Where Did Ferdinand Magellan Explore? | Ferdinand Magellan Route

A small step for the east, a big step for the explorer

500 years ago he went on a voyage battling winds, rebellious sailors and hostile natives, but did not arrive to his destination. His greatest achievement - finding the most important natural passage between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans - turned out to be useless and unnecessary. Still, Ferdinand Magellan's journey to the "Spice Islands" (Maluku Islands and Banda Islands) of East Asia, resulting in the first circumnavigation of the Earth, is to this day synonymous with passion for new discoveries.

The battered little ship touched the shore. After a few minutes, 18 emaciated human skeletons fell off her feet and immediately fell to their knees and kissed the ground with hot tears running down their cheeks. From this location, the small port of the coastal town of Sanlúcar de Barrameda on the southern tip of Spain, almost three years ago, a delegation of five ships and about 250 people, embarked on a quest to circumnavigate the earth for the first time in human history. And on September 6, 1522, they completed their quest.

But someone was missing from this astonishing scene. Not just someone, but the man who commanded this journey. He dreamed it, designed it, faced endless difficulties and challenges. Where is Ferdinand Magellan?

Ferdinand Magellan was born into a family of minor Portuguese nobility circa 1480. When he was about 15, he enlisted in Portugal's fleet and began to take part in the wars and conquests of one of the world's two largest naval empires - the second was Spain. 
It was the culmination of the "Age of Discovery": in a few years European explorers managed to achieve almost every significant discovery in the world.

Where did Ferdinand Magellan explore?

  • In 1488, the Portuguese first discovered that Africa could be circumnavigated, reaching east. A decade later, Vasco Da Gama navigated through this route, around the Cape of Good Hope, to India. 
  • In 1492, Spain shocked the world with the discovery of a new continent in the West, later to be called America. 
  • In 1499, Brazil was discovered in the southern New Continent, and the Quebec-Labrador Peninsula in the north. 
  • In 1506, the island of Madagascar, east of Africa, was first visited by European explorers. 
  • In 1507 Mauritius was discovered, and Malaysia in 1509. 
  • In 1513, the first report - from Vasco Núñez de Balboa, an explorer that crossed Panama with a research mission - on the existence of a vast ocean on America's western coast, was received. 
By that time mankind had already believed almost in its entirety - except for the church - that the earth is spherical, the next big task was to reach the Far East from the West, without circumnavigating South Africa. 

The purpose of the journey 

As always, immense political and commercial forces were behind the great discoveries and these forces also funded them. Since Europeans have been exposed to the delicate flavors of the Eastern spices and the intoxicating odors of its perfumes, goods that came from the East were worth their weight in gold. This is not a metaphor: black pepper was a currency at that time, while ginger and cinnamon were weighed with precious stone weights.

The reason for this were the commercial routes of that era: due to the absence of a nautical route between Europe and the Far East, every commodity that came from the East had to make an agonizing journey through deserts, Middle Eastern cities and Asian markets. Much of the merchandise was plundered or lost in its long way to Europe.

An eastbound maritime route bypassing South Africa had the potential to make trade faster, thus yielding considerable profits to merchants. However, the possibility of reaching it from the West, through a hidden naval route in America, constituted a great challenge in early 16th century. Ferdinand Magellan rose to the challenge.

While cartographers were frantically drawing the new world maps, depicting the American continent as a landmass wall from pole to pole, ancient clues have led some European explorers to believe that a strait connecting the Atlantic ocean to the Pacific does exist.

An exploration of the northern part of the new continent was disqualified due to its extreme cold conditions: the strait separating Alaska from Russia and allowing passage from the Atlantic to East Asia through the Arctic Ocean was discovered by the Danish explorer Vitus Bering only much later, in 1728, and was frozen for most of the time.

In 1514, after numerous military adventures at the service of the Portuguese fleet, Magellan met with the King of Portugal, Manuel I, and demanded a position to reflect his skills as a veteran mariner, that will insure him a significant allowance. The King, who was under an influence of a negative report written on Magellan's actions in his latest raid as a soldier on the coast of Morocco, rejected his request and released him from the crown service on that year.

Magellan decided to take a different path. He arrived in Seville, Spain, the sworn enemy of his homeland, and offered his services to King Carlos I. After lengthy and tedious negotiations, an agreement was signed between the parties: Spain will finance and build a five-ship fleet for Magellan, providing the necessary manpower and equipment, and Magellan would reveal to Spain the short way (no one then imagined the tremendous breadth of the Pacific) to the eastern islands. Among other things, Magellan was promised ownership of his own island if he managed to conquer more than six islands, as well as the twentieth part of the proceeds gained by the Spanish crown from the new areas.

On August 10, 1519, the distinguished delegation left the dock in Seville. The five ships sailed gently down the Guadalquivir River until they reached the estuary at Sanlúcar de Barrameda. After five weeks of waiting due to a possible Portuguese attack, which almost canceled the entire voyage, Magellan raised the anchor on September 20, 1519 and set out to make history.

Ferdinand magellan route map.
Ferdinand magellan route | Where did Ferdinand Magellan explore?

