The date is September 20, 1519 and Ferdinand Magellan is a man on a mission—he’s determined to be the first to find a western sea route from Europe to the Spice Islands of Indonesia. Despite facing famine, violence, and treacherous conditions, Magellan’s quest was successful, as you are most likely aware. The discovery of the 370-mile channel made sailing from the Atlantic to the Pacific possible. But how did he do it? And who exactly was Ferdinand Magellan?
Who was Ferdinand Magellan?
- Magellan was a dedicated man. Some may argue too dedicated. While navigation had developed significantly by 1519, the perils of a life at sea were well-known. However, it takes a deep level of dedication for a man to willingly say goodbye to his wife and child, knowing well that he may never see either again. As you gaze upon the majestic landscape—the mountains of both rock and ice, the fjords of deep, black-blue—it’s easy to imagine the sense of awe that Magellan felt as he silently sailed by. Was his wonderment weakened by the memory of the loved ones left behind, or did this world of undiscovered beauty steel his heart and push him harder to return home a hero?
- Magellan was a respected man. The king entrusted Magellan with a fleet of five ships and a crew of 270. Considering that the destination was truly unknown and the likelihood of disaster high, this was quite the compliment, indeed. The king would later pay additional respects to Magellan by changing the name of the channel from Estrecho de Todos los Santos (Strait of All Saints) to Estrecho de Magallanes, securing Magellan’s place in history and permanently marking the globe with his achievement.
- Magellan was an accomplished man. Not only did he locate the strait, but Magellan was the first to technically circumnavigate the globe (although it should be noted that he did not sail Point A to Point A, in a true circle around the world). Ironically, it was Magellan’s personal slave and translator, Enrique, who was the first person to truly sail around the world, and did so only after Magellan’s death.
- Magellan was a resilient man. While wintering at Port St. Julian on South America’s east coast, Magellan’s captains mutinied. Magellan didn’t skip a beat—he executed one captain and marooned the other. On October 21, Magellan’s three remaining ships finally entered the strait separating Tierra del Fuego and the mainland. The path was foggy. The waters wild. Yet Magellan pushed on. Thirty-eight days later, they entered “The Sea of the South” where the water was so calm, Magellan renamed the ocean, Pacific from the Latin pacificus, meaning “tranquil.” By the time the ships reached Guam on March 6, 1521, food was so scarce that Magellan instructed his men to chew the leather from their gear to stay alive.
- Magellan was (indirectly) a generous man. Magellan’s discovery paved the way for future explorers to claim victories of their own. While sailing the strait in 1577, Sir Francis Drake discovered that Tierra del Fuego was not part of the continent as previously believed. In 1580, Pedro Sarmiento de Gamboa produced detailed maps later used to fortify the strait. Without Magellan, the names of these men might have long been forgotten.