Okay, so this week I broke down and used the GPS feature of my phone and was sorely disappointed. Every time I use a terrestrial GPS, I am reminded that Magellan was such a great navigator that his crew abandoned him on the battlefield and left him to be eaten by cannibals.
In 1494, Portugal and Spain settled disputes over ownership of newly discovered lands in America by dividing the world into two spheres of influence. A line of demarcation was agreed to in the Atlantic Ocean–all new discoveries west of the line were to be Spanish, and all to the east Portuguese. This cemented Portugal’s claims in western Africa and Spain’s claims in Central America. Brazil, which was discovered by the Portuguese explorer Pedro Alvares Cabral in 1500 and was somewhat east of the demarcation line and fell to the Portuguese. Portugal also retained claims to the Moluccas, or Spice Islands of Indonesia.
In a bit of legal wrangling, Magellan proposed sailing west, finding a strait through the Americas, and then continuing west to the Moluccas. This would prove that the Spice Islands lay west of the demarcation line and thus in the Spanish sphere (of course it would also prove that EVERYTHING was west of the demarcation line and Portugal could repeat the feat by sailing east but …).
The king accepted the plan, and on September 20, 1519, Magellan set sail from Spain in command of five ships and 270 men. Magellan sailed to West Africa and then to Brazil, where he searched the South American coast for a strait that would take him to the Pacific. He searched the Rio de la Plata, a large estuary south of Brazil, for a way through; failing, he continued south along the coast of Patagonia. At the end of March 1520, the expedition set up winter quarter at Port St. Julian. On Easter day at midnight, the Spanish captains mutinied against their Portuguese captain, but Magellan crushed the revolt, executing one of the captains and leaving another ashore when his ship left St. Julian in August.
On October 21, he finally discovered the strait he had been seeking. The Strait of Magellan, as it became known, is located near the tip of South America, separating Tierra del Fuego and the continental mainland. It took 38 days to navigate the treacherous strait, and when ocean was sighted at the other end Magellan wept with joy. He was the first European explorer to reach the Pacific Ocean by ship. His fleet accomplished the westward crossing of the ocean in 99 days and by the end, the men were out of food. On March 6, 1521, the expedition landed at the island of Guam. Ten days later, they reached the Philippines–they were only about 400 miles from the Spice Islands.
After traveling three-quarters of the way around the globe, Portuguese navigator Magellan is killed during a tribal skirmish on Mactan Island in the Philippines not for his navigation but rather for his religion. His ships had stopped at the Philippine Island of Cebu where Magellan met with the local chief and forcibly converted him and his entire tribe to Christianity. The chief’s motives for conversion (beyond self-preservation) was to convince Magellan and his men to bring their firearms and assist him in conquering a rival tribe on the neighboring island of Mactan. In the subsequent fighting, Magellan was hit by a poisoned arrow and fell. He as left to die by his retreating comrades and rumors are that Magellan was then captured by one of the cannibal tribes of Mactan and was ritually sacrificed and eaten. There are no reliable sources that confirm this rumor and it is likely a bit of propaganda meant to strengthen the relationship between Cebu and Spain.
After Magellan’s death, the survivors, in two ships, sailed on to the Moluccas and loaded the hulls with spice. One ship attempted, On the advice “when possible, make a legal U-turn”, failed to return across the Pacific. The other ship, the Victoria, continued west under the command of the Basque navigator Juan Sebastian de Elcano. The vessel sailed across the Indian Ocean, rounded the Cape of Good Hope, and arrived at Seville on September 9, 1522, becoming the first ship to circumnavigate the globe.
The pope was not convinced that this stunt proved anything other than it was possible to sail around the world so Spain did not extend their claims. Portugal learned that this was the longest possible route to the Spice Islands.