Ferdinand de Magellan


Born in 1480 in Sabrosa, Portugal, Ferdinand Magellan at age 12 traveled to Lisbon to serve as page at Queen Leonora’s court.

Exposed to stories of the great Portuguese and Spanish rivalry for sea exploration and dominance over the spice trade and intrigued by the promise of fame and riches, he developed an interest in maritime discovery in those early years.


In the 15th century, spices were at the epicenter of the world economy.

Highly valued for flavoring and preserving food spices were extremely valuable.

Portugal and Spain led the competition for early control over this critical commodity. Europeans had reached the Spice Islands by sailing east, but none had yet to sail west from Europe to reach the other side of the globe. Magellan was determined to be the first to do so.

By now an experienced seaman, Magellan approached King Manuel of Portugal to seek his support for a westward voyage to the Spice Islands. The king refused his petition repeatedly. In 1517, frustrated, Magellan renounced his Portuguese nationality and relocated to Spain to seek royal support for his venture.

Soon Magellan secured an appointment to meet the king of Spain.

The grandson of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella, who had funded Columbus’ expedition to the New World in 1492, received Magellan’s petition with the same favor shown by his grandparents. Just 18 years old at the time, King Charles I granted his support to Magellan, who in turn promised the young king that his westward sea voyage would bring immeasurable riches to Spain.


On August 10, 1519 the Armada De Moluccas set sail. Magellan commanded the lead ship Trinidad and was accompanied by four other ships: San Antonio, Conception, Victoria, and Santiago.

On October 21, 1520 Magellan finally entered the strait that he had been seeking and that came to bear his name. At this point, only three of the original five ships remained in Magellan’s fleet.


After more than a month spent traversing the strait, Magellan’s remaining armada emerged in November 1520 to behold a vast ocean before them. They were the first known Europeans to see the great ocean, which Magellan named Mar Pacifico, the Pacific Ocean, for its apparent peacefulness, a stark contrast to the dangerous waters of the strait from which he had just emerged.

Magellan’s fleet then sailed on to the Philippine archipelago landing on the island of Cebu, where Magellan befriended the locals and, struck with a sudden religious zeal, he sought to convert them to Christianity. Magellan was now closer than ever to reaching the Spice Islands, but when the Cebu asked for his help in fighting their neighbors on the island of Mactan, Magellan agreed. He assumed he would command a swift victory with his superior European weapons, and against the advice of his men, Magellan himself led the attack. The Mactanese fought fiercely, and Magellan fell when he was shot with a poison arrow. He died on April 27, 1521.

Magellan would never make it to the Spice Islands, but after the loss of yet another of his fleet’s vessels, the two remaining ships finally reached the Moluccas on November 5, 1521. In the end, only the Victoria completed the voyage around the world and arrived back in Seville, Spain, in September 1522 with a heavy cargo of spices but with only 18 men from the original crew.

Seeking riches and personal glory, Magellan’s daring and ambitious voyage around the world provided the Europeans with far more than just spices. European geographic knowledge was expanded immeasurably by Magellan’s expedition. He found not only a massive ocean, hitherto unknown to Europeans, but he also discovered that the earth was much larger than previously thought. Finally, although it was no longer believed that the earth was flat at this stage in history, Magellan’s circumnavigation of the globe empirically discredited the medieval theory conclusively.