Describe Magellan's voyage to circumnavigate the globe. What hardships did the fleet face?

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Jamie Wheeler eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Portuguese navigator Ferdinand Magellan (1480-1521) was the first explorer to circumnavigate the globe. He, like many of his contemporaries, was looking for a faster route to the Spice Islands.  He sailed west, but vastly misjudged the size of oceans. Magellan left Portugal with five ships in 1519.  Only one returned that same year, without Magellan. Although Magellan himself did not live to see the full navigation of the Earth, the expedition was successful in its goal.

How Magellan came to attempt this feat at all is interesting. He had a slight advantage from the start, as his parents were nobles (though low-ranking ones) in the Portuguese court of Manuel I. It was during his time in the court that Magellan studied navigation. Eventually, he became a merchant marine clerk in the royal service.  In 1505, he joined Francisco de Almeida’s voyages to explore the eastern coast of Africa. Over the next four years, in addition to Africa, Magellan visited India and Turkey.  He was sent on a voyage to the Far East in 1511, visiting Malaysia. He then came back to Portugal, but left again almost immediately to pursue the king’s interests in Morocco.  Because he was wounded on this journey, Magellan left the royal service shortly after his return to Europe.

Following his departure from the merchant marines, in 1517, after being denied a ship from Portugal, Magellan convinced King Manuel’s rival,  Spanish king Charles V to fund another expedition to the Far East.  Eager to find a quicker route to the Spice Islands, King Charles V gave Magellan almost unlimited funds. With this money, Magellan purchased five ships: the Conception, the Santiago, the San Antonio, the Trinidad, and the Victoria.  After acquiring a crew of 275 men and provisions for the voyage, Magellan’s fleet set sail in September of 1519. 

Troubles soon followed, unfortunately.  One of the problems was that the Portuguese Magellan was sailing under a Spanish flag. There were rival nations in the waters, many also competing for trade routes, land in the new world, and control of the seas. Magellan had to carefully avoid armed Portuguese ships and Portuguese ports. This became a problem because the ships could only set sail in the beginning with limited supplies which needed to be restocked. The armed ships guarding the ports unsurprisingly gave Magellan’s needy fleet pause.

Dwindling provisions are likely one of the causes of a plot to mutiny against Magellan’s command on November 20, 1519.  The mutiny was organized by Juan de Cartengena, the captain of the San Antonio.  Magellan, naturally, relieved the captain of his command when the plot was discovered; de Cartengena was then imprisoned aboard the Victoria.

Mutinies aside, Magellan’s continuing problem was the dictate to find a faster trade route from Spain to the Spice Islands.  His efforts were waylaid by his own errors. First, he grossly underestimated the vastness of the Pacific Ocean, but also the length and breadth of the land known as the New World (the Americas).  The lack of provisions caused illnesses, particularly scurvy (which occurs from a lack of vitamin c), typhus (a bacterial disease), and numerous fevers. Add to all of this discomfort the fact that the voyage dragged on much longer that the crew had been told it would last, and conditions were ripe for a mutiny.

Crossing the Pacific was no easy task either.  It took four months for Magellan’s fleet to even get to the coast of Brazil.  Here, he anchored at Rio de Janeiro but because the conflict between Spain and Portugal, most of the men had to remain on board the ships.  After leaving the port of Rio de Janeiro, the ships headed for the coast of South America, searching for an inland passage. They were unsuccessful, however, because the weather was uncooperative, turning much colder and making the already rough seas even more treacherous. The fleet anchored in what is now known as Argentina, on its south side (then known as Patagonia).  Here, another mutiny threatened but Magellan was able to bring some calm to the crew by executing rebels and marooning the leaders of the mutiny when the fleet left port.

One of the five ships, the Santiago, was lost when it sank in the rough waters. It had been sent ahead of the other four to look for a passage to the Pacific.  The remaining ships continued the task, arriving in South American in October of 1520.  There they found connecting waters; Magellan named this passage the “Strait of All Saints” but it is now known as the “Strait of Magellan.”

The captain of the San Antonio had had enough; he turned his ship and returned to Spain.  This left Magellan with just three ships, all of which had no navigational maps.  Magellan had assumed that the ships could reach the Spice Islands from South America in about a week; it took three months to reach Guam.  The food supplies were gone. The crew resorted to eating rats, as the catches of fish were not sufficient nor was the remaining hardtack (a dense, cracker-like substance made from flour, water, and sometimes a bit of salt). Once in Guam, the crews stayed for a number of weeks to try to recover from their prolonged hunger and illnesses.

A few weeks later, the four ships set sail for the Philippines. Although Magellan was able to establish a good relationship with Lapu-lapu, a prominent chieftain of the Mactan Island, a battle broke out over the attempts by the Spanish to colonize the islands. On April 27, Magellan was killed during the Battle of Mactan, his dreams of circumnavigation never personally realized.

Four ships remained but one would be soon lost. The Conception was stripped of its crew and intentionally set ablaze, leaving 120 men and just two vessels: the Trinidad, and the Victoria. Commanding the fleet of two was Sebastian del Cano, and under his navigation, the ships finally reached the Spice Islands. 

Now it was time to return to Spain; del Cano decided that chances of making it back at all would be better if the two ships each took different routes. Full of valuable cargo, the Trindad went east while the Victoria headed west.  The decision was a sound one; the Trinidad was captured by the Portuguese. The Victoria, however, made it home, albeit with only eighteen remaining crew members, but taking the title of being the first ship to circumnavigate the globe.

Source: World of Earth Science, ©2003 Gale Cengage. All Rights Reserved

kipling2448 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Attempting to circumnavigate the globe in the early 16th Century took not only vision, but a considerable amount of courage.  After all, the ocean floors are littered with the remains of the ships of other brave men who tried and failed.  When Ferdinand Magellan, a Portuguese explorer, set sail from Spain on September 20, 1519, his expeditionary fleet consisted of five ships crewed by 270 men.  Almost exactly three years later, on September 6, 1522, one ship, the Vittoria, arrived back in Spain with the 18 crewmen who survived the journey.  Magellan was not among the survivors.

In between those dates in 1519 and 1522, Magellan and his fleet sailed across the oceans, heading west from Spain with the intention of making it to the Spice Islands in present-day Indonesia.  The first destination was the west coast of Africa, and then across the Atlantic Ocean to Brazil, where Magellan hoped to locate a passage to the Pacific.  Upon arriving off the coast of Brazil, it became apparent, sailing south, that no such passage would be forthcoming.  The approach of winter required the expedition to remain in South America, specifically, at Port St. Julian, where Magellan was confronted by mutinous captains of his vessels.  He successfully defeated the mutiny, but at the expense of two of his captains, one killed the other banished ashore. 

Setting sail again in the spring, continuing south, Magellan, after losing one of his five ships to a wreck and another to desertion, finally reached the southern-most point of South America and rounded what became known as the Strait of Magellan, reaching the Pacific Ocean.  Following a stay in Guam, the remaining expedition continued on to the Philippine Islands, where Magellan unwisely became overly engaged in tribal politics while confronting armed resistance to his crew’s efforts at converting the locals to Christianity.  The resulting battle cost Magellan his life.  The two remaining ships, under the command of Juan Sebastian Del Cano, reached their destination, the Spice Islands.  Upon departure, the other captain decided to attempt to return to Spain by retracing the expedition’s path.  That ship was lost.  Sebastian Del Cano, commanding the Vittoria, reached Spain in 1522.

Among the challenges faced by Magellan and his crew during their journey were, in addition to the rebellion from the captains, disease and hunger, with many of the crew dying from scurvy.   At times, the food shortages were so serious that the men were reduced to eating rats and sawdust.  As noted above, of the original 270, only 18 returned to Spain.

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