First Circumnavigation of the Globe, begun in 1519, was an attempt to prove that the coveted Spice Islands, or Moluccas, were actually property of Spain. Finding a direct route between the Spice Islands and Spanish Peru would be argument enough for ownership of these lands. Ferdinand Magellan set out from Spain on this voyage with five ships, but the voyage was more difficult than expected. Disease, bad weather, and loss of ships to Portuguese attack hampered the voyage. On April 27, 1521, Magellan was killed in the Philippine Islands attempting to convert a native chief to Christianity. With only two ships remaining, the crew continued the voyage making it back to Seville, Spain with only 18 crew members on a single ship.
Magellan attempted to receive funds from the King of Portugal, but he would not fund this voyage because he saw no need for such a frivolous expenditure. Magellan then turned to King Charles (also known as Holy Roman Emperor Charles V) of Spain for support. Magellan convinced the king that this voyage would be useful to show that the Spice Islands were property of Spain, not Portugal. The dispute over these islands was significant because the possession of these islands would bring vast wealth to the owner. King Charles I saw this as an opportunity to gain status and wealth for his country and gave Magellan his funding.
Setting sail on September 20, 1519, Magellan began his voyage with a crew of 237 men of doubtful reliability on five tiny ships. After three long months of sea travel, Magellan anchored near present day Rio de Janeiro. The ships were restocked and the crew traded with the friendly natives, but the rest was short-lived. Cautious because of being in Portuguese waters, Magellan quickly resumed the voyage on a path towards the Great South Sea of the Orient. Magellan believed he had found the Spice Islands and exclaimed, "Montevideo," that is, "I see a mountain"; but it was only the large delta of the Rio de la Plata. Disappointed, the crew sailed on.
Sailing farther and farther south, the weather became ever colder. Freezing nights and cool days left the crew in serious danger of frostbite and serious illness. Along with the temperatures, the spirits of the crew also fell. Three would-be mutineers were executed and two were marooned for attempting to take control of the ships and to end the voyage. Things became worse when one of the five ships smashed into the beach. All the crew survived, but the supplies and ship were total losses.
In October of 1520, a lookout spotted the strait, later named the Straits of Magellan, and the Pacific Ocean was straight ahead.The good fortune of reaching the Pacific Ocean did not make the travels easier. Suffering amongst the crew members grew as they began running out of food. Extreme hunger caused the men to eat such things as rats, leather, maggots, and sawdust just to stay alive. Along with hunger, scurvy became prevalent. At least twenty men died from complications due to starvation. March 6 brought with it hope when the ships reached the island of Guam. This hope was short-lived when the crew had to defend themselves from the attacks of the native peoples. Food and water from other nearby islands did replenish their bodies and spirits. Magellan's Malaysian slave hailed a group of islanders in their native tongue, giving evidence that Magellan had reached the Orient.
While in the Philippines, the sailors converted many natives to Christianity. These conversions would lead to more problems than anticipated.During an attempt by Magellan to coerce the chief of a nearby island called Mactan to Christianity, the native leader became upset. This chief wanted nothing to do with Christianity, but Magellan, against the advice of his officers, continued to push the man. The chief angrily ordered his warriors to attack Magellan and his crew. Most of Magellan's men fled quickly to the ships while Magellan slowly backed away towards safety. Wearing full body armor, with the exception of his feet, Magellan felt he was safe against the spears of the natives. He was wrong. A native warrior drove a spear into Magellan's foot, wounding him. The rest of the men attacked, killing him on the 27th of April, 1521.
During a previous voyage, Magellan had traveled to the Philippine Islands through the conventional trading routes around the Cape of Good Hope. Though not in a single continuous voyage, Magellan had traveled completely around the earth on a ship. This accomplishment made Magellan extremely famous amongst sailors and throughout all of Europe.
With the loss of their leader, Juan Sebastian Del Cano, a man who had supported mutiny while near South America, took control of the ships and continued on towards home. During this point of the voyage, only two ships and 47 men remained. In December of 1521, the ship Trinidad fell to the Portuguese, leaving the ship Victoria as the last remnant of the initial voyage. Severe storms, adverse currents, and Portuguese attacks drained the men. Staying as far away from the Cape of Good Hope as possible, for fear of attack, the Victoria rounded Africa and headed towards Europe. Lack of supplies caused the unintentional stop at the Cape Verde Islands. When the Portuguese got wind that the Spanish travelers were trading in their sphere of influence, they found every man who went ashore and captured them. Del Cano was forced to leave without the much needed supplies and with barely enough men to sail the ship. Finally, on September 8th, 1522, the Victoria bore 18 survivors into the port of Seville, Spain. The circumnavigation of the globe was complete.
Edited by: Steven M. Hoden
Researched by: Joshua E. VerHage
Written by: Tait M. Swenson
March 24, 1998
Revised November 2005
Copyright 1996-1999 by David W. Koeller.All rights reserved.