Episode 11 – Ferdinand Magellan

The Historyish team are back for a new year and a new series looking at some of the fascinating characters which came up in previous episodes. This week we take a look at intrepid and mortal explorer Ferdinand Magellan and his voyage to circumnavigate the globe. Along the way, the team question the ethics of the trip, how empires behave, and how knowledge was an integral part of statecraft in the 16th Century.

And, as ever, we also discuss the events from this week in history including:

Charles Darwin’s Birthday
Charles Darwin’s facial hair
Charles Dickens’ Birthday
Charles Dickens’ will
Charles II

If you have a suggestion for who we should feature in a future podcast, want to correct factual errors, or generally just get in touch with us, you can: via e-mail, Twitter and/or Facebook.

Ferdinand Magellan (c. 1480 – 1521)

Ferdinand Magellan was born around 1480 in Portugal. He was an explorer in the early sixteenth century and is most famous for being the captain of the expedition which first circumnavigated the globe.

Opinion is divided as to when and where he was actually born, but we do know that he was from a relatively high-ranking background in the region around Porto, possibly Sabrosa. After his parents died when he was around ten years old he became a messenger to the royal court, something that a total commoner would not have been able to do.

Magellan lived at a time when European exploration was exploding. In the fifteenth century, European ships had begun to explore Africa. They gradually made more systematic and methodical trips around the bulgy bit of West Africa, discovering and trading with modern day Ghana, Mali, Senegal and Cameroon. In 1498, Vasco de Gama navigated his way around the Cape of Good Hope (the southernmost tip of the continent), which opened up the East coast of Africa to European exploration.

Magellan first sailed in 1505, a few years after Europeans had made landfall in India; and crucially, years after Columbus had rediscovered the New World in the name of Spain. Pope Alexander VI decreed in 1493 that everything to the East of an imaginary line somewhere in the Atlantic would be Spanish and everything to the West would be Portuguese. This line was renegotiated in 1494, which is one of the reasons why Brazil speaks Portuguese on a largely Spanish-speaking continent.

Anyway – this meant that Magellan’s experience of sailing and exploration was of an African rather than American bent. Portugal began to exploit the African route to India as an important artery of trade. He spent time in Goa, and fought as soldier in numerous battles, suffering wounds as he went. He took leave without permission and was “relegated” to service in North Africa. In Morocco in the 1510s he got a permanent limp, which may have been a factor later on in this story. Frustrated at his lack of prospects he left for Spain after asking the king in 1517 for funds to launch an expedition to India from the “wrong way” – i.e. sailing around America rather than around Africa.

As the Portuguese continued to search for the “Spice Islands” in the Indian Ocean, Magellan received letters from old friends giving him details of the world lying the other side of the Cape of Good Hope. This became vital as an exploration race raged between the Spanish and the Portuguese. Now that it was clear that the Americas were NOT the Indies, it became vitally important for Spain to establish a route around the world which would allow them to trade with East Asia. Since the Spanish “owned” (as they saw it) the American half of the globe, they decided to take up Magellan’s idea and sailed westwards for the Indies. By doing so, they would not interfere with the existing Portuguese routes and it would allow them to trade with India without pissing off Portugal or the Pope.

The Spanish funded Magellan in 1517 to open up the spice route. On 20th September 1519, they finally entered the Atlantic Ocean. In January 1520, the expedition of five ships and around 270 men landed in Rio de Janeiro. On 30th March they landed in modern day Argentina and established a settlement. Two of the five captains tried to lead a mutiny, but failed when the crews remained loyal to Magellan. One was pardoned, the other executed. It is said (Martin’s favourite phrase) that Sir Francis Drake discovered the bones years later when he was exploring the Atlantic.

They then set sail for the southern tip of America, navigating their way through what are now called the Straits of Magellan in November 1520. This was probably a good call – the Straits are a gap in what is now part of Chile in the Tierra del Fuego. To travel around the actual tip of America, Cape Horn, is considered, even today, one of the toughest sailing challenges in the world.

The crew had naively assumed that the distance between America and India was not that large. It took nearly four months to reach Asia. Magellan reached the Philippines on 17 March 1521 with 150 of his crew still with him. When he got there, he convinced a prominent local chief, Rajah Humabon to get baptised and take Christian names. This alliance allowed his crew to get new supplies and food, and the order went out for the other chiefs in the area to also convert to Christianity.

Unfortunately for Ferdinand, Datu Lapu-Lapu on the island of Mactan refused to be subjugated to the King of Spain. Rajah Humabon suggested that Magellan should declare war on the errant chief and enforce his will. On 27th April, Magellan tried to convince Datu Lapu-Lapu to conform, then the following day burned down houses to intimidate him. This provoked an armed attack on the explorer. His ships were not well placed for canon fire, and out of musket range of their targets. The locals threw spears at the exposed crew, and ended up wounding Magellan. As he tried to escape he was set upon by the warriors who stabbed at him with their spears and swords, killing him. Did his limp affect his ability to escape? There is no evidence to support this conclusion. But let’s speculate wildly anyway.

The rest of the crew escaped and continued their westward voyage. They sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in 1522 and arrived back in Spain on 6th September 1522, sixteen months after Magellan’s death. Only one ship, Victoria, made it back – with only 18 men on board. His expedition was the first to complete a circumnavigation of the globe, even if the captain himself was ripped to shreds on a Philippine beach.

We must remember that Magellan was not a benign explorer, sent on a three-year mission to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations, to boldly go where no man has gone before. He was a soldier and an agent of the state. The political and cultural context of his journey was one of profit and of bloodshed. But that is not to say that his voyage was not one of the most significant moments in world history. By proving that it was possible to sail the globe, new trade routes were established which would allow European merchants, soldiers and scientists to reach hitherto unknown corners of the world.

In 1989, NASA launched the Magellan probe to explore a new world – Venus. It brought back maps of a planet covered in cloud which humans had never had the chance to see before. As far as we know, no native Venusians were harmed in the gathering of this knowledge.

So, we will end, as always, on a quotation. Not from Magellan’s funeral (as he didn’t have one). Instead, I’ve taken this from a Philippine website, and this just makes me smile and whince at the same time. It is in praise of Magellan, the bringer of the Gospel. Probably Magellan’s greatest “legacy” in the Philippines:

I dare say that the true hero of Mactán was not your vile Fish King [Lapu-Lapu]. For having resisted Christianity and a possible early Filipinization, he unwittingly became the enemy of Christ, the poisonous scorpion.
To Magallanes: a respectful salute and boundless admiration!

Further Reading

Wikipedia’s entries for Magellan and the Battle of Mactan

Eye Witness History.com‘s entry on Magellan

The Magellan Spacecraft

Think Quest.org

Background (also from Wikipedia) on the European exploration of Africa and the Inter caetera (the splitting of the world into Spanish and Portuguese halves)

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