portugal between 1500 and 1550 about its navigators’ discoveries—and the prospects of riches in the Indies made a rare and appealing combination. By sailing west, as Magellan intended, Spain also would respect the tenets of the Treaty of Tordesillas (1494), which had given Portugal rights to all the new territory found east of a line drawn 370 leagues west of the Cape Verde Islands. (For more on this treaty, see the Lines of Demarcation box in the Spice Islands section.)

Specifically, the project proposed by Magellan (and his supporters) sought a commercial route to the Spice Islands by sailing westward around South America, for Magellan confidently expressed some knowledge about the existence of a possible strait or passage there. He claimed it would take only two years to make the journey and return to Spain. The terms of his agreement with King Charles, dated March 22, 1518, included receiving a monopoly of the discovered route for ten years and a fifth of the riches obtained on the voyage. Magellan was also made a captain, giving him absolute authority at sea. The government provided five ships, relatively small but maneuverable and seaworthy—ominously pitch black from the tar that covered their hulls and every exposed part—with crew, artillery, and two years’ worth of supplies. Most of the cost was leveraged with loans from a German banking house at a rate of 14 percent.

Braun, Georg, 1540 or 41–1622, and Franz Hogenberg, d. 1590? “Sevilla” (1588). Copperplate map, with added color, 33 × 48 cm. From volume 4 of Braun and Hogenberg’s Civitates orbis terrarum . . . (Cologne, 1572–1618). [Historic Maps Collection]

Where the first circumnavigation of the world began and ended. Santa María de la Victoria, the church where Magellan took his oath of allegiance to Spain and received his official benediction (also where the survivors returned to give thanks), was in the sailors’ district called Triana, on the south side of the Guadalquivir River.

The day after arriving in Seville, the eighteen European survivors, attired only in their ragged shirts and breeches, did penance. . . . Walking barefoot, holding a candle, each world traveler slowly marched, still getting accustomed to the unusual feeling of solid, unshakable land beneath his feet. Elcano [captain] led the gaunt, weary pilgrims through Seville’s narrow, winding streets to the shrine of Santa Maria de la Victoria, where they knelt to pray before the statue of the blessed Virgin and Child. They returned to Seville as sinners and penitents rather than conquerors. Their voyage had commenced as a Shakespearean drama, bristling with significance and passion, starring the heroic Magellan, but three years had taken a dreadful toll and the journey was ending as a play by Samuel Beckett. The survivors were shell-shocked, tentative, and chastened by all they had seen and experienced.
[Laurence Bergreen, Over the Edge of the World (2004), p. 392]

The Armada de Molucca, as it was called, departed from Seville on August 10, 1519, sailed down the Guadalquivir River to the coast at Sanlúcar de Barrameda, where they waited for Magellan, who had remained behind to deal with last-minute preparations. The ships finally entered the Atlantic on September 20. The majority of the crew were Spanish, but there were also Portuguese, Italians, Greeks, and Frenchmen. Included were Magellan’s brother-in-law Duarte Barbosa, Magellan’s indentured servant Enrique of Malacca, and Antonio Pigafetta, a Venetian scholar who had signed on as a supernumerary and had been assigned the role of official expedition chronicler. The fleet stopped briefly in the Canary Islands for more provisions; later, Magellan learned that his suppliers had swindled him by misrepresenting the quantity and quality of supplies they provided.
            He ordered the fleet south along the coast of Africa to avoid and outrun two fleets that had been sent by the Portuguese king to intercept the expedition and arrest the Captain General for his treason. After weeks of storms, followed by doldrums, Magellan’s ships reached Sierra Leone, then headed west and crossed the Atlantic, finding anchorage in Rio de Janeiro on December 13, 1519. A layover period of sensual indulgence, as the sailors enjoyed the favors of willing Indian women, was disturbed by Magellan’s execution of a sailor who had sodomized a cabin boy. Thereafter, the crew became increasingly resentful of their leader.
            The fleet hugged the coast of South America, heading steadily south—sailing only during the day and anchoring at night—searching for the strait that would take them to the Spice Islands. The Rio de la Plata offered hope but proved to be too shallow. As the southern hemisphere slowly entered its winter, the fleet established a settlement at Puerto San Julián in Patagonia (Argentina), at a latitude of 49°20′ S, where they encountered the tall Tehuelche Indians. Pigafetta’s description of these people would give birth to the myth of the Patagonian Giants. (For more, see the Patagonian Giants box in the Strait of Magellan section.)
            Magellan reduced rations and tried to keep the men busy, but dissension, especially among the Spanish captains and crew, soon erupted into midnight mutiny on April 2. But with subterfuge and some luck, Magellan quickly seized control. Luis de Mendoza, the captain of Victoria, was killed in the fighting; Gaspar de Quesada, the captain of Concepción, was executed—their dead bodies were drawn and quartered and put on display. (Later, two other conspirators, Juan de Cartagena, the captain of San Antonio, and a priest named Padre Sánchez de la Reina, were left marooned on the coast when the fleet left.) The Santiago was sent to do some southerly scouting and was wrecked in a powerful storm, yet all of its crew survived the long journey, in freezing weather, back along the land.