The second reason is human: most of the crew, including the commanders of the other ships, were Spaniards and treated Magellan with suspicion. Even though he had sworn allegiance to the Spanish crown, the others feared that Magellan was a double agent and his command of the small navy was a Portuguese plot designed to degrade the Spanish crown.

Where did Ferdinand Magellan explore? | Facing the west.

After six days, the delegation arrived in the Canary Islands, west of the coast of Morocco, and from there left to the open ocean. The ships were communicating using torches. One torch burning on Trinidad's stern indicated that the current structure and speed should be maintained. Two torches indicated that the speed should be reduced or direction be changed. Three, a storm is approaching. Four lights ordered the folding of all sails. A cannon shot signaled shallow waters. Besides, every ship had to approach Trinidad every day at dusk, and its captain would report to Magellan. Thus, with iron discipline and rigor in every detail, the expedition continued to sail south along the western coast of Africa, up to the Sierra Leone line. At this point, Magellan turned southwest.

On November 29, Trinidad's crewmen noticed land on the horizon. It was Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, which belonged to Portugal. As a Spanish delegation, Magellan and his men could not park in the hostile Portuguese post, and on December 13, they anchored quietly, without attention, in one of the islands in the Great Bay. A vigilant trade has developed between Spanish and indigenous seafarers, and the entire expedition was preparing to continue the the search for the South American straits.

On January 10, 1520, the expedition discovered a huge sea bay, which seemed to extend inland toward the west. Magellan was convinced he discovered the way to the ocean west of America, and divided the fleet: the small ships were sent west to make sure the ocean was at the other end of the strait, while the big ones continued to patrol the vast bay, north to south, to map it properly. After more than two weeks, the two ships returned and bitterly disappointed their fellow crewmen: The bay was not a strait but a river estuary - today it is known to be the world's largest estuary, the river mouth of the Rio de la Plata, near Montevideo, the capital of Uruguay and Buenos Aires, Argentina's capital.

Magellan was very disappointed, and for the first time since the journey began he contemplated to withdraw from the mission. They crossed the equator a long time ago, and as they sailed along the shores of the unexplored southern continent, the expedition entered the winter season. Magellan recovered, informing the captains of the other ships that he had decided to continue with the mission and find the strait.

The road south along the shores of America was becoming gloomier and much more turbulent. But Magellan didn't give up. Each bay was thoroughly explored, every sign of a strait mapped and marked. 

On February 24, the expedition encountered a large bay - San Matias. This bay also proved to be landlocked. Previously, two similar bays were discovered and it became evident that full-fledged winter is taking over the wild and unfamiliar area the delegation was exploring, cut off from the rest of the world. Finally, on March 31, 1520, they arrived at a secluded bay, known today as Patagonia.

what did ferdinand magellan discover, animals.
What did ferdinand magellan discover

In this frozen seclusion, forced upon the members of the expedition for the next few months, a dangerous rebellion developed. Magellan's Spanish officers became convinced that the Portuguese mariner was one of two: insane or a spy. Otherwise, he would not have led 250 people to such an unfortunate situation, where they are stuck without the ability to move in a dark and terrible place that no one had previously been to. Magellan recognized the rebellion in time, and suppressed it with a brilliant military maneuver.

Five months later, at the beginning of spring, the fleet prepared to move in the direction of an unknown strait - a strait many were convinced did not existed at all. A short time before embarking on the voyage, disaster occurred: the fastest and most expedient ship of the fleet, Santiago, crashed into the rocks and sank during a relatively simple food-gathering mission. 

With only four ships under his command in late August, Magellan continued on his way south. In just two days, the weather was getting worse. Magellan found out that in this part of ​​the Earth the winter was in no hurry to retreat. He ordered the entire expedition to dock again. For about two months they waited on land - at a tiny distance from the straits leading to the ocean west of America.

Ferdinand magellan timeline

On October 18, spring became an accomplished fact and the four ships sailed again. Two and a half days later, on October 21 a wide bay was discovered. The water was salty - a good indication that this was the strait they were looking for, and no longer a wide river, but because of their early disappointments, Magellan's crew dismissed this opportunity. They thought it was a fjord - a long, deep and narrow body of water that reaches far inland, like those in northern Europe. They decided not to risk the ships entering this rockey cleft with countless number of small islands.

Magellan insisted on investigating the possibility. San Antonio and Concepcion were given orders to advance up the gulf to the west, while the other two ships, including Magellan's, remained at its eastern end. This time, Magellan only devoted five days to the research of the area, as opposed to the two weeks devoted to the Rio de la Plata. 

After five days, the commanders of both ships were ordered to return. At the end of five tense days, two sailboats were seen on the horizon. The thunder of their guns announced what Magellan expected to hear: the strait leading to the South Pacific and the Spice Islands was found.

The four ships crossed the Strait of All Saints - a name Ferdinand Magellan gave to the 600 mile long strait (Strait of Magellan). The mission took about forty days of dangerous and arduous navigation. The expedition had to navigate through numerous strait islands, with constantly threatening snowy peaks in the background. At night, the sailors spotted the fires that the natives made, and decided to call the place Tierra del Fuego (The Land of Fire).

