The Myth of Magellan

by | Jul 22, 2022

In 1519, no one in history had sailed around the world. In 1519, no one in history was planning to sail around the world. But through a series of treacherous events and dangerous voyages, it happened and many a storybook and history book would say that Ferdinand Magellan “circumnavigated the globe.” If he did, then what is the myth of Magellan? Let me explain.

In 1519, no one in history had sailed around the world. In 1519, no one in history was planning to sail around the world. But through a series of treacherous events and dangerous voyages, it happened and many a storybook and history book would say that Ferdinand Magellan "circumnavigated the globe." If he did, then what is the myth of Magellan? Let me explain.

In 1519, Magellan was granted five ships by Spain to hold about 270 men. Since Charles I of Spain was a young king, and not very rich, the ships he provided were in terrible shape. They needed new coats of black pitch to prevent them from leaking, and lots of other repairs. Even then, it took a lot of convincing from Magellan to find the crew he needed. Because Magellan was originally Portuguese, the Spanish weren’t even sure they could trust him.

But with the promise of riches and adventure, sailors were found from all nations and all walks of life. The fleet was called the Armada de Molucca. The ships were, by name, the Trinidad, the San Antonio, the Concepción, the Santiago, and the Victoria. Magellan took the Trinidad as his own.

Magellan Sets Sail!

On September 20, after Mass, Magellan and the Armada de Molucca plunged into the Atlantic Ocean from the city of Sanlúcar de Barrameda. It must have been difficult leaving family and friends behind. The sea was known to be unkind and sometimes fatal.

Magellan’s plan was to return his fleet to Spain the same way they came. (Remember that fact!) By November, he veered the fleet far enough south to cross the equator near South America. By December, the armada reached Brazil but stayed only briefly as that land had been claimed by Portugal.

One of Magellan’s dreams was to find a passage through South America to the Spice Islands. He knew from having sailed around the Cape of Good Hope that it would be difficult to sail all the way around South America. And so for months, he and his men sailed along the eastern coast of South America in shark-infested waters looking for a shortcut to the other side.

It grew colder and colder as the crew sailed nearer toward Antarctica. It was so cold that the crew chose to camp on the mainland of South America for the rest of the winter. They camped in what now is Argentina. The sailors named it Patagonia (Pat uh GO nee uh or Pat uh GOHN yuh), which means “ big feet,” because the native inhabitants there were very tall and, in fact, had very big feet. On a cruel note, some of the gentle giants were tricked to go onboard the ships. There they were locked up as prisoners — forced to endure the rest of the long voyage ahead! Pigafetta, the diary keeper, did his best to learn their language and calm their fears.

Finding the Strait of Magellan

It would be October of the next year (1520) before Magellan found what he was looking for. Far down the coast of South America, there was indeed a passage to the other side! Magellan named it Estreito de Todos los Santos, which means “All Saints’ Channel.” It was named that because the ships sailed through the channel on All Saints’ Day, November 1. The passage was later named the Strait of Magellan after Ferdinand Magellan, who never gave up believing that this waterway existed.

This waterway, however, turned out to be quite treacherous. Though it was a shortcut across the continent, the narrow, winding canal was difficult to sail, with steep, snow-covered mountains on either side of it and winds cutting in between. Through patches of fog, the sailors could see fires at night on the lands to their left, so they named this land Tierra del Fuego (Tee AIR uh del FWAY go), meaning “Land of Fire.” The fires were started either by lightning or by the natives.

Maneuvering through the 330 miles of the strait took the Armada de Molucca over a month. The captain of the San Antonio avoided the danger by refusing to sail through it at all. His ship was the largest. He turned it around and headed back to Spain, taking a great deal of food and supplies with him!

In 1519, no one in history had sailed around the world. In 1519, no one in history was planning to sail around the world. But through a series of treacherous events and dangerous voyages, it happened and many a storybook and history book would say that Ferdinand Magellan "circumnavigated the globe." If he did, then what is the myth of Magellan? Let me explain.

Finally, on November 28, 1520, the three remaining ships — the Concepción, the Trinidad, and the Victoria — reached the Pacific Ocean. With tears in their eyes, the sailors looked out over the vast sea. In surviving their passage through the strait, they had accomplished one of the greatest feats in the history of sea travel. I wonder if they knew it. It was Magellan who named the ocean before them Pacifico, which we call the Pacific. It means “peaceful.” The wide open waters appeared much calmer and more peaceful than the tortuous channel they had just passed through.

However, peaceful is hardly the best word to describe the rest of the journey. Magellan had no idea how far away he was from reaching any land at all across the Pacific. Unknown to him, the Pacific Ocean covers one-third of the earth’s surface! It is more than 63 million square miles. Though Magellan was headed in the right direction to find the Spice Islands, he greatly underestimated how long it would take him to get there. For this mistake, he and his crewmen would suffer greatly.

Suffering at Sea!