Image of Victoria from Abraham Ortelius’s map “Maris Pacifici . . .” (Antwerp, 1595). [Historic Maps Collection]

I have translated the Latin text beneath the ship with some poetic license:

I was first to circle the world by means of sails,
Carrying you, Magellan, leader, through the new strait.
Therefore am I justly called Victoria [Victory].
With sails as wings, and glory my prize, I fought the sea.

Second-smallest of the five ships of Ferdinand Magellan’s Armada de Molucca, the Victoria was a Spanish carrack or nao (ship). It was named after the church of Santa María de la Victoria de Triana (Seville, Spain) where Magellan, the Portuguese captain-general, had taken an oath of allegiance to nineteen-year-old Spanish king Charles I before setting sail in August 1519. The exact dimensions of the ship are not known, but it weighed eighty-five tons and carried forty-four men.
            Victoria alone returned to Spain in September 1522, carrying twenty-six tons of cloves in its hold, worth more than twice the cost of the whole Magellan expedition. There were only 18 survivors from the original five-ship roster of 237 men.
            After the voyage, the battered vessel was repaired and sold to a merchant. As late as 1570, Victoria was still plying the Atlantic as a workhorse for the Spanish conquest of the Americas when it was lost, with all hands aboard, en route to Seville from the Antilles.

After what seemed an interminable five months, the remaining four ships of the armada weighed anchor on August 24, 1520. Foul weather hindered their progress, but on October 21 (the feast day of St. Ursula of the Eleven Thousand Virgins), around 52° S latitude, they reached a headland they called the Cape of the Eleven Thousand Virgins (today’s Vírgenes), beyond which, cutting into the landmass, stretched a broad and deep waterway with strong currents: it was the longed-for strait. Navigating its 350 miles would prove to be a nautical nightmare, owing to the high tides (up to twenty-four feet) and strong winds and currents.
            Magellan methodically advanced into this Never Never Land. Seeing distant fires at night, indicative of human settlements, he named the area Tierra del Fuego, Land of Fire. After thirty-eight days, negotiating channels, bays, and glacier-fed fjords, past huge, snow-capped mountains and coarse, evergreen shores, surviving a fierce williwaw and the rebellion of another ship—San Antonio, the largest in the fleet, containing many provisions, had stealthily headed back to Spain—Magellan achieved part of his goal: the Pacific Ocean. Overcoming all of the challenges was a remarkable testament to his abilities as a navigator and strategist and to his crews’ forbearance and skill. The three ships reached Cape Desire on November 28, 1520, and entered an ocean Magellan called pacific for its mildness. According to historical weather research, Magellan probably benefited from El Niño, which provided calm winds across the Pacific during his crossing. (Note that later, however, after exiting the Magellan Strait, Sir Francis Drake would encounter very strong westerlies that forced him far south and east, into what would become known as the Drake Passage.)
            Some cautionary notes were sounded, for supplies were low and great danger inevitably awaited them. Yet all realized that the voyage was worthless without reaching the Spice Islands, which they assumed would be a short distance away. Of course, no one realized that the greatest expanse of water on the planet lay ahead. And Magellan’s course, first northward along the western coast of South America and then west, unluckily avoided virtually all of the ocean’s twenty-five thousand islands. In fact, during the transpacific crossing, they sighted land only once—barren atolls of the Tuamotu Islands, which Magellan dubbed Islands of Disappointment—before reaching Guam in the Ladrones (“Islands of Thieves,” today’s Marianas) on March 6, 1521, after ninety-eight days on the ocean.
            Pigafetta spent much of that time with Paul, their captive Patagonian Giant, learning some of his language and converting him to Christianity just before he died. Scurvy made its deathly appearance and carried off about thirty of the men, who had been reduced to eating biscuits swarming with worms, drinking putrid yellow water, soaking (softening) then chewing the ox-hide top coverings of sails, eating sawdust from boards, and trading rats. The officers fared better for reasons unknown to them: they had a supply of preserved quince, a potent anti-scorbutic. Magellan was desperate and depressed, confounded by the distance and amount of time they had spent sailing.
            They approached Guam with great relief yet caution, anchoring in a large turquoise lagoon (today’s Umatac Bay). The taller, stronger indigenous people, the Chamorros, surrounded the fleet in their proas (their multihulled sailing canoes), quickly boarded the flagship, and started stealing anything loose that they could. Altercations developed, guns were fired, arrows shot, but the fighting subsided when Magellan ordered his men to stop—soon food was being distributed to the starving crew and some trading took place. However, when the captain’s skiff was stolen, Magellan sent a raiding party ashore the next day: many houses were burned and seven native men killed. A template for European first encounters with Pacific peoples had been created.
            Guam was not the Spice Islands, and so the fleet moved on to points still unknown, reaching Homonhom Island at the edge of the Philippine archipelago on March 16. Magellan’s servant, Enrique, who had been with him since Malacca days, was able to communicate with a nearby island’s inhabitants, whose Filipino leader, Rajah Kolambu, treated Magellan like royalty. Wanting to impress, Magellan demonstrated the Spaniards’ weaponry and offered to subdue the king’s enemies. Kolambu offered pilots to lead them to a larger, more impressive island, Cebu, ruled by an ally, Raja Humabon. There the fleet arrived on April 7.
            Humabon and Magellan quickly formed a tight bond as blood brothers. Once Humabon and his queen were baptized as Christians, their subjects followed suit. Tribute to Magellan was given, allegiance to Spain was offered—it seemed too perfect. Buoyed by these developments and his own confidence, Magellan demanded obedience from neighboring islands to Humabon and the conversion of their inhabitants to Christianity. (He was exceeding the instructions King Charles had given him.)
            One of the two chieftains of Mactan, Lapu Lapu, refused and challenged Magellan to a fight. Determined to show the power of the Spanish armored warriors, and against the advice of his own men to engage in a needless battle, Magellan sailed to Mactan on Saturday, April 27, 1521. The coastal water was shallow, forcing the ships to anchor well offshore. The men had to wade through two crossbow flights of thigh-high water to reach the shore. In the “Battle of Mactan,” forty-nine European musketeers and crossbowmen confronted three divisions of Mactan fighters, more than one thousand men, armed with arrows, bamboo spears tipped with iron, and fire-hardened stakes. Further inciting the islanders’ wrath, Magellan ordered the burning of nearby homes. The fighting lasted about an hour, culminating, as Pigafetta describes it, with Magellan’s death:

Which seeing [Magellan wounded in the arm], all those people threw themselves on him, and one of them with a large javelin . . . thrust it into his leg, whereby he fell face downward. On this all at once 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. [vol. 1, p. 88]

It was an undignified end, offshore, in water up to his knees. His hacked body pieces were kept by the Mactans as a memorial; no armor was ever recovered.

Death of Magellan on the Philippine island of Mactan. From Levinus Hulsius’s Sechster Theil, kurtze, warhafftige Relation vnnd Beschreibung der wunderbarsten vier Schiffahrten . . . (Frankfurt, 1626). [Rare Books Division]

Title page of the Maximilian publication.

Maximilian, of Transylvania. De Moluccis insulis, itemq[ue] alijs pluribus mira[n]dis, quæ nouissima Castellanorum nauigatio sereniss. imperatoris Caroli. V. auspicio suscepta, nuper inuenit / Maximiliani Transyluani ad reuerendiss. cardinalem Saltzburgensem epistola lectu perquam iucunda. Cologne, January 1523. [Rare Books Division]

No banners. No headlines. No broadcasts. Still, this is essentially an account “hot off the presses”: how the news of Magellan’s circumnavigation broke into print almost five hundred years ago. It is presented in the form of a letter from Maximilian (Maximilianus Transylvanus), who was secretary to Charles V, Holy Roman emperor (and king of Spain), for whom Magellan had sailed, to Matthäus Lang von Wellenburg, the cardinal-archbishop of Salzburg. Maximilian interviewed the survivors of the voyage soon after Magellan’s ship Victoria returned to Spain in September 1522. Including Juan Sebastián de Elcano (captain), Francisco Albo, and Hernando de Bustamante, the group presented itself to the Spanish court at Valladolid in October. Maximilian’s letter is dated October 24, 1522, from Valladolid. So this is truly a firsthand account, scooped by someone on the scene. Cardinal Lang had probably suggested the idea to Maximilian—hence the letter.