While surveying an area of the strait, the San Antonio captain defected; he turned and returned to Spain. It was the largest and most equipped ship, and Magellan received the news only when he arrived with the rest of the expedition to the edge of the strait. Magellan decided to continue the mission despite the loss, reaching the Spice Islands.

According to Magellan's calculations, the ocean he named "Pacific" was quite small, and he expected to find many islands there. In practice, it is a nearly uninhabited ocean that stretches out to cover about a third of the entire Earth's surface. The three remaining ships sailed for about 100 days until they reached an uninhabited island. During this time, the ships' stock of food virtually disappeared, and many of the crewmen died of starvation and scurvy. 

An error in navigation caused Magellan to go north: instead of reaching the Indonesian Islands, he arrived in Guam, far east of the Philippines. It was March 6, 1521. The sailors arrived on the shores of Moorick Island, and were soon raiding native huts. After spending a few days gathering forces, Magellan sailed west again and after a week, on March 17, discovered the Philippines.

Juan Sebastian Elcano route 

Magellan identified the largest and richest island in the region, then he made connections with the king of the island, appointing him as ruler of the entire region by the name of the Spanish Crown. The surrounding islands surrendered to the new king, with the exception of one rogue prince on a nearby island. 

Instead of accepting the offer of the native king, who volunteered to send 1,500 soldiers from his people to crush the rebellion, Magellan displayed arrogance and decided to come to the island and launch a battle with about fifty of his men. The fight was pretty short. About two thousand natives attacked the group, stabbed them with spears and killed most of them. One of those killed was Ferdinand Magellan.

ferdinand magellan voyage, spain.
Ferdinand magellan voyage

The death of the commander left a strong impression on the remaining 115 sailors, less than half the seafarers who were on the ships leaving Seville. This is where Juan Sebastián Elcano, the Spanish captain of the ship Victoria, who has so far been in the shadow of Magellan, comes into the picture. 

Elcano took command of the remaining ships, announcing that he was going to complete the mission - reaching the Spice Islands and then make a long journey back to Spain. Due to a shortage of manpower, he decided to drown the Concepcion - the more exhausted of the three ships - and the battered expedition set off on only two ships. 

On November 8, 1521, after wandering for many weeks between islands, in which they carried out frequent raids, Elcano and his men finally arrived in the "Spice Islands" of Indonesia. Here they stocked up on anything imaginable - cinnamon, pepper, ginger, parrots in a variety of colors and expensive fabrics. Goods to be sold for a great fortune in Spain. 

Just before sailing to Europe, it was revealed that Trinidad was not fit to continue the journey. The goods already loaded on the Trinidad were transported to Victoria and the two ships and their crews separated - one remained in the Spice Islands and the other sailed to Spain. On February 13, 1522, the last part of the journey - to circumnavigate earth for the first time, began. This part was supposed to be the easiest, but became heroic in its own right.

What did Juan Sebastian Elcano discover?

Two choices were faced by Elcano. One - to sail back through the Pacific Ocean to the east, cross the dangerous Magellan Strait, and from there head north along the American and Spanish coasts. This possibility was not received well among the people who had recently sailed through this route, only in the opposite direction. The other option was to sail west of the Spice Islands and India region, through the Indian Ocean and around Africa. The route was already in frequent use by then, and the weather conditions were favorable. However, this long route meant evading Portuguese naval forces, that had been explicitly instructed to drown the Spanish delegation to hinder their effort to circumnavigate the earth. Elcano decided to take the second route - on a path far from the beaches. This extended the way, and of course did not allow the delegation to replenish supplies from time to time.

Ferdinand magellan facts

The days passed, and Victoria advanced avoiding any contact with the Portuguese. As expected, food and water began to run out. When they reached the Cape Verde Islands off the coast of Senegal, surviving members of the delegation decided to dock at a beach controlled by the Portuguese. They managed to convince the coast guard that their ship was part of a Portuguese fleet that lost its way and was devoured at sea. The Portuguese gave them food and drink, and allowed them to continue their journey.

In the meantime, a casual conversation between the delegation and two Portuguese soldiers led to one of the more important discoveries of the journey: the two mentioned that it was Thursday of the week, while Victoria's meticulous journal entries indicated it was Wednesday. This way it was first discovered that if one circumnavigates the Earth in a westward direction, one day is "lost".

On July 13, 1522, Victoria departed from Senegal with only 18 people aboard, out of about 250 who left almost three years ago. On September 4, 1522, the battered ship reached the shores of Sanlúcar de Barrameda.

Ferdinand Magellan's story is tragic; he failed to be the first to circumnavigate the Earth and the strait he discovered in the southern New Continent, has not been used ever since, except for local Chilean trade. 

Although the strait was an important and groundbreaking discovery, its geographical conditions and its remoteness from Europe prevented it from becoming an acceptable sailing route. It will be decades before anyone tries to cross the strait again, and he will remain orphaned most of the time just as he was in the thousands of years before its discovery by Magellan. The opening of the Panama Canal in 1914 made it officially unnecessary.