First, the fleet ran out of fresh food. This resulted in the spread of scurvy, the disease that comes from not having enough vitamin C.  Then the fleet ran out of dried foods. Then they ran out of rats to eat. Then they resorted to eating sawdust and leather just to stay alive! What little water they had was discolored and tainted. In January, the crew found two deserted islands where there were crabs and other sea creatures to eat. But by then, a large number of men had already starved to death or died from scurvy. So, is this the myth of Magellan? No, not yet! But we’re getting there.

Finally, on March 6, after 98 straight days on the ocean, Magellan and his ships reached the Marianas (Mar ee AHN uhs), a small group of islands just east of the Philippines. Can you even imagine the sight of land on that day? Can you imagine the men falling to their knees and kissing the ground? Can you imagine them eating real food after having had nothing but sawdust and rats to eat? Of the 270 men who started on the incredible voyage, only 150 had made it to that point.

Civil War in the Philippines

As great as landfall was, something awful was yet in store. Upon reaching the Philippines, Magellan made a mistake that would cost him his life. After leading a local chief to Christ, Magellan joined him in a fight against another tribe. It was foolish to get involved in a battle that wasn’t his, but Magellan had bonded with the leader on a spiritual basis. Caught up in this civil war, Magellan and about 40 of his men were attacked on the beach. Magellan himself was speared to death and left dead in the surf. Ferdinand Magellan died on April 27, 1521, before ever seeing the Spice Islands.

Now perhaps you see it!  The myth of Magellan claims that he circumnavigated the globe—when in fact, he did not!  He died about about halfway around the world from his starting point in Spain. He never knew that his name would be despised among the Filipinos. Nor did he know that his name would be great in the West. Magellan never knew that at least one of his ships would continue to sail all the way around the world and that most would give him credit and perpetuate the myth of Magellan! Now, keep reading for the rest of the story.

The Rest of the Story

The remaining crew scrambled for their own safety. After much disagreement between the sailors, three men were chosen as captains. But it was Juan Sebastián de Elcano (Wahn Sih BAS chun deh El CAHN oh), the captain of the Victoria, who would unofficially take charge. He had tough shoes to fill. Juan Sebastián de Elcano was faced with the fact that Magellan, their brilliant leader, was dead and the Filipinos had all turned against them. He took charge of the men who were left, and they fled back to the sea.

For months, the three remaining ships sailed around the islands of Indonesia under the direction of Juan Elcano. Maneuvering through the islands was tricky with so few men. So, Elcano and his crew abandoned the worm-infested Concepción and burned it. The Trinidad and the Victoria became their new homes.

Finally, on November 6, 1521, the Trinidad and the Victoria reached the Spice Islands. With just 115 men, two of the five ships that started the voyage had actually reached their destination! As planned, the armada bought and loaded their remaining ships with 26 tons of cloves and other spices. Magellan would have been thrilled. His vision had been fulfilled.

Elcano Sails West!

With ships fully loaded, Elcano knew it was time to head home. Despite the loss of men and ships, their mission had been accomplished. But rather than sail home the way they came, Elcano made a historic decision. He pointed their ships west! This was historic because never before had ships sailed all the way around the world in one direction. And just when you would think this story is over, one more tragedy occurred. The Trinidad began to leak! It would have to be grounded awhile for repairs. This left Elcano and his crew on their own to cross the Indian Ocean and complete their circle around the globe.

The trip across the Indian Ocean proved almost as dangerous as the trip across the Pacific. You see, Elcano couldn’t sail the Victoria safely near the coast of India or Africa because of hostile traders. The Arabs and the Portuguese ruled those water routes like pirates. Elcano was forced to steer the Victoria far out into the Indian Ocean for 10,000 miles. In doing so, once again the sailors suffered. Food rations were short, and the men had to battle again with scurvy. By May 1522, the Victoria finally rounded the Cape of Good Hope with little but rice to eat. Twenty more men died of starvation before the ship landed at the Cape Verde Islands.

Finally, finally, finally, on September 6, 1522, almost exactly three years since their departure, the crewmen arrived in Spain. With tattered sails and half-starved men, the Armada de Molucca arrived home. Of the original 270-man crew, only 18 weather-beaten sailors pulled into port that day. Though barely alive, these skeleton-sized men had much to tell.

The Myth of Magellan

To some degree, Juan Sebastián de Elcano was rewarded during his lifetime for his heroic efforts. After all, he was the one who navigated the Victoria back home and officially circumnavigated the globe. And Elcano was the one who brought Spain a wealthy cargo of cloves. There was quite a celebration for that. But, when Elcano tried a second time to sail around the globe, he died crossing the Pacific Ocean. And so, over time, Elcano’s fame faded—and the myth of Magellan grew.

Historians today can’t help but give a lot of credit to Ferdinand Magellan. He was a brilliant navigator and a fine leader. He was certainly persistent in following his dream and making it happen. But historians and storytellers are inaccurate when they say that Magellan “circumnavigated the world.” For one, Magellan never planned to. And two, he only made it halfway around the world before his tragic death. In my opinion, Magellan, Juan Elcano, and the other 17 survivors of the Victoria probably all deserve some credit for being part of the first historic circumnavigation of the world.

“The Myth of Magellan” is adapted from The Mystery of History Volume III.  For more information about The Mystery of History curriculum, and a free audio sample, click here. 

 

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