If that was the climax of the expedition’s circumnavigation, what remained was completing the rest of the mission, and the drama continued. Enrique was not freed, as Magellan’s will instructed; in revenge, he schemed with Humabon, and a number of the Europeans were massacred at a feast. Shorthanded, the men decided to burn the Concepción. Eventually, the navigational skills of Juan Sebastián de Elcano (ca. 1476–1526), a Basque merchant mariner, lead Victoria and Trinidad to Tidore in the Moluccas on November 8, 1521. Quickly reaching trading agreements with the sultan of Tidore, who also disliked the Portuguese authorities, the crews stuffed the two ships with cloves. The Trinidad, needing repair, stayed behind while the Victoria, with Elcano in charge, departed for Spain on December 21. (Later, the Trinidad tried unsuccessfully to cross eastward across the Pacific and was captured by Portuguese ships looking for Magellan and his Armada de Molucca; its cargo, including possibly Magellan’s personal logbook, was confiscated, and its crew imprisoned on Ternate for several years. The ship was wrecked there in a storm.)
            On September 6, 1522, Victoria, with a ghastly/ghostly crew of eighteen survivors, reached Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the coast of Spain, and tied up at the docks in the Triana district of Seville four days later, after an absence of three years and a distance, according to Pigafetta, of 14,460 leagues. They had sailed completely around the world. The boat’s hold of cloves (381 sacks) was worth more than the cost of the original five-ship armada: after everything, the voyage had been profitable. But Magellan’s detractors had arrived first (remember that the San Antonio had turned back in the Strait of Magellan). Additionally criticized and vilified in the reports of Elcano and others of the Victoria, Magellan did not receive his due credit for the expedition he had initiated. None of the promises King Charles had made to him and his heirs were kept. Both countries, Spain and Portugal, considered him a traitor. Perhaps the greatest irony is that Charles, still short of cash, sold Spain’s rights to the Moluccas to Portugal in the 1529 Treaty of Saragossa. (For more on this treaty, see the Lines of Demarcation box in the Spice Islands section.) All that Magellan had accomplished with his expedition was apparently unnecessary.
            For mapmakers, of course, the geographical nut had been cracked—the true size and scope of the planet had been revealed. No speculation or guesswork was needed anymore. There was a passage to the Pacific, and a vast uncharted ocean now awaited the pursuit of European explorers.
            It was Pigafetta’s wish that “the renown of so valiant and noble a captain will not be extinguished or fall into oblivion in our time” [vol. 1, p. 88]. Surviving the circumnavigation with his journal intact, this loyal and indefatigable chronicler began making sure of that.

Scherer, Heinrich, 1628–1704. “Repræsentatio geographica itineris maritimi navis Victoriæ in qua ex personis CCXXXVII finita navigatione rediere tantum XVIII quæ solo indusio tectæ et faces accensas manibus præferentes in basilica hispalensi se voto exsolverunt VII Sept. ann. MDXXII” (ca. 1700). Copperplate map, with added color, 23 cm. in diam., on sheet 23 × 36 cm. From Scherer’s Atlas novus (Munich, 1702–1710). Reference: Shirley, Mapping of the World, 626. [Historic Maps Collection]

A devout Jesuit, Scherer’s maps usually contain religious overtones. Here, in its north polar projection of the world, Magellan’s circumnavigation is tracked and dated. The myth of California as an island continues. On the left is an engraving of Victoria, the only remaining ship from Magellan’s armada. On the right, the few survivors of the voyage are shown making their way to the Santa María de la Victoria church in Seville, where they go to give thanks for their safe return. The date, from the cartouche above the scene, is September 7, 1522; the number of men is 18 out of the original 237.

Other Books:

  • Pigafetta, Antonio. Magellan’s Voyage: A Narrative Account of the First Circumnavigation. Translated and edited by R. A. Skelton from the manuscript in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library of Yale University. 2 vols. New Haven, Conn., 1969. [Rare Books Division]

This is an English translation (with facsimile volume) of a French version of Pigafetta’s lost original journal, Relazione del primo viaggio intorno al mondo (Relation on the First Voyage around the World), dated about 1525 and now owned by Yale University. There are three other surviving “copies”—two in French, one in Italian—and their provenance and relationships are described in great detail here in Skelton’s work. The Yale manuscript is considered the finest copy, clearly intended for presentation to a nobleman; it is also the most complete of the three French copies. Purchasing it from an English dealer’s catalogue in 1953, Edwin J. Beinecke presented it to Yale’s Beinecke Library in 1964. It consists of 103 leaves of vellum (97 bearing text or maps), with text written in a clear, careful humanistic script, twenty-seven lines to the page, and with illuminated initials and paragraph marks. The manuscript is divided into forty-eight chapters, each preceded by a summary. There are numerous marginal captions and twenty-three maps interspersed through the text.

  • Baccino Ponce de León, Napoleón. Five Black Ships: A Novel of the Discoverers. Translated by Nick Caistor. New York, 1994. First English edition. The dust jacket bears the subtitle A Novel of Magellan. [General Library Collection]

A first-person fictional account of Magellan’s expedition told by a court jester accompanying the voyage. This first novel by the Uruguayan writer won the 1989 Novela Casa de las Américas Award, one of Latin America’s oldest and most prestigious literary prizes.

Table of Contents / Explorers
Magellan Strait
Pacific Ocean
Spice Islands