Fernoã Magalhães, known to English-speakers as Ferdinand Magellan, was born in about 1480 in northern Portugal, and had an adventurous early life: in his 20s he saw service with the Portuguese fleets in their wars against the Muslims of the Indian Ocean, and by 1515 he was a veteran of the campaigns in Morocco. In 1516, after being refused a rise in his pension by the king of Portugal, Magellan took his services to the Spanish crown.

Those days were the beginning of European exploration, prompted mainly by the desire to seek out new routes to the East and its valuable Spice Islands (the Moluccas of Indonesia). Magellan believed that the answer lay to the west, under or through the newly discovered American continents, and he asked the king of Spain, Carlos I, to fund his search. Charles agreed, eager to prove that the Spice Islands lay in the half of the New World that the pope had just assigned to Spain.

Through the straits to the Pacific

On September 20, 1519, Magellan sailed west as admiral of a fleet of five ships. They crossed the Atlantic Ocean, and started to search the coast of South America for the elusive passage. It was a long and hard hunt, and not all Magellan’s fleet believed there was a strait: on Easter Day 1520, Magellan had to quash a mutiny by his Spanish captains. But on October 21, 1520, his flagship, the Trinidad, finally rounded Cabo Virgenes and entered the strait that now bears his name. Thirty-six days later the open seas of an ocean were sighted; they named the new ocean “the Pacific” for its calmness after the storms of the strait, and set out across it, not expecting it to be so wide.

Back to Spain

They sailed for four months without seeing land. When Magellan himself was killed in a fight with the natives of Mactán Island, the fleet didn’t turn back; petrified of attempting to go through the straits at the bottom of South America for a second time, they took the longer route round the Cape of Good Hope. Three years after they’d set out, just one of Magellan’s original five ships finally limped back to Spain. It was loaded with spices (cloves and nutmeg) and manned by only eighteen of the original crew, men wasted and half-dead. The voyage’s chronicler said he could not imagine the journey ever being repeated.

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