Magellan, Ferdinand ca. 1480–1521 Portuguese Navigator and Explorer

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Magellan, Ferdinand
ca. 1480–1521
Portuguese navigator
and explorer

Perhaps the greatest navigator of Europe's age of discoveries, Ferdinand Magellan was the first European to sail from the Atlantic Ocean into the Pacific. The route he followed around the southern tip of South America is now called the Strait of Magellan in his honor. The explorer continued his voyage westward across the Pacific, landing in the Mariana Islands and the Philippines, which he claimed for Spain.

Born in northern Portugal, Magellan grew up during the years when the voyages of Christopher Columbus and Vasco da Gama were changing the map of the world. In 1505 Magellan sailed to Asia with the fleet of Dom Francisco de Almeida, first ruler of Portugal's Indian colony. He spent several years in southern Asia, where he heard of the Spice Islands or Moluccas (now part of Indonesia), the source of cloves and other precious spices.

By 1513 Magellan had returned to Portugal. Dissatisfied with service in the Portuguese court, he began planning an ambitious voyage. Magellan believed that he could reach the Spice Islands by sailing west across the Atlantic, finding a route past South America, and crossing the unexplored sea that was known to lie west of the Americas. Spain sponsored his voyage, and in August 1519 he set out with five ships and about 240 men.

By December the fleet had arrived near the present site of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. Magellan spent nearly a year searching for a westward passage through or around South America. During this time, he put down a mutiny and lost one vessel to shipwreck. But by late November 1520, he had found and sailed through a long, winding passage at the tip of South America that ran between the mainland and nearby islands. One ship abandoned the fleet and returned to Spain, but the remaining three emerged into the Pacific Ocean.

Magellan's fleet spent nearly 100 days on the open Pacific, far longer than he had expected. The expedition landed on one of the Mariana Islands, probably Guam, and reached the Philippines soon afterward. Magellan became involved in a war between two local groups and was killed in a battle on the island of Mactan in April 1521. Around the same time, one of his three ships was burned. The ship's survivors reached the Spice Islands, loaded the remaining two ships with cloves, and set off for Spain. One of the ships, the Trinidad, started to return the way it had come but was captured by the Portuguese. The other, the Victoria, bore westward, through the Indian Ocean to the Atlantic, and reached Spain in 1522 with 17 Europeans and three East Indians aboard. It was the first vessel to sail around the world. Although historians do not know whether Magellan planned to complete his voyage this way or to return from the Spice Islands by way of the Pacific and South America, he is credited with having captained the first voyage across the immense, unknown Pacific.

(See alsoExploration. )

see color plate 5, vol. 4