1902 Encyclopedia > Ferdinand Magellan

Ferdinand Magellan
Portuguese explorer
(c. 1480-1521)

FERDINAND MAGELLAN, in Portuguese Fernão de Magalhães (c. 1470-1521), who, though he did not survive to return home with his ship, well deserves the title of the "first circumnavigator," was born about 1470, and (according to the somewhat questionable authority of his will, dating from 1504) at Villa de Sabroza in the district of Villa Real, Traz os Montes.

Ferdinand Magellan picture

Ferdinand Magellan
Portuguese navigator
(c. 1470-1521)

His family was "hidalgo," and he seems to have spent his boyhood in the household of Queen Leonora, consort of John II of Portugal.

For several years he was in active service in the East Indies. It was he who, in 1510, gave Siqueira timely warming of the plot of the people of Malacca, thus probably saving his countrymen from annihilation; and, along with Serrano, he commanded the ships sent out under Abreu for the discovery of the Spice Islands.

On his return from the East, Magellan was sent to Azamor in Morocco; and this brief episode in his career is memorable for the wound which left him lame for the rest of his life, and for the beginning of the troubles which determined his future course.

Contrary to what he had a right to expect, the king (Manuel) refused Magellan’s application for an increase of the pay assigned to him as a member of the royal household; and the manner of the refusal added insult to what he considered injury. In company with another malcontent of note, Ruy Faleiro the astronomer, he formally renounced his nationality, and went to offer his services to the court of Spain.

Word was no sooner brought to Manuel of the schemes proposed to the Spaniards than he felt the mistake he had committed; but all the efforts put forth by special agents to allure his alienated subjects back to their allegiance, or to thwart their negotiations, proved of no avail. The bishop of Burgos, Juan Rodriquez de Fonseca, had taken the matter up, and things had gone too far for Magellan to retrace his steps.

On August 10, 1519, the expedition set sail; to find his way by a western route to the Spice Islands of the East was the task which its commander had undertaken.

When more than three years afterwards, on September 6, 1522, the "Victoria" cast anchor in a Spanish port, the captain, Sebastian del Cano, had a strange tale to tell of mingled triumph and tragedy. While the squadron lay in Port St Julian, on the Patagonian coast, three of Magellan’s Spanish captains had defied him and conspired against him, it was only by a rapid execution of summary vengeance that he had maintained his authority.

At a later date the "Antonio," at the instigation of Gomez, the Portuguese pilot, his personal enemy, sailed home to Spain with evil reports, at the very moment of success, when the Strait of the Eleven Thousand Virgins, or of the Patagonians, now known as the Strait of Magellan, had been explored almost to the Pacific.

The strait was passed on November 28, 1520; and, though Magellan had not quite reached the Spice Islands when he fell in conflict with the people of Zebu [Cebu, Philippines], 27th April 1521, his task was virtually accomplished. The name Magellan’s Land -- long given to Patagonia and that hypothetical continent of which Tierra del Fuego was considered only a portion -- had disappeared from our maps, but has again been bestowed by Chili [Chile] on the territory she claims in the extreme south.

No record of his exploits has been left by Magellan himself; and contemporary accounts are less detailed and consistent than could be wished. The best is that of Antonio Pigafetta, a volunteer in the fleet. It is printed in Ramusio, and exists in four early MS. copies, three in French and one in Italian. The Italian was printed in 1801 by Amoretti. Along with five minor narratives an English version appears in Lord Stanley of Alderley’s First Voyage round the World by Magellan, 1874 (Hakluyt Society’s Publications, vol. Iii.). See also J. G. Kohl, Geschichte der Entdeckungsreise… zur Magellan’s Strasse (Berlin, 1877), and Ramon Guerrero Vergara, Los descubridores del Estrecho de Magellanes, Santiago de Chile, 1880.

See also: Further details on Magellan and the first circumnavigation of the world.

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