Ferdinand Magellan: the first to go around the world?

Ferdinand MagellanFerdinand Magellan. Repro ID: PU2325 ©National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, LondonColumbus landed in the 'new world' of the Americas in 1492. Explorers coming after him in the 16th century brought the news to Europe that the Pacific Ocean lay beyond the western coast of America. Suddenly people began to understand that they could reach the East by sailing westwards from Europe.

Why did they want to get to the East?

Europeans wanted silks, gems and spices from the East. At the end of the 15th century, the Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama had found a route from Europe to India by sailing round the southern tip of Africa, but people thought there might be another route.

Who was Magellan?

Ferdinand Magellan was a Portuguese sailor. He wanted to try to reach south-east Asia, where many spices grew, by sailing westwards across the Atlantic Ocean. As his own king wouldn't finance the voyage, he got the help he needed from Spain instead. He hoped to find a passage through South America so that he could sail all the way from the Atlantic to the Pacific.

When did Magellan sail?

He left Spain in 1519 with five ships and about 260 men. At first he did not tell his men where they were going because he thought they would be too frightened to obey him.

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 dashed against 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.

Why did Magellan name the ocean he entered the 'Pacific'?

The ocean was calm and peaceful when Magellan finally 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.

What happened in the Pacific?

Magellan and his men suffered terrible hunger. They ran out of fresh food and many died of scurvy, an illness caused by a lack of the vitamin C found in fresh fruit and vegetables. One of the crew wrote:

'We ate only old biscuit reduced to powder, and full of grubs, and stinking from the dirt which the rats had made on it when eating the good biscuit, and we drank water that was yellow and stinking. The men were so hungry that if any of them caught a rat, he could sell it for a high price to someone who would eat it.'

Did Magellan get home safely?

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

So although he had masterminded the first expedition to sail around the world, he did not complete the voyage himself. In fact, the first person to sail around the world was a Malaysian, who had travelled back to Europe with Magellan many years earlier. Later, he accompanied Magellan as an interpreter on the circumnavigation.

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 eastwards around the Cape of Good Hope at the southern tip of Africa.

Who led the next voyage round the world?

Tales about the terrible conditions endured by Magellan's men ensured that for more than 50 years no other sailors attempted a circumnavigation. However, in 1577 Francis Drake left England to rob Spanish treasure ships on their way home from South America. He was also hoping to find a northern short cut to the East.

After stealing much gold and silver, he decided not to return the way he had come in case Spanish ships were waiting to attack him. Instead, he decided to set sail across the Pacific to the Spice Islands then back to England by rounding Africa. When he reached London in 1580, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth I for his exploit. He had brought back spices and treasure worth a fortune in the money of the time.