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Ferdinand Magellan

c. 1480 – 1521
Portuguese Navigator and Explorer
Exploration Ranking 11th of 26
Magellan's landing in the Philippines in 1521.
Philippines stamp from 1935

Ferdinand Magellan led the first circumnavigation of the world from 1519 to 1522, starting from Seville, Spain with five ships (1) and about 270 men. The distance Magellan’s crew traveled was 37,800 nautical miles (fifteen times longer than that covered by Columbus’ first voyage to the New World). The purpose of the voyage was to find a western route to the Spice Islands (referred to as the Moluccas) located in Indonesia. Magellan was successful.  There were five Spice Islands - Ternate, Tidore, Motir, Makian and Bacan and they were the only place in the world where cloves most importantly and nutmeg grew. Clove is a dried flower bud that has an aromatic oil prized in cooking.


When Magellan reached southern South America he successfully navigated through a strait later called the Strait of Magellan over thirty-eight days. This feat is considered one of the greatest feats of maritime navigation ever. At the time there were no maps of the strait and its existence was only vaguely rumored. When he emerged from the strait on the Pacific Ocean he assumed he was close to his goal but it took ninety-nine days (more than three months) and he sailed about 7,000 miles before he reached the Moluccas. On board his ship was his servant, Enrique, who was from the Moluccas. Enrique thus became the first person to circumnavigate the world.


Magellan’s amazing voyage revealed the world was round--there were still a few doubters. It disposed of any lingering vestiges of the Ptolemaic view of the world (that is, that land and not oceans occupied the major part of the Earth). The voyage revealed that “the Americas” were a separate land mass, indeed, a separate hemisphere. It revealed the almost unimaginable vastness of the Pacific Ocean (one-third of the planet’s surface) and the real size of Earth--larger than anyone had calculated. As difficult as it may be to believe, the Pacific Ocean is larger than the landmass of every single continent and island combined.(2) After emerging from the straits, near the tip of South America, Magellan named the ocean the Pacific because the waters were calm at the time. Lastly, Magellan’s epic trip proved the rotation of Earth, since the crew returned one day “off” from their carefully kept calendar. Magellan’s voyage changed the way our world is visualized. This new kind of thinking or visualization of our home as a globe has been called by historian David Wootton “the most remarkable development in the whole history of cartography.”


Magellan died tragically, in 1521. He was killed on the Philippine island of Mactan by natives under a chief named Lapu-Lapu (also the name of a white fish eaten widely in the Philippines especially around Christmas). Before he died, Magellan was the person who came up with the name “Philippines” in honor of King Philip of Spain. In the end, only one ship of five, the Victoria, and eighteen of its crew and four slaves made it all the way around the world, becoming the first Europeans to circumnavigate the Earth. Credit for the successful circumnavigation should also go to the Basque mariner Juan Sebastian Elcano, who commanded the Victoria. Despite the return of only one of the five ships, the sale of its cargo, 381 sacks of cloves, made the trip profitable.(3) In 1529 by the Treaty of Zaragoza between Portugal and Spain, Spain gave the Moluccas to Portugal and Spain got the Philippines. Manila, the largest city in the Philippines, was founded in 1571. Not until 1580, fifty-eight years after Victoria returned to Seville, did another explorer, Sir Francis Drake, complete a circumnavigation.




(1) The five ships: San Antonio (144 tons), Trinidad (132), Concepcion (108), Victoria (102), Santiago (90).

(2) Ian Wright, Brilliant Maps for Curious Minds: 100 New Ways to See the World (New York, 2019), p. 112.

(3) "Around the World," National Geographic Magazine, September 2022, pgs.32-33.


Key Reference


1. Over the Edge of the World: Magellan’s Terrifying Circumnavigation of the Globe by Laurence Bergreen, 2003.

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