Ferdinand Magellan (1480–1521) was a Portuguese explorer who is credited with masterminding the first expedition to circumnavigate the world.

Magellan was sponsored by Spain to travel west across the Atlantic in search of the East Indies. In doing so, his expedition became the first from Europe to cross the Pacific Ocean and circumnavigate the world.

Who was Magellan?

Magellan was born in Portugal and was a successful explorer and navigator. He wanted to reach South-East Asia, where spices grew and gems were to be found, by sailing westwards across the Atlantic Ocean. He hoped to find a passage through South America so that he could sail all the way from the Atlantic to the ocean beyond the Americas (now known as the Pacific). He left Spain in 1519 with five ships and about 260 men.

Did he find a passage through South America?

Magellan found the strait that is now named after him, but only by chance. When two of his ships were driven towards land in a storm, the men feared they would be wrecked on the shore. Then, just in time, they spotted a small opening in the coastline. It was the passage for which they had been searching since they left home.

Where did the name ‘Pacific’ come from?

Magellan named the ocean the Pacific (meaning 'peaceful') because it was calm and pleasant when he entered it. 

By now one of his ships had deserted, but the other four started the journey across their new-found sea. To everyone's amazement, the crossing was to take three months and 20 days. Magellan and his men suffered terrible hunger on the voyage. They ran out of fresh food and many died of scurvy.

Did Magellan get home safely?

No: he was killed in a fight with islanders in the Philippines. He died on 27 April 1521 on Mactan Island, Cebu, Philippines.

So although he had masterminded the first expedition to sail around the world, he didn’t complete the voyage. In fact, the first person to sail around the world was a Malaysian, who had come back to Europe with Magellan many years before and then went as an interpreter on his later voyage. The first European to complete the circumnavigation was Magellan's second-in-command, Juan Sebastian de Elcano, who took over after his death.

How many men returned to Spain?

Of all the men who sailed with Magellan, only 18 returned to Spain in 1522. People were amazed when they saw those on board the one remaining ship, Victoria, for they looked starved and filthy.

Did people make use of the trade route Magellan had discovered?

The western sea route to the Spice Islands was not used for many years. Spain was too busy taking land in South America, and it was easier for the Portuguese to get to the East by sailing around